At 9:10 a.m., on September 11, 2001, I was a college freshman sitting in on my second session of a music humanities class on the top floor of John Jay Hall, a McKim, Mead and White-designed, neo-classical building on Columbia University's Morningside Heights campus in Manhattan.
Our instructor, a young musician with spiky blue hair, was complaining about the broken elevator in our turn-of-the-century building. He had hobbled up seven flights on a fractured foot.
Snugly fitted into a small classroom with north-facing windows overlooking a tree-lined college walk, we were tuning in and out of muted Gregorian chants on a CD player. Flashes of the professor's electric hair and his snarky grumbling punctuated our otherwise soporific state.
Everyone seemed to belong to this urban collegial and sonorously historical context.
Short of being tragically hip in the hippest city in the U.S.A., we indifferently imbibed Gregorian chants, while paying secret homage to the temporarily crippled punk musician at our helm.
The first five minutes passed by, and in the sway of understated cacophony, the student sitting next to me, who made a habit of spending most of his time on his laptop, handed me a note:
TWO PLANES HIGHJACKED. CRASHED INTO WORLD TRADE CENTER.
I stared at him befuddled. Urgently, I scanned the room.
Nothing had changed.
Everyone seemed as aloof and misty-eyed as before. I tried to catch his eye, but he was once more immersed in the screen, Gregorian chants notwithstanding.
When class finally ended at 10:45 a.m., I walked out into the hallway, having decided to disregard the cryptic note. Mayhem ruled the school as people scrambled up and down stairs and chatted anxiously with one another like brokers in a stock exchange.
I heard someone say you could see the smoke from the top floor of Carman and squarely made my way to the freshman dorm building, climbing the stairs to the 13th floor in a hurried gait. The elevators were running too slowly to wait.
A thick, dark and endless cloud hung in the sky. A friend told me that a third plane had been headed for the Pentagon. In autopilot, I borrowed a cell phone and called home to Washington, DC but hit static like many others around me.
Once again, crammed in a room in upper Manhattan, alongside newly admitted students - gazing toward a horizon obfuscated by smoke and the silent clamor of the towering landscape before us - I alternated my focus between the sea of bobbing heads and the ominous view beyond. Feet firmly on the ground and cut off from cellular communication, each of us was waiting for the next thing.
The repeating silent news footage of the two planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers on the TV in the lounge behind us could have used a Gregorian chant soundtrack. We spent hours waiting up there with no news of our families and friends and no classes to attend for the rest of the day.
Later I found out that a student from my music humanities class had darted downtown and filmed on the ground near the impact area as soon as class had ended. Some called him unscrupulous. Others bold. The administration took down his videos from the university servers as soon as word got out about them.
I did not visit the World Trade Center site until a year passed and all that remained were the somber, hollow foundation ruins and a chain link fence separating the tourists from all that went down that day in September. It was a day to remember, but not one that I was in a hurry to experience from up close.
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