by September 11, 2008

by Lang Whitaker


I woke up this morning thinking about 9/11. Not only because today is technically September 11th, but also because today is the fifth anniversary of 9/11, a date that needs no explanation.

I was thinking the best way for us here at SLAMonline to cover 9/11 might be to just let it go and let those who cover the news run with this — after all, do we really want CNN.com covering sports stuff? But the more I thought about it, the more I remembered that 9/11 is bigger than news, bigger than sports, bigger than any of us.

So, here’s what I wrote on The Links on September 11, 2001, with some comments from today added in italics

(updated the first time I got a phone line — 11:00 p.m.)
I was awake until nearly 2:00 a.m. last night, giddily reading stories about Michael Jordan’s comeback. (While talking to reporters yesterday, MJ had hinted that he was, in fact, going to return this year.) I could see today’s Links in my head, as I planned what angle I was going to take on what should have been a great, great day for The Links.

But my girlfriend woke me up this morning at 9:00 a.m. and said, “Look, look on the TV.” I scrambled to open my eyes and saw a horrible sight: a plane crashing into the World Trade Tower. People screaming. Debris exploding. Buildings collapsing.

To be honest, she woke me when the first plane hit, and I woke up long enough to see it, and then I fell back asleep, thinking it was one of those small commuter planes and was just a horrible accident. When the second plane hit she woke me up again and that was when I knew something deeply strange and sinister was going on.

Understand: The World Trade Towers are in deep, southern Manhattan, nearly at the most southern tip of the island. I live on a street in the 80’s, over 100 blocks north of the Towers. I can not, usually, see the Towers from the roof of my apartment building; that’s how far away I live. But this morning, we could see a plume of smoke billowing up. And that was just the start.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure that I could never see the Twin Towers. Up from the roof of our building we can see a lot of buildings and lights, particularly at night. Before 9/11, I don’t think I’d ever tried to look for the Twin Towers. Now I wish I had.

By 10:00 a.m., just after the first Tower collapsed, I decided to try and go to work. As interesting and grotesque as this news is, I didn’t want to sit around here watching chaos all day. I got dressed and walked two blocks over to the subway. I would need to get from the 79th St. station down to the SLAMdome, which is on 25th St., closer to the World Trade Center, but still pretty far away. But the subway was closed. I tried to catch a cab, but they were all full.

Even today, I meet people who ask me where I was on 9/11. When I tell them I was in New York City, they always want to hear what my day was like, and when I get to the part about trying to go to work, nobody understands why I even thought about trying to get to the office.

I don’t remember all the details, but I know that was a big day for us at SLAM. I think we were a day or so away from finishing an issue, and the SLAM staff is so small that it’s pretty crucial we’re all at work when we’re finishing an issue. And at this point in the day, when nobody was really sure what was happening downtown, I thought maybe I needed to be in the office. As it turned out, a few people actually made it to work before all this started, and they ended up sitting around watching it on TV all day.

So I decided to walk from my place down to 25th, a 60-something block hoof.

I made it to 80th St. before humanity hit me.

At nearly every street corner, every grocery store, every bodega, people were gathered, staring absently at TV’s. Many people were gathered at cars with the radios turned all the way up, listening to the latest news. It was at one of these cars that I heard the second Tower had collapsed. I watched two total strangers break into tears then hug and console each other.

That’s when it really struck home to me. We, Americans, were being attacked — cut down where we live — just because we are Americans. My neighbors and fellow citizens were dead. Who would be next?

I didn’t really go into it there, but once we figured out what was happening, that this was a coordinated effort to attack American cities, there were a few hours there where we didn’t know if there would be another attack, or if New York would get hit again, and it was pretty scary, to be honest.

Back in the summer of 1996, I was a volunteer with the Olympics. One evening, after my friends and I had just left a game where we watched Dream Team II demolish some lesser team, we headed over to Centennial Park. We hung around there for a while and had some fun, then, with the subway full, began walking several miles home. I arrived home several hours later to find out that a bomb had gone off. I’d missed it, amazingly, by about twenty minutes.

After that incident, I spent a few days wondering why I had been chosen to escape, while others had been left behind to be injured and, in one case, killed. The only answer I was able to come up with was that someone or something had plans for me. They — whoever had spared me — had my back and wanted me to do things on this earth.

I remembered that feeling of helplessness, that feeling of not having any control of my own destiny, this morning as I was walking the streets of New York. So I turned around and came home, where I’m now sitting and watching “AMERICA UNDER ATTACK” on CNN, while fielding phone calls from my family and friends, many who were calling me for hours without being able to get through, wondering if I’m OK. And I am, physically, OK. But I know that there are tens of thousands of people that are not. I fear hearing how many people were killed today. I fear hearing that perhaps one of my friends died today.

As it turned out, one of my friends growing up, a kid who I went to school with from fifth grade through 12th grade, died in the attack. His name was Adam White. We’d lost touch after high school and I had no idea that he was even living in New York City, even though our parents lived a few doors down from each other back in Atlanta.

Basketball, sport, things like that, are put into their proper perspective during times like these. I mean, I’m home, I’m fine. But there’s a ton of people who will never go home again. God bless us all.

At that point, I had no idea what to say, so I used the old cliche line about proper perspective, which actually makes sense at a time like that. Since then, whenever anyone asks me where I’m from, I’ve always told them I’m originally from Atlanta, but that no matter where I live for the rest of my life, I’ll always be a New Yorker — being here on 9/11 cemented that.