Obligatory 9/11 Memoir

Right off the top, I was not in New York at the time and didn’t lose anyone in the atrocity watched the world over. The closest I came to personal tragedy was a day early in September 2002 when, a week away from the first anniversary, I innocently purchased chocolate milk only to realize that the expiration date was stamped “SEPT 11”. And as if to prove that the universe has a wicked sense of dramatic irony, I opened that milk only to discover that it had already gone sour.

As a grown-up (I meant to shield those in ironic quotation marks), September no longer brings about fear and anxiety of a new school year (although kids are so much bigger these days, I’m waiting for the day when an eleven year-old takes me out in a full-on roid rage). Once through with the shackles of education, September became all about movies. The Toronto International Film Festival (nee The Festival of Festivals) opens at the beginning of the month and as I stepped into my twenties I was fortunate enough to meet the sweet-spot where “idle time” t-boned “discretionary spending” on the roads of my heart.

My memory of that day is clear: I was a week’s vacation from a job I moderately disliked so that I could take in the festival wall-to-wall. That Tuesday, I was set to see Atanarjuat The Fast Runner. I woke up lazily, as a guy on vacation might. I might have been scratching myself somewhere special when the phone rang and it was my friend Keith.

Keith: A plane just went into one of the Twin Towers.

Jesse: Huh? What?

Keith: In New York. A plane just crashed into one of the towers.

You’ll allow me an aside to mention that in all my years of New York worship, and during my, at that point, only visit, the World Trade Center was not on my emotional map of the city. I had the Chrysler Building, Empire State, the Statue of Liberty, the bridges…you know, the kind of structures drooled over by Woody Allen and his rotating cadre of exquisite cinematographers. The World Trade buildings were an afterthought, which I ascribe to their architectural opacity; the creation of those buildings forever altered the skyline but each time I thought of New York, I just pushed them out of my mind’s eye.

Keith and I got off the phone and the calls started. My wife, who was watching the tragedy unfold from work. And then my brother, realizing that our mother was out of the country and due to fly home that day. Keith called again. He had a friend in New York.

Keith: I’m trying to get in touch with him but the lines are jammed. I’m starting to get calls dropped here in Toronto.

Jesse: Keith, they’re gone.

Keith: What do you mean?

Jesse: The buildings. The fucking buildings. I was watching it and there was a huge column of smoke and when it cleared the building was just gone.

Keith covered his mouth piece and I heard him tell someone on the street “The towers are down”. I think of that often, the tableau I’ve drawn in my head where Keith is standing at the busy Yonge and Bloor intersection (I think–I don’t even know for sure if that’s where he was) while confused and frightened people with cell phones welded to their ears buffeted against one another, giving information to strangers in a way that Torontonians rarely do.

The other memory was a dream I had that night, no doubt heavily influenced by the fourteen straight hours of news footage I watched that day. My wife and I are walking down Yonge Street and a building explodes. We run for cover but hit the pavement when a wave of cloud and debris rushes over us. I find my way to her in the dust and see that she has a shard of glass in each eye. I’m terrified, but I pull them out. They hit the bone of her ocular cavity because once the glass is out I can see her eyes. She gives me a look that says, “Boy, what a mess I’m in, huh?” and my heart sinks. I look her over and see blood blooming beneath her clothing.

Hardly close to losing a loved one (hell, even someone you like) in a tragedy, but that’s what I recall.

Fast forward ten years. How do I spend time leading up to the anniversary? Watching 9/11 documentaries. In this case, Inside 9/11 on the National Geographic Channel (to be followed in short order by Giuliani’s 9/11 and George W. Bush’s 9/11 wherein the former Commander-in-chief drops his own bomb by stating that the terrorist attacks  “changed my presidency”). The phone rings.

Keith: I got the tickets for TIFF. I think you’re going to be happy. The Bobcat Goldthwait film is tomorrow night.

Jesse: Great.

Keith: Should be a light frolic after what I’ve been doing today, which is listening to cockpit recordings from Flight 93.

Jesse: Naturally. I’m watching a 9/11 doc.

Ten years later and not much has changed, except for my hairline.

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