I woke a few days ago with a tightening of my chest, a kind of yawn I couldn’t catch, that wouldn’t complete. I’ve had this before, but this time was worse. I felt like I was breathing through a straw. My jaw clenched at night, teeth-grinding, which also happens from time to time. I have a teeth guard made specifically for my mouth that I wear at night. I’ve lost 3 teeth over time to tooth fractures brought on by grinding. I perpetually have problems with my teeth. Over the years I’ve completely lost my voice about 5 times and it seemed a mystery until I realized it happens to me in times of great stress – mostly grieving that’s stuck in my throat – that’s not metaphorical, huh? So I went swimming with this breathing thing, though being underwater would relax me and instead, I was disoriented and couldn’t breathe at all and felt like I was drowning and had to quit, on the verge of a panic attack. The next day I went for my usual 4 mile run and only a few steps in, my chest was pounding and I couldn’t catch a breath. This was all just last week. About the time the grinding started again. About the time I’ve felt a compulsive need to swallow. About the time when my chest hurts, with breathing, I’m constantly clearing my throat. I feel a constant tickle, that hurts.
Like a kind of bronchitis that isn’t bronchitis.
Of course, I took a Covid test and I’m fine.
Let me back up.
It was Tuesday morning, September 11th. About 6:30am. I’d woken to get ready for a temp job I’d been assigned downtown Manhattan. Around the Trade Center. It may have even been IN the towers in a brokerage firm, as I went sent there often. It could have been in one of the buildings surrounding. I know it was downtown, but my memory of exactly where is fuzzy and I can’t trust it. It’s been 20 years. My husband at the time was up, making coffee. He walked to work down along the Hudson River. We lived at 1116 Hudson Street in Hoboken, which was the last street running north to south that was right along the Hudson River. I felt lazy. Uninterested in donning the uniform of a business suit, riding the PATH train (subway) under the Hudson to the World Trade Center stop (I was definitely going to be getting out there at about 8:30 or so) to walk to a law firm where I’d spend the day typing documents and sending letters out and listening to dictations. I hated the work, but it paid well (20 years ago I was making $25/hour), and I was still trying to figure out what I was doing with my life. I was old enough to have a career but I didn’t. I was still trying to work as an actress – get somewhere – I had just lost my first band that had promise and I was starting back out as a solo artist with my guitar, playing in downtown acoustic clubs. I was restless and unhappy and lost. Very unhappy. My husband was angry with me for calling in sick (and why shouldn’t he be? I was a liar and I was irresponsible) and he left for work and I got our dogs and walked down the 4th floor walk up to Elysian Park, right across from us, that looked out over the River. There was a trail of smoke coming from the other side. I didn’t think about it. I was in the dog run letting Siggy and Clyde play. A woman I knew came running up to me, breathless. “Where is Kal?” she asked. “I don’t know. At work, or at some downtown meeting.” She pointed to the sky and told me a plane had hit one of the towers. I ran the dogs back across the street to my apartment, turned on the news and watched the 2nd plane hit. My downstairs neighbor Amy came running up. We grabbed our cameras (in the days before the I-Phone) and ran to the river. A small crowd had gathered. Someone had a radio with them. Old school. We listened to 1010 Wins, the local AM radio station (which, when I’m in NYC, I always listen to). 2 planes had hit the Towers. Nobody knew what kind. Nobody knew what was happening. We sat stunned. For a while. Then, one of our gathered cried out and pointed, and we all watched the crumbling start. I screamed. I think. Amy started to cry. We were motionless. Someone actually said out loud “there goes 20,000 people.” I took a lot of photos. Amy did too. We didn’t know why. Then, I panicked. The sky was going to fill up with bomber planes. They were coming. This was war. And I had a thought: thank god. It will end quickly. Rather be here on the river completely exposed than live through any more of this. And by ‘any more of this’ I, selfishly, meant all of my life. I was very depressed. I was drinking too much. I was unhappy and couldn’t give voice to why. It would take me 20 years to reconcile with skeletons I’d refused to look at for years before this. There was no way, with my baggage, that I was capable of commitment, of holding a relationship together, a friendship, a career. That would take me until I was almost 50.
