What it was like being a 13-year-old New Yorker on 9/11.
Here is what I remember: most of it. The day itself, I mean. The interruption of class, the announcement by the fumbling English teacher, the crowding at the window, the black cloud already invading the skyline.
I remember the snarky, oblivious comments — my own, especially. The teachers herded everyone to the school rooftop to sort us into homerooms and take count of where everyone was.
I remember the first few parents arriving, to our surprise, followed by the announcement that students would not be released from school until a parent — anybody’s parent — signed them out. And then my own parents arrived in a flurry, scooping up as many of the downtown kids as they could find, sweeping us all out to the street, seeing a man with the radio walkie-talkie on his shoulder as if we were in another decade. I remember my father’s van becoming a caravan for other people’s children, the way we dropped them off one by one to grateful parents, how sad I was to watch them leave.
I remember reaching my father’s office on 17th Street and the black-and-white TV they had set up. It was the only black-and-white TV that I had ever seen up close. I remember that nobody knew who would be able to get home that night and that the bridge and tunnel employees gathered around the TV set, forcing smiles for my brother and me.
I remember my mother deciding we should go buy groceries, leaving my brother in the office and taking me back to the street. I remember Gourmet Garage feeling like Disneyland. Not because it was full of adventure, but because the entire store was one giant line wrapped around and around itself. Everyone else had had the same idea: Trucks had already been stopped from entering or leaving Manhattan. Food deliveries would be halted. I remember gathering what we could carry, winding around the aisles, paying, leaving.
It was while we were walking back to the office that the two men appeared. They were standing against a wall, both wearing yellow hard hats and reflective vests over their dirty grey sweatshirts and jeans.
Dark mud caked their hair and their hands, and there was dust in the lines in their faces. They poured water from bottles into their mouths, creating streams of mud down their chins and necks.
I heard myself say, "Ew." It wasn’t from disgust. It was just what I could come up with. Maybe it was to fill the quiet already starting to settle in the mouths of everyone around me. Maybe it was to hear my own voice. Maybe it was to try and make my mother laugh. She did not laugh. She looked startled and then worried. "Sarah," she said, "you know that is blood."
It was not a question. I did not stop walking. I did turn back to look.
When we got back to the office, my brother was perched on my father’s knee, playing a video game on his computer. I sat on the floor next to my father’s leg while my mother tried to hand out food to the employees in the other room.
I closed my eyes and put my face in the folds of his pants. I could see the faces of the two men like Dust Bowl photographs from history class. The water pouring down their necks. The dark stains on their arms, their chests. For the first time all day, I started to cry.
We spent that first night at my grandmother’s house because she lived uptown. My six-foot-four, 200-something-pound basketball coach father paced the tiny living room for two whole days, watching the news, wringing his hands.
Finally he decided he needed to get back to our apartment. We didn’t know whether the windows had been left open, whether everything we owned was now covered in ash. He announced that he would go downtown, get a change of clothes for each of us, get his bike out of the basement, and bike his way back uptown.
It sounds absurd now. It was two days after the attack. Nobody had any information yet. Nobody was allowed to go downtown. We could have borrowed clothes. I couldn’t stop imagining the towers falling over instead of down, envisioning my home and the entire neighborhood crushed. But my father was sick of pacing.
It took him hours to get downtown because he had to talk his way through every police barrier, and when he finally arrived, he understood why they had been trying to keep everyone out.
The air was thick and gritty. The only other humans around were police and soldiers. In an effort to reach potential survivors, responders had used bulldozers to stack damaged cars and shove them some blocks north, trying to clear as much rubble as possible. Ash and soot and trash covered everything. Later, my father described it like a science-fiction terrain. With no electricity, there was no elevator or light in the stairwell. The air smelled of burning debris.
My father was shaking by the time he got upstairs. He found a backpack. He put in a change of clothes for each member of the family, made sure the windows were closed. Then he caught sight of my childhood loves: a stuffed animal lion and a baby blanket. He did not know if he would ever be back in our apartment again. He did not know what the future held. He took out his change of clothes and put in the blanket and stuffed lion instead.
He zipped the backpack up as far as he could and left the lion with its head sticking out, so that when my father got on the bike to make his way up through the dust and ash and ghosts, the lion’s head lay perched on his shoulder. He said the only way he made it back uptown was by whispering into the lion’s ears the way he had seen me do as a child. "We’re going to make it," he said over and over. "You and I. We’re going to be OK."
We were not OK for a long time. But memory is a terrible beast. It refuses to obey or sit still.
There are holes that will not fill themselves. It was years before I remembered that my mother severely tore ligaments in her ankle the next week, that for all those weeks of aftermath she was hobbling on crutches, a stupid metaphor for her broken city. Why would my brain decide to forget that detail? Why would I need protection from that fact? My brother’s growing silence, his twitching eyes. My father’s time-bomb anger that we tiptoed around. My mother’s desperate attempts to prevent everything from sinking. These things come back only in pieces. The loft we stayed in for weeks is hazy at best.
But the moment we finally returned to our apartment I remember in crystalline detail. The three cars crushed one on top of the other in line with our front door, like some giant had stacked his Hot Wheels and gotten bored with them and smashed his hands down on top. What I can see most clearly is the white flowers that someone had slipped into the cracks of the shattered windshields. The delirious idea that this was all just a series of car crashes, one on top of another, the grey ash everywhere.
I remember knowing I was lucky. There was so much hurt I was spared.
Yes, I watched the black cloud from my classroom window. Yes, I inhaled the ash and the smell. Yes, I was out of my home for a month. Yes, my parents’ marriage became strained. Yes, I lost my soccer coach. Yes, my brother stopped speaking for months. Yes.
But my mother still tucked me in at night. My father still came home from work. All of my limbs worked to help raise me from the pillow each morning. Nothing was so disrupted that I could not continue being an eighth-grade girl, concerned about homework and the upcoming school dance.
I understand that scars are not always visible; they are often as quiet as a prolonged blink, a clenched fist. There are moments that are etched into the deepest parts of us that never leave.
My mother no longer trusts blue skies. I know that buried things do not always stay buried, that damage is a slow unraveling. Sometimes it feels like we are just accumulations of hurt smashed one on top of another. I collect as many flowers as I can. I never know when I will need to slip them into shattered glass.
Years later, I am unsurprised when I break into tears at the smell of an electrical fire. I understand what happens inside me when I see the lights come on each September.
But how can I explain the late-night train ride more than a decade later? The 4 a.m. trek home. I was alone on the subway car, until I wasn’t.
He was there, across the car, his grey sweatshirt sleeve pulled down over his hand, the clutched water bottle. The yellow hard hat. The reflective vest. The Dust Bowl eyes. The stains.
If God himself had outstretched a hand to me, I would have been less fazed. I did not breathe. I did not look away. My entire body quaked. He looked at me unblinking. I expected — and there is no way to say this except to say it — I expected that he was there to tell me my time had come. I truly believed this. It made perfect sense. He was my last memory of being a child. Now his presence would mark my last memory of being alive.
I do not know how long we rode together. Not another soul got on or off. The train stopped; the doors opened. He stared at me; I stared at him. The doors closed; the train started again. Finally the train reached my stop. The doors opened, and I shook to my feet. He did not look away. I made my way out to the platform, then reached back to hold open the doors. I held eye contact, waiting to see if he would follow. He did not. I let the doors close, and he disappeared. I have never seen him since.