Where Were You Then and Where Are You Now?

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Nineteen years ago. It may have felt like it was in your own backyard. Was it? It was in mine. Whether it was New York City, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania… anywhere you were… it left our hearts bleeding and a void still struggles to be filled ’til this day. Where were you then? Where are you now? How have you planted seeds for new flowers to grow from the ashes? As John Feal says, an advocate for change and a first responder injured during his time spent clearing the wreckage at the World Trade Center, “Humanity triumphed over tragedy which triumphed over anger”.

2020 has been quite the year. A challenge for many of us especially those who have lost friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors fighting the Coronavirus. I’m at a loss for words. I may not know you directly, but I know we are in this together. My sister Kim’s website here, ChooseAFamily.com is a place to fill those relationship voids with support you deserve, and love, hope, friendship, companionship, new adventures – even if they are mostly virtually,
for now. We have to allow abundance and light to enter, especially during our darkest days.

Today on this day of remembrance, my greatest sentiments go out to those affected by the horrific attack on American soil on September 11th, 2001. This year as we commemorate the lives lost and shattered on 9/11 we also face the challenges COVID-19 has brought upon us all! Today hits us two-fold. We are struggling to heal in our worldwide pandemic, while remembering where we were, who we were with, what we felt, and the lives and heroes lost on 9/11. We honor those working on the frontlines today and 19 years ago today.

I’ll never forget…it was a Tuesday, with a cobalt blue clear sky in Manhattan. I was so grateful to have had work that morning, because if I didn’t, I would have been at The World Trade Center Twin Towers in downtown Manhattan, applying for a job. I had been hostessing at the Central Park Boathouse Restaurant & Cafe at the time. Just 3 days earlier, on Saturday, September 8th, I had a big birthday bash at Windows on the World; a spectacular 40,000 square foot rotating restaurant on the 107th floor of the north tower. I was in my twenties, and I remember knocking my knuckles on the walls of the WTC before entering the building, thinking how strong the marble was, looking up the sides like they were everlasting castles in the evening clouds. There was a live swing band playing tremendous music. It was only a $5.00 entry fee, and we had so much fun as we danced for hours alongside the clear skyline. Most of my photos oddly came out blurry.

My friend was a bouncer there. We had worked at another restaurant together several years earlier and coincidentally bumped into each other at my party that night; it had been years since I had seen him. After catching up a bit, he suggested I apply for a job as a host at that very restaurant, Windows on the World, instead of where I had been working, because he claimed I may have an opportunity to make higher commissions in the financial district. He asked me to come in that Tuesday morning 9/11/01 since there would be a big brunch reception and I could meet the manager. I told him I had to be at work at 9am at the Boathouse, so I didn’t think I could make it, but that I’d fax my resume over to Windows on the World that morning. I could have easily taken off of work that day and went to the WTC and applied for a job there. I needed more money to pay for the tiny two bedroom apartment I was subletting in Little Italy with two friends of mine. Something told me in my gut though, to go to my job at the Boathouse Restaurant, and instead, just fax my resume to the WTC, and follow-up with a phone call to potentially make an appointment for an interview. On that morning of 9/11 I got to work a little before 9am (near 72nd St & 5th ave, in Central Park near the Bethesda Fountain alongside The Lake). We had just opened for breakfast, preparing for the lunch rush, and I was scrambling to fax my resume over to the World Trade Center. Just then, a jogger ran in breathless, saying that he heard on his “walk-man” radio that a plane just hit one of the towers. I was dumbfounded. There were no smartphones or texting back then. My boss ran to get the transistor radio from the office to hear the news. One of my co-workers had a child who was in the Pre-K school on the ground floor at WTC – and she was in shock, crying. We were hugging her, attempting to call her daughter’s school or the police but there was no answer, and then the lines were just non-stop busy. I had to call all of the reservations for lunch and cancel the parties and tell people over the phone, who didn’t know yet, what had just happened. It was a heart wrenching task.

