A rare thing occurred that day…something I cannot explain. There have been times when I met someone or saw something that I questioned whether or not it was there. This mournful morning we all saw something that questioned our reality, our faith. We saw a nation on her knees. A spirit tried. A global community tested. I wonder looking back if what I saw, what I heard, other people experienced at the exact time in their own cities, on their own street. It was that morning that I found my humanity.
The September morning was as beautiful as one can hope for in Pittsburgh. No cloud in sight…no oppressive heat. The air was clear and cool as it wafted through the vent in the window near the shower. I stood watery-eyed, still dazed from the reading marathon the night before and watched as the cool, dry air from the other side of the wall mixed and swirled with the steam rising above my head. The heat of the water on my face and breath of fresh air boosted my energy and I clamored, a little late, from the shower. The morning show lit up my television, but I failed to pay attention to it in my grog. I reappeared from the bathroom in time to see something on the screen I could not wrap my mind around…a plane….a collision….a stunned anchor….a question: What’s going on?
Over and over it played, as if the television itself was trying to decide if this was real. The image of the plane gliding into the first tower reminded me of a corny B-movie when the animators would “fly” a plastic toy plane around in battle scenes-strings showing and all. But as hard as I tried, I could not make out the faintest sliver of strings, nor could I convince my mind that this was a miniature model on some sound stage in Hollywood.
The anchor returned and announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, it seems that a plane has just crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York.” Instinctively I reached for my cell, called mom who reassured me that the attack must have been an accident—to go ahead and go to class. Heart and head pounding, I quickly dressed for class, layered in a black full length sweater jacket, my “I (heart) NYC” tee and cd player in hand.
The bus to downtown Pittsburgh was surprisingly empty. The normal hustle and bustle of business men and women, blue-collar workers, students, and visitors that board the 71C Shadyside Express was limited to an elderly woman laden with shopping bags and myself. The bus driver, listening to her radio, glances in the overhead mirror and announced to us “There was another plane.” Another plane? I stepped off the curb darting buses leaving the island-city known as “The Burg” and sprinted the two flights of stairs up to my Natural Science classroom. A T.V. monitor in the student lounge flashesdfootage of a smoldering skyscraper as a small black winged figure disappeared behind the billows of smoke shortly followed by another red and orange blast. The announcer, pale with wide-eyes, informed us that it seems an orchestrated attack has been launched involving hijacked commercial flights.
9:30 and class began with a noticeable amount of empty seats. The professor briefly praised us for honoring our commitment to academia and assured us that “it” was over then begins the lecture on super novas.
9:55-- a rustling sound outside the door and it swung open. Another professor walked deliberately to the startled man at the lectern. What feels like an hour later the visitor leaves and I heard “A third plane has just crashed into the Pentagon. Let’s finish this topic and dismiss for the day. I suggest that you return home as soon as possible.” We sat quietly, ram-rod straight in our chairs, and watched the clock as another twenty minutes slowly passed.
10:15-- a woman in her fifties, silvery-white shoulder length hair, and lose Bohemian clothing sprinted to the lecturer, a look of shock and dismay on his face. “His wife” one student leaned over and whispered. Turning to us, he pronounced, “Downtown is being evacuated. The FBI building is on lockdown. Go home now. If you live in the dorms, go to the street level floor and wait in the common room. If you live outside the city, good luck.” Good Luck? Good Luck!
The train of students filing down the emergency stair well moved like a herd of cattle trying to file through a single doorway. No one pushes, no one says a word. What will be waiting for us outside? Will we see smoldering and burning like on the television? Will parts of buildings be collapsing on top of us? Will there be people-white ghosts in ash and suits- struggling down the street in a cloud of debris? Where will I go? Home? Home is a thousand miles away…I want to go home…please, let me go home…
I am astonished to see above me the same sea of blue, the same clear early morning sky free from cloud and jet stream. The buildings hover over me tall and erect…still intact. The people rushing around me are injury-free, no blob of white and gray. The bus. I ran the three blocks to my bus stop praying I won’t have to wait long. Standing on top of the bench to see over the crowd of people waiting before me, I could barely make out the 71C glowing in yellow on a field of black just two blocks away. Thank God.
The doors fold opened with a smack, but there were no seats. “Everybody on. We’ve been told to evacuate the streets…we can’t go in ‘til everyone is out of the city” the driver relays to me as I catch her eye, half filled with fear, half with courage.
Was she thinking of her home? Was she thinking of when she would see her children again? Was she thinking of the refuge, the hope she provided the dozens of people now crowded in her bus who she was delivering from an island where only bridges can deliver you from isolation, desertion?
The doors slammed shut a few people behind me. Desperate, sweaty palms slapped on the glass… “There will be another one shortly” she shouted cheerily to the anxious faces in the street outside.
We inched along for a moment then came to a dead stop. Those of us standing bent our heads down to peer through the windows, craning our necks to get a view of the tops of the buildings, to the sky overhead. Next to me stood a family, a mother with an infant in her arms and a toddler by her side. The toddler began to cry reaching up to be in her mother’s arms. I noticed how impossible it would be for her to cradle both children, so I gently knelt down and introduced myself to the girl.
