Growing up, my dad lived in the West Village with a huge picture window facing South, the Twin Towers rising up directly in the middle, as if the window had been built as a frame just for them. When the Twin Towers were originally built, most New Yorkers didn’t like them. They shifted the main representation of the city skyline from midtown to downtown and seemed to say that “bigger” was more New York than the elegance and artistry of say, the Empire State Building or the Chrysler.
My dad loved those buildings though. To him, a divorced dad in his early 30s who had just moved to Manhattan and was trying to start a new career in real estate, the Towers said that anything was possible in NYC. It was new money instead of old. The sky was the limit.
I don’t remember visiting the top of the Empire State Building as a kid (although I’m sure I did), but I remember going up to the top of the Twin Towers. We would go with my dad quite often. I remember craning our necks to look up at the towers from street level, our ears popping in the elevator, and the breathtaking unobstructed views of the entire island from the top of the North Tower.
My dad moved to Manhattan when I was ten. My sister and I would visit him every other weekend from our home on Long Island. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to live in the city too. When I finished college, I got a job at an advertising agency in midtown and rented an apartment with a friend of mine on the Upper East Side. I went through a string of apartments and boyfriends in the years that followed, and ended up suddenly needing a new place to live after I made the mistake of hooking up with my roommate. My solution was to make a hasty move into my cousin’s apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. This was before Brooklyn was cool and I remember lying in bed, my first night there, feeling like my life had taken a wrong turn. I didn’t belong there.
Back then, I used to go to the gym every morning before work. I had yet to switch my gym membership to Brooklyn, so that first morning in my cousin’s apartment, I woke up ridiculously early, packed my clothes and all the toiletries I would need to shower and hopped on the subway so that I could go to my old gym in the West Village before work like a normal day.
When I finished working out, I went down to shower in the locker room, which was below street level. I came out into reception at a little before 9am, which is when the receptionist informed me that a plane had just hit one of the Twin Towers. “What? Really?” I remember asking. It was hard to wrap your head around. “Yes,” she told me. “You can see for yourself outside.”
From outside the gym on 10th Street and 7th Avenue, there was a clear view of the towers. When the second plane hit, it felt like it was happening right in front of me. But, I came to realize only a few hours later, that’s how everyone felt. Almost everyone in New York City on September 11th had a clear view of the Twin Towers because they were the tallest buildings in Manhattan. If you were on pretty much any avenue on the West Side, no matter how far up, you could see them standing tall at the end, because all avenues seemingly ended at the tip of Manhattan where the Twin Towers stood.
People ask why I have never written about my experience on September 11th and the answer is because my experience is nothing unique. It was a shared experience by millions of people in Manhattan that day, who were way luckier than the people who were further downtown. Everyone felt like they were RIGHT there, except that they weren’t really RIGHT there because they knew people who were actually RIGHT there, and that was something else entirely. For New Yorkers who weren’t really right there, telling your September 11th story feels self-indulgent. It was a life altering event for all of us, but the value of our individual experience at the time (even now), seemed/seems pretty unimportant.
I mean, just last week, after a year of working with Allie, I found out her dad was one of the first responders. I imagine her experience, even though she was only a little kid living on Long Island at the time, dwarfs mine. But she’d never mentioned it before either.
That day, I did what most people in New York did who weren’t really RIGHT there. I stood and gawked. I watched as people on side streets walked casually to the subway and then saw what was happening when they hit the avenue. I bought a disposable camera at a drugstore and took pictures. Pictures that I have never actually shown anyone and am now embarrassed to have taken. I overheard people talking about terrorism and could not even begin to comprehend what they were saying. I wasn’t sure whether someone doing this on purpose or two planes crashing coincidentally seemed more preposterous. I remember the fear dawning on me as I realized that a coincidence was actually the less likely of the two. Then I felt shame for being so naive. I walked up a few blocks to St. Vincent’s hospital where I assumed ambulances would start to arrive but none came. Obviously, I wasn’t going to work and I couldn’t go home (not only could you not take a subway back to Brooklyn, but my cousin’s apartment where I had slept for only one night felt far from my home), so I did the only thing I could think of— I looked for my dad.
