I was about to leave home for work- my office a mere 5 block walk from my apartment in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn where I had lived on the top floor of a 4-story Brownstone for about 7 years- when the world changed forever.
The woman I rented from was the mother of my best friend and I had known her since I was a child. My best friend also lived there, on the ground floor. I had a great relationship with both of them, and they were both very supportive of the changes I had set in motion in my life.
I had quit my secure and fairly well-paying job of 6 years a few months earlier in order to have more time to do revisions on the book I’d written — and had secured one of the most prominent black literary agents in the country on the strength of — and it was one hell of an undertaking. For example, I had changed the entire 340-page manuscript written in third person to a 250 or so page first person narrative, so you can imagine all the work involved. But, this was soul work, the kind of work you wake up in the morning to with the eagerness you might wake up with on the morning of your big vacation to some caribbean island off the grid.
I’d also secured a consulting job where my main responsibility was to raise awareness in Bed-Stuy of funding available for corporate sponsored beautification measures, as well as scouting locations and securing the contractors necessary to convert empty lots into awesome gardens.
I was also volunteering (again in my community) with a neighborhood home owners association to go door to door and to give talks at Block Association meetings to residents bringing to their attention the efforts of predatory lenders to separate them from their property through shady loans, and the complicity of certain government agencies in this.
On top of that, I was working freelance for a local newspaper raising awareness of the above issues, writing articles and editorials on the players involved, for which I had gained a certain amount of notoriety and respect in the community, viewed as a “comer” or a person to be reckoned with.
I was high on life. It was an awesome time to be me.
That all changed, or at least began to, on 9/11/2001.
It was a beautiful day. Blue skies, warm breeze and sun shiny. I was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with a light Polo jacket. I had an Afro then and it was freshly braided tight to my scalp in cornrows ornately and uniquely designed by a woman I paid 20 dollars plus tip to do every other week. I had a little money in my pocket and a lot of joie de vivre in my heart as I descended the stairs from my apartment.
As I was opening the door to walk out into the glory of another day being me, I heard my best friend call my name.
“You seen the news?”
“Nah, what’s up?”
“A plane crashed into one of the Twin Towers!”
“Say word!” and I came back in and joined him in front of the TV set. And, sho nuff, one of the buildings had a cavernous hole in it coughing flames and smoke. “Shit!”
While it was most certainly news, it was merely the kind of news that would make for semi-interesting conversation for the next week or so, by NY standards. Just another chapter in the ongoing saga of life in the most major of major metropolises. Seasoned New Yorkers can roll with just about anything.
I basically made my own schedule as a consultant so I wasn’t stressing over being late to the office or anything. So, my best buddy and I were sitting there watching this scene play out, listening to the reporters’ speculations while speculating ourselves about the size of the plane and the chances of survival of the people above the floors now aflame, when the next plane hit right before our eyes.
“What the fuck was that?”
We found out a few minutes later…along with the rest of the world.
While the CNN guys were talking about more planes being expected I remember grabbing and holding myself, like a mother might hold her child…kind of protectively, and thinking aloud, “my God, we’re at war!”
And not that Smart-bomb-down-a-chimney in some Muslim country Wag-The-Dog kind of war, but the kind of war other countries have all the time. The kind of war the US always wages on others had, after a 60 year lapse since the Japanese pimp slapped Pearl Harbor, had finally come home. The kind where the enemy is dropping bombs (and planes) on US cities!
The kind of shit you never imagined happening.
And, I was living in ground zero, apparently.
My friend and I looked at one another and a new fear, not unlike a fear of God, was in both of our eyes. More so in mine than his, though, I think. He was always better able to compartmentalize and rationalize than me, something I’ve always admired about him. He was also more cynical than me, I think.
Or, rather, I felt. Thinking had been put on hold for longer than I like to remember. All I could do at that moment was feel. Feel my own mortal vulnerability, and that of my family.
I feared for the safety of my sister who took the subway to work, her train passing just beneath the towers. I snatched my cellphone from its holster at my waist. No service. The Land lines were out, too.
No communication only exacerbated the rising panic I felt.
Back to the TV. Back to the talking heads talking Doomsday scenarios, end of the world as we know it shit while in the backdrop of their prognostications the symbols not only of American financial might, but of pride for us New Yorkers, burned, and people leaped to their deaths live on TV.
This can’t be real…
I felt myself shaking, trying to process my place in this new paradigm, if I should survive!
“Let’s go up on the roof!” I shouted and was headed that way even before I finished the sentence.
