By Helaina Hovitz
Helaina Hovitz takes her readers back to what it was like in the aftermath of 9/11.
The fear, the uncertainty, and the pain of that day is seen through the eyes of a 12-year old that lived in the World Trade Center area.
To Hovitz, this was her home, her neighborhood, and it was taken away in an instant. This was a story that had to be told, and she does an impressive job of recounting what that time was like for her parents and grandparents.
Hovitz writes of being in the community room in her apartment building on September 12, 2001, "I wandered over to a folding table where someone had left a single copy of the New York Daily News.
"That's all the cover said, along with a caption that described the accompanying image, in case somehow someone had missed it: the second plane heading to the second Tower, the first already on fire.
"How did they write this?
"How is a newspaper out?
"How did they actually produce a newspaper yesterday?
"Suddenly, I remembered that Grandma had said the same thing the day before.
"'This means war,' not as if she were declaring it, but as though she knew what would happen next. Those words triggered something in me, waking up another monster that realized it was all planned. Carefully planned. The new monster would go on to fill so many instances of 'not knowing' things with a singular message: Something bad is happening."
Hovitz features journal entries from that time, and wrote of the days right after the attack, "In the week that followed, the absence of the Towers left a dull, dank feeling in the air. The weather seemed to always be overcast, and even on the rare sunny day, there was nothing to smile about. The heavy smog from the burning pile lingered, and it became our sky. Everyone was worn and haggard. Every loud noise sent a surge of fear through my body. More photos of faces were put up in front of the hospital, and I decided that nothing could be accepted at face value. I knew, not thought, that something else, something worse, was going to happen. It's like watching Jaws when they 'catch' him the first time. There's too much movie left for that to be the end of Jaws.
"The dread of going back to school was not the average disappointment of going back to school after a 'break.' It felt like a legitimate death sentence. By now, I had started sleeping in my parent's bed with them again. When my mom finally got ahold of my pediatrician, the doctor said, 'You have to get her out of there,' so I wedged myself between a foot of space on the floor between my mom's side of the bed and the wall, using their comforter as a mattress.
"I eventually got to see the end of (Mayor Rudy) Giuliani's initial speech from the morning of September twelfth, when some station re-ran it.
"'Not only are we going to rebuild, but we are going to come out of this stronger than ever,' he concluded. 'Emotionally, politically, much stronger as a city, and economically stronger too. We're going to work on that right away.'"
'After a while, the beige color of the ash turned to gray, and the first time if rained the gray didn't wash off Fulton Street."
One of the tougher challenges for Hovitz was when her class was re-located from I.S. 89, where they fled on September 11th, to the O'Henry Learning Center.
"On the outside, we looked like any other group of kids. We weren't wearing our pain on our bodies in any obvious way.
"But when we heard the whir of planes overhead, it was clear that breath was being held as we all waited for the sound of the crash.
"If we were outside, and not in a classroom, some of us started running, in no particular direction. Obviously, other kids didn't run anywhere.
"'Oh my God, what's wrong with you?' they laughed and pointed.
"What part of 'war' didn't people understand? They were fools, all of them.
"'We were just better,' said Sarah. 'What do planes do in wars? They drop bombs on people. They don't get it.'
"In case it wasn't obvious enough already, it became very clear that there was something different about us and the other kids in the O'Henry Learning Center the day the truck tire popped.
"We were all in the schoolyard for recess when we heard a huge booming noise that echoed across the concrete yard. Everyone stopped what they were doing, but the I.S. 89ers hit the ground or ran along searching for teachers, sobbing and hyperventilating.
"The other kids just stared at us like we were crazy.
"'It was just a truck,' said one of the adults overseeing the yard activity.
"None of us believed her, and, that night, I had a dream that I was forced to watch footage of people being crushed in the World Trade Center on the news.
"After that, it became more clear that teachers were dealing with more easily distracted children. People who never used to call out, like Greg, started cracking jokes, getting up and walking around, impulsively banging on the table, wired up, vibrating with hostile energy, and at the same time, just plain exhausted. Becca's brother, Ivan, always kept talking, or singing, or banging on the desk when Mr. H asked for three minutes of silence. We'd have to start the time over and over, until we were being dismissed fifteen minutes late every single day."
There are a lot of things Hovitz touches on in this book that have been forgotten, such as the tourist trap that Ground Zero became. This did not sit well with her, and she wrote of that:
"The South Street Seaport had always been the main tourist attraction in our neighborhood. Now, there was Ground Zero.
"Tourists started coming downtown, which was technically 'open' again, asking for directions to the World Trade Center.
"There is no World Trade Center, you fucking idiot.
"People weren't at the site reflecting or crying. They lined up to take pictures in front of the pit, smiling and waving, and when green netting was put up around the fence to block people from seeing what was inside, people poked holes in it so they could stick their cameras in and get the shot anyway. Eventually, some sort of bridge was put up to give people a photo opp. They posed, family members with fanny packs and arms around each other, one, two, three, cheese, and it made our experience feel even less real.
"'I can't believe they're allowed to do this,' Sarah said.
"Soon, vendors were popping up on the surrounding streets, selling booklets like the ones my parents bought me at Broadway shows, magnets, cups, playing cards, all showing images of the Towers on fire and the planes crashing into them, of people running and screaming, of the collapse. They were mostly people from Chinatown.
"What was more disgusting still was that people wanted to have this to take home and look at. People were buying them. Who the fuck would want that as a souvenir? Do you understand what that was like?
"I felt angry, and then I felt something new: pure hatred. I hated them.
"Since when do I hate anyone? They ruined my entire day just by being there, stomping all over the remains of my old life.
"My urge to jab an elbow into anyone with a map in their hand or a camera around their neck grew stronger with time. I wanted to make them feel what they should have felt, being down there: pain. When it got to the point where my mother and I couldn't even get to where were were going, I became a lit stick of dynamite, angrily pushing myself through them, boiling over with this flood of toxic emotions and feelings I didn't recognize. The mood would stay with me for hours, making me snippy and nasty."
The next decade was a troubling one for Hovitz as she dealt with PTSD, which is also examined at length. The effects of PTSD as she started adolescence followed her as she spiraled into addiction and rebellion, through loss, chaos, and confusion.
This book is a must-read for any New Yorker, as it tells a very unique story of 9/11, how young people dealt with the attack. The journey Hovitz went on to overcome this adversity is quite inspiring.