Everyone had to evacuate Central Park because the NYC Parks Department was rightly concerned that the water reservoir was vulnerable to terrorist activity. I met up with a close friend, and we walked to the hospital to donate blood. There was a very long line, alongside chaotic whispers that there were no survivors to give blood to. I walked seventy blocks downtown to head home to my small rental, a six flight walk-up, on Mulberry Street.

On my walk home, I found an elderly lady crying, sitting on a bench. She was only speaking in French pointing to a NYC map to the Twin Towers, bawling with a thick accent, “my son”. From her eyes, intonation, and hand gestures, I made out that she was here on vacation at a hotel visiting with her family from France, and that her son took his wife and kids to visit the top of the world. I consoled her and led her in the direction to go back to her hotel- and explained to her slowly in English what was happening. I think all she understood was “concierge” but she was able to finally catch her breath and be heard.

I stopped at St. Patrick’s Cathedral to light a candle and say a prayer, amongst crowds of people aimlessly shuffling. I saw a woman crying on the steps saying that she couldn’t reach her son, and that he worked in the Twin Towers. I hugged her and we talked and I listened, trying my best to console her. Little did she know how much she helped me, for I was still in shock smoldering it with acts of service.

I had to show my NY Driver’s License ID to the cops strewing the streets when I returned home, because I lived below 14th Street, and they were especially suspicious since we lived below Houston Street as well. Nobody was allowed below 14th street unless you could show ID with proof that you lived in that vicinity. The phone booths back then were our main source of communication, since cell phones were not that popular yet, nor did I own one. I searched for a quarter for a phone call, coins were a commodity, but the phone booths were scarce. I wanted to reach my family in Astoria, Queens NY to see if they were safe, and to tell them how much I loved them. The phone lines were busy and eventually were not working at all. I wanted to get home quickly because I remembered that I left all of the windows open in my apartment, since it was such a fresh crisp pre-fall day outside. By the time I came home, the treacherous smell and gray smoke tainted everything. It was unbearable. My allergy induced asthma kicked in and I found it very hard to breathe. My two pet fancy rats, Lightning and Serenity, died of respiratory failure within 6 months after that day, due to the smoke inhalation. I myself had to go for regular checkups and medicine for my asthma at the respiratory clinic downtown. I called 311 to tell them that my pet rats died and that something lethal was in that smoke which killed my pets, and they did not seem to care, but claimed they made a note of it.

That first week after the attacks, my wallet with my ID was stolen from my backpack on the train. It was so hard to try and get home to my apartment without ID. There were no buses, no cabs, trains were dead, so I had to rollerblade to work in Manhattan where the streets were silent. The lights were out on Broadway, there were no shows. I bladed uptown past 14th Street union square, Grand Central 42nd St. and the Armory. Hundreds of signs with faces were posted up looking for loved ones. Candles were lit, people were meditating, chanting, crying and praying together. Everywhere I walked, each passerby caught my eye and we nodded, said a glum “Hi” like we knew each other, since we were going through this massive loss together.

I would stand on my rooftop and watch the smoke and translucent floating ashes and debris for days, seeing photographers heading downtown to take photos. So many were taking photos, that it hurt. I felt violated to watch photos being taken of a sacred burial ground and murder scene in my neighborhood. My friend worked for a popular magazine and would come home from work traumatized day in, day out having the daunting task of editing the detailed footage of all of the 9/11 attacks. Magazines and newscasts were repeating over and over the lethal photos and videos. I had to shut the TV off; it soon became too depressing to watch. Each day I heard of another friend or neighbor who lost someone.

The smell lingered for months. Every time a plane flew above my head, my heart stopped and I looked up in suspicion. On every anxious underground train ride, I was concerned about what was happening above ground that I was unaware of, or if I “see something, say something.”

A few weeks later, I was asked to audition for an independent film. My acting was put on hold during this tragedy, and the restaurant was quiet. I contemplated not auditioning. At the time everything seemed like “what’s the point?”. But if there was anything that would survive national bereavement, it would be art. So I auditioned, and I was cast as a young girl dying of brain cancer, falling in love with a stand up comic who was surviving brain cancer. We were stationed in West & South Hampton, Long Island for 3 months on set. It was challenging to move onward and forward, despite the fact that life was still happening. From that moment on, I no longer took life for granted. I was grateful to still be alive, although my character in the film was slowly slipping away. I thought being miles from downtown Manhattan would help, but everywhere you go, there it still was.

