Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

Disconnect: My 9/11 Story

The relationship between our perception of the passage of time and our age is something that I’ve never been quite able to grasp. I mean, while I know that one second in 1991 and one second in 2011 are supposed to be the exact same amount of time, my mind somehow convinces me that they’re unequal, and I’m not sure why it does this.

For instance, I’m 32 years old. On Sept. 12, 2001, I was 22. 10 years before that — Sept. 12, 1991 — I was 12. When I was 22, it seemed like there was an eon of distance between my age then and me being 12. It may have only been 10 years, but being 12 or 13 or even 16  seemed so foreign and distant to me that it felt like my teens happened an entire lifetime ago.

Now, though, the distance between 22 and 32 seems much, much, much smaller. I remember everything about being 22. I remember what my apartment smelled like (Guardsman, Curve, bbq sauce, sneakers, and condoms). I remember the color of my roommate’s girlfriend’s hair, and I remember trying to find a subtle way to ask him if that was her natural color. I remember exactly how I felt when first learning I’d been betrayed by two of my closest friends. I remember riding to some party with my boy and seeing the face he made as he listened to Eminem’s verse on “Renegade” for the first time. (Any diehard hip-hop fan knows this face. It’s the exaggerated squint/”I just smelled the worst smell on Earth” combo face you make when first hearing an outstanding verse. It’s almost like you can’t believe what you’re hearing.)

I’m bringing this up because of the psychological disconnect currently going on in my head regarding the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. It doesn’t seem like it’s been 10 years already because I (think I) remember everything about that day.

I remember my roommate waking me up to tell me that a plane flew into the World Trade Center, and I remember my half-lucid response. (“N*gga, stop playin. I’m still not letting you hold my watch.“)

I remember the shared collective consciousness of everyone on campus. (People use always use “surreal” to describe this feeling, but to me the best way to explain it was that it seemed like we were all extras in the same movie.)

I remember not wanting to talk or even think about anything other than what the hell was happening.

I remember not being able to reach my parents until early in the afternoon, and manufacturing anxiety even though I knew they were probably just home, watching the news like I was.

I remember that the two or three people I knew who were actually able to get service on their cell phones became rock stars that day.

I remember wondering exactly how “big” this was going to get. How many planes were hijacked? 4? 10? 24?  How long would this continue to go on?

I remember watching CNN and trying to put myself in the shoes of a person near Ground Zero¹ to try to imagine the fear they must have been feeling. I also remember failing at this, becoming annoyed with myself for not being able to produce that level of empathy, and then wondering whether the people around me who seemed completely distraught were genuine or if they were hysterical because they felt that the moment called for hysterics.

But, despite the fact that 9/11 almost seems like it happened 10 months ago instead of 10 years ago, it doesn’t feel that way. The memories are still vivid, so you’d think that when watching a 9/11 related news story or tribute or memorial with footage from that day interspersed, the same feelings I felt that day would come back. But, although I remember how I felt, I can’t reproduce those feelings. I watch the 9/11 footage now, gripped and transfixed by the imagery and the sounds the fact that I remember seeing much of this before, but surprisingly unmoved.

It’s almost as if my heart is outsmarting my brain, convincing me that it’s useless to actually feel the feelings associated with those memories; emotionally downgrading 9/11 from “an event that left everyone shook in some way” to “an especially intense thing that happened on TV a decade or so ago” — really no different than the first 20 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan.”²

I think I understand why my mind does this. While remembering important events helps us make judgements, decisions, and predictions, continuing to go through the emotional rollercoasters associated with those events would probably make us insane. Still, while watching a few of these tributes last weekend and seeing the tears roll down the eyes of people in attendance, I wonder if I’ve gone too far, if becoming as emotionally detached as I seem to be is dangerous. Hmm. Maybe I’ll figure it out by 2021. Seems like a while to wait for an answer, but if the last ten years are any indication, it should be right around the corner.

That’s enough from me today. People of VSB.com, what are your 9/11 stories? How did it make you feel, and how much of a disconnect is there between how it made you feel then and how it makes you feel today?

¹It’s also interesting how my mind continues to think of 9/11 as just a NYC event, even though I’m very aware of what happened at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, PA — a city maybe 60 minutes away from where I’m sitting right now.
²I didn’t say this in the entry, but I do also realize that if I personally lost a loved one that day  (or even was in NYC or the Pentagon or Somerset County) my feelings about this would probably be much, much different. And, for those who did actually lose someone, I don’t mean to be flippant or minimize any pain you might be feeling.

