Wednesday, September 7, 2011

9.11 Ten Years Later: An Ordinary Story

Every year around this time, I get the blues. James Hurst said it best in the Scarlett Ibis (one of the most painfully sad short stories I have ever read). "It was in the clove of seasons, summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born". This is the particular time I am referring to. I never know at the time why I get the blues until it just creeps up on me like a small child standing at the side of my bed in the middle of the night. Then, ah! of course, its my subconscious at work once again. It seems to be able to absorb these feelings and understand them way before I get the chance to process it all. Every year, the same thing and every year I am still surprised by it. I'm surprised at how raw these feelings still are. How fresh the pain still is. After ten years you'd think my emotions would dull. But no, my wounds are still at the surface and can open up and bleed at anytime. Especially this time of year.

I try not to watch the TV specials that run rampant this time of year or relive that day over. My memories still serve me well enough. But this year is the 10th anniversary. Bin Laden is dead and the new towers are rising, like phoenixes from the ashes of destruction. We are moving on and rebuilding and finally there will be a place to come to reflect and honor those that lost their lives on that dreadful day.  The memorial fountains that now stand in the footprints of the old Twin Towers look beautiful and massive and  forlorn. Just writing about it here makes me well up and sob. So close to the surface are all these feelings. That is why I am compelled to tell my story. Maybe it will help me deal with some of these emotions a little better. Help me to keep a stiff upper lip and not cry at the image of the Towers that once stood or the pictures of friends that once lived.

Its a very ordinary story and one that you may have heard before. There are thousands of stories just like it. I share this story with every person that was on the island of Manhattan on 9.11.01:

It was a glorious Tuesday morning. One of those "post hurricane days" although no hurricane had blown through.  The sky was bright blue, the air was crisp and cool but so comfortable. Not a cloud in the sky. Sound familiar? I woke up feeling great because that night was supposed to be my promotion party at a bar aptly named "Boom" down in the village. My old buddies from the 14th floor at the Colgate-Palmolive
Company were throwing it for me as I had been promoted to the operations side of the business. It was a new beginning for me and all very exciting.

I did the usual, took the 6 train down to 51st street and climbed the stairs up to the street level. The bright sunlight warmed my skin and I walked west to Park Avenue. I heard an airplane cross the patch of sky overhead. It sounded way too close. A very low flying plane that startled me but I quickly dismissed the event and entered my building to start my work day. Thinking back now, I am unable to escape the sound that the plane made that morning. It has been recorded permanently in my brain, easily triggered by similar sounds.

I made my way to my new office on the 10th floor (it was the 2nd day in my new position) and turned on my computer. Quickly (within seconds) an IM from a friend popped up on my screen: "check out the plane that just hit one of the Twin Towers". By then, I had forgotten about the low flying plane I just witnessed and did not make the connection till later. I clicked on CNN.com and with a slow connection (due to cyber traffic) was able to pull up a live picture. I thought, "Wow, that is crazy! Some little plane really went off course." I was continuing to IM with my friend and we discussed how it must have been a Cessna or small private plane that hit. I learned that the plane's impact was just below the famous restaurant Windows On The World and immediately called my colleague Sharon that was getting married at that very restaurant in a month's time (10.28.01). She was just as shocked and I said encouraging things like, "I am sure they will get it all fixed by the time of your wedding." She agreed and after a brief discussion we went back to our jobs. 

Another colleague in the office next to me was listening to her radio and softly I could make out what they were saying. No new updates or details about the plane, but firefighters and first responders were already down there trying to evacuate the Tower. I think by that time I had opened a spreadsheet and was working on budgets for a while. Then a phone call from my IM friend, "Another plane hit Tower 2, its terrorism". After about 30 seconds I was able to process the gravity of the situation. Then I heard it on the radio next to me. These were not small planes, these were jet liners, giant, gas and passenger filled jetliners that were hijacked and driven into these buildings intent on causing mass destruction. All of this was happening less than 2 miles from where I sat.

I called my parents. I told them I was OK and that I would remain safe and check in with them periodically. Since they live on the south shore of Long Island, a clear shot of the Twin Towers is possible on a clear day. If I remember correctly, the Towers were about the size of your pinkie if you held it up in front of your face. Since that day was exceptionally clear, they told me they could see the smoke from their house. A small plume off in the distance but growing in size and getting darker. The nightmare was becoming more real every second.

