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  • It was the evening of September 10th, 2001, and I was over at Gillion’s apartment collaborating on a birthday cake for Nicole for the next day. We decided we’d bake a chocolate cake with chocolate icing, of course. And we were experimenting with whipping our own cream, eventually piping it into the cavities of the raspberries which we put on top of the cake. I remember whipping it a bit past the point when we should have stopped, because it began to separate, so we joked around about having accidentally churned butter instead. But it was still delicious and good enough with which to stuff the raspberries. Finally, our masterpiece was complete! We couldn’t wait to present it to Nicole for her birthday tomorrow.

    Most people will tell you that it was a clear-skied, beautiful morning in NYC in the early hours of September 11, 2001. And it was. I lived on the Upper East Side, and I was running late to work. I had the TV on in the background, and I was running back and forth between the bathroom and the bedroom, getting dressed, performing my routine morning tasks. But something grabbed me out of the corner of my eye – and I looked to the TV screen to see the camera focused on the twin towers: one of them was smoking. Just then the phone rang. It was my boss, Karen.

    “Don’t come in to work,” she instructed. There was a sense of urgency in her voice. She lived on Roosevelt Island, a sky car ride away from the east side of Manhattan. Our place of work was on the Upper East Side on 62nd street. Karen went on to describe to me an incredibly loud sonic sound above them, and had deduced that the sound came from whatever had hit the first Twin Tower. I must have said something like, “OK,” in response, but those immediate moments that followed are forever erased from my conscience.

    This may be out of sequence because I have trouble remembering when everything happened, but I tried calling my dad in New Jersey to let him know that I was ok.. I couldn’t get through. I called the operator to see if they could make the connection for me. He told me he couldn’t do it due to some technical problem. I said something like maybe it was because of the plane flying into the tower. Apparently, that was the first the operator had heard about what was happening. I also called Bubby, my grandmother, who lived in Philadelphia, to let her know I was ok. But I don’t remember if I was able to get through.

    The TV was still on, but this time it was not in the background. It was the central focus. What seemed like moments later after I hung up the phone with Karen, I saw on the screen what looked like, I don’t know, a torpedo flying right into the second tower. And then the explosion. Had it not been for the fact that Karen called, I would have thought it was unreal. I sat there, at first in utter disbelief. But the reporters were frantic. Their blow-by-blow descriptions of this event were unfolding a story that forced open some invisible valve in me, and it felt like all the blood was draining out of my body. My heart was beating fast.

    The phone rang again. This time, it was my Gillion, who lived one block from me on E. 70th Street. I can’t remember our conversation at all. Next thing I knew, she was at my door. She broke down in tears.

    We felt helpless. We knew people were hurt. We decided we should go to the blood bank on E. 66th and give blood. As we approached the building, a line of people had already formed, going around the corner and down the block, for at least the whole block. So we went to the front door of the blood bank and asked them how we could help. They told us they needed juice. So Gillion and I ran to Genovese on the corner of E. 68th and 2nd Ave and asked the manager if they would donate jugs of apple juice to the blood bank because so many people were giving blood and the bank was running out of juice to replenish the donors. They obliged, and set us up with several crates of juice, stacked them, and put them on a wheelie for us to bring over. So we did.

    Little did we know that there would be very few survivors to take advantage of all the blood that their neighbors were donating.

    People were out in the streets. Talking to one another. Hugging. Discussing what the fuck just happened. Every single New Yorker was outside. It seemed as though none of us wanted to be alone. So we were all outside. Together. I overheard a couple talking about Israel. Clusters of people were commiserating on the sidewalk. There were three guys who decided to go shirtless and scream loudly, for no particular reason, I thought, except maybe to express distress in their own smartass way. But mostly, the Upper East Side crowd was calm, but there was an underlying sense of tension. Of worry. And a most peculiar thing: it seemed as though everyone on First Avenue was walking South, slowly, as though they were making a pilgrimage towards the Twin Towers. Hardly anyone was walking north, if they were walking at all.

