Like any airport, Logan International, in Boston, has no shortage of shops once you pass through the security gate. That’s the case now, and it was the case in 1997, when I was passing my two hours before boarding a flight to Israel via London. Those were the days when non-ticketed civilians could hang out with you at the gate before your departure, and so my boyfriend at the time and I were having a nice time chatting while we browsed the duty-free goods.
I remember reflecting to him that I really valued the job that pilots do, taking people’s lives in their hands every day. And because I’ve always loved the idea of doing the extra in life, I decided that I would give the pilots a small gift before the flight took off, to thank them for the job they were about to do. I chose a small bag of candy and wrote a note to express the sentiment. I put them both in a brown paper bag, and when the plane boarded, I asked the flight attendant who greeted me if she could please give this little package to the pilots.
Keep reading. It gets better.
The flight reached cruising altitude, and so it was time for the pilots to speak to us from the flight deck. They gave the usual information about the weather, the flight path, and the arrival time. Then at the end, they tacked on a little something extra, thanking me—by announcing my name and seat number—for the sweeties (they were British pilots).
Later in the flight, after the meal, when the lights were turned off and everyone was trying to sleep, the pilot came to my seat to thank me. Then he invited me to the cockpit. That’s right: he walked me up the aisle, through first class, opened the door to the flight deck, and invited me in.
They offered me a seat. We chatted a little bit, the pilots asking what made me want to give them something, me answering, and then none of us having very much to say, actually. After a few lovely minutes of gazing at the clear night sky through the front of an airplane—a sight that I will never forget—I returned to my seat, and that was that. The sentiment had been received, the moment was over. I love that memory, and I love telling this story. It breaks my heart a little that it could never happen today.
It’s hard to believe that it was only four years later that I was walking to work on Prince Street, in Greenwich Village, when something caught my eye at the corner of West Broadway. I looked south and saw one of the Twin Towers on fire.
There was absolutely no way to make sense of anything at that moment. I called my father from a pay phone (I was still cell-free in those days) to tell him to not drive downtown because something was happening at the World Trade Center, and then I kept walking to work, ridiculously thinking that I needed to warn people. Everyone out on the sidewalks kept looking south, trying to understand what was happening. At one corner, a man said to me, “it’s so surreal.” And I stood there staring at him thinking: “But it isn’t surreal. It’s real.” I remember staring at the orange flames and charcoal gray smoke, forcing myself to try to realize that there had to be people dying right there, right where I was looking. Oddly, what was most confronting in that moment was realizing how steeped we all were in fake drama, that when we saw tragedy for real it could only seem unreal.
It smelled really bad in my neighborhood for several days. I’d leave my Bleecker Street studio with a painter’s mask in hand, carrying extra to give to people who had gotten to the hardware store after they’d sold out. Everyone talked about how the smell was the smell of burned flesh, but I’m not sure if that’s true thinking about it now.
What I remember most about the days that followed is the stillness. The quiet. The way you could just start talking to someone and it was meaningful and … normal. Some friends and I carried a giant carafe of tea around just in case some weary firemen needed a cup of something warm—a totally ridiculous thing to do, but we didn’t know what else to do with ourselves. We circled around spontaneous vigils in Union Square Park, read all the signs for missing people, and wrote on memorial posters that would soon be shredded by the rain (there were a few huge downpours right after that Tuesday).
And then, about a week later, came the moment when I knew the opportunity that was September 11 had been lost. At the corner of Broadway and 13th Street, some impatient driver laid on their horn. With that, the spell was broken.
It was just a car horn, but somehow it was symbolic of the fact that the window that had been opened on the days following the tragedy of September 11 had closed—that we had somehow let it close. So instead of a decade of reconciliation, of tolerance, of forgiveness, we got a decade of war.
Everyone has their memory of September 11, 2001; their story. For a while afterwards, I was irritated by people in other parts of the country reacting to the attacks, thinking that they weren’t here, they didn’t see it, they didn’t know. It wasn’t “their” day to remember. Then I watched the movie “United 93” and let go of any sense of possession I had on the event. That day isn’t owned by anyone, not even the families of its victims. That sense of ownership only thwarts the kind of change that a day like that can bring about.
Yet here I am, telling my story. But that’s because I think it so illustrates what has been lost after September 11. Not just the possibility of peeking into the flight deck, but the invaluable quality of trust. And what I find most haunting is the question of what the world might be like today if the opportunity that followed September 11 had been seized.
Maybe those pilots would have let me take a turn at the wheel.
In all seriousness: where we let in suspicion, trust shrinks. Where we let in irrational fear, humanity crumbles. I think that this past decade has been a lot of letting fear and suspicion rule the day. Some people might not understand my calling September 11 an opportunity. But it was, because it was a moment when everything stopped, which meant the possibility of a reset. That didn’t happen. But thankfully, there’s another decade ahead, and in the end, it’s not about what’s happened on 9/11 or during the past 10 years, but what comes next.