Cell service wasn’t working that day so I tried to call him from a pay phone but couldn’t get through. I walked to his apartment but he wasn’t there. I walked to his office but he wasn’t there either. I walked to his brother’s office and it was deserted. So then, I went to the last place I could think to go— a building that his partners were developing in the East Village. He had told me that it was going to be one of the tallest buildings in the area and would have the most beautiful view of the Twin Towers, better than his apartment.
I found him there, watching the horrors of the day unfold from the rooftop of a construction site, newly built, all floors and ceilings, with no walls.
I never went back to that apartment in Brooklyn, except about a week later to pack up my things. That day and the days after, it felt safer to be in Manhattan than outside of it. Even without an apartment, Manhattan was my home. On September 11th, I took my gym bag full of toiletries and moved into my dad’s place in the West Village. I looked out his picture window at the black smoke billowing where the towers used to be. I got together with friends who lived nearby and we walked outside on major streets that were now pedestrian-only, talking about the smell and whispering about the friend of the friend who was in the South Tower. We cheered the ambulances and fire trucks driving down the West Side Highway. We went to Union Square and looked at all the pictures of the missing people, hoping that there were no faces we recognized. We watched nothing but the news for weeks. We walked to work because we were scared to ride the subway. Once back at work, we got evacuated more than once due to bomb threats, walking down countless stairs in stunned silence until we were all let out into the sunny streets below, not knowing which direction was safe to go. We wondered if life would ever go back to normal.
And then gradually, it did. With a new sense of fragility and a confusion about America’s place in the world.
I stayed with my dad for about six months, before I felt (or he felt, I can’t remember) that it was time to move on. I found a new place and a new roommate; the first of many more, until I eventually moved into the apartment I live in today.
My dad was right. The construction site he was standing on top of on September 11th would have had the most beautiful view of the Twin Towers.
I know because it’s the building I now call home.
Beautifully written. As a fellow New Yorker who was not directly affected by 9/11, I feel silly discussing where I was that day. I do remember the fear I felt as a college student at the time, and now 16 years later, how much scarier the world is as a mother of 2.
Beautifully written….captures why New Yorkers are often the least vocal about where they were and what happened that day. My dad survived the Twin Towers, but he never speaks of it. I don’t think he ever will. The day is baked into all of us. I don’t need the anniversary to remember that it happened. It’s still quietly happening every day.
Very well written. I was just watching your Snapchat story, and wondered about your 9/11 story. I opened up Facebook, and there it was. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for sharing this. I can understand how it must seem unimportant compared to your fellow New Yorkers whose stories are different, but your story is also valid. Sending you big hugs.
Long time reader, first time commentor. Thank you for sharing. I was in 3rd grade in the Midwest when 9/11 happened so of course I didn’t understand much. As a twenty-something, I’ve found myself seeking out commentaries like this about the events that have so profoundly shaped our history and learning how people dealt with the fear, grief, anger, confusion, and whatever emotions they were experiencing at the time. It has helped me to better understand the country and process how we’ve arrived where we are today. I really appreciate you sharing your perspective. I admire you for many reasons, and one of them is how profound and honest you are when sharing aspects of your life with your readers. Although I’m sure this wasn’t your intention, this post is such a demonstration of your resilience, something that you’ve clearly instilled in your daughters along with compassion, curiosity, and drive. Thank you.
Thank you for continuing to not shy away from writing what is challenging and difficult. My SIL always says how important it is that we can share our stories with each other, so we can learn from each other. You sharing so openly gives us an opportunity to be caring and empathetic and understanding. Thank you for your courage to do so.
I am one of those people who has asked about your story in years prior (last year in fact). You were kind enough to tell me some of it. Thank you for sharing your story again today.
Beautifully written account of 9/11. The story is yours to tell because it is unique to you from your own perspective. I could almost picture it as you laid out the chain of events. Thank you for writing this. Great tribute to a great city.
Thank you for sharing your story. Although I 100% ubderstand why you hadn’t before today.
You’re right. People experienced much worse, but every single one of us has our own story to tell. And each of us understands and can feel the pain. It’s what unites us. I was thousands of miles away, but I will never forget feeling. It resonated across the globe and will for years to come.
