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Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Danton Remoto: Where were you on 9/11?
The online news portal of TV5
The online news portal of TV5
I was taking graduate studies in English on a Fulbright scholarship at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. New Brunswick was a sprawling and sleepy university town where you took the shuttle bus to move from one building to the rest. Imagine UP Los Banos times ten, and you will understand my urge to go to New York City as often as I could.
NYC was just a quick, 40-minute train ride away. You took the New Jersey Train in the center of town, in front of the bookstore, and quickly the trees, the houses with white picket fences, and the big factories of New Jersey disappeared. When you see the Twin Towers rising majestically across the Hudson River, you know you will soon cross NYC.
In NYC I stayed either with Bino Realuyo, a writer who lived in Manhattan, or with Ronnie Alejandro – writer, food columnist, and former librarian at the New York Public Library. He gave me a key to his apartment on Bleecker Street, right in the middle of Greenwich Village, so I could stay there as often as I could. It was a house full of books, strung with colorful kiping wrappers from one wall to the other. It also had a couch where the crème de la crème of Philippine art and culture slept, when they were in NYC. The guest book that Ronnie asked them to sign was an intellectual social climber’s dream.
And so on September 10, 2011, my friend Ronnie and I agreed to watch a Broadway play the next day. We would visit several ticketrons to get the cheapest ticket for the day with the best view of the stage. One of these ticketrons was located in the Twin Towers.
But early morning of September 11, 2011, Ronnie called me up to ask if we could we just go to the Twin Towers in the afternoon. He was nursing a migraine, he said, which he hoped would be gone by lunch. I felt relieved, for I was taking 12 units of graduate classes and reading almost 1,000 pages a week for the subjects I took: The Nineteenth-Century Novel, the Contemporary Novel, Islamic Mysticism and Literature, and Introduction to Islam.
“Why are you taking Islam?,” asked my professor on the first day of class, the formidable Dr. Ul-Haq originally from Pakistan, who never failed to remind us he was schooled in both Oxford and Harvard.
“Because,” I stammered, “there is a Muslim secessionist movement in my country and I want to learn more about this religion and its literature.” He would just nod, his sharp eyes regarding me, and then would often call me as the “gentleman from Malaysia.” Manila, I would correct him quickly, not Malaysia.
I went to New York City to dance on weekends with my classmates and my friends, where we did the rounds of Splash and Monster and the other bright and noisy dives. I also went there to tour the museums, my jaw dropping at the sight of so much precious beauty. I went there as well to visit the bookstores, especially Strand, the biggest bookstore in the world, or so it claimed, with its long and winding passageways. And I went there, of course, to watch plays.
And so on September 11 I woke up at around 9:30 AM and then I turned on my computer. I saw the twin towers like two rectangles stark against the sky. One of them was in flames. Oh, I thought, my brain still addled by sleep, a new computer game. See what these people can think of these days? But when I opened my email, I saw a message in big, bold capital letters, from my friend, the writer Jessica Zafra – who had just visited us in NYC: ANO ANG NANGYAYARI DYAN?
Next to her message is an email from Rob, my musician-friend who lives in Queens, where he narrated, in clipped, terse lines, that he was safe but had to run across the Brooklyn Bridge because he was in panic. I turned on my TV set and there it was, in full, raging color – the hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 plane, zooming straight into the South Tower. The tower burst into flames. Dark clouds of smoke mushroomed in the sky. And then another one, moments later, another one, a hijacked American Airlines plane, heading for the North Tower. Fire and smoke and something inside me turning into splinters, and then one, then the other, tower, fell.
I was speechless. I took a glassful of water and then I went to school. The church sat on the boundary of the school and the railway station. It was usually empty. Only Latinos and Filipinos went there, with a scattering of whites. But that day, in the darkness of noon, it was full of people. You could feel the grief heavy on their shoulders. For New Brunswick, New Jersey, was a commuter town: fathers and mothers and aunts and uncles lived here, cheaper to live in than NYC, and took the 40-minute ride to work in the Apple City.
Children were crying, mothers weeping, old people had their knees bent in prayer. For days, weeks, and months later, the train stations of New Jersey would be full of photographs of those who never returned from work. Below the photographs were words enough to break your heart: a child asking when will her father come back? A mother wishing her son is all right. Family photos ranged on the wall, with lovely flowers and bright ribbons and messages scrawled in colorful pen markers. In the face of such loss, images and colors and words seemed to be the only weapons possible.
My flatmate Bernadette said that when she visited NYC a week later – the city was shut off from the outside world for a week – she went near Ground Zero and could still smell something strange, a sweetish-sourish smell amidst the smoke and fire that still blazed in the area.
The Filipino writer Eric Gamalinda, who lived in NYC and whom I visited, said that along with several people, he was standing on the other side of the Hudson River and just watched the whole day long as the fires burned, the flames reflected in the faces of the people around him.
One fallout from this is that all foreign students were required to go home after finishing their studies. Rutgers University had signed me up to teach Creative Writing and Freshman English Composition for one year. But I had to go home end of October, because the US Immigration had become, suddenly, suspicious of all foreign students. The young pilots who hijacked those doomed plans were young men with a mission, a mission to mow down two buildings that symbolized the financial heart of the U.S.A. That they did, in terrible Technicolor, but they also claimed the lives of 2,792 people, destroyed the dreams of many more, the relatives and friends of the ones who disappeared on a bright summer day, in the city that never sleeps.