I brought my pet rats with me to the set to take care of them in their last few weeks alive. The doctor gave me medication to hide in little balls of bread to give to Lightning and Serenity. They were too smart and pushed the bread away. I mixed the meds in mango ice-cream and they would eat that, which helped relieve their pain for a bit. They soon left their time on earth, along with all of the other souls who were injured or died that day in the attacks. But believe it or not, my rats’ time on earth with me meant something deeply. They were two brothers who took care of each other. Serenity was white and fat with red eyes, and he would clean Lightning who was gray, losing weight and coughing a lot. Each cough he’d jump up and grow weaker, but he had a white streak of jagged hair that shot across his forehead like Harry Potter, which made him look tough and strong for his little build. As Lightning grew more ill, Serenity would wake him up, make him eat, groom him and then sleep cuddled next to him and start the whole care-taking process all over again the next day. He stayed strong for him, until one day Lightning lost his breath and died. Then soon after, Serenity let go, stopped eating, and had more respiratory failure. He would crawl up to my shoulder and cuddle in my neck to keep himself safe and warm. I never had rats before and although I was scared at first, a child I babysat for had bought them from a “fancy rat” breeder in Connecticut, and his couple had babies. My client was just 8 years old and taught me how to hold them and play with them. He loved them so much that he wanted me to have two of the babies, so I brought them home and took care of them for over a year. Since I saw the endearing movie “Charlie” and read the assigned book, “Flowers for Algernon” in elementary school, I respected rodents more than most common folks.

Well, I soon learned firsthand how rats were a lot like us humans in nature. They were protective, smart, in fact witty, but most of all strong, loving and loyal. Sadly, it was time to put Serenity out of his misery, the vet said. So I cupped him in the palm of my hand praying the Serenity prayer in his honor, stroking him gently, with tears streaming down my cheeks, as he was put to sleep.
I buried the box under a small grassy dirt patch in the East Village in an empty lot. The vet sent me a sympathy card a few weeks later, which I thought was so sweet.

Losing the friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and pets which we lost on 9/11 helped us appreciate, even more, the legacy they left behind. It helped me realize, we all have a reason to be here. There is not enough time to hurt one another anymore. We need only to protect and love our neighbor, kind of like these rats did. And yes, we’ve done our best to move on since 9/11, yet we still question why that happened that day, why attacks are spreading all over the globe, and we contemplate why there are sick souls out there who cause pain. For now, we can attempt to send them healing energy, collectively. Pray for them to do no harm. We have to survive them, and not fall victim to them.

And today, 19 years later, you can stamp your ground, make your mark, be of service, fulfill your dreams or someone else’s, while you are still alive. Even the littlest thing counts. During the last few months I planted flowers around a tree that stood bare on my block. The colorful flowers grew and brought smiles to all of our neighbors and frontline workers who passed on their way to and from work each day. I planted tomatoes at the beginning of the pandemic and just recently shared the harvest with our neighbors who survived COVID-19 and are already back to work at the local hospital. I volunteered by packaging donated homemade masks distributed to anyone who needed one in the beginning of the Coronavirus when there was a shortage of personal protective equipment.

Our time is short, make the best of it while we all can….
What will you do?

Native New Yorker Jill Parshley-Cardillo, is a writer with forty+ articles published. Jill earned a BA in Drama/Theatre & English/Creative Writing from Queens College CUNY, taught Preschool – HS, performed in plays, films, and the NYC Poetry Festival. Jill was the voice of 2 satellite radio channels. She writes a human interest story blog on www.chooseafamily.com and resides in Astoria, Queens with her husband, artist/carpenter, Anthony Cardillo Jr.
For more of her writing please visit www.clippings.me/jillparshleycardillo