—The Champ

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Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com and EBONY Magazine. And a founding editor for 1839. And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • THANK YOU for confirming the fact that I have not lost my mind!! I feel terrible for struggling to feel empathy because I feel like its something I SHOULD feel. Its been 10 years but it doesn’t feel like it. I still remember where I was and how I called my sister a liar after she told me a plane hit the 1st WTC tower. I remember being afraid & feeling like America’s cloak of invincibility was no more. In spite of this (don’t tase me bro), I struggle to convince my brain that it is a necessity to stop every year on 9/11 and remember. I don’t think I will ever forget, but I wonder if I can ever truly reproduce the feeling.

  • was a senior in high school … we didnt have cell phones. we just walked to the nearest friend’s house and stared at the tv for hours. now i work in a federal building walking distance from WTC and every time they have “alerts” and stuff a small part of me wonders … when the earthquake happened my entire building of federal employees panicked and ran outside.

    i live my life just as before … but im not one of those people thats always like “oh the news is so stupid, theres no terror threat, bla bla”… we aint think it could happen then … like seriously … with box cutters, but it did. so i dont live in fear … but i always have flats at work.

  • My biggest issue with 9/11 right now is not that I cant believe it happened 10 years ago, but that I just don’t feel the same….sorrow/empathy for the victims. Maybe it’s because I was so young when it happened (15). Maybe it’s because I was so removed from the actual tragedy (I was in high school in Ohio and all my friends/fam were in Harlem, not Manhattan).
    I know that I cared deeply for the first few months after the tragedy. And I know that I still get slightly misty at things like the state farm commercial that aired today, but I just can’t really make myself care as much as I think I should.

  • 10 years later, hate against Muslims is alive and well, and the haters have unlocked Facebook pages http://youropenbook.org/?q=9%2F11+muslim+obama&gender=any

  • It was the first time in my life I felt helpless. The first time I realized the amount of control I have over my life was not as much as I thought.

    My dad was at the Pentagon that day. I didn’t learn he was ok until 12 hours later.

    I never want to feel the way I felt that day again.

  • All I remember I was supposed to go to school, but the bus never came so I tried to break into my friend’s house and everyone in my neighborhood was huddled around the TV. I watched for like 15 minutes and then went back home to my mom who was calling various members of our family because they lived in NYC. Everyone was safe. That’s all I remember.

  • Tes

    Ten years ago on September 11, I turned 11 years old. It was either before or after I’d had back surgery. I didn’t learn of the events fully until weeks later and I felt oddly guilty.

    I felt as though I was wrong for celebrating my own life on a day when so many people lost theirs. It’s bad enough whenever I say my birthday to people they wince or gasp or do something else usually reserved for disgust and sympathy, but for so long I felt that it was wrong of me to be happy for my own life.

    Now I rather have the mindset of reclaiming the day as mine. I don’t turn on the tv (as the news now-a-days is essentially disaster pron so any given day instead of good news all you get is death and despair but no other day is it so universal), I don’t read news stories, and I don’t write. I do what makes me feel good, I spend time with people I love, and I realize that guilt for something that I did not cause nor had anything to do with is a crappy reason not to enjoy the day of my birth.

  • Andi

    I was a freshman in high school and they made the announcement over the PA system in geometry. The rest of the day is kind of fuzzy. All the classes were really somber. Some teachers tried to push us through class to keep us distracted and some just let us go early. My aunt and uncle came and got my siblings and me. My mom was traveling that day so we were trying to find her.

    Her plane had an emergency landing. When she got on the ground my Dad called and told her to get to the nearest car rental, don’t stop, don’t look at the tv. She was able to get one of the last cars and drove home.

    I feel the same way Champ. I’m very glad we are remembering but I just don’t feel the same way I felt 10 yrs ago. I didn’t really participate any of today’s events (unless watching football counts). The only thought I could muster was, “It happened.”

  • A friend of mine was in NYC looking for gigs (as a jazz musician) when he meant to take the bus into Manhattan. He took the correct route AWAY from Manhattan and missed the attacks. Crazier still – as a gigging musician, he accidentally took the ‘away’ subway in Madrid when their subway was bombed

  • I watched MSNBC’s replay of NBC’s 9/11 morning coverage on an HD screen with the actual footage coming from a standard definition tape. For me, it distinguished just how far removed from that day we are and aren’t at the same time. It was like watching a black-and-white film, but one you knew every word to because you’d seen it 100 times over and replayed it in your head as many times.

    Personally, I can still see planes flying around Dallas as I drove to work from Fort Woth to Dallas that morning. After the plane hit the The Pentagon, I wasn’t sure it was going to stop. And to see planes flying near downtown Dallas trying to get to Love Field scared me to no end. I was ducking in my car while driving. That feeling never leaves. It’s too vivid, even moreso than HD.

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