This is wonderfully written. Thank you for sharing. I cannot even fathom how your experience actually being in New York compares to those of us who witnessed from afar. I was in my first year of university in Alberta, Canada (first week in fact). I had just moved out on my own, 1000km away from home, living with strangers I had only just met. We came together that day to watch the world as we knew it change forever, even though we didn’t know just how significant it was changing just yet. It was a day that we will all remember where we were and what we were doing.
Thank you for sharing. For someone who just lived through a terrorist attack on her own city just this April, it really hits home. It’s my city, and I was there, just not THERE there. Also couldn’t watch anything but news for days.
Let’s pray for peace all around the world.
I heard of the news I was seven and my mom just picked me up from primary school. We live in the Netherlands. Our neighbor just came out her backporch and told my mom that there had been a huge terrorism attack in New York and she should turn on the news. That day I didn’t learn about the magnitude, that wasn’t until years later. But still every year I remember being damn lucky sitting safely on the back on my mom’s bike. It’s not much of a story, but I remember it so clearly. I can’t phantom what it would have been like to have family there, or to watch the towers fall. Thank you for your story and teaching me I’ll never fully comprehend how horrible that day was, for which I can only be thankful.
Thanks for sharing this! Self-Indulgent is a good word to decribe the feelings that come with, “I was there,” “I remember seeing it happen,” or just telling their experience on that day. I often find that whenever my friends tell their stories on Facebook or in an Instagram tribute, Self-Indulgent is the word I can never seem to find. Their stories, which are mine, too (we were in our 6th grade classroom watching from the windows), don’t seem to capture the total loss of that day.
Very well done. I think this was a very nice transcription of your story. I understand struggling to share your identity in an event that that affected others more directly than you. I used to live the, ‘I’m not allowed to mourn or succumb to PTSD, because others had it much worse than I did’. But it doesn’t mean we weren’t changed. It doesn’t invalidate our fears or our actions. Thank you for sharing your story, though I wish you hadn’t felt pressured to do so.
This was beautifully written. I think we all have stories of 9/11. Some more in it then others. I was living and working in DC at the time. I had friends and family members who worked in the Towers. I grew up in upstate NY(not far from where your husband meets his college friends). My father had five sisters who raised their kids in NYC, specifically Brooklyn. For you to say “before Brooklyn was cool.” Makes it seem like because it’s now so gentrified that it’s suddenly cool. Brooklyn has ALWAYS been cool! ALWAYS! I spent 3 weeks out of my summer in BK when it was a little more grittier but people were more genuine, sitting on stoops, playing tag, learning to double Dutch. My time spent in Brooklyn made me want to go to college here. My aunts have brownstones that are now worth 7 figures and they’re struggling because they don’t want to sell to hipsters so they can continue to “make Brooklyn cool.” I moved to BK 12 years ago. It was cool than and not so cool now. The gentrifiers have ruined it but hey those like you think it’s cool now. 🙄 I like your blog, I follow you on Snap and IG but that “before Brooklyn was cool” statement wasn’t cool and it’s typical.
Perhaps I should have put “cool” in quotes. I agree, Brooklyn was always cool. But at the time, and particularly where my cousin’s apartment was located, which was on a major boulevard in Prospect Heights as opposed to a brownstone lined street in Park Slope, it wasn’t a place young twenty-somethings lived with a social scene. I felt lonely and isolated and very far removed from my friends. I was just trying to show that being in this area back then was very different than the Brooklyn you see on Girls now. For better or worse is up to you.
Thank you for replying. I get what your saying but for me when I think of brownstones in Brooklyn I think of the beautiful ones in Bedstuy. Granted Park Slope does have beautiful ones but the Bedstuy ones are the ones that all the “cool” people want now. The Brooklyn you see on Girls is Greenpoint and Williamsburg…were they ever cool? Lol.
By the way I live in Prospect Heights/Crown Heights. I know it’s changed but I hate how people say Brooklyn just got cool.
Thank you for sharing your story!