From the rooftop, the two towers were clearly visible, the smoke from the fire was drifting over our heads (and would be in the air for days), a metallic chemical taste to it. I was breathing in the incinerated lives of hundreds, and God knows what kind of chemicals. Then, we heard a rumble and looked around. What looked like Fighter jets were flying overhead. But the rumble continued even after they’d passed. I looked back to the two towers, and realized there were only one and a half left. The other was falling from view like some kind of house of burning cards.
My heart was jumping all over the fucking place…there were screams from other rooftops.
I remember thinking I might as well jump off this fucking roof. Change doesn’t happen this fast…something is wrong with the world, with life. Everything I believe is wrong. Everything is wrong.
I was pacing around the roof, looking for something to hold on to. It felt like the ground was shaking, was going to open up and take me at any moment, the same way it had just taken one of the world trade buildings. The roof was the worst place to be. I climbed back down the ladder into my home. It took much longer than the climb up to he roof had taken. My legs weren’t sturdy. The ladder felt hazardous. I didn’t feel safe.I felt helpless as a baby minus that carefreeness of not knowing that danger lurked everywhere, that fire burns and water drowns and plastic suffocates. There was no protection, no defense. People were dying, jumping from a burning building into the debris of another building that no longer stood.
I couldn’t walk or talk…I just had to get back to the TV. I don’t remember how I got back to it. Did I crawl? I got back though and I just stood there watching that building crumble to the ground in a storm of dust and debris that swarmed through the air like it was possessed intelligence of a limited variety, like a plague of locusts swarming down streets I’ve walked thousands of times. I covered my mouth, muffling a shriek maybe, watching on the news terror-confused people running hither and thither through roads I rode upon often on my mountain bike, shocked people standing on corners I’ve frequented, muffling their mouths.
I don’t know how long I stayed that way. Maybe until the second one dropped.
Somehow, though, the collapse of the second of the twins snapped me out of it. It had a certain finality to it, like a crescendo had been leading up to that moment. I was almost relieved to see it go. Like maybe this had been the goal all along by these forces that sought to change the world as I and everyone I knew saw it, and now that they’d accomplished that they would cease and desist, pull back and let us collect our wounded and fallen, pick up the pieces of our shattered images of safety and delusions of superiority and invulnerability and, at some point, god willing, use our brains to think again.
That this force would show mercy.
It would be a few hours before I could think, again, though. Before I realized that the fear I had experienced, and the shock, had traumatized and paralyzed me. It would be years, two years in fact, before I got sick- sick to death- of living in a city and a country still traumatized so much that it actually supported a man who told them (among many ridiculous notions) to go shopping to show the terrorists that they haven’t destroyed our way of life.
Such flagrant stupidity and gross negligence from our supposed leadership made it easier to cast my good life aside, turn my back on the Loco of my dreams, put my soul work on hold, pack up my shit and move abroad.
And it would be 9 and a half years until I felt anything even approaching that level of fear again.
I didn’t even think it was possible until 6 years ago today, here, in Yokohama.
I’ve confronted, endured and in some cases overcome all kinds of challenges. In some cases, doing so has changed me for the better, and in others, well, not so much.
For example, one change I’m particularly pleased with is that I’ve learned how to channel much of my frustration, resentment and anger into my writing, transforming those powerful emotions into compelling stories and essays.
An example of a change I’m not so proud of is the habit I’ve embraced of not looking at Japanese people when I’m out and about. I’ve found that the less I see of them and their sickening behavior (not all but more than enough of them) the less I have to restrain myself from acting on the thoughts triggered by their actions, which would likely result in my doing something regrettable. Not looking helps me achieve my version of patience and tolerance, of keeping my emotions in check and reducing stress.
Which is what I just happened to be doing at the time the earth decided to make a few ultimately minor alterations somewhere in the Pacific ocean off the coast of Japan.
I was walking toward Kikuna station. The closer I got to the station the more populated the streets became. Being in the populace is no fun for the reasons I stated above. As soon as I entered the ekimae (area in front of the station) the Japanese shifted into “Oh no” mode. I received a number of gaijin salutes from people suffering from the tic. Several people gave me the perimeter or made the gaijin detour, leaping from the sidewalk into the street to make way for me. You know, the usual Japanese foolishness. I lowered my head, gritted my teeth and carried on…thinking hateful shit.
It was about at that moment that the Earth, as if reflecting the rumbling vexation within me, started doing likewise. I barely noticed, I was so busy doing battle with my lesser angels.
Until I spotted two cops running towards me.
Great! The Thought Police. They’re gonna burn me at a community pyre all the homicidal scenarios that go through my mind!
