On the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke up in the guest room of my mother's condo in Margate, Florida. I was due to start driving back to New York that morning. She was saying something about somebody blowing up the World Trade Center.
My mother was suffering from dementia, and it was getting worse. I'd been in Florida all the previous week, trying to get her life straightened out, and to figure out how long I could let her stay on her own. When she told me about the World Trade Center, I thought she must have been watching the History Channel — a show about the 1990 attempt — and mistaken it for the news.
I made my way to the kitchen, and looked at her little TV. A minute later, the second plane struck.
Mom thought I should stay a few more days, but I wanted to get home. I had to get home. I got out on the road, listening to the radio. In South Carolina, I stopped for gas. The attendant noticed my New York tags.
"Did you know anybody got kilt?" he asked me.
"I don't know," I told him. "I just have to get home."
"I'll pray for you," he said.
Inside the station, the walls were hung with NRA banners, American flags, and a big portrait of Ronald Reagan. "These people," I thought, "are my polar opposites, but they're going to pray for me." Throughout the South, everywhere I stopped, my New York plates brought me special kindness and sympathy. It was the only time, in my frequent travels up and down I-95, that ever happened. I would leave a rest stop with fresh coffee, think about just how goddamned nice people could be, and drive on with tears rolling down my face.
I drove straight through the night. As I came closer to home, I heard about bridge and tunnel closings, and wondered if I'd be stuck in New Jersey for who knew how long, but I got lucky. I hit the Verrazano Narrows Bridge during about a two hour window when it was open. When I got onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, mine was the only car on the road. If you know the BQE, you know that never happens.
There is one section of the BQE where the eastbound lanes run underneath the westbound lanes, and the roadway makes a wide turn. As I came around that turn, lower Manhattan came into view across the river.
I'd seen the endlessly repeated video of the impacts on every TV at every gas station and rest stop along my way. Now, though, I was seeing what was left. It was still dark, but the scene was lit with floodlights. Two giant columns of smoke went up and up until they disappeared into the sky.
Eventually, I got home and collapsed into bed. Of all the times I've driven between Margate and Long Island, that was the fastest I've ever done it.
It wasn't long before the war drums were beating. Many of us marched against invading Iraq, but it made no impression on anybody in power. All the major news media were caught up in a patriotic frenzy, and none of them seemed to be paying attention to the available facts. Some of the Southerners who had prayed for us New Yorkers on 9/11 were saying that the attack was God's punishment for our sinful, liberal ways.
National unity lasted about a week. Now, ten years later, our country is more balkanized than ever.