Then the Pentagon. Then panic. We all ran into our VP's office. He had a TV with the Today Show on. We all huddled in there staring in disbelief at what we saw. I can't really describe the panic, fear and violation that we all felt but it was so palpable in that room. Words were uttered, "we are all going to die, aren't we?". We did not know the answer, all we did know was that NY was a target and that there was another plane still in the air that had been hijacked. We watched. We listened to Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. They were as clueless as we were. We all lived through this together in real time.

I saw the top of Tower 2 start to tilt to the side. I couldn't imagine the impact of the plane could bring it down but before my very eyes, it happened. A structure so prominent in my early and young adult life, an icon to the city of NY and a symbol of strength and power to the country and the world was crumbling to the ground in an almost "tidy vertical drop". Fifteen seconds it took, maybe, and then gone. An open space filled with thick smoke covering most of downtown took its place. Shock overcame me. I think in times like this, when its too much for the brain to process, adrenaline takes over. Life saving impulses that humans have been born with since the dawn of time kind of kick in. Well, at least they did for me. What I had just witnessed on TV was the most unimaginable thing I could have ever seen in ten thousand lives. One of the Twin Towers just came down. Boom. Gone.

I ran back to my office and on my computer screen was another IM from my friend Tom. He was working from home on 40th street and told me to come there. His three brothers were meeting him and we could all be together and safe. I thought about what it would take to get there and then told him I would. I was so scared that I was going to die right there in that office and would have rather been with friends in that moment. So I went back into the VP's office to see more of the Today Show and tell the others what my plan was. Then I saw it. The top of Tower 1 rocking and burning and then falling in the same perfectly neat way as its sister. It imploded in an instant and I prayed to God right there. A God that I did not fully believe in at the time. I prayed for this to be a dream and to wake me up to a reality I could accept. I prayed for him to keep me alive and to save the people in that building. The core of my existence had been rocked so hard in that moment that no thoughts could have helped me to understand what was going on. All I knew was that I was getting the hell out of there, right that moment. My boss tried to stop me, but I kept running.

I took the stairs down to the street and ran out onto Park Ave. People were everywhere. Their faces were painted with a look of panic and shock. They were all frantically trying to get answers from one another. Everyone was talking at hyper speeds, to each other and to their cell phones. Strangers were talking to each other, some running and some crossing the street aimlessly, not knowing where to go. There was no public transportation and shortly all communication (such as cell phones) would be cut off as well. I ran down 49th street towards 3rd avenue. Looking back, I wish I had a tape recorder to capture the sounds I witnessed on that 10 block trip. My words can not do them justice. As I turned onto 3rd avenue and began to jog south, I could see the giant cloud of smoke making its way uptown. I knew that lives were going to be lost at that point but to what degree, I had no idea. I kept up my brisk pace and made it to Tom's apartment where he and his 3 brothers had made it as well. Tom's apartment was a studio high up on floor 20 or so overlooking the UN. When I realized this, I had second thoughts about my decision. If these terrorists were planning on other plane attacks, wouldn't the UN be on the list? They convinced me to stay and we all sat and watched the event continue to unfold for hours to come. I remember one of the brothers went out on a beer run and came back with a case and we all drank because there was nothing else we could do. We sat and cataloged a list of friends that we knew worked down there and prayed that their would be survivors.

My phone was out and I had no way of contacting anyone for most of that day. We were cutoff and left alone to watch the biggest tragedy of our young lives. As I watched the images on TV (images so familiar to us all now) I kept trying to see the towers behind all the smoke. My mind was not letting me accept that they were gone. But as the wind blew the plume of smoke, it bended and twisted and where the top of the towers should have been was nothing. A void.

Around 6pm that night (things get hazy at this point due to mind exhaustion) my cell service finally came back on. I called my parents to tell them I was still alive and OK. Then I called my friend Kristen that worked downtown next to Trinity Church. Her husband was a commodities trader at the Mercantile building down there as well. They were on a wild and frantic search for each other through the cloud of smoke, mayhem and confusion that engulfed downtown that morning. Thankfully they were reunited and ran all the way up to 86th street, deeply affected by the sights they witnessed. I was elated to know they were safe and back in their apartment.

That night I walked home 37 blocks back to my apartment on 77th street and tried to sleep.

