On the morning of September 11, 2001 I left for the first day of my pro-choice internship in downtown Manhattan. I was unexcited about this internship, prematurely demoralized about stuffing the envelopes. I would stuff envelopes into other envelopes, and then maybe someone would send some money back in the smaller envelope I had stuffed inside the bigger envelope, so we could keep stuffing envelopes into other envelopes. Actually, the money people sent back had no bearing on whether I could keep stuffing the envelopes, because I was not even being paid to stuff them.
It seemed pointless, to keep calling up those assholes in Albany and begging them for the right. But it was working. So far the assholes in Albany hadn’t taken it away.
This was it, adulthood. I had failed to move to California. I had a degree from an expensive university that had cost my parents $120,000, they often reminded me, not including my extra-long bed linens and treatment for mononucleosis. I had not applied for a grant that could convey me someplace else far away, like some of the people I had met at the expensive university, because I had no idea what I would do with someone else’s money in someone else’s country.
I didn’t want to do any research or projects. I wanted then, as I do now, for someone to pay me to have adventures and then write about them, or if not pay me to have adventures, at least not fine me for having adventures.
I could not say then, as I can now, that this was what I wanted. In eleven days, on the twenty-second of September, I would be twenty-two. It was as old as I had ever been up to that point.
Two days before, my parents had delivered me to a truly horrible sublet in Park Slope. Park Slope was the only neighborhood I had ever been to in Brooklyn, so I searched it on Craigslist in sublets under $500, an unthinkable rent, and moved into the first $500 sublet I found. My parents graciously told me I could live with them as long as I liked, but I had decided that not living with my parents–or in Long Island–was the first and most important step to take in some semblance of adulthood.
Park Slope was full of yuppies but this building was still rumored to contain crackheads. The room was really a closet. Its floor was tilted. I brought two ancient foam rubber mattresses from my parents’ attic. These were the mattresses my brother and I slept on next to our parents’ bed when we were sick as kids. I stacked them on top of one another on the tilted floor of my closet-room. Out the window of the closet I could see a chop shop. The roof of the next building was strewn with car parts. My roommate in the horrible sublet was an actuary. He worked in New Jersey, using calculus to predict the likelihood of other people’s potential deaths.
My parents took in the tilted floor, the foam mattresses, the chop shop, the actuary. As they left to drive the forty minutes back to Long Island, my mother impulsively handed me her cell phone.
The day dawned famously bright and sunny. I set out from the horrible apartment and found the first decent coffeeshop. I was standing at the counter waiting to order, feeling optimistic. This coffeeshop seemed promising. It stocked a diversity of cream cheese flavors, sundried tomato and chive and salmon. These different kinds of cream cheese would be a good foundation for my new adulthood project.
A man came in, pushing a heavily fortified stroller. “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center,” he said. “I’ll have a latte.”
I thought, as so many people did at first, that it was one of those tiny planes rich people take around for joy rides. But when I stepped into the street with my own latte, I heard the radio issuing from a delivery truck. This was before you could find things out on your phone. The voice on the radio was not sounding wholly normal. Someone else on the street said that a second plane had hit the other tower, and it was not an accident.
Now, as the voice on the radio took on a hint of panic and something began to gather on the street, I took out the cell phone my mother had given me (how dated and ancient was its weight, its flips, its beeps, its monochromatic display! It seems impossible that this catastrophe could have been orchestrated in a time of such archaic cell phones!) and called home.
When my mother answered, what came out of my mouth was, “Mommy.”
My mom said, “Don’t get on the subway,” so I turned around and started walking home. I went a little further down the street to where it led over a highway overpass. From this highway overpass, I saw the towers burning.
I watched everything else on television, back in the apartment, with the actuary. As I watched the towers come down, I had two very clear thoughts. First, that I was watching thousands of people die on television. And second, that a lot more people were going to die because of this, many more times the number who were dying right now. This was not the end. This was the beginning.
And the dust cloud came all the way to Brooklyn.
And out my window, over the chop shop, sheets of paper, whole sheets of paper, fluttered by.
And the flags came out on all the doorsteps.
And I couldn’t think of anyone I knew in the towers.
And I remembered the temp agency I had signed up with calling me last week and offering me a multi-week gig in one of the towers.
And I decided one thing about my nascent adult life: that New York was my home and I would not leave.
