911, I Have an Emergency

Some basic facts about me:  female, green eyes, 5’5”, needs sleep.  And, head-over-heels in love with New York.  My need to be here is as elemental to me as waking and breathing.  And eating kale.  As you may remember, my NY roots go way back, but unlike many people who’ve lived here a long time, every year I fall deeper in love.

And yes, it’s true that 2010 New York City is not really as fill-in-the-blank as it was in fill-in-the-year, but still….what must it be like to fly in and see it for the first time?  Whenever I return home from a trip, I try to pretend it’s my first visit.  I have a great imagination, but even I’m not that good.

A friend of mine recently moved here.  Before this, he had only ever visited, mostly on business, and I’ve been hoping to experience things vicariously through him. And while he probably doesn’t think of his NY life this way, I’m totally jealous that every one of his moments is magical and new.  Of course his just moving here means he hadn’t been here on 9/11 and a non-New York based 9/11 experience is something I can’t even fathom.  What could that have been like, living through it from afar?

Everyone has a 9/11 story.  And as 9/11 stories go, mine are mundane.

My day started out great.  I had a particularly good yoga class and the crosstown bus which never comes, came, at the precise moment when the coffee guy handed me a freebie.  The sky was cloudless and an amazing shade of blue.  I remember thinking, as I boarded that bus, that it was going to be a fantastic day.

I should have been heading to California.  My friend was getting married a few days later and I had the flight on hold.  And for no real reason, I didn’t book the ticket.  Instead, I told my friend at the last minute that I wouldn’t be coming.  I didn’t have a sense of foreboding or anything; I’m not that psychic.  But something made me cancel.  I was overwhelmed by work and felt the need to stay in the city.  It didn’t make sense: the groom was a very close friend and it was a small wedding. Yet there I was selfishly choosing – yet again – work.

But that morning, I felt too happy to care.  I came home, washed the Bikram sweat off and was about to head downtown when my mom called and told me to put on the TV.  She said someone purposely crashed a plane into the World Trade Center.  I called her paranoid.  On those initial glimpses, I really thought it was a Cessna that someone lost control of.

We were on the phone when the second plane hit.

I’m the most squeamish person you will ever meet.  When I was in 4th grade, I fainted from a drawing of the circulatory system.  The red magic marker veins made me physically ill and my tolerance for such detail has never gotten much better.  I’m the last person you’d ever want in any sort of blood-related emergency, yet that morning, I had an idea.

There’s a blood bank across from my house and normally I can’t even read its awning without feeling dizzy, but I decided that going there and giving blood was exactly what I had to do.  I got there at about noon.  There were already hundreds of people who also had the same idea.  None of us thought the blood wouldn’t be needed.  They gave out numbers with approximate times to return because the crowd was so big.  I went back home to wait for my 6pm time slot.

At 3pm, my dog walker, who lived all the way in Westchester, walked into my apartment.  I couldn’t believe she was in the city, working.  “I couldn’t reach you and I couldn’t bear to leave Reepy unfed and unwalked.”  Wow.

I, on the other hand, hadn’t eaten all day and wasn’t about to.  The stress of the events and my looming worries about giving blood were intense.  I was glued to the anxiety-provoking TV reports until my designated time when I went back across the street.  It was still a madhouse.  I waited there another two hours.  That is to say, two more hours spent watching more TV coverage and getting more nervous.  When they finally called my number, I was brought into a room with about 20 ‘stations.’   They were facing each other in a circle and there was no way you could avoid seeing all the big bags of blood.

Big bags of blood.  Even typing this makes me feel sick.

I know it’s unbelievable, but I thought it would be a tube or two. It’s all I had ever been forced to do at the doctor’s and that was my only point of reference.  I freaked.  I couldn’t leave, so instead I made an overly dramatic announcement to the entire staff and the other 19 donors:

“I’m think I’m going to be sick.  Please DO NOT mention the words ‘blood’ or ‘veins’ or ‘needles’ or talk AT ALL about what you’re doing.”

Everyone immediately mentioned ‘blood’ and ‘veins’ and ‘needles’ and what they were doing.

I have an extremely low resting heart rate which is normally a great thing, but here’s what I learned on 9/11: it’s a terrible thing when you’re giving a big bag of blood.  It took forever.  The technicians kept coming over to discuss how slow my blood flowed even though I begged them not to keep saying it aloud.   All the other chairs were on their second and third bodies and I was still there.

Finally the big bag was filled.  l must have looked terrible because they insisted a “walker” take me home.  No way!  I live right across the street!  I have to take the dog out!  Finally we struck a deal.  They’d let me leave by myself if I’d eat a granola bar.  Done!

So, ‘squeamish’ should also be added to the list of basic facts about me.     And here’s another:   I would normally adore to be on the news, as long as it wasn’t in ‘victim-found’ sort of way.  I walked out of the blood bank and lights were thrust upon me.  Gabe Pressman (Gabe Pressman!) shoved a microphone in my face.

“We’re doing a story about the goodness of New Yorkers….can you tell us why you decided to donate blood?”

I could not form a sentence.  For real.  He was nice and tried again.

“We’re doing a story about the goodness of New Yorkers….can you tell us why you decided to donate blood?”

And again.  And again.   And again.  Then someone else more articulate came out and I was forgotten.

There was round-the-clock 9/11 coverage for days and there wasn’t a lot of new information.  I saw Gabe’s Goodness of New Yorkers piece about 200 times.  Each time I felt annoyed with myself.  And queasy.

As far as the rest of the time-line goes, it’s a blur.  I’m not sure what happened that initial week or what was subsequent weeks.  I remember every single minute of the day itself as clearly as if it just happened, but the rest of the month is totally hazy.

I volunteered at St. Paul’s and somehow got brought down into the pit itself – in the middle of the night, sans hard hat – by a policeman who didn’t know or didn’t care that that wasn’t allowed.

I calmed a friend down when her boyfriend found a small piece of bloody scalp and hair in his backpack and the police had to come to their house and seal it in a plastic bag.

I was devastated by all the missing person flyers posted everywhere, yet compelled to pour over them constantly.

It was such a strange time.  I actually loved Giuliani for awhile.  My mom even named a dog after him. Eventually things got back to what became the new sense of normal.  And of course she ended up regretting the name, but by that point the dog already knew it.

I miss 9/10.  It’s crazy how much things changed.  Maybe the only thing that 9/11 didn’t change was how much I love New York.  Well that and the fact that I need to sit down for a minute.  I typed ‘blood’ one too many times.

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