Where were you on 9/11? Cynicism, Humanity and Musical Theatre

11 Sep

First posted on 9/11/11:

To be honest, I’ve become a little jaded by the extreme overflow of coverage of the 10th Anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. Having every major and minor news outlet asking me to write in and tell them “How 9/11 Changed My World” has hardened my heart and made me care very little about my or anyone else’s experience that day.

I’ve become sickened by the political football that 9/11 has become. The fake sentiment from everyone trying to sell a “World Trade Center Memorial Coin made from gold found at the site” or “a vile of dust taken from the streets of New York on that sad day” has trivialized what happened to a point where you forget that we were actually there that day. I look at 9/11 now as this foreign thing that was experienced by some politicians and insurance companies and not the people who were there.

I was there. I could have been working in the World Trade Center that day. I knew people who were killed. I have a right to my experience.

I got home at around 1am after recording for the anime series, Magic User’s Club with Michael Sinterniklaas. I got a call from my temp agency at about 6:30am asking me to go work for Cantor Fitzgerald – a place I had temped before. They were located on the 102nd floor of One World Trade Center.

There was an open audition at the York Theatre – a reputable off-Broadway musical theatre company that I really wanted to go to. Unfortunately, I hadn’t worked in 3 weeks and needed to pay the rent. I thought about it, realized I moved to NYC to be an actor and not a temp and I called the agency back and told them no.

A few hours later, I was sitting in the basement of the York with a few hundred other out-of-work actors waiting to line-up and get our scheduled times for the day of auditions. A girl ran into the room and screamed “The World Trade Center’s just been hit by a plane!” The jaded New Yorkers stayed in their seats except for one or two people who got up and ran out.

Someone had a small handheld orange radio they turned up to full volume and held above their head in the middle of the room. It was quiet as we all strained to listen. I kept thinking (and to this day, I don’t know why this is where my head went), that this must be some kind of War of the Worlds situation and someone was punking us.

News of the second plane hitting got people the tiniest bit more upset – not enough to abandon the audition, but certainly some gasps. Moments later, we lined up, got our audition cards and times for later in the day and headed out of the building.

The streets were in pandemonium. People screaming, running, trying to catch cabs. We were in midtown on the east side and the theatre wasn’t too far from a building I’d spent several weeks temping at. They were on a high floor and I recalled the view of WTC from the office windows. I shot up the elevator to see if I could catch what was going on from there. It was an extraordinarily clear day and the view was remarkably crisp. They had a TV playing the news stories with closeups of the towers and moments after I arrived, we watched one, then the other tower collapse. The room was silent.

After what happened, I was both terrified and sad. I don’t remember fearing another attack or thinking something else might happen, but there was certainly some shock that was setting in. My brother managed to get through to me on my cell phone to make sure I was okay. He posted that I was okay on some website that listed “survivors” of the attacks. For years after, that was one of the only things that came up when I’d Google myself.

I didn’t know where to go or what to do next. It quickly dawned on me though, that the audition wouldn’t be happening. The trains weren’t running. The buses were all packed to capacity and I lived at 204th Street in upper Manhattan, so walking would have been tough. So I wandered around midtown for a while. I remember sitting in WorldWide Plaza with some friends. None of us knew what to think.

I looked up Broadway and there was this massive sea of people – just walking. So I joined them in my long walk home. As we walked, I stopped at a McDonald’ss on 56th and Broadway and met and had a chat with Rocco Landesman – a fairly legendary Broadway producer. Then I headed back up Broadway. Thousands of us – trying to use our cell phones, in shock walking uptown.

My boyfriend at the time was in college in Boston, but he was raised in Brooklyn. His father was a firefighter and his mother was trying desperately to get in touch with him. He was able to get through on my land line and asked me to call his family, which I did. I couldn’t tell them who I was when I called, but it turns out his father was okay. His mother’s car had broken down and he had to drive her to work before heading to the fire station, which was among the first to respond. He ended up losing most of his colleagues.

The following few days were spent volunteering, temping down in Union Square, and taking frantic phone calls from my roommate. He didn’t take the whole “don’t panic” thing too well. Every time they’d raise the threat level, he’d go buy 5 more gallons of distilled water – at one point we had 22 gallons in our kitchen. He’d call me every time he saw some cops with AK-47s to let me know his location so I could tell his family where to look for his body. I, on the other hand – I think in reaction to his sheer terror – stayed pretty calm.

What I remember most in those weeks – the images that remain strongest in my memory are the “Missing” posters plastered all over the city – particularly Union Square, which was undergoing some renovation. There were literally thousands of pieces of paper with photos attached – taped to anything standing. As the days turned into a week and then two, these walls of posters turned into memorials. Flowers and candles strewn all over the ground, quotes in chalk on the sidewalk “We Remember,” and the now-trite “Never Forget.”

It only lasted about a month, but for that month, New York City was the kindest, gentlest place you could imagine. People all held doors for one another. If you saw a police or fireman on the subway, hat in hand, you’d go over and say “Thank you” or “I hope you’re okay.” This feeling of great humanity informed every step we took. Then the politics of it all settled in and we were at war. The humanity transformed into fear. The cops with the AK-47s hit every corner and every subway station and we lived in a police state. The raising and lowering of threat levels coincided with elections and polls and it became clear to me that “We Remember…the people” had forever become “Never Forget…the attacks.”

7 Responses to “Where were you on 9/11? Cynicism, Humanity and Musical Theatre”

  1. John September 11, 2012 at 8:11 am #

    Thank you for sharing! I was at the same audition that day and had also turned down a temp. Job at WTC that week. I share a similar story with friends

    • Jamie McGonnigal September 11, 2012 at 8:14 am #

      Wow John. I’ve never known anyone who was at that audition that day. Do you recall the room the same way I do?

  2. meggy81 September 11, 2012 at 10:39 am #

    That is a great story and depending on how you look at it it’s either fate or God watching out for you (I’m a progressive Catholic so forgive me) A lady I took care of back in upstate NY was from the Bronx and her sister worked at one of the towers- she was never late to work until that day. My parents do have friends who lost their nephew in one of the towers.

    I do agree with your statement though that 9/11 for some people has become more political than anything. I still remember a month after the attacks a friend and I were driving around and we ended up behind a guy with a large plywood sign in his pick up that said ‘Death to all Towel Heads’ We were both shocked by that and sickened.

  3. Matthew LaBanca September 11, 2012 at 5:51 pm #

    I was at that audition, too. Aside from the radio, you could have heard a pin drop. The line snaked through the house, and I remember us all just standing there, silently listening. It’s one of my strongest memories of that day.

  4. Colin September 11, 2012 at 8:32 pm #

    Yup, I was at the York too, Jamie, and I remember the yellow Walkman turned all the way up. I then went down to 14th St to my Austin Pendleton class at HB Studio. We didn’t do any scene work. When we came out, the towers were gone, and I walked back up to the Upper West Side.

  5. w2p2stories September 12, 2012 at 4:32 am #

    Beautifully written, Jamie, and an excellent perspective of things from the POV of a New Yorker. Thank you. p/s – when I was first told about the attacks, I was equally incredulous with the same WOTW thought out loud. After a minute of TV coverage, it became obvious how disturbingly real 9/11 was.:-/

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