I’ve been dreading today. For week and months, I’ve been avoiding the hype, the news, the tourists, the sorrow. Especially the sorrow. Because it’s so heavy, I feel like I might just drown in it. The weight of being a part of that “where-were-you” moment, the moment that defines my generation, whether you were in New York or Timbuktu.
I was in New York of course. I was on my merry, oblivious way, headed to the center of the city that was the center of the world, coming from the Upper West Side to my office in Rockefeller Center.
Two days earlier, I had hob-nobbed with the likes of Britney Spears, Beyonce and Usher at the MTV VMAs. I got to write up the story and it was to be a central feature. I was 24. I was Living. The. Life. And then it all came screeching to a halt.
That morning, as I walked to my building, I noticed people outside staring up at billowing clouds of rancid black smoke. It was coming from downtown. Apparently there had been a fire. Still, I made my merry way. And I as I headed into the building my dad called – he never called this early in the morning – demanding to know where I was. “I’m going to work dad,” I told him, incredulous that he would be asking. Work. It’s what I did.
And then I remember him saying the words. “The Twin Towers are no more.” As if they were people. Because really, they were people. Thousands and thousands of strangers, who over the course of the day would begin to have faces and names and families. The weight of it was staggering.
Still, like an automaton or an idiot (likely both), I didn’t turn around to go home to New Jersey and be with my family. I walked into that building in a daze. I would spend the next 22 hours there, closing my stupid VMA story (“Just in case,” my boss told me. Just in case the death of thousands in our very own city was not enough to merit bumping the VMAs.) and then interviewing those frantically searching for and mourning their loved ones on the very day it happened. This wasn’t what I had signed up for at all. In between phone calls and fact checks, I bawled. There was a skeleton crew of us who had made it to the office, but despite my sister’s frantic calls to security demanding I be sent home – and emails from loved ones all the way in India, demanding to know that I was okay – I had never felt so alone.
The 9/11 issue we crashed was beautiful. It had stark, shocking images and in-depth reporting about the missing and the dead and the individuals and a nation that mourned them. It was a good piece of reporting. But still, to me, it wasn’t worth 22 heart-wrenching hours away from my loved ones. I don’t even have a copy of it today. I wouldn’t want to see it.
In the end, I got off easy. I didn’t lose loved ones. I didn’t lose my life. Still, in a way, that was the day that changed everything. In a way, change came very slowly. I stayed on the fast-track-to-nowhere at that office for five more years, thinking maybe, just maybe. But I was disillusioned. By that day, and by those after it, when news came of South Asians and other people of color being harassed by their fellow Americans, being shot in the back and killed in the name of justice when they really had nothing to do with anything. I tried to bring these important stories to my editors, but was told that they just didn’t have a happy enough ending. News flash: some stories don’t come with a happy ending. That doesn’t render them unimportant.
Today, ten years later, I woke nose-to-nose with my little Kavya. We’re now across the river from Ground Zero, not a ten minute Path ride away. Thousands will gather there this morning, this very minute.
But to me, it’s still a place of mourning. Mourning the thousands that died, mourning the death of the innocence of a nation, mourning the death of the innocence and optimism of one stupidly naïve young girl.
I’m not her anymore. I feel freer, in a lot of ways. The burden of that hustle is gone. It’s been replaced by clarity and a different sense of purpose. In some small way, I did get to help bring some of those stories to light. Not at People magazine. But where they were needed, really, to the youth of the nation, thanks to my sister and Sway and the power of MTV – which is much-maligned, but does come through when it’s really necessary. I’m thankful for that.
And I’m so thankful for where I’m sitting ten years later. At home with my little family, not far from that city or even the heart of Ground Zero. I’m still very much in my heart a New Yorker.
The fear is still there sometimes – especially today with the alarmists and the terror alerts – but there’s a different kind of optimism, a wiser one, that accompanies it. It tells me, every so often when that old panic starts to set in – that I’ll-never-get-anywhere-or-do-anything gleam in the eye – to breathe, to take my time, to enjoy my moments. To work hard and make it happen, but to remember that it’s not the end of the world. To never forget, yes. But also to remember that sometimes you need to let go. Just a little bit.
So that’s “where-I-was” when it happened. But I think where I am now is so much more important. As it should be, for all of us.