I lost my voice. Everyone I knew got a kind of mild or severe bronchitis. The dust from the Towers blew slowly across the river to Brooklyn and Hoboken and Jersey City and then beyond. You couldn’t breathe. You couldn’t get across the river to NYC. The tunnels and bridges and ferries were closed when all you wanted to do was get there. Help. Do something. On 9/11 we walked up and down Washington Boulevard to connect with friends who worked in the towers, to see if they were ok. I couldn’t find my brother, my brother’s girlfriend (now wife), who worked down there and to this day cannot speak about what she saw. I found my friend Karen who worked down there, whose train had pulled into the Trade Center, doors opened for a second, and then shut. I’ll never forget the story she told of the woman who had squeezed out, but her purse stuck in the doors and she ranted and raved to get her purse out. It finally got out. She was late for work. The train pulled back to Exchange Place in Jersey City and the passengers got out and looked across the river to see the collapsing buildings. I’ve never forgotten that woman, who probably died underground. I’ve never forgotten the man who worked the kiosk where I bought my daily NY Times. The flower vender I’d buy roses from on my way home. The man who sold cold bagels with cream cheese and coffee in those blue greek cups. $2. I don’t know, I don’t think there’s anyway they got out.
Neither my friend Amy nor I ever got those photos developed and over time, we both lost those rolls. Maybe that’s fitting. I can’t imagine what they would show and I don’t want to see.
My brother’s girlfriend and their best friend did get out. They were numb. Still are.
My marriage was already crumbling but things happened that day that were the death knell. It took years for us both to come to the realization that we were better friends than a couple, and we parted friends. I’m proud to say we had a beautiful divorce. But on that day we were oceans apart.
I didn’t write that day. I wrote On Tuesday on 9/11/2011. I haven’t really played it since. I put a video of me singing it on piano when I first wrote it. I’ve never recorded it.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years. There are people I know who weren’t even born yet. There are adults I know who weren’t shaped by that, at least consciously. Where were you then is the question of my generation. I wasn’t in the chaos, but there was chaos and terror on the edge of the Hudson. As there was chaos and terror watching it from Iowa on TV.
We left Afghanistan last week and I was riveted to the images of people clawing their way to airships that would take them away from the terror they knew would descend. I’ve had friends fight in that war, family members who lived in Kabul and worked for the government. I can’t imagine how they felt. Funny timing though. 20 years. For what? To give it all back to the same people who stoned women for minor infractions of humanity.
Today is Tuesday 9/7. It is one of those incredible blue sky days, just warm enough to be outside with a t shirt on, but cool enough to not sweat. Just like it was that Tuesday in Hoboken.
No wonder my chest is tight. I’d forgotten.
20 years ago I was 33. 20 years ago I thought I’d failed a marriage. 20 years ago I never thought I’d one day be a mother. Now, I’m in peri-menopause, with a toddler, insomniac night sweats, mood swings. I’m slogging my way through a challenging year. I’ve lost my father. My career is on hold (like most people) because of a pandemic that lingers, where my neighbors fight for their rights to not wear masks. Where I worry about climate change and plagues and never ending wars and another 9/11. Where I worry about the world we are leaving to my son and his generation. 20 years ago I hadn’t thought I’d wake up one morning and see the skyline of my town change. See a hole open up in the earth where there once were people. So much can happen in 20 years.
Here’s the song. If you’d like to see a video of me playing it and then have access to a download of it, I’m sharing this on my PATREON page, which is a bit of a backstage pass to my musician self, where I’ve been sharing all of my music, from start to finish. I’d love to invite you to join there, for as little as $1 a month. Just click the word Patreon above.
I remember the blue sky
No clouds to block the view
We stood at the river
There was nothing we could do
You I couldn’t reach you
You so far away
Just beyond the water
I remember like it was yesterday
I remember the long walk
Down the boulevard
The cafes were crowded
Statues standing guard
You didn’t try to reach me
You so far away
Just below the surface
I remember like it was yesterday
Of what I saw and when
There was thunder there was fire
The rushing of the wind
You inside the falling
You falling away
Just across the water
I remember the kindness
Of strangers on the train
Eyes met in silence
As if to say
You and I were reaching
You and I the same
Reading off the list of missing names
I remember like it was yesterday