Can’t Undo

What we remember.

Last year in late August, I called up the local cable company and made an appointment to have someone install a cable modem and the digital cable TV service. The cable modem was a must, since I had gotten used to having a fast internet connection at my previous apartment; signing up for digital cable TV was an experiment to see if I really need hundreds of TV channels. So for two or three weeks, on my refrigerator was a note that read, “9/11: Cable TV.” I should have saved it.

On the morning of the 11th, not knowing what time the cable TV guy would show up, I got up a little earlier. Out of habit, I clicked on the TV, tuned to CNN because I was a news junkie even before 9/11. Puttering around my apartment putting things away — I’d only been living there for a couple weeks by then — I don’t remember what time I heard the knock on the door. I let the cable guy in and my first thought was to turn off the TV so it wouldn’t disturb him while he worked.

“No, turn that back on,” he said. “Have they said anything else about the plane?”

I recalled seeing a shot of the New York City skyline as I put books away that morning, but I didn’t think much of it. I turned the TV back on, and quickly got up to speed. The cable guy had already been to one other home that morning, so he’d been following the news. A commuter jet hit the World Trade Center, the talking heads were saying. An aviation expert said the plane looked to be bigger than a commuter jet. Staring at the TV that morning, I wondered how a plane could have hit the Trade Center by accident, nodding my head in agreement when the same aviation analyst said something about usual flight paths not being anywhere near those skyscrapers.

“Holy shit!” The cable guy and I said it in unison as we watched a second plane hit the second tower. Then we knew it was no accident. Modem installation plans on hold, the cable guy dropped his tools and sat down in front of my TV. I stood. The talking heads were theorizing about how many people were on both planes, how many people were in the Trade Center towers. It was shaping up to be a major catastrophe, and at that point the buildings were still standing. Not long after, we watched the towers collapse. The Pentagon. Rumors about bomb scares at the White House and the State Department. Where the hell’s President Bush going in such a hurry? It was overwhelming.

By the time the cable guy was done, it was past 11. I called home, and my mother said something about cousins missing in Manhattan and a friend of a friend scheduled for a meeting in the Trade Center that morning, but I wasn’t paying attention. I walked two blocks to work, the streets quiet even for Richmond, and found everyone in the store huddled around a tiny TV. A coworker provided periodic updates from a friend of hers who works for Playboy — she was stuck in her office building. A former coworker who had moved to New York City finally checked in to say he was OK. We didn’t get a lot of work done that day. Customers who came in ended up staring at the screen with us as the local CBS affiliate — the only station we could get without a proper antenna — replayed the explosions again and again.

Business dropped off so sharply after September 11 that I didn’t even last a week. I was the first in a slew of new hires beginning in May 2001, but six days after the towers collapsed, I was the first to get let go.

I finally had an opportunity to visit New York, post-September 11, back in May when my band traveled up there to play a show. Since the club where we were playing was so close to Ground Zero, we decided to make a pilgrimage there before we were scheduled to go onstage. On the short walk to the site, we all agreed we were being morbid and tacky, but as I look back on it, I think it was important to see the destruction for myself and come to terms with it. I’m fortunate to be able to say I didn’t know anyone who died in any of the plane crashes that day — or anyone who died in the Pentagon or the towers. For those people who lost friends and relatives, maybe visiting the site gives them a sense of closure. For me, it just made me angry.

Having made the short walk from the Orange Bear, where the band was scheduled to play that night, Brian, Brendan and I were on the side opposite the observation deck; we didn’t have a view of the cleanup process. American flags and poster board memorials were everywhere, and there were still some broken windows in adjacent buildings. Huge lights shone down on the work area, but the area itself was hidden behind massive walls. A lone police officer guarded the side of the site where we were standing. I wondered how many friends she lost.

I spent the first seven years of my life in New York, but I never visited the Trade Center until eight months to the day after the planes hit them, so I suppose I can’t fully appreciate what’s missing now. Standing at Ground Zero on that night in May, looking skyward and imagining the monoliths that once stood there, I remember thinking that the buildings that surround the site now are still pretty massive themselves. To think that the destroyed towers were many times the size of those buildings blows my mind.

Article © 2002 by Marshall Norton