Visiting My Daughter
In Manhattan, October, 2001
A child’s laugh shatters
the glass we call rue
while a ruckus of sirens jams
Everywhere we walk
the wind frisks us,
the brisk autumn air
pats us down.
In a cramped noodle shop
a whole roast pig blurs by,
The harried waiter wedges past
with plates of boiled fish
and goodwill floats on a broth
of noise — dish clatter, chopstick
clicks, friendly banter.
We nibble each minute
like a rationed sweet.
On 9/11, I board a 6:00 AM flight to San Francisco, where I plan to change planes and fly on to JFK to visit my daughter in Brooklyn.
Not long after liftoff our plane begins to take some serious swoops and dips. Since it’s a small commuter jet, we hang on, breathing hard, assuming the pilot is simply riding out some tenacious gusts. As we land he announces the news: all flights are cancelled indefinitely. Whether en route to Honolulu, Tokyo, L.A. or, like me, NYC, we have all reached the end of our air travel line for that day. We file off the plane in silence, though I’m pretty sure I can hear other hearts pounding as unsteadily as my own.
Inside the terminal we join a tense crowd already gathered around the TV news: the second plane hits. A few people gasp out what seems too logical: World War III. I run to get in a long line at the nearest payphone (still extant back then) hoping I can get through to my daughter before the lines jam, praying she hasn’t already left for her office on 42nd Street in Manhattan.
As it happens I do get through. She’s home; she’s safe; she’s okay. (She had planned to go in to work later than usual that day; they have been watching the burning Towers from the roof of their apartment, along with a deadly plume blowing Brooklyn’s way.) I also manage to reach the rest of my family in Sacramento before the lines go haywire.
In the airport now: chaos — bomb squads, bomb-sniffing dogs, people in long but unusually quiet lines at ticket counters, or in nervous coils at the phones — people trying to figure out how to get back home, whether that means into the City, across to the East Bay, or someplace far away like Jakarta or Minnesota. Rumors are everywhere — no buses, no trains — no anything except for taxis and shuttles already there for the usual workday. They vanish of course, all overflowing with passengers.
I too get lucky though. I find a space on a Super Shuttle and make it to Berkeley before they close the Bay Bridge. The journey (about twenty-five minutes on an ordinary non-rush-hour day) takes 5 1/2 hours. They drop me off at Heyday Books, where I’ll wait for my husband to drive down from Sacramento to pick me up. (The last passenger, a woman next to me, has offered the driver $500 to take her to Modesto, so off they go.)
A month later I try again. I make it this time. My daughter meets me at a changed La Guardia.
In the City, things have quieted down but not that much. Streets and some subway routes are still blocked off. There are bomb threats somewhere every day. (One evening I meet her in midtown Manhattan; we’re strolling a few blocks toward the Empire State Building when dozens of people begin running pell-mell toward us: There’s a bomb in the Empire State Building! We look up and yes it looks like smoke is billowing from the top floor. Sirens scream past. A convoy screeches to a halt down the block. That’s enough — we turn and run with the others. Later we hear the “smoke” was a fast-moving cloudbank).
Everywhere we go, we are stopped, redirected, scanned, searched. At the Met: The Islamic wing is closed. A woman guard pats me down, shines a flashlight into my purse, then waves me into the galleries: a preview of The Ordinary in the years to come. The process repeats at the Public Library.
We all have our memories of 9/11; those of us lucky enough not to have lost anyone haven’t forgotten how close to the bone it felt as we witnessed so vividly the terrible losses of others. We found out that day what it is like to be born, through no fault of one’s own, into a war-torn country where every day could be some version of 9/11 — a place like Afghanistan is today.