The day that followed was one of groggy disengagement. I woke after a rather restless sleep and made my way down the stairs of my 5th floor walk-up to the sidewalk outside. What would have been a bustling, bright and sunny Wednesday morning looked more like a strange ghost town in a foreign land. There were a small number of people scattered about, sitting on steps or meandering slowly past my door but not one of them made a noise. The city was void of noise or sound of any kind. It was that scene from Devil's Advocate when Al Pacino creates that utter nothingness on the streets of midtown for Keanu Reeves. No cars, no buses, no people, no sound. The busiest city in the world was suddenly and abruptly turned off. No one had any words to speak. The aftermath of this horror was quickly becoming clear. The city was changed forever.

I made my calls for the day and quickly learned that two men I had known were missing in the rubble. Michael E. Brennan Ladder #4 and Thomas (Tommy) Foley Rescue #3 in the Bronx. Mike was last heard from in the Marriott Hotel just next to the twin towers and Tommy was one of the very first responders to the south tower, tower 2. They both saved lives. At that point in time, I still had hope we would find them. However, as the days following 9.11 passed on without any survivors, we all knew the fate of these men.

These men did not know each other  but shared so many similarities. Both Irish Americans with an incredible sense of humor and fun loving disposition. They were caring and concerned and most of all, very loved. They gave so much for their profession, dedicated firefighters until the end.

September 12th marked the beginning of new sounds that would be heard over the next 4 months in my beloved city.  Sounds of big, heavy metal dump trucks barreling up 1st avenue carrying rubble and disintegrated steel  from the burning "pit". It was an endless parade of these trucks. They just kept coming uptown and going back downtown, up and down, completing the basic but seemingly impossible task of digging out.  The sounds of F-16s flying over head non-stop. To this day I shudder if I hear one too close.

There were smells too. At the time I was going for my MBA at NYU at night and when I was below 14th street, I would smell it. A burnt rubber sort of smell. I tried hard not to imagine what I was smelling and I am sure it did no good for me to inhale those particles. I had no choice. Life had to go on and I had to study and take tests. I had to go to work and plan the budget for the upcoming year.

I had to go to my friend's wedding on October 28th that was now being held at the Waldorf Astoria instead of Windows on the World. I had to attend the funeral and memorial of my two friends that perished down there saving lives. I had to pass by hundreds of funerals being held every single weekend in every church on every corner in NYC. Bagpipers were in attendance at many of them and we would just stand and listen. Absorbing it all and mourning ourselves.

I went to happy hours and saw firefighters that lived but were beyond depressed, drinking and crying at the local bars. It was a dark time that fall and there was no light at the end of the tunnel.

But eventually we emerged. We survived. We went on with our lives and our day to day got easier. Except when I was was downtown. Down there was an empty hole in the sky. It loomed large and if I squinted hard enough, I could see them standing there. Two huge silver legos towering over their city. Keeping watch.

Someone painted a mural of them on a brick wall somewhere in the East Village. When I saw it, I started crying uncontrollably. The loss of those buildings scarred me more than I can explain. I had a deep connection with those towers from when I was very little. My aunt worked in Tower 1 on the 55th floor and would take me to work with her in the summers of 80 and 81. The Towers were so young back then, new and shiny. Everyone that worked down there felt so lucky to be a part of it all. You could see the Statue of Liberty from the "board room" on the 55th floor and I was beyond thrilled to get a glimpse. Cars looked like ants from below and there was a "moon rock" in the lobby that moved mysteriously on its own. Those memories are etched in my mind. As my Aunt is now gone so are those towers. All three of them left me in a horrific and  tragic manner. (I won't go into the loss of my aunt). As an adult, I worked in those towers from time to time when I was a CPA at Ernst & Young LLP. Some of my financial clients resided there. I would also go salsa dancing at the Greatest Bar on Earth on Thursday nights and be very afraid to walk to the windows because it was on the top floor. I am terrified of heights.

But this ordinary story has to end right? There needs to be an ending somewhere. So I guess I will tell you that  on the 1st anniversary of 9.11 I opened  all the windows in my apartment and the wind filled up my rooms and swirled, twisted and turned. It haunted as well as invigorated me with all the souls that perished. I know it sounds crazy but it did happen. A wind that came from almost no where because it was not a windy day at all, whipped its way into my living room, blowing my drapes high to the ceiling and put a knowing smile on my face...through the tears. NYC and I shared a secret that day. The day I will never forget.

