The iPod Will Keep Playing
September 11, 2005
I can’t believe it’s been four years. An entire college education has come and gone. September 11, 2001 probably happened in their first couple weeks of school, and their commencement addresses were filled with little else. They’ll talk about it at every reunion too. They expected to be the class of 2005, but they’ll always be known as the Class of 9/11.
I think back on the significant days in my life – the births of my children, my wedding, various graduations, special birthdays, religious ceremonies. I can recall each of them with perfect clarity, and likely won’t forget them as long as I live. But life has a way of keeping you busy – occupying your mind so you don’t have time to think of such things. As important as my wedding day was, there have been many days in the 11+ years since that have gone by without me thinking about it at all.
But not September 11, 2001. I’ve thought about it at least once during each of the 1,460 days since it happened. It comes up every single day. Perhaps it’s because my normal commute to New York City affords me a view of Lower Manhattan, so I can see the skyline every day. Or maybe it’s because the subway I take from Penn Station to Midtown is the World Trade Center train (yes, they still call it that). Or perhaps it’s because my New Jersey office has a memorial outside of it – two girders from the towers, twisted into arches. People still hang flowers, prayer cards, American flags, etc. from the rusted & charred bolts that stick out of the girders. Of course, it could be because of the national guardsmen that patrol Penn Station each morning, sometimes unarmed, sometimes clutching automatic rifles with both hands, always in camouflage dress (despite the distinct lack of anything green and leafy in the building). Or the NYPD officers that stand guard outside my office building along with the building’s security guard every morning. Or the cops checking bags at each subway stop. As the old song says, “There’s always something there to remind me.”
It should be noted that generally speaking, my thoughts about that day are largely sad as opposed to frightened. Like most New Yorkers, I do not live in fear. I commute to and from the city every day, I take my family to prominent city locations (Central Park, Yankee Stadium) without hesitation, and I fly around the country when the need arises. So while we can’t really say that the terrorists have lost yet, we can certainly say that they haven’t won.
For me, a side effect of these constant reminders is a keen awareness of potentially dangerous situations. Take, for instance, train stations. A typical packed commuter train from New Jersey to New York probably holds roughly 1,500 passengers (I’m just guessing here). When the train pulls into Penn Station, these people file out of roughly 25 train doors onto the platform, located in the basement of the building. From there, they all need to make use of approximately 10 staircases and escalators to get to the station proper, where they proceed with the rest of their commute. This often results in crowds of people waiting at each staircase. And if you’re unlucky enough to be exiting the train at a door near a staircase, you might even find yourself waiting inside the train, while the crowd around the staircase dissipates enough for you to stand on the platform.
Occasionally, the train dispatchers will make the situation worse by directing two trains to opposite sides of the same platform. This doubles the number of people who need to get out, and in the worst case, where one of the trains is departing again to another location, can limit the number of exits, because they’ll run some of the escalators down to the platforms for departing passengers, making them unusable as exits. In some cases, I’ve waited five minutes or more to get out of the train and up to ground level in the train station.
While I’m waiting, it often occurs to me that the situation is wrought with danger. If something were to happen that required us to leave quickly, there would likely be mass panic and no way out. We would literally be trapped under the building.
One morning a few months ago, I was on a NJ Transit train listening to my iPod’s “Mellow” playlist (my brain starts slowly in the morning, and mellow music allows for the possibility of a nap on the way in). I believe it was a Tony Bennett tune (What, you gotta problem with that?!? Lemme see your playlist. The whole thing – not just the cool stuff. I thought so…) Anyway, we pulled into NYPenn next to an Amtrak train. While I waited on the platform for the crowd to disperse, the Amtrak train let out an impossibly loud BANG!!! Everybody froze for a second. I looked around for smoke, fire, or panicky people but thankfully, there was none to be seen. It must have been something with the braking system (that thing’s always making funny noises). Or perhaps a conductor closed a metal door too forecefully. In any case, it was obvious fairly quickly that we weren’t in any immediate danger. Nonetheless, the incident did more to cure my need for a nap than any ten cups of coffee could have.
A few seconds later, still waiting on the platform, it occurred to me how different an actual emergency is from what we see and hear in news reports. There is no dramatic theme music. No special lighting. No reporter relaying up-to-the-minute details of what's happening at the scene. None of the usual indications of high drama. Through the whole thing, the iPod kept playing the Tony Bennett song, the mellow music sounding completely surreal, given how I was suddenly feeling. It was if I expected Tony to stop singing and yell, “What the @#^%! was that?!?”
I thought of one of the World Trade Center tenants, several floors above an impact point. One moment, quietly enjoying a morning cup of coffee and sending an e-mail to his son who just started college a couple of weeks ago. The next moment, engulfed in fire, smoke and unbearable heat . . .
. . . and with Tony Bennett softly crooning a tune in his ear.
The boy’s a graduate now. Our donations paid the tuition. Dad missed the whole thing. God bless them all. May they rest in peace.