And the very next morning I got my own cell phone, so I could give my mother back her cell phone and we could call each other in disasters. While I was in the store a man came in to get a new cell phone. “I lost my phone yesterday,” he said. “I left it on the 81st floor of the North Tower.”
And I said to a good friend that seeing the American flags everywhere made me nauseous, and she got offended, because she said they represented solidarity and togetherness, and I said no, they did not, they represented violence and nationalism and rallying around a state that was going to use this act of violence to perpetrate more acts of violence, and under the banner of the state these equally violent acts of violence would be labeled righteous when in fact, they, too, would be terrorism, and all acts of violence were equally unjustified whether they happened under a banner or not, and all banners connoted, in some way, the possibility or actuality of violence that would be done in the vague, symbolic name of the state whose banner it was, or in defiance of it.
And it turned out that the firehouses in my new neighborhood had been some of the first to respond, and a lot of those firefighters had died.
And the covers of the New Yorker and the Village Voice the next week were very clever and poignant.
And Adam Gopnik got in trouble for saying the smell of the burning towers was like that of smoked mozzarella.
And Bill Maher got in trouble for saying it was cowardly to drop bombs on people from airplanes, for comparing the way people with American flags on their sleeves kill people they’ve never met to the way people with no flags on their sleeves kill people they’ve never met.
And Baudrillard wrote something in Harper’s about this event being beyond history, and after the $120,000 education it had taken an act of terrorism for me to truly understand a work of critical theory.
And for many months the New York Times ran a special section telling the stories of the dead, and I would read it every morning on the subway on the way to my internship and cry and then feel badly, like I was using these people I didn’t know to have some kind of emotional catharsis and was that okay and what about the people America was killing every day and why couldn’t I cry for them, or could I, if given a photograph and a story that ended with a perfectly chosen detail?
And maybe a year or two later there was a story in the New Yorker imagining the last days of one of the terrorists, and hypothesizing that he had been severely constipated.
And the posters from the very first days with the people’s faces on them stayed on the trees and telephone poles and fences and they tore and blurred and drained of color, and none of those people lived. In the hours just after these dead people’s loved ones had hoped that maybe they had just gotten hit on the head and forgotten who or where they were, and could be found like a lost dog or cat. But that was not true, they had been crushed or burned to death.
And for a while it seemed like maybe the terrorists could be everywhere, and they would blow up the subway and all the bridges and all the office buildings, but then it turned out that they weren’t, and they didn’t. But that was part of the terrorism, imagining it all the time.
And I myself had imagined many times that not only the World Trade Center but all of the office buildings in the whole world would crumble into dust, that every last printer and piece of paper and kitchenette coffee stirrer would be pulverized, not realizing how toxic this dust would be. In my imagination, no one would be harmed or injured, but the offices would become nothing.
And every single day that I had approached my high school I had also imagined that it, too, would blow up, sky-high, in a glorious mushroom cloud, imagined it so constantly and fervently that I became a little surprised that the school was still standing, so often and so completely had I destroyed it in my mind, and while I mostly wanted to live, I understood the urge to destroy the things which you believed had oppressed you. Though I did not believe the people in charge of my high school were godless infidels, just idiots, and the occasional child molester.
And I went to the internship for a little while longer, and researched the availability of emergency contraception on college campuses, and contributed to a report. I don’t remember how or when I stopped going, but I do remember that the cover of the report was purple. I don’t think I wrote the whole report, but I think I later claimed on my resume to have written the whole report.
And I went to the coffeeshop most other days, and wrote “creative nonfiction” without even knowing what “creative nonfiction” was on an ancient laptop while the yuppie mothers nursed their yuppie young. I secretly believed that this was my real internship, this time spent alone with the ancient laptop. I didn’t want to become the woman at the pro-choice organization who oversaw my pro-choice internship, even though she had great clothes and a boyfriend with some similar nonprofit job and shot pool and seemed hopelessly old and together (I think she may have been twenty-seven) and I believed in the cause and the office was in Soho and maybe, eventually, there would be health insurance. I had dreams I couldn’t say out loud, dreams I couldn’t even name, but they had to do with the laptop and the coffeeshop and not going to the office, ever. I was a little ashamed of my dreams because they seemed selfish and impossible but the shame did not kill them, or me.