September 11, 2001 was a Tuesday; the second Tuesday of my sophomore year at Parsons — and because the first week of classes never really counts — my first real day of fashion classes. (At Parsons everyone’s freshman year is the same and you don’t declare your major until the end of that year.) For me, Tuesdays were like Mondays because I had arranged my class schedule to have Mondays off — a permanent three day weekend! — so I woke up that morning especially excited to start the week; I was finally doing exactly what I had dreamed of for so many years: studying fashion in the heart of the garment district at Parsons’ storied Seventh Avenue fashion campus.
As I got ready for school that day I emptied my backpack of the contents of my trip to the beach the day before: an empty canister of Pringles, a whole bunch of sand… As I went to take my camera out I hesitated, wondering, is there any reason to keep this in here? I probably won’t need it. I can’t imagine there will be anything worth taking pictures of today… so I left my camera on my kitchen table and went of to catch my train to midtown, proud of myself for having left early; the week before our teacher had stressed how crucial it was that we all be on time for class and that she always started class promptly at 9 a.m., and I was determined to make a good first impression on her and show what a serious student of fashion I was.
I can remember remarking what a beautiful late summer day it was while walking to my subway station, how bright and blue the sky was — more blue than usual. To this day, whenever I go out on a clear day I compare the sky to how it was that morning. If it’s that same deep, brilliant bright blue I’ll say to myself, it’s September 11th blue, and then feel a pang of sadness, confusion and anxiety and wonder if anyone else does the same thing.
I got to my classroom early, around 8:46, and while unloading my backpack realized that I needed to get some things from my locker downstairs. I debated whether or not to take my cell phone with me just in case someone called — but who’s going to call me in the next 5 minutes? — so I left it on my desk. When I got back it was blinking; I had missed a call from my parents and there was a voicemail waiting for me. Why would they be calling me at 5:50 in the morning, their time? Without bothering to listen to the message I dialed them back but the call wouldn’t go through. So I tried to call my voicemail but I couldn’t get through to that either. Oh well. I thought nothing of it and spent the next ten minutes looking over my notes from my very first fashion-design-at-Parsons homework assignment: a Shopping Report, and rehearsed all the keen observations I had made the previous week while “studying” at Bergdorf’s, Barneys and Saks Fifth Avenue.
At about 9:03, I looked at the clock and wondered where in the world was this teacher who had made such a big stink about starting class right on time. It’s past 9 a.m., who IS this woman?! Everyone else seemed to be wondering the same thing, and within ten minutes we had gone from a room full of strangers to bonding over the fact that our teacher was a complete hypocrite and had just given us license to be as late as we wanted for the rest of the semester.
Around 9:15 she finally appeared, and, with no apologies or explanation as to why she was late, immediately led us into a discussion about our Shopping Reports. I had taken the assignment very seriously, and was really excited to share all of my insights: how each store used lighting to create a certain ambiance depending on the price point or target customer of the particular clothing on display, how various brands or types of merchandise were clustered next to each other and all these other things, which at the time, seemed of the utmost importance. I jumped right into the conversation and for the next twenty minutes or so, I was completely engrossed, but not so much that I didn’t notice that there was a bizarrely constant stream of fire engines, police cruisers and ambulances blaring their sirens below our third floor window on Seventh Avenue. But again, I thought nothing of it. Since that day, however, every siren I hear makes me cringe and wonder if it’s all happening again.
At about 9:40 our guidance counselor and Tim Gunn, who was then just the recently appointed chair of the fashion department, came into our class to announce that, “Two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center towers and it’s possibly a terrorist attack and the city has shut down all trains and tunnels and bridges in and out of Manhattan, so we’d like for you to take a ten minute break to gather your thoughts, make some calls if necessary, then come back and continue your class.”
I’m not sure what was more shocking: that any of this had happened and was perhaps going to continue to happen or that we were expected to come back to class in ten minutes and continue talking about the subtle things that high end department stores do to make you feel special while you are shopping. People were losing what matters most while I was sitting there talking about what matters least. I felt absolutely horrible, and felt even worse when our teacher acknowledged that she had known what was going on and it was why she had been late. She came down here and started this most superficial of conversations knowing that our friends and neighbors were being blown up?! I couldn’t comprehend it. All the excitement and hope I had felt that morning on my way to school about my future was gone and replaced with a complete sense of futility about everything I was doing and the fashion world in general, which would take years for me to overcome and make sense of.
With some hesitation, I went outside and looked down Seventh Avenue, not sure what to expect. Up until then, on a clear day in New York the Twin Towers were the topographical equivalent of Mona Lisa’s eyes; it didn’t matter from what avenue you looked at them, they always seemed to be directly at the end of that avenue, glittering in the distance like the Emerald City at the end of the Yellow Brick Road. As a New Yorker, nothing made you more proud than that