There's a scene in the first (and best) season of Denis Leary's series Rescue Me where a firefighter who was a first responder on 9/11 has joined a survivor's group. As the others recount their stories, he gradually realizes that they have no "real" connection to what happened that day and he lashes out angrily, mocking their claim to the pain that has engulfed him. It's a powerful moment and it works for the episode, but it also trivializes the very real emotion that swept the nation on that day.
In the days and weeks and months and years that have followed the events of 9/11, the urge to find a point of connection, a stake in the events, has remained strong. What amazed me at the time, and continues to astonish me, is that in a country of 300 million people, almost no one I've ever talked to didn't have a story to tell, some anecdote to share, some memory that has refused to die. I am a storyteller by trade and yet my own story is not coherent, but made up of fragments of thought and scraps of emotion, and a sense of surreality blanketed with stunned and numbed disbelief. Here it is.
It is a little after six in the morning on the day before my birthday and I am worried about money. My car payment is due and other bills have rolled and I am 11 years into a full-time freelance career and wondering if it's too late to find another job as a film executive.
I have turned on my computer and clicked on AOL because I like to start my day by reading their "Pet of the Day" feature. U have just moved over to the news page when my best friend calls. This is unusual. As I pick up the phone I notice a photograph of one of the Towers burning and a headline that says a plane has hit the building.
"Turn on your TV," Connie says. I turn it on in time to see the second plane hit the second tower and I do not turn the television off for what seems like days.
The first person I hear from is my brother, who has recognized Mohammad Atta as a man he once represented as a court-appointed lawyer in a trivial traffic case in D.C.. "He was an asshole," he tells me. He won the case.
A friend tells me that a woman who worked at her high school was aboard flight #11. My landlord tells me that he and his family had flown the same flight the week before and noticed something odd with some of the passengers. Actor James Wood was on that flight too, and thought the behavior of the same passengers was odd enough to report.
My sister tells me a college friend died. A colleague tells me that her sister's husband is dead. A client tells me her niece works in one of the towers and her mother (the client's twin sister) cannot get in touch with her. (She survived.)
I call everyone I know in New York. They're all fine but they all have stories to tell. The television pictures, they say, cannot convey the scope of the disaster, the huge footprint left by the collapsed building. One friend talks about seeing a row of airline seats with passengers still in them, falling out of the sky.
They talk about the sights--the ashes and smoke billowing in a cloud glittering with broken glass.
They talk about the sounds--the earthquake roar of a building collapsing.
And then they talk about the smells.
Where were you when Pearl Harbor was attacked?
Where were you when John Kennedy was assassinated?
Where were you when the Challenger exploded?
Where were you on 9/11? Touchstone questions for different generations.
On 9/11 I was in California, watching events unfold three thousand miles away. I wasn't there. But I bore witness.