Thank you for sharing! I live in Wisconsin so far away from that days events but I still remember where I was – while I was only a senior in High School and didn’t really grasp the full magnitude of what was happening I sure do now! I think it’s important for anyone and everyone to share their stories and feelings. It’s important to recall and remember that day always! That goes the same for pictures – don’t be ashamed you took those. They are a forever part of history to be shared with all future generations so we never ever forget that terrorism is real and the people the world lost were real! I believe we should always talk, share and discuss these things so we can be vigilant and never ever forget! My children are small but someday I will show them pictures online and read them stories about that horrible day so they know of the lives that were lost and the amazing and brave souls that came forward that day. Bless you New Yorkers!
Thank you for posting your story. From someone who was on the other side of the country when it happened and had never seen the twin towers in person, I have a very different experience. I appreciate hearing stories from the people who lived nearby (even though you weren’t right there, you were there), their experience and how it affected them.
very beautifully written. That last picture made me tear up 🙁
To echo everyone else, this was beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your story. Even though you were there but not there, so many of us felt the same sense of helplessness watching this happen to our people and our city. Somehow 16 years later it still feels cathartic to read about someone else’s experience living through that day.
This, in my opinion, is one of the best things you’ve ever written. So poignant. It gives us, as readers, more insight into who you are and what helped mold you into who you are today. And the last sentence is amazing!
On a side note, you always take Mazzy and Harlow to the major and ‘trendy’ museums. Have you given thought of taking them to the Freedom Tower or a firestation or Ft. Hamilton, just to show them a different perspective?
Wow I got chills and tears reading that! Thank you for sharing, so well written ❤️
This post is so honest and true. You have captured the essence of what so many New Yorkers have felt but weren’t able to pinpoint. This post was one of your best.
Wow! Just Wow! <3
Thank you for sharing!!
Thank you for sharing Ilana. You are an awesome story teller.
Like you, I was there but not THERE, in my mid-twenties. Later in the day I walked home from my company’s office in Midtown on 5th to my home in Cobble Hill Brooklyn.
This is the first year I’ve had to explain it to my daughters (8 and 6) out here in the Midwest (I live in IN now). Turns out my daughter’s 3rd grade teacher was relaying her own memories of experiencing the attack during elementary school out in the West Coast, to my daughter’s class, to help them connect to what happened. It was so weird to say “I was there” to gain attention and credibility from my oldest to help her understand the reality, beyond the book and her teacher’s own experience. She was fascinated and wanted to watch the actual crash video (because really, how can you picture something like this in your head when you are 8, I get it), but all the same it’s something I still can’t watch. I pawned her off till this weekend, while I figure out what to do about that request.
I’ve been following you for quite some time now on Instagram and I loved it ever since. I love your honesty and shared many laughs over your posts.
When 9/11 was approaching once more I kind of waited to hear your story or at least I wondered if you had already shared it over the years or whether you would do so this year. I almost commented under one of your posts and asked you about it.
Then the other day I saw this post and read it right away. How beautifully written! I think I’m particularly interested in hearing stories from “real” New Yorkers because I live in germany and was so far away when it happened. I was just 10 and still I have an intense memory of it. I’ve always wondered how it must have affected the people right there (even if not RIGHT there). I used to live in London for a while and still call it my second home so the recent attacks there hit me in another way than for example the attacks in Barcelona as I’ve never been there. Terrorism is always awful and senseless but if it hits your home or a place you know very well it’s even worse.
I wanted to thank you for sharing your story with us. I can absolutely understand why you hesitated for so long but I am still very thankful that you shared it. To you, it must feel like some kind of bumbledom because you were not a “direct” victim but yet it hit your city, your hometown, and that gives you “the right” to share your story and not feel bad about it. Reading your story gave me chills and offered a whole new perspective.
That last sentence brought tears to my eyes and at the same time is so full of hope because you stayed in NYC and are raising two brilliant daughters there. Terrorism is never going to win!
Love from Germany
Thank you for sharing your perspective from that day. In some way, everyone’s story matters as they make up the bigger story. And don’t be embarrassed by the photos. History needs to be remembered and captured whether it is good, bad, or ugly.
This is absolutely beautifully written. You really have a talent for tackling the hard things and making them simply beautiful.