But, they weren’t looking at me, they were looking up! I followed their eyes and saw that the power lines were swinging, and so were the poles they were connected to. Wait! Everything was swinging and shaking!
That’s when my legs got wobbly, like someone had given me a charlie horse. But I was cool. Eight years in Japan and you get used to these terrestrial hiccups that occur here almost daily. The tremors have their NY equivalents in my mind so I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with them. Like a subway train rumbling beneath your feet, or an 18-wheeled tractor-trailer whizzing by your window, the vacuum sometimes strong enough to rattle them. And these tremors are usually pretty short. You can forget they even happened in a matter of moments.
But, as I looked around, my hands stretched out before me like a blind man, trying to keep my balance, I realized this was not a tremor! Watching power lines and even poles sway and swing is one thing, but watching train stations and buildings sway is another. I heard loud noises, rattling, clinging, banging metal and glass, like a thousand chandeliers shaking. Sounds I’d never heard before were coming from all over, like the street was screaming. And the people all around me who were, just a few moments ago, “saluting” and making detours around me, were now at a lost for what to do, just looking around at one another, waiting for the end, whether it be in death, injury or other.
I was, too. Looking at people, that is. Maybe the last people I would ever see, the tachycardia in my chest warned me.
I staggered out of the street onto the sidewalk cuz traffic was still moving- some motorist were perhaps unaware of what was happening- and I groped for a building. I looked above my head. a sign was swinging on flimsy hinges. I moved away into the path of a building what looked like a lean-to, made of wood. Surely it would fall in seconds. To my left and right were things that could kill me, structures had became lethal. The dry cleaners was a two-story tall brick executioner on the Creator’s payroll. Yoshinoya (the fast food joint) was a ninja, armed with secret weapons, ready to kill anyone who came near.
So, I stopped trying to out think God. And God acknowledged my acquiescence by exploding a window near the area I had thought about running to for safety.
No screams. There would be screaming in NY.
I looked around into the faces of these people, these strangers I usually hold in such contempt, truth be told, and felt no spite, no disgust, no animosity, and no contempt whatsoever for them…
Nor from them. For the first time we were truly one!
They looked at me and saw a human scared shit-less, and so did I. I wasn’t the object of their fear. We were looking at each other but, to borrow the words of the late, great Zora Neale Hurston, our “eyes were watching God!”
It was a lovely moment.
Then, like an old car engine, with rumbling fits, the quake subsided. Nobody moved for a solid 15 seconds. If they were like me they were trying to hold on to that precious and rare view of eternity we’d all been given, that ethereal glimpse of the inner workings of the Universe, and our place in it. Just for a moment longer, to savor our smallness, our triviality, while at the same time silently extolling the bonanza of life.
My first step was Armstrong’s first step on the moon.
I followed it with another and another and before I knew it I was walking among the stunned masses without being noticed, immersed in our equality. Everyone was my kin. We’d shared something that no one- at least not immediately- wanted to discard.
Trains were out of service so I went to a cafe next to the station, and took a table, amazed at how the staff were hardly behaving like they’d just experienced the worst earthquake in their lifetimes. I ordered coffee. Others, realizing the cafe was open for business, came in and before long the cafe was full. The table nearest mine was not the last to be taken I noticed because it was so jarring an aberration from the norm.
Some of the older patrons were reading newspapers or chatting with friends. When the first aftershock hit, a pretty big one, the light fixtures started swinging like pendulums and from my window I could see flimsy buildings waving like metronomes. Some dishes fell behind the counter, crashing to the floor. The staff apologized for the disturbance like there wasn’t a clear excuse for it, like there wasn’t death in the air. And everyone else also had “the worst is over” prayerful nonchalance. Still reading, still chatting. It was creepy to watch, but in a beautiful way.
It was about then that I thought about 9/11.
How at that time I had been so focused on my fear that I didn’t take a moment to see the beauty of fear…I was so afraid that I’d gone blind.
I’d changed in the 9 and a half years since 9/11, most of which were spent here in Asia. Being the object of fear for so many years has slightly altered my relationship with fear, the same way the earth had slightly shifted its position on 3/11, changing that relationship in ways I had been too busy writing to notice.
I remember thinking (an epiphany really) that my writing is the earthquake resulting from this alteration; every story a tremor.
It’s the most profound and inspiring thought I’d had since 9/11.
It took me back to the days before 9/11, when life was so beautiful and I was so unstoppable, unflappable, I could do ANYTHING!
And it informed me, in no uncertain terms, that that beauty was still there, in me, and in everything and everyone around me.
It took an earthquake to shake me awake.
On 9/11/2001 I closed my eyes.
On 3/11/2011 I re-opened them.