Most days of the year are unremarkable.
They begin, and they end, with no lasting memories made in between.
Most days have no impact on the course of a life.
- Narrator, 500 Days of Summer (2009)
Monday, September 10th, 2001, was an unremarkable day. It began, and it ended, with no lasting memories made in between. It had no impact on the course of my life.
If habit can replace memory, I probably woke up from an unremarkable sleep, ate an unremarkable breakfast, sat on an unremarkable pleather back row seat on an unremarkable yellow school bus on an unremarkable commute, attended an unremarkable day of junior high school, starting the unremarkable second week of an unremarkable seventh grade.
I probably felt unremarkable boredom during my unremarkable classes, ate an unremarkable tuna sandwich school lunch, played an unremarkable game of 3-on-3 pickup basketball during an unremarkable recess.
I probably sat in the same unremarkable pleather back row seat, on the same unremarkable yellow school bus, on the same unremarkable route back home.
I probably completed unremarkable homework, had an unremarkable dinner with family, engaged in unremarkable conversations on unremarkable topics, and played unremarkable video games until an unremarkable bedtime.
I probably held unremarkable expectations for life, as it was, to remain an unremarkable routine, for the rest of an unremarkable eternity.
Tuesday, September 11th, 2001, was a remarkable day. It began, and it ended, with every memory made in between lasting, having total impact on the course of my life.
The Casio digital watch on my wrist read 8:45 AM. Quartz, so it couldn’t be lying. Math class. Mechanical pencil, eraser, ruler, protactor, compass, neatly lined at the top edge of my desk. Spilled scribbles on college-ruled looseleaf, musings of an overachieving preteen.
One solitary glance out the half-open fifth-floor window, over Astoria, Queens. The calm breeze and fluttering leaves mirrored the tango between the approaching autumn and retreating summer. Something like a distant, dull clap distracted me. I returned to my lesson.
Next, the sudden jolt from subconscious normalcy to an acute, attentive awareness, watching my teacher’s face pale, bone-white, as he answered a call from the principal’s office. I remember Mr. Fred Atkins — known for his effusive charisma, delightful humor, and familiar warmth — remaining stoic, silently listening, nodding, looking down, then up and past us out the window, instantly shuddering, then politely hanging up the receiver, an awkward departure from his usual corny, vaudevillian farewell.
I remember him soberly informing the class about the breaking news from the World Trade Center, a diluted version of the limited intel given him, trying his best to retain his trademark cheer.
I remember second, third, dozenth calls, each ending in one or more students being told to excuse themselves quickly to the principal’s office.
I remember hustling down the stairs, taking giant three-step bounces, to the second floor. I remember guidance counselors, teachers, administrators, staff — adults — scurrying nervously past me, momentarily children themselves, out of character but still in costume.
I remember seeing my mother and father, alongside scores of other worried parents, waiting for me.
I remember my mother hugging me and not letting go until I pulled away. I remember my father calling my sister’s high school in Gramercy, not getting through, calling again, not getting through.
I remember my mother struggling to mask her concern, so as not to upset me, and the great tears betraying her.
I remember seeing black smoke clouds from the passenger seat window as we tried to drive into Manhattan to pick up Baji, and sadly returning home after being told the bridges were closed to incoming traffic.
I remember forcing myself to choke down lunch: one stale slice of plain cheese pizza.
I remember getting home, and not wanting to do anything until I saw my sister.
I remember waiting hours for word from Baji, then hearing her key turn the lock on the door.
I remember her sink into the sofa, recounting her walk uptown, over the bridge, and across Queens to get home.
I remember leaping next to her to embrace her, and her not pushing me away this time, the way older teen siblings do.
I remember watching the news for the rest of the day and late into the night, past bedtime, past primetime.
I remember nearly every channel suspended regular programming. I remember not wanting to watch Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network anymore.
I remember seeing footage of planes striking the Twin Towers, smoke rising amidst buildings collapsing. I remember numbers, places, and times being seared into memory.
Flight 11. Tower 1. 8:46. 10:28.
Flight 175. Tower 2. 9:03. 9:59.
Flight 77. Pentagon. 9:37.
Flight 93. Shanksville. 10:03.
I remember feeling afraid, confused, and lost.
I remember everything.
Wednesday, September 12th, 2001, was the first day of the impact on what’s been the course of the rest of my life. You can’t ever go back.
The patriotism was palpable. America seemed closer to its ideal of a perfect union, and I saw in my neighbors and fellow New Yorkers a mutual love and reliance, despite our fears and concerns, that is rarely encountered these days.
And yet, I also saw the ugly faces of discrimination, racism, and xenophobia.
I remember one of the first days of school after the attacks, when a classmate threw a Snapple bottle at my head.
I remember being told, “go back to Osama bin Laden”. I had no idea who Osama bin Laden was, or where he could be found.
In the moment, I quickly assumed he was the new substitute gym teacher.
Then I was told he was the leader of al-Qaeda. So I Googled him at home.
I read about him on Wikipedia. I slowly learned, unlearned, and relearned.
Truth. Lies. Propaganda. Rhetoric. Polemic. Fear. Loathing.
For my generation, our childhood, our innocence, our ignorance, ended 8:46AM Tuesday, September 11th, 2001.
We began to understand the world around us with clearer vision. As time passed, we understood the depths of depravity, depicted in the crimes of nineteen angry men, zealots whose minds were corrupted by a bloodthirsty, demonic agenda previously unknown to us.
We recognized the heights of humanity, the sacrifices and urgency of first responders, firefighters, paramedics, and police officers who knew nothing except the realities of anxiety, emergency, and death before their eyes.
I began to appreciate my religion, too, on a more profound, personal level.
I realized it possessed nothing of the savagery and insanity espoused in the beliefs, commandments, and doctrines of self-proclaimed leaders of the faithful, pseudo-caliph pretenders who appropriate scripture to suit their perverse objectives.
Before, my naive worldview insisted bad guys were encountered in cartoons and video games, and I could escape their grasp by defeating them or turning the television off. Soon, I learned evil flows through the hearts and minds of humanity, and our cosmic battles of fate and fury are not as easily won, much less properly understood.
We may never fully grasp the gravity of the day, its lasting aftershocks and residual traumas, given our human tendency to forget the terrible and our self-preserving penchant for repression.
I cannot fathom twenty years have passed. I’m not sure we will ever return to the yesteryear of September 10th.
I’m certain in wishing the unremarkable Monday lasted forever.
Always remember. Never forget. Rest in power. Gotham forever.