I remember that morning as if it were yesterday. I sat there, at the foot of that bed, listening to the radio as the world changed.
A few weeks prior, I packed up my little studio apartment in Lubbock, Texas, and schlepped myself back to my hometown of Endwell, New York. I had just graduated with my bachelor’s in marketing, finished up some classes over the summer, and was anxious to start a new career.
I searched job listings all over the Northeast for some sort of entry level marketing job and lined up interviews in a few different places. On Monday, the day before that morning, I had had an interview in Baltimore. It went well, but the firm wasn’t what I was looking for. My next interview with another marketing firm was lined up for Tuesday morning in Queens.
As an introvert, I don’t often stay with people, much preferring to just get a hotel and stay out of everyone’s hair. I like my space and privacy, so cohabitating—even for just a one-night visit—isn’t really my jam. But, at that time, I was 22, fresh out of college, and trying to save every dime I could, so when my old friend Mary invited me to stay at her house on Monday night as a pit stop between my Baltimore and Queens interviews, I was glad to take her up on the offer.
Mary lived in New Jersey, just outside of New York City. She and my parents were very close when we all lived near each other when I was a baby. I was born in Morristown, but because I was a very sick, early baby, I was rushed into Manhattan right away to get special care at Cornell University Medical Center. So, even though I was born in Jersey, I still made my way into New York within a few hours; I consider myself a New Yorker through and through.
I got to Mary’s Monday night, had a great dinner, then went out with my old buddy Eddie (Mary’s son) for some ice cream. I wanted Eddie and Mary’s opinions on how I should get to my interview the next morning, since they were both very familiar with commuting options into New York. Did it make sense to drive through the city to Queens, or would it be better to take the PATH train to the World Trade Center station, then switch trains and head into Queens?
I didn’t mind driving in the city. In fact, I kind of liked it—and still do. In high school, my friends and I would often drive the three-hour trek down to the city on a Saturday to see a show and tool around, and I would, almost without exception, end up being the driver.
After talking it over that night, I decided it made more sense to drive to my Queens interview. To take the PATH train, I would have had to leave earlier, change trains, and then repeat the process in reverse when I was done. It seemed cheaper and easier just to drive. Besides, any excuse not to get up at the crack of dawn is a huge plus in my book.
On Tuesday morning—that morning—as I was getting my tie tied and about to head out to drive to Queens, Mary came down to the basement room where I had stayed. She said something had happened at the World Trade Center. We turned on the radio, then both sat on the foot of the bed and listened as the tragic events unfolded; we didn’t know what to think. Shock took over as our brains tried to wrap themselves around what we were hearing.
I called the firm in Queens where I was scheduled to have my interview and the receptionist there must not have been aware of what was going on. She advised me that cancelling an interview wasn’t a good idea, but I told her that there was no way I was going to be able to get there. At this point, we still didn’t realize the full scope of what was unfolding across the country, but we knew whatever it was was bad—very, very bad—and I wasn’t about to head toward it.
My mom called. Or, maybe she paged me. It was 2001 and I had a very cool Cellular One teal see-through pager at the time—the late adopter in me not quite ready to make the switch to a fancy new cell phone. Anyway, whether she called or paged, I distinctly remember standing in Mary’s kitchen on her antique wall-mounted phone, talking to my mom who was urging me to come right home. I can imagine how her heart must have sunk when she heard the news, knowing I was headed into the city that morning.
Mary’s daughter Kimmy had already gone into the city early that morning for school. After trying unsuccessfully to reach her, she finally called Mary and said she was at a friend’s and would be staying there for a day or two until the dust settled and bridges and tunnels reopened. That was a huge relief. Another mother had just found out that her child was out of harm’s way. But countless other mothers wouldn’t.
As soon as we heard that Kimmy was safe, I got in my car and drove the three hours home—listening to the news, turning the news off to sit in quiet, then turning the news back on and repeating the cycle. I was traveling Interstate 80 westbound, away from the city. There weren’t many cars going in my direction, and for miles and miles it seemed there weren't any cars at all going in the eastbound direction. There were some emergency vehicles, sirens blaring, heading that way, but the lack of traffic and eerily open interstate sure was surreal.
I remember being on a charter bus on a school field trip in late 1993 or early 1994 when I was a freshman in high school, driving by the World Trade Center after it was bombed. We saw the shrouded, damaged lower part of the North Tower. It made an impression. We couldn’t have imagined then that, less than 10 years later, the whole complex would be gone.
As an adult, I’ve been to the World Trade Center site loads of times. I visited the grounds often when I lived in the city in the mid-2000s. I watched the progress as the rubble was cleared, memorials were erected, and new buildings were built. I found a good perch from the second floor of a nearby Burger King where I could see over the fence and into the craters where the towers once stood. The footprints of the North and South Towers still show, but now they’re beautiful memorials—places to reflect, mourn, hope, and take some deep breaths.
I don’t know why the cards fell where they did that morning. We hear stories upon stories about those who survived by what may seem like chance, fate, or divine intervention. And we hear thousands of other stories about those who didn’t survive—victims and heroes whom we honor again today. My experience wasn’t as near of a miss as many others we hear about, but it still takes my breath away when I think about it. One simple decision—drive or take the PATH train—has been coming back to me often for the past 18 years. Had I chosen to take the PATH, I would have left earlier and been on my way toward the World Trade Center station when everything began to unfold.
I woke up early this morning, remembering that morning, 18 years ago today: September 11, 2001. A generation has passed, but memories live on; it will never be forgotten.
Marty Johnson is a shopkeeper, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication for AMBC, Editor of MBC Today, and is the owner of Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at askunclemarty.com. #AskUncleMarty