One of my most favorite things about blogging rather than straight reporting is that I get to speak directly to you, the reader, about events that amuse me, or bemuse me, or have moved me. This week’s blog goes beyond just simply having touched me; it is a meditation on the events of 9/11/2001 and how I was never the same again. Our country—the whole world—was shaken awake on that clear Tuesday morning, and we have never really rolled over and gone back into our pre-9/11 slumber.
I was working in New York City as an editor at Random House, in Manhattan’s Theater District, and was freelancing as a senior contributor for DOLLS and Teddy Bear Review magazines. I was also dreaming of becoming a theater producer (well, an associate one at least) and had just graduated from a Commercial Theater Institute program. I had a lot of starry-eyed visions of what my future would hold.
As a matter of fact, on Monday afternoon, September 10, I had invited a producer, whom I admired from the institute, to have lunch at Joe Allen’s—that’s a very well-known hangout for the playwright crowd in NYC. The producer was a smart, attractive, very competent woman who was juggling her theatrical duties with raising a family of two young children: a boy and girl, both grammar-school age.
I didn’t have children 10 years ago—and I wasn’t married—when I sat and shared my midday meal with this very impressive literary lady. I loved hearing how she was able to mount a full-scale Broadway musical, and still find time to chair a PTA lemonade stand. I wished I could have both those outlets in my life.
At that time, I worked in children’s literature, and I made up my mind to put together a package of books for the producer’s children. I would give them a sampling of the titles I had worked on, and I was over-the-moon excited about sending them a parcel of “Magic Tree House” paperbacks, “Encyclopedia Brown” mysteries (he never goes out of style), and a bunch of Disney puzzle and coloring books.
However, as a doll collector and a doll writer, I felt that there needed to be something else tangible in that box heading down to Battery Park City—that’s where my lunch companion lived with her husband and kiddies. I wanted them to have something to play with, in case they weren’t bookworms in training.
So, after I got out of work, I immediately headed to Toys R Us, and strolled around the clearance aisle. I found a little set of brother-and-sister dolls (it could have been Kelly and one of her siblings—my memory fails), but the tiny dolls looked cute and would be a nice touch to my presentation. I planned on having it all messengered down on September 11 as a thank-you for this very busy woman who had found time to talk at great length with me and shared her knowledge and encouragement.
Needless to say, when I arrived at work on September 11, the delivery of my kids-and-caboodle became the last thing on my mind. I joined with my office mates as we heard the news reports of the attack on the World Trade Center, which first seemed to be just an errant plane that flew off course. By the time we found a working TV set, and saw the second plane hit, we knew this was no accident.
The office struggled with what to do: release its workers into a possibly war-torn street or keep us all “safe and sound” inside, but what if more planes were to come? Eventually the decision was made to shut down Random House for the day and we were dismissed a bit after noon.
I left the building after touching base with my then-boyfriend (now my husband) and started to walk toward a central meeting place so we could figure out how to head back to New Jersey, where we lived. (Normally, a one-hour or so commute, the railroads were closed down for fear of other terrorist activities, and we were stranded outside Penn Station terminal for nearly five hours with a throng of thousands. I shall never forget that feeling of trepidation and exhaustion, nervousness and fear.)
Before arriving at the train station, I stumbled along, sort of in a glazed-over daze. My mind was racing and my heart was pumping as I viewed all the other displaced people flocking to Times Square. Nearby offices and workplaces poured out and tourists rubbernecked to see the smoke and flames from downtown. We were all in states of shock and looked like a company of extras from “Afternoon of the Living Dead.” We were emotional and mental zombies.
Amid all of this turmoil, I spotted a rather unusual sight. It was a pair of little children—a boy and a girl—maybe three and five years old. They were with their mother, and she was kneeling down on the sidewalk and crying. The kids didn’t know what to do, and were standing there, helplessly watching their mom weep and shout. I walked past them—made a mental note that I would probably see a lot of public breakdowns on this day—and then stopped short. I remembered I had those boy-and-girl dolls in my pocketbook. I hadn’t had a chance to put the finishing touch on my thank-you gift, and I still had the little toys in my oversized bag. I doubled back to the children, who were now visibly shaken, too.
I asked the mother if everything was okay—did she feel all right? Was she upset because of the World Trade Center? Could I do something for her? She could not speak English, but her eyes told me that she definitely feared the worst might have happened to someone she knew and loved at the Twin Towers that day. She grabbed onto my hands and wept and spoke and pleaded; and though I didn’t know a word she said, I understood it all. Seeing how her children were now beginning to grow more and more anxious, I reached in and pulled out my little doll set. I handed it to the mother and pantomimed to give it to the children.
She shook her head no and said “No money,” but I shook my head even more vehemently. “It’s a gift,” I emphasized. “Gift. For. Them.”
The mother looked confused, but the kids were distracted now and were reaching for the boxed dolls. I said good-bye, and we hugged. Strangers no more. I headed to meet up with my boyfriend and the other evacuating New Yorkers.
The next few days at work were jittery ones—hard to believe, we were all back at Random House on Thursday, just two days after the attack. Bomb threats were phoned in; evacuations became a matter of course; and posters of the missing became plastered all over the City. Loved ones refused to believe that their wives, husbands, children, siblings could have perished so quickly and so needlessly. Instead, photo collages sprang up on every wall surface with descriptions and phone numbers. It was surreal times.
I sent my box of books down to the producer who lived in Battery Park, a neighborhood that abutted the onetime World Trade Center. My thank-you note for lunch was tossed out, and instead I penned an epistle asking if she was all right, were her children okay, was her husband fine, too? You see, he worked at the Twin Towers as an investment banker, and during lunch she told me about the importance of having friends in high places. She made a joke about just how high his place was—near the very top of the Manhattan skyline.
She never wrote back, and I honestly don’t know what might have happened or not happened to her family on that fateful day. However, I have never forgotten the lessons that she taught me at the Commercial Theater Institute, and at lunch that day. She believed in doing her best, putting her best foot forward, and making time for the people and the projects she believed in.
Though I only dabbled in theater from that point on, I always applied the lessons of 9/10 and 9/11 to my life personally and professionally. There is no time like the present—and life can be eradicated in a moment. And when we walk through our days—sometimes shuffling and wrapped up in our own mini dramas—we should always be aware of the stories of need and grief and comfort that surround us. We are all part of a large community; and when a building falls, our resolve and our spirit can rise from the ashes.
I will never forget.