On September 11th, 2001, I was in Sydney, Australia, working as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of New South Wales. I spent most of the day in my office, composing a long email to my girlfriend back in New York City, my former home for seven years, suggesting we break up. Our long-distance relationship was not working out; too much misery had been parceled out to the both of us; we hadn’t covered ourselves in glory; time to move on; and so on. I read and re-read and edited my email a few times, and then, as the close of the workday approached, saved a draft, and headed for home. I would read it once more at night before sending it off, hopefully bringing to a close an unnecessarily protracted series of disputations.
Once back in my neighborhood, I picked up some excellent takeaway Thai food from my local takeout joint–on Cleveland Street, Sydney’s home to amazing ethnic food–and a bottle of red wine. Time to eat. The pad thai was excellent, as was the rustic Shiraz, and soon, I was sated and drowsy. I didn’t feel like editing and reading a long, dramatic email any more. I’d send it on the morrow once I was back at work. I watched a bit of television, and then headed to sleep.
A short while later, the phone rang. I picked it up, groggy and confused. An Australian friend from Melbourne was on the line. He asked, ‘Are you watching the news?’ A little testily, I said no. He then continued, speaking quickly, in one breath, ‘I think you should; some hijackers have taken over a bunch of planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.’ This all sounded a bit bizarre, so I put the phone down, walked over to my living room and switched on the television. A close-up shot of one of the towers was being shown, with smoke billowing out of its windows. The scale of the building and the close-up confused me; it looked like a minor conflagration, perhaps caused by a small plane flying into the tower. But what was that about hijackers and the Pentagon? Still confused, I walked back to my bedroom, thanked my Melbourne friend for calling, hung up, and returned to the living room to continue watching.
Over the next few minutes, I slowly became more cognizant of the scale of the disaster unfolding before my eyes; I think I might have viewed some video of the jets’ impact. I’m not sure. And then, suddenly, it happened; the South Tower collapsed. I stared at the screen, incredulous. Perhaps this was a Hollywood movie being shot in New York City, and this building collapse had been rigged up for that? Somehow, strangely, I had managed to have my very own ‘it sounded/looked just like the movies’ moment. I continued watching, now transfixed by the spectacle. Half an hour later, the North Tower collapsed. I continued staring at my tiny television screen, barely paying attention to the newscasters.
I stayed awake for a while, sending some emails to my friends in New York City, inquiring after their well-being; I sent one to my girlfriend, hoping she was ok, and asking her to call me as soon as possible. Finally, the late hour and the wine caught up with me. Besides, I was getting tired of the endless speculation about motives and the identity of the hijackers. I went to bed. I wished I was back ‘home’; curiously, I felt excluded, looking on from the outside. Miraculously, I fell asleep, and as I did so, I dimly sensed the next day would be quite unlike the ones that had preceded it.
That is my 9/11 story. That’s where I was; that’s what I did.
I never sent that break-up email; it wasn’t quite the sort of thing you do after a disaster like that. But we broke up anyway. I would return to New York City soon. First in December 2001, for an interview with Brooklyn College, and then, in August 2002, to begin my new job and life in a changed city.
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