My New Normal After 9/11

Like many other New Yorkers, I have a 9/11 story to tell.

It started out a normal work day. I took the subway from my Brooklyn apartment in Cobble Hill to my copywriter job at MTV Networks located in Times Square. It was my 11th year commuting into that building, pushing past crowds of slow-moving tourists and an occasional celebrity (I once rushed Eddie VanHalen through the revolving doors because I just wanted to get the fuck home).

As I emerged from the subway in Times Square, I noticed a giant crowd looking up at the screen above the Good Morning America studio. I assumed the Backstreet Boys or someone was in there for a live show and swam upstream into 1515 Broadway. I got into the elevator and pushed the button for the 42nd Floor, removing my headphones to overhear someone mention the towers.

Still oblivious, I got to my desk where people seemed frantic. One of our views was downtown and a small crowd was gathered. It was early for our office (most did not arrive until 10 or even 10:30am most days) and those standing in disbelief were frozen or even scrambling around like ants in distress. One of my co-workers pointed to the rising smoke and said her cousin worked there. Still unable to process what was happening, I assumed it was a fire or a bomb and went to my desk to drop my things off. My message light was on my phone and as I retrieved several back-to-back messages from my brother (still in Brooklyn who witnessed the first plane as he too was headed off to work) desperately trying to locate me and many others whose subways may or may not have traveled near or below the World Trade Center during the crash.

We weren’t attached to our cell phones back then and I had left mine at home which wasn’t really a big deal normally.

I was able to locate Philippe and Stephanie and, with my co-worker, Sheldon, we agreed to meet at my cousin’s apartment near NYU Medical Center on 30th and 2nd. I felt so vulnerable walking towards that apartment. Because, as you know, Manhattan is littered with landmarks and not really knowing what could happen next it was unavoidable to pass by or near the United Nations, the Empire State Building, Grand Central and more.

There were lines of people at pay phones since those with cell phones couldn’t use theirs. As we got closer to the apartment, there were groups of dust-covered individuals all walking in disbelief towards the hospital. It honestly looked like we were on a movie set and these were the extras. 

We took a little time to call our respective parents to let them know we were safe and to watch the news before continuing onto Brooklyn where we all lived.

Somewhere around the East Village, I had to stop to buy band-aids because of the shoes I chose to wear that day. They were low-heeled sandals but not the type of shoe you’d want to wear while walking from 10036 to 11231 (over 8 miles / 3 hours).

We found ourselves walking over the Manhattan Bridge. As we stepped into the Brooklyn side, we were greeted and cared for by a long line of Hassidac Jews who were distributing cups of water to every single person. It was one of my first of many glimpses into New Yorkers coming together as one to help each other out. Our group arrived at the subway and we took our respective trains to our individual stops.

Our apartment was located at 29 Tiffany Place. We were near the water. We were 3 miles from the World Trade Center. Our neighborhood was covered in debris not to mention what appeared to be office items like work documents which may have traveled over from the towers to our cobble stoned street. We had left our windows open because of the nice weather. Much of that debris had blown inside our apartment. There was a distinct burning smell in the air. It lingered into November.

The first couple of weeks, I was on my couch watching non-stop news footage and surviving on pints of ice cream (mint chip mostly). 

I don’t remember when it was agreed that we’d all return to our office. But I do remember this turning point being our “new normal.” There was hesitation and fear returning to the subway, back into the heart of Times Square and back into a large office building that stood tall and could be targeted next.

I remember standing on the subway platform waiting for a train and a young man running down the stairs. Everyone on the platform began to run thinking something was wrong. He was just running to catch the incoming train. It was like watching gazelle take off as a group even though most didn’t know what they were running from exactly.

I remember the West Side Highway lined with people from all over, applauding the first responders.  Chelsea Piers’ ice rink where we’d go for fun was keeping bodies refrigerated until they could be identified and/or given a proper burial. For no reason, restaurants and businesses that I had loved were shutting down due to racist attacks and fear because the owners were “some sort of Middle Eastern descent.” It was maddening and upsetting to watch.

Over time the “new normal” became the actual normal. We surrendered to having to remove our shoes at the airport (but not train stations or other public gatherings). The Emmy Awards still aired (with Ellen DeGeneres giving one of my favorite opening monologues ever, “what would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews”). 

And for me, my “new normal’ meant that starting 9/12/01, I would only wear shoes to my office in the city that I could run in.

Published by Gennifer Birnbach

Every curl on my head is an idea.

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