A quick word before I start, this is a two-part entry, Part 2 will be next and I’ll talk about what it was like going to ground zero recently. But if you enjoy what you read please think about liking this post and maybe even sharing it. You can find me on Instagram and on Facebook where I share new pictures and stories every day. and now on with the story.
History happens when you don’t expect it. No one who was in Dallas to see then-President Kennedy thought, gee wouldn’t it be great if he was blown away right now. No one who was walking around the Dakota apartment building near Central Park in New York City thought, it would be great for John Lennon to get shot right in front of our eyes. History and life happen and sometimes you are in the right moment and born at the right time to be a witness to it. More than 20 years have passed since that faithful day on September 11, 2001, when life became so surreal that you didn’t know what you were watching in person or on TV. I know for myself as the years have gone on, the more that day becomes a gray blank day. I remember moments and have invented pictures that my mind doesn’t remember anymore.
After I came home from a recent trip back to California I thought that it would be a good time to remember that time in my life before I am not able to remember anymore. And so here is part one of the saddest days in my life.
I don’t remember what the weather was like that day, which is odd because I tend to remember the weather on days when it’s important. But it’s Southern California and so I’m sure the weather was nice. I was dating a girl named Maggy at the time and I had spent the night at her house. The same one I had written about some time ago about a date on the beach. I had slept on the couch since she lived with her parents still. I worked at a theme park at the time, Knotts Berry Farm, and had to be up early to get a ride to work that day. I had set an alarm for 7 am so I had enough time to get ready and sit in the traffic that is LA rush hour. I was in a deep sleep when I felt my arms being pushed, my first thought was I missed my alarm and I was late to get up. I expected to see Maggy but instead, it was her mom who was shaking me. She had a look that said something was wrong.
“get up, look at the tv”.
You know when you first wake up and you open your eyes and you are caught somewhere in between that state of dream and awake? I was there and I was trying to figure out what was happening. I look at a clock and it said 6:03am.
6:03am and couldn’t believe what I saw.
A plane hit a building. You see things in movies and you can tell yourself that it’s not real and so it takes some shock out of it, but this was something else. Not since I had seen the Challenger Explode in 1986 had I seen something that was so unbelievable. And then the buildings came down and I thought the world was going to meltdown all around me right then and there.
I don’t remember a lot about the next few hours, it all just went like a blur. I tried my best to catch up on what was going on. I turned on the radio and there were so many rumors about what was going on. I called work and was told not to go and so in the age before cell phones, I paged my ride to tell them not to come to pick me up. I had to figure out what to do next. I wasn’t anywhere near where I lived and the bus system had been shut down. I called people to see who was free or what was everyone doing, but no one picked up the phone. I got online, this was the glory days of AOL, and the reaction of people was all over the place, people were scared. Finally, I found a friend, Valerie, whose work was also closed who said that they would pick me up.
It was close to noon by the time I got picked up and we decided to go eat. Who could eat at a time like this but there we were at a Mexican place named Acapulco. I’m not sure if anyone was eating, only the bar was open and all anyone could do was watch the TV and whisper in low tones. Rumors were everywhere and it didn’t seem like anyone on the TV had any answers. Customers spoke of a secret invasion that was underway, something out of a Chuck Norris movie. Workers spoke about the end of days, one I remember kept touching his chest where he wore a cross under his work shirt, he said any moment now he would be taken up into heaven, he knew it was close. However, some spoke of evil foreigners with dark skins who were at fault here. One man after a few drinks spoke up and said he was going home to protect his family, he was sure the death squids were coming for all Christians.
Was all this just some strange nightmare? They kept replaying all the moments one after another on the TV stoking the rage in the bar. The planes, the buildings, the people, and the sounds that just wound up in your mind and had no way out. The buildings falling was the hardest part to handle, I didn’t even want to think about it. We had a few drinks but we had to get out.
There were all kinds of rumors of planes flying into all kinds of buildings and landmarks all over the country. Was this the start of a war we kept asking ourselves? Finally, we decided to go to the Santa Monica beach, which seemed like it would be a good idea. The thinking was that there should be a good amount of people but also it was sorta out in the open so if anything was gonna crash we could see it soon. It wasn’t the best thinking but we did the best we could.
For those who have never been lucky enough to go to Santa Monica, it is one of those places that is always full of people. From the pier to the Third Street Promenade it is just an endless throng of people. You can feel lost in the madness of the people but also lost in the sea of people trying their best to be someone. It’s the trendy people mixed with the people who aspire to be someone someday. And there was me, a person lost on a day in which it seemed, and correctly, was the end of a period in my life.
It was a period that started right after I survived high school in 1997. It had been about four years four rocky years in which I was trying my best to find out who I was and what I would do with all the years ahead of me. They were times when the only thing that mattered was women and work. And I wasn’t any good with either then or now. I was never really an innocent person but I felt like I was thrust forward into the real world without warning. I sat in silence in her Niessen as she drove. I wondered if we were at war did that mean that they would start a modern-day draft? I was fat and out of shape but I was sure that a body to take the bullets for the real soldiers was always needed.
We walked along the promenade and nothing was open and very few people walking about. There was no joy, no smiles, there was nothing but sadness in the eyes of everyone. How could this happen? Are we at war? You heard people ask that question quietly and the answer everyone knew even if it wasn’t said out loud. We walked towards the pier figuring that’s where everyone would be but I got thirsty and needed something to drink. We walked a few blocks when I saw a tiny mini-mart open with a mob gathering outside of it. Just as we started to walk up to it a man with a club came out the front door. He was Muslim on a day on which this was unfortunately the wrong day to be anything but white and Christian. People were shouting that they were marking up prices too high. They wanted $10 for a bottle of water, which was high even for Santa Monica. The man yelled for people to get back but the mob just grew and new people yelled things that I have luckily forgotten because it reminded me of the ugliness that people carry in them. Soon it went beyond just outrage at the prices and people had started to find someone to blame.
We walked away.
We got to the pier and it was an experience that I have never gotten over. It was quiet, with no sound of any kind, just people sitting looking out towards the pacific ocean. The homeless who make the area their home pulled out radios to tune into the news. The haves and have not stood together to hear about all the people lost in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Tears rolled down the faces of many and all that you could hear after a while was the sounds of the waves crashing against the pier.
I don’t remember much about the rest of that day. I remember walking down to the end of the pier and a helicopter flying overhead and people looking uneasy, what if this was another attack? I remember that by the time we left the sun was starting to set and wondering what it was like at that moment back in New York. New York seemed far away from that moment, a place I felt I would never see.
I had only been back a handful of times in the years since. Somehow the pier and Santa Monica had been etched into my mind in a bond with September 11, 2001. Going back this time was a mix of sadness and comfort. It was like going back to a time and place that seemed so far back in my youth that sometimes I question if it was real. I walked along the sands and looked at the pier and remember the quietness of that day. I walked the worn wood of the pier and looked at the rides and remember how the world had stopped for a moment as we all wondered what would come next. It would be the last moment that the whole country came together as one, from that moment till now, we all had come apart tearing at each other like the mob I saw want to tear the mini-mart owner apart.
It was a snapshot, pictures that have become dull as the years have gone by. The next few years would be rocky as I made one bad decision after another, it would be the start of a period that would send me shooting towards a new start and a new life, tough times lay ahead for us all.
All pictures by me.