It was late August, 2001. I don’t remember the exact date. But I remember it was the night before I would move to college. And I couldn’t sleep. Sure, I was excited. But that wasn’t the cause of my insomnia. I was scared. I sat at the kitchen table with my mom, crying over the fact that I’d be leaving home the next morning. And, I was so sure, I’d never be coming back. Momma rubbed my back and assured me that I could come home any time I wanted—as often as I’d like to visit, for summers and school vacations, and even back home to live after graduation.
The next day, I put on a brave face as we packed my Dodge Dynasty (plus my parent’s SUV) as full as possible and headed south on I-91. A couple of highways, a bridge, and roughly three hours later, we joined the lines of traffic snaking throughout the CW Post Campus of Long Island University as swarms of freshman lugged boxes, bedding, and appliances from their cars to Brookville Hall. Soon enough, our cars were unpacked, I’d met my roommate, and had posed for a string of family photos before they hugged me goodbye. And suddenly, alone in my freshman dorm room, I wasn’t sure why I had been so scared. Within a few days, classes had begun, I landed an on-campus job at the admissions office, and I had started to make friends.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001 began like any other weekday. I arrived at the admissions office for work at 8am and immediately began stocking the pamphlets that lined the shelves in the lobby. My boss Jeannie, the receptionist was standing in front of the TV in the corner when I came back up to the front desk from the basement where all of our spare printed material was stored. “Oh my gawd,” she’d said in a typical Lawn Guyland drawl, covering her mouth with her hands. Just then, a woman who worked upstairs came running down to the front desk in tears. Her son works at the Trade Center, she said. And she can’t get through to his phone.
Classes were canceled so when I was done at work, I strolled back to my dorm, all the while feeling a sense of relief that none of my loved ones were in the city. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that full-blown panic hit me. The news was on in every dorm room, fellow students were crying in the stairwells, everything on campus seemed chaotic, frantic. The news said that all bridges were closed. As were any westbound roads from Long Island. I felt trapped. Despite pleas from newscasters asking people to not use their phones if at all possible, I picked up mine. This was an emergency, wasn’t it? That’s when I found out that my cell phone wasn’t working. Neither was my land line. I had no way to reach my family. To tell them how scared I was.
Later that night, I got through to my parents and to my sister.
“Are you okay?” Mom wanted to know.
“Did you hear it?” Bree asked.
“Dad, I need you to buy a boat,” I declared. “The bridges are closed and I can’t travel west. So there’s no way out. I need you to come get me. And you’ll have to come by boat.” The request was absurd, I realize now. But it seemed like a logical solution at the time.
The next day, it became even more real to me when I stepped outside. The smell was overwhelming. Burning. And God knows what else. It lingered for about a day then dissipated.
Within a few days, things across campus seemed to calm down a bit. Classes resumed their normal schedules—for the most part. I had one criminal justice course that never went back to normal. The professor, who had introduced herself on the first day of class as the niece of a famous Hollywood director, never recovered from the shock. The first class after the attack, she was visibly shaken. She assigned us some reading then let us leave after about 20 minutes. Over the next couple of weeks, she started showing up to class in her pajamas with her Maltese in tow and proceeded to divulge personal information that her students had no business knowing. She was dating two men. One was NYPD. One was FDNY. Classes dwindled from 20 minutes to next to nothing. We never discussed the course material or anything from the two text books we were required to purchase. Finally, after a few weeks, she stopped showing up. And us students soon followed suit. We all got A’s from the university for that course. And the professor went on to teach psychology elsewhere a few years later.
Every year on the anniversary of 9/11, our campus held candlelight vigils to remember. And every time I made the trip home for a weekend, I could glance out the window as I drove over the Throg’s Neck Bridge to see the tower of lights that shone where the towers once were.
I didn’t know anyone personally who was lost in the attack. But even still, I was scarred by 9/11. And though I spent the next three and a half years living a mere 40 minute drive from New York City, I only made the trip into the city once. Had that day never happened, I’d like to think I would have taken more advantage of all the theaters, museums, restaurants, and stores just waiting to be discovered in the city. I regret letting the attack color my college experience like I did.