    But I clearly remember one man, short of stature, bearded and brooding, walking north, against the crowd, at a pace faster than the rest of us. I had made a mental note of him. And I wondered. Why is he walking against the crowd? Why is he walking faster than everyone? Why does he look like he has purpose when the rest of us seem aimless? For me, this moment was the beginning of a new era. An unwelcomed beginning of suspicion and profiling. Of over-guarding and censure towards anything against the grain or non-American.

    At the time I lived on 71st Street, there was an Afghanistan restaurant on the SW corner of 71st and Second Ave. They had a delicious pumpkin stew dish that was out of this world. After the September 11th attacks, they hung a US flag outside of their establishment. But it wasn’t just them. There were many businesses that placed American flags on their doors and windows. As though it had now become a symbol of protection. But the Afghanistan restaurant’s flag was the largest on the block. Sadly, not even their patriotism could keep them from losing their business, and they closed down in less than a year, even though they had been there for what seemed to me an eternity in restaurant years.

    That night, my friends and I went to Nicole’s apartment anyway, because after all, September 11th is still her birthday. But the mood was extraordinarily solemn. The attacks were the only subject of the evening. But not in general terms – but rather, in sad specifics. One of Nicole’s friends had been staying downtown and had seen out of the window of her apartment people jump from the first tower. We talked about how 14th street had been blocked off and no one was allowed south of it. There was a definite air of hopelessness to our conversations. I think we skipped singing Happy Birthday. Because it wasn’t. We brought the cake, but I don’t remember eating it.

    In the days following September 11th 2001, ash began blowing everywhere. Even all the way up to us on the Upper East Side. It looked like gray snow. And it smelled. It smelled like burnt plastic. Nicole said it smelled like death. After all, the ash wasn’t just burnt plastic and asbestos and every molecule you’d ever find in an office building. 3,000 of our neighbors had perished, most of whom had disintegrated into the mountains of ash that had forcefully become an unconjured grave of memories. The smell penetrated our neighborhood for at least a week or longer. The ash blew for days and days.

    Now there were tanks on the streets of New York. Nothing like I’d ever seen. And Grand Central looked like a country’s border check point, with soldiers dressed in war gear with long guns on their sides. It jogged a memory I had of Gaza Strip when I went to visit at age 16. And flags. Oh, the flags. Red White and Blue was flying everywhere. If there was a flat surface, there was a U.S. flag on it. If there was a pole, there was a flag on it. If there was a wall, a pillar, a door…

    And then there were the photographs. Keep in mind that we did not know for many months the actual death toll. Only that there were people missing. Thousands of pictures of loved ones were hanging up, “Missing”, they all read, posted on boards and walls everywhere there wasn’t a flag. The photographs stayed up for months and months. The collections of posted photos were up for so long they became almost iconic. But no one was coming home. Tens of thousands of people went to work the morning of September 11, 2001. And 3,000 never returned home.

    When they finally opened up 14th street, Allie and I were walking around downtown to take a look at the site. While it was blocked off, you could still see everything. Or rather I should say: nothing. No World Trade Center. No Twin Towers. No nothing, save for piles of rubble and ash and people working on those piles in search of other people. It was jolting to see empty space where there was once a vibrant financial district. No hustle. No bustle. Just eerie emptiness. And a makeshift missionary prayer booth to pray on those who had lost their faith.

    We walked up a side street and saw a huge piece of burnt, warped steel, rusted red by flames, being carted on a large gurney on wheels. A piece of what remained of the fallen towers. I broke down and I cried.

    I remember having a nightmare of a building falling on top of me. And then I spoke to a good friend from New Jersey, and she had a similar dream. Then I learned that many people across the country had dreams just like ours. Buildings collapsing on them. It had become a collective fear. And I contend, as of this writing on September 11, 2015, it still is.

    Following the attacks, I remember having some serious conversations with various friends, all of whom had expressed one way or another, how their lives could be different, or what is it that’s most important. Each person had his or her own perspective, but the shared feeling was clear: what is it in life that matters most? Many of us, whether or not we lived in NYC, were rethinking our lives in ways we had never before. For me, things became a little more clear: I wanted September 10th back. I wanted to bake a birthday cake, but this time, enjoy it. So maybe I should live at a slower pace, maybe I should move out of the city, maybe I should get married, maybe I should start a family…

    And I did.
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