Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years

When we were in San Francisco, my brother, Mike, my sister, Colleen, and I were stalking a man on Fisherman’s Wharf. He scares unsuspecting tourists from behind scant branches he holds up in front of him. He then passes a bucket and asks for money from onlookers. It’s hilarious and can easily fill a good hour or two. Unfortunately, an overexcited couple decided to “help” the Bush Man by standing right beside him and idioticly grinning at any approaching target, ultimately giving away his location and spoiling the fun. They just didn’t get it. To this, my brother asked the age-old question: “Why do people always have to make it about themselves?” 

You know - I had no intention of writing anything on the 10th anniversary of September 11th. Discussing anything on this topic has a high risk of being trite, insensitive, political, and/or controversial. In general, I try to avoid all of these things, and I am not skilled enough as a writer to side-step these potential land mines. However, with lots of free time during the Ramadhan break, my mind has been wandering to it these days, not exactly because of the events, but simply because ten years ago, there is no way I would have guessed I would be sitting where I am today - which is eating a fried banana under a mosquito net in my bedroom in the largest Muslim country in the world. So, like the overexcited tourists (and most of my blog posts, for that matter), I'm going to make this all about me. 

Ten years ago I was living at my parents’ house, commuting every day to a job in Manhattan. I told myself I would stay at the suit job working for "the man" for six months only, and I often felt guilty about getting new work assignments as I knew I’d be leaving at any moment (fast forward 9 1/2 years, and I was still there).  Each morning, I’d wake up around 5:30am convincing myself that the sooner I got up, the sooner I could drive to the train and go back to sleep for the hour and half ride into the city. During summer months, I even had a scarf stashed in my work bag that I fashioned into a pillow to make the train sleep more enjoyable.

Ten years ago, I woke up when my train arrived in Grand Central and vaguely heard someone mention something about the Twin Towers. Walking through Grand Central is one of my favorite things – even when battling the illogical patterns of travelers racing across the floor. That day, it was eerie as there were significantly fewer people and those who were there were crowded around TVs at the Hudson Newsstand. Curious, but worried I'd be late for work, I made my way to the subway, taking one of the last 6 trains to 27th and Madison. I got there in time to realize what happened and to see the first tower fall on the many TVs around our call center. 

We still worked. I took phone calls from people worried about their money as I watched co-workers freaking out around me, and I got into a tiff over the phone with an insurance agent who demanded money. “Look, Maam, I’m not sure if you know what’s going on here, but I have no way of confirming for you when the market will open again.” That’s probably about as mean as I ever got on the phone. 

Strangely, I don’t remember much. We couldn’t go anywhere since all transportation was shut down. I remember getting an email through to my brother in DC and confirming he was OK. Phones weren’t working well, but, eventually, I talked to my mom. She said our friends from the neighborhood, the Lalors, were frantically trying to find their daughter who worked in the towers. I also contacted most of my friends who I thought might be close and cleared they were OK.

I went and got a sandwich at one point with a co-worker. We looked out at the smoke towering above the city into the sky and the mass exodus of dazed people walking north - some with remnants of what they had witnessed dusting their hair and clothes. Being 50 blocks and almost 3 miles away, what was happening down there was a totally different world. What these people walking by me might have seen was completely unknown to me.

Eventually when the trains started running, I went to Grand Central, got on a train to New Hamburg, and drove my green go-cart-like car with no pickup the 10 minutes home.
I don’t know what I thought on the train, I don’t know what I said to my parents or to my boyfriend when they were so happy to see me. I don’t think I even had the wherewithal to write anything down. I don’t remember much of anything except for constantly telling people concerned for me that I was so far away from anything that happened. I certainly didn’t need any sympathy, but I think people just wanted somewhere to direct their confusion and sadness. 

After watching plenty of television coverage, we went to the Lalor’s house around the block. They not only confirmed that their daughter, Sue, was not in the towers, but she also made her way upstate to her parents’ house along with her sister, Meghan. It also happened to be Meghan's birthday. The reason Sue had not been at work that day was because she was running late after baking Meg a birthday cake that morning. This has been dubbed the best birthday present ever (Happy 32, Meg!).

We ate pizza as Sue tried to remember employees’ names off the top of her head and write them down. As HR manager, and most likely one of the sole survivors of her NY office, she was communicating with the Chicago office to try to help find who might have been at work that day. I do remember her face when she recalled a pregnant woman who might have been in the building and Sue breaking into tears. Yes, I do remember that. And I remember feeling powerless.

I can’t imagine living in a place where something like this happens with any kind of frequency. The idea of the extent of the loss of innocent life is too much for my mind to handle, which is why I think I have chosen to never really process it all and still feel totally outside of it, as if I was in another country even though I was a short cab ride away.

People have gone to war, more have lost their lives or those of loved ones – I know almost nothing about these things. I like to keep things light because that is the luxury of growing up with the life I’ve had. People have gotten into fiery debates about mosque-building and racial profiling and countless other topics that, again, I am not smart enough to address expertly here. I do buy into the importance of safety; when an Indonesian student asks if she will be attacked if she comes to America for wearing a jilbab, I also feel it couldn’t hurt if we had a little more understanding across the board.

In reflecting on ten years, I haven't changed all that much. I got contacts (which I actually can't wear here), I had bangs for a little while (which I also can't have here - too hot), I've gained some wonderfully enjoyable family additions (nephew, nieces, sister-in-law), I've gained some new phobias, and, hopefully, I've gained a little perspective. Oh, right, and I finally stopped dragging my feet and joined the Peace Corps (I started an application in 2001 - it took slightly longer than planned).

I don’t have a particularly interesting story. I suffer no delusions of grandeur with what I am doing in Indonesia, which these days mostly consists of riding bikes and watching episodes of Party Down. I do not equate anything I do with that of men and women who serve to defend their country. The likelihood of me being near any terrorist cells is slim, and I doubt my playing hangman in class or jogging through villages would dissuade anyone who really wanted to carry through plans of attacking the US or the West. 

But, as I sit here after celebrating the most important Muslim holiday with my Indonesian family who has not only welcomed me into their home, but who every day I grow to love more and more - I do recognize in myself that there is a gap. There is a gap of understanding between my language and theirs, between my culture and theirs, and between my religion and theirs. I hope to bridge these in some small way in the next two years. I hope the line I, unfortunately, still have between "my" and "their" will eventually blur and fade - even if just a little.

As I reflect on the upcoming anniversary and how much or little I've changed in that time, tomorrow’s dinner crows tied up beside my house, and I feel a small sense of purpose and accomplishment from having finished assembling 300 some-odd snack boxes for my host sister's wedding (turns out I am an awesome snack box maker). As my family banters back and forth in Javanese in the next room and I nurse the sores on my fingers from having stapled those 300 boxes, all I know is  - ten years later, there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

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