I now live 1 thousand miles away from NYC and have a beautiful family of my own. Time gets away from me each year. But my trusty subconscious never fails to remind me of the upcoming anniversary. Now I greet these feelings with acceptance and appreciation for what has been given to me. I thank God for all my blessings.

If you read this story, I thank you. Writing it and re-reading it has helped me to heal just a little bit more. I look forward to visiting the memorial next summer and getting the chance to experience the re building of ground zero first hand. I long for the day when "Ground Zero" becomes renamed the "World Trade Center" once again.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Crock Pot Girls Goes Viral....Hmmmm

Over the past couple of weeks I have been noticing a lot of my Facebook friends "liking" a certain page called Crock Pot Girls. At first it was one or two, then I noticed my friends were liking this page in droves. It piqued my curiosity as I own a crock pot but never use it and thought of all the amazing dishes I could be cooking up while I write blog posts such as these. However, I didn't give it a second thought until today when another friend of mine posted a link to a blog about this fan page being a "crock". Apparently, these three moms from Texas started an innocent little Facebook page intended to share crock pot recipes. Within two weeks they now have over 1 million fans. That's right, 1 million! To put this in perspective, they have more fans than the Today Show, most celebrities and all other legit cooking pages including Rachel Ray. She has only 400K or so. It takes A LOT of work to get a million fans and that sort of traffic does not happen overnight. But for some reason Crock Pot Girls have gotten tens of thousands of fans during the wee hours when most of America is sleeping! Now I REALLY wanted to know what all the fuss was about so I "liked" the page myself to check it all out.

What I found was an ongoing stream of posts from overly enthusiastic crockpotters sharing pieces of recipes or gushing about how delicious these crock pot creations were. I also found many confused posters looking for recipes and a website that did not exist. As I refreshed my page I noticed the incessant amount of manic posters that just seemed way too into this crock pot thing. I mean its nice to have a meal cook itself but I would never choose to do all my cooking via slow cooker. I also noticed that their fan base was increasing by the hundreds every time I refreshed. It all seemed so odd. So contrived.

I didn't see any posts from the Crock Pot Girls themselves and when I looked in the photos and discussion sections, I found a very disorganized mish mosh of recipes, none of which were posted by said Crock Pot Girls. So where is all the content? Nothing on the facebook page is user friendly. Its more like watching a live chat room where you can't keep up because too many people are posting. As for the website? Well, right now there isn't one. Everyone (it seems they all know these ladies personally and feel the uncontrollable desire to defend them at all costs) says it will be up shortly because they are switching web hosts due to all the unplanned traffic overloading the site. Riiiiiiight.

So you may be wondering why I am "wasting my time" writing about all of this and why don't I have "anything better to do". Well, let me tell you. There are thousands of legitimate businesses that advertise on Facebook everyday. They pay good money to get their ads out there and acquire a fan base. I am sure that they would be stark raving mad if they found out that someone was acquiring a fan base without paying for it. I don't buy the claim that this site went viral. There is no legitimate content on it for it to go viral. The rate at which this page gained "likes" is completely suspect.  Plus, there is evidence that cyber bots were used to acquire the fans.

When I looked into this a little further, I found my friends (the ones that supposedly showed up in my news feed as liking the Crock Pot Girls) had not actually liked them at all. How is this possible? Its possible through a program that can make your friends appear to like something in hopes that you will join the bandwagon and like it too. So in essence, these Crack Pot Girls (oops) gained a million fans (many who are made up profiles) to make it seem that the site went viral. Then they assumed so many people would want to know what its all about and then the "real" people would join in.

When it comes down to it, its not legit or fair and I hope the truth comes out soon. Social media advertising is still relatively new and the kinks still need to be worked out. There are people out there looking to take advantage of "loop holes" every chance they can get.

If you have bothered to read this far, then you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with being green. Well, just look at some of the recipes that people are sharing. The most unhealthy stuff I have ever seen. Too much salt, too much dairy, processed foods, nasty ingredients, all dumped together and slow cooked until all the nutrients are gone. One recipe called for cheese whiz!! Seriously, I do not make this up.

With all of this said, maybe you don't care at all about how these ladies got their fans. That's fine, I respect your opinion. But for all the legitimate sites, blogs, fan pages out there, I know you will relate to what I am saying. If it were that easy to get a million fans, we all would have them by now!