“My name’s Kate…are your feet tired?” She nodded warily. “Would you like me to hold you?” I ask more to the mother than child. Both nodded gratefully. I tok the girl in my arms…she weighed nothing compared to the bag of anthologies and textbooks I dropped to the floor of the bus. Her tiny fingers clutched at the rim of my sweater as she stared into my eyes. A man on the bench in front of me stood up and presented his seat to me. I gladly accepted. He understood that my burden was greater than his.
She sat on my lap twirling the tie of my jacket around her tiny fingers. Her braids sprouted all over her head like daisies in a flower bed with barrettes of pink, yellow, orange, and red clamping her fine hair at the ends and weighing them down. When she laughed they clinked together like plastic bells.
A scream in front of the bus caught our attention. The bus swayed to the curb side as people crammed to see out the window. There lying on the curb, was a woman in a skirt-suit, pumps, and hose. A gash traced her hairline above the right temple to just between her eyes. One eye was already blacked by the blood collecting in her eyebrow and lashes. In the rush of evacuees darting from bus to bus she had been shoved off the curb, head colliding with the pavement. The girl’s eyes grew from their regular almond shape to an O out of horror. I turned her to me and staredt telling her about my cat, Tigger, who used to climb up my legs to get on my shoulders. She smiled and even let a little laugh escape when I told her about the flying-kitty trick.
As people ran to the woman who half consciously lied in the street, a haunting melody teased my ear. A silvery-sweet line of a melody I could barely recall….Could this be real? How, in the middle of this chaos could someone be playing a flute?
The crowd in front of me shifted; people took their seats; all grew quiet.
Leaning against the red brick wall of the Rite Aid was a woman, dressed in gray, hair unkempt, clogs on her feet, eyes closed, playing a flute. The bus stopped its shuttering as all eyes and ears gazed upon the woman. The notes were so clear and true that they ceased the pounding of our hearts long enough for us to discern “America the Beautiful” streaming from the pipe. The phrases were built with subtle crescendos through pensive, soulful phrases that seemed to be emanating from the city itself.
Time froze; tragedy was overtaken with the common bond of humanity for a split second. My eyes stung, and before I realized it a tear struck the little girl on her head. She looked up at me, smiled, and said “Don’t be sad” as she wiped away the tear drop from her brow.
With a lurch, the bus started again, rolling with determination through the stop light and weaving through traffic on search of the bridge which would take us safely across the Allegheny. The flute kept playing but was soon interrupted with the wail of the ambulance sirens. Relief escaped our chests and we settled more into our seats, looking ahead for home, for safety.
I stepped off the bus in Shadyside, the girl waving at me through the window as the driver pulls away. Turning toward the street, which would take me to my apartment I marveled at how peaceful and uninterrupted the maple lined streets were…as if nothing ever happened.
Had I imagined the whole thing? Climbing the marble steps up to my third floor apartment, I caught bits of a news broadcast through the door on the second story. “A day of tragedy…” the sad voice utters. I flicked on my own television and aw the devastation. I called mom, who by now has convinced herself that Pittsburgh has been struck, and I was dead after she assured me it was safe to go to class. Grief, ultimate fear, pain, and relief filled her tear-choked voice.
Once I felt reassured that my own fears were assuaged and my mother was convinced I was alive, I scrolled through the list of missed calls on my cell. Where was Tyler? Surely, when events began to unfold he wondered where I was, was I safe.
I found him. He was sitting at his table, hunched over, the television on mute behind him as the station continuously looped a reel of footage from the streets as one by one, each plan found its target.
“Hm?” He didn’t turn. I walked to him, placed the palms of my hand on his shoulders and then sunk down onto his back, wrapping my arms around his chest, forcing him to stop the motion of his pencil.
In an attempt for him to tell me it was all a mistake, I whispered, “I can’t believe it. I…”
“I know,” cutting me off gently, “but we have to keep going.”
And that was it. I didn’t tell him about the little girl with the braids or the flute, or my fears that I would never leave that island. I didn’t tell him how much I suddenly missed home and felt the pang of loneliness. I didn’t tell him I had started to doubt what I was doing, what was it all for?
Curling up on his couch, I said nothing and waited while the sun began to set, the newsreel began to roll again, and addicted to the carnage and tragedy, I relieved the morning’s events over and over…alone.
I spent the next week in front of that television running through the gamut of emotions every human was feeling who witnessed the horror unfold that September morning. I thought of home….a thousand miles away from burning buildings, demolished blocks, evacuated cities….and yearned . Yearned for home…yearned to feel safe. The clamp around my heart tightened, my pulse raced, and grief seared a place in my soul never touched before. Such a deep sense of loss and mourning engulfed me; I knew I would be lost.
But, then it dawned on me. This was humanity. This was the phenomenon when a million souls felt the same overwhelming pain at the same time…this was the bond we all share, the depth we all belong to. This was what made us human. This was what makes us divine. And the one human I was most connected to in the world, was now farther away from me than he had been when I was a thousand miles away. A deep void settled in.
I succumbed to the gulf and let myself drift down into the indigo, floating through an endless swirling sky. I felt my neighbor. I felt the man below me whom I had never met. I felt my family on the other side of the nation. I felt my grandmother gone years before. I felt crowds on the other side of the world gathered in front of the American Embassies-communities of grief and mourning. I felt my pain and deep frustration. Reaching out to feel Tyler’s pain, to touch on that sense of connection I so desperately needed to establish, I felt nothing.