It started last night. A “ding-ding-ding,” like someone’s phone was ringing, or like the sound you hear in department store elevators announcing that the next stop is ladies lingerie.
I stomped out of bed to ask Husband why the hell he hadn’t turned off his phone only to see him standing by the front door listening intently to a recorded voice echoing in the hallway: “A fire has been reported in the building. Please stand by for further instructions.”
We stood there for a while in the dim light wondering if we should ignore the recording and go back to bed, or call someone (who?) or just…stand by.
So we stood by until someone started banging on doors: smoke on a lower floor, time to evacuate, don’t use the elevators.
That means wake up sleeping boys (it’s a school night!), gather up phone and wallet, begin the long trek down from the 37th floor.
Somewhere around floor 24, I looked at my phone: 12:01. September 11, 2011.
Down and down we went, Caleb clinging to my hand, Liam bounding ahead, more and more people joining us in the staircase as we went down. We smelled a little smoke—more like burning rubber than anything else—but never enough to make us cough. In fact, we only saw one incident of respiratory distress, and that was our upstairs neighbor’s twelve-year-old dog, who was crouched in the corner somewhere around the 14th floor, gasping and wheezing.
What would it have been like, I wondered, as we went down and down, to go down for ninety floors, or a hundred, while the stairwell filled with smoke and the building echoed with rumbles and crashes and screams.
We got to the bottom floor and tumbled out into the heat of the night. Somehow it gets more humid here at night rather than less, and the breeze off the Gulf that blows in during the late afternoon disappears completely in the late evening. Not heat like you get from a fire, just The Heat, that crouches here in the summer like a live thing, smothering you as you round the corner, suffocating you as you cross the street.
Residents of our building–almost all of the university community of students, faculty, and administrators–stood in front of a mosque angled at the far side of the parking lot. The college students larked about singing (someone had brought down his guitar), others crouched desperately over laptops, cramming notes for today’s classes (which were, ultimately, cancelled). Students in abayas chatted with friends in shorts and flip-flops; boys in turbans talked to professors in kippahs.
Rumors swirled: it was just a small stove fire; it was something in the garbage chute; it was a false alarm. Fire trucks came, an ambulance pulled up, men in uniforms wandered around importantly (in their own minds, if nowhere else).
One hour crept into a second hour; some of us sat on the floor of the air-conditioned lobby of a nearby building and then someone had the brilliant idea of going to a hotel across the street. We booked all the empty rooms in the hotel for the older people in our maybe-it-is-maybe-it-isn’t burning building and for people with kids (yay! for having had the foresight to have children eleven years ago! yay for hotel rooms!) An Emerati woman in a jeweled abaya checking into the hotel at the same time must have been muttering under her niqab about these crazy Westerners: half-dressed, some of us in pajamas, barefooted children clutching stuffed animals wandering around aimlessly.
Liam and Caleb attempted to order themselves hot chocolates in the café while we were waiting to be assigned a room—nice try guys—but Mean Mommy surfaced just in time to prevent them from ingesting chocolate crack at 230 in the morning.
We woke up this morning, discombobulated and tired, but safe. It turns out a generator in the machine room on the 34th floor had been sending out sparks—not burning, exactly, but creating enough smoke to set off the alarms. Nothing was damaged, although there’s a faint scent of smoke in the elevators, and no one (not even the wheezing dog) was hurt. Alhumdullelah, right?
It’s 9/11 today. Ten years after That Day.
On That Day, I was teaching in Westchester, was just about to start my early morning class when a student announced that her mom had called to say a plane flew into the World Trade Tower. We all shook our heads in disbelief—how could a plane fly into a tower!—and went into the radio silence of class-time. At the beginning of the next class, a security guard came into the room and announced that there’d been a bomb in Manhattan; the bridges and tunnels were shut down; and that the city was effectively closed. Kids in my class with parents who worked in the city burst into tears; the security guard refused to answer any questions and stalked out of the room, and so began my own little piece of the nightmare, although my nightmare had a happy ending: all my people–Husband, baby Liam, friends, family, colleagues–were fine. Others, of course, had their worlds collapse along with the towers.
Last night’s adventure had moments of worry—what if there had been a big fire? what if we’d not heard the alarm? Even now the “what ifs” are still bouncing around in my very tired brain. (I’m way too old to function on only three hours of sleep, in a bed shared with a seven-year-old who sleeps in the shape of an “X.”) I can’t imagine the pain of those for whom, on 9/11 and the weeks following, the “what ifs” came true. Today (and always) we remember those people, their families, the courage of those who went up the stairs to help others get down.
Last night the men running up the stairs were Abu Dhabi rescue workers—maybe Pakistani, maybe Indian, maybe Arabs, I couldn’t tell. Last night we all gathered in front of a mosque—you know, one of those scary buildings that terrify the Tea Party (which seems to be afraid of most everything these days, near as I can tell).
Now, in the light of day, last night’s “emergency” qualifies mostly as a big fat inconvenience, albeit an inconvenience with the uncanny echo of a tragedy. Last night, standing in front of the mosque under a full moon, watching whatever was going to happen, happen, we were all in it together, just as we were on 9/11–a unity that has been fractured, squandered, drifted away like smoke on a hot night.
Standing in front of the mosque, watching rescue trucks with Arabic writing pull up, I wondered if that unity were lost forever. I wondered if we might ever stop being afraid of our differences, if we will ever stop worrying about who worships what where and in what kind of building. I wondered if we would ever be able to find common ground again, stand together again, all of us.