Thursday, September 11, 2008

I Won't Let Time Erase...

Every year I say I'm not going to write anything on this day-- about this day-- and every year I find the words spill out of me as quickly and easily as the images and events flood my mind. For seven years I have been telling people that "I almost died for Glitter," but in reality, it was Glitter (and Mariah once again in general) that saved my life.

For years I had been listening to her songs and feeling like many of them were directed right to me, so on the morning of September 11th, the Tuesday her newest album (and first soundtrack) was to be released, I made sure to get into Manhattan early enough to give me time to stop and pick up the CD before school so I could listen to it in between classes all day. The truth is, in the moment when I first noticed the silver strips and ash floating outside the window, I felt a rush that I had never felt before. In my seventeen years, I had been dragging my heels-- getting through one day just for the next to start-- I did nothing, and I saw nothing, and as horrible as it sounds to say right now, when the building shook, I knew I was about to be a part of history. And I never would have been there if not for my incessant fandom.

I remember standing and staring blankly at the woman behind the register when she told me the computers were down. I had a copy of the CD in one hand and the Cosmo Girl issue with Mariah on the cover in the other and about forty dollars in my wallet aside from my credit card. I could pay cash, and I didn't even want the change, as long as she could take that stupid little plastic security case off the CD. I didn't get to say as much, though, because the security guards started yelling, and everyone around me started race-walking to the exits. For a few moments I just stood at the counter, frozen in place, but I can't lie, also pretty annoyed that my day's plans were getting interrupted.

I followed the herd for the first time that day by squishing through the revolving doors that spilled us out onto the street. Perhaps ironically the first thing I saw before turning around to face the Towers was the cemetery. No one was crying or screaming yet, but everyone was looking up at the sky and covering their mouths out of shock and awe. I turned to look, too, just briefly, but then started walking.

I did a lot of walking that day-- much more than I needed to, in retrospect, but at the time it felt like it was the only thing I could do. I made it to Chambers Street, to stand at the base of the bridge to my school-- the bridge that has now been immortalized in countless documentaries and photographs-- and I watched Flight 175 tear through the sky. I never paid much attention in history class, but one term came to mind right then, and it wasn't war or terrorism but kamikaze. I somehow felt like I knew what was going to happen before it did, but I watched anyway and only turned my back because the heat that was blocks away felt like it could scorch my face.

When I look back now, I can see just how much of what I witnessed affected me for the long term. I'm not even talking about the things I saw but the way in which I reacted to them: all of a sudden I was no longer that innate leader that my third grade teacher told me I was destined to be. That day, for the first time in my high school career, I looked around for people with whom to walk. As I trekked uptown along the westside highway, I joined those I couldn't really call my friends because somehow I felt safer surrounded by numbers. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I was working with nothing. So I slipped into the crowd and walked mindlessly; I followed everyone else and did what they thought was best even though that wasn't me at all. Although I was placed at a moment in time that offered so much potential, I couldn't see it then; a part of myself turned off when I witnessed that second crash, I think.

At one point, we made it up to the Upper Westside and stopped for lunch at a small cafe. One of the guys I was with stopped at the newsstand on the corner to buy Time or Newsweek or whatever magazine had the list of the top colleges. I wanted to finally get my copy of Cosmo Girl just to salvage a little part of my original mission for the day, but I couldn't bring myself to do it: it was too petty when placed on the heavy backdrop of the day. We sat down with our overpriced sandwiches and bottled sodas, and I watched out the window as everyone else seemed to go about their day like nothing had happened. Wealthy men chatted and laughed on cell phones and read the paper; privileged women pushed Bugaboos and sipped lattes; and the equally self-absorbed kids I was with talked about whether or not we'd have school for the next few days. I felt like I had just been dropped in from the other planet that was, at this moment, Tribeca. We were dusted with ash, and though it didn't cover us like a thick second skin, I still knew it was there, woven into the fabric of our shirts and jeans. Why couldn't anyone else see it? Why didn't anyone else seem to care about what was going on only blocks from their precious, prestigious community? I should have wanted to scream at them-- to cry and to throw things-- but I was too numb, too complacent. I chewed quietly and nodded thoughtfully as those around me carried on a conversation about nothing important, and it was only later, when I was a bit more removed from the intensity, that I realized just how angry and sad I was at the same time. I always thought there were stages to grief, but this was so much more complex than anything I had ever felt before or anything I think I will ever feel in the future.

I didn't have Mariah's words echoing in my head that day as I trekked along the water, glancing up worriedly at the other skyscrapers I passed, hoping all I'd see coming towards them was a cloud or a rogue bird. It wasn't until that Friday the fourteenth (again, ironically) that I sliced open the plastic and slipped the CD into my Discman, lying in bed and hearing something so hauntingly poetic and on the nose it allowed the first tears to spill out of my eyes. I didn't notice I was crying until I felt the burning on my cheeks-- burning that rivaled the heat of the flames from that day. Once again her words felt like they were speaking directly to me-- and to this event. Once again I could turn to her art to get through a rough time. In a time of turmoil and chaos, that stability kept me from losing it too much.

I would leave you with those words, but their impact is not the same without her voice:

My 9/11 story became something of a novelty once I moved out to California; it defined who I was to a lot of people who didn't know anything about me, but that's not really okay because the truth is that I lost a lot of myself that day, so the person they got to know from the story was not really me. The girl who started out the day-- an introspective dreamer who preferred to lose herself in music, television, and other arts-- seemed to be buried among the rubble. It seemed when she turned her back to walk away from the site, she turned her back on who she was-- for no good reason except perhaps out of fear. And it has taken a really long time to get back-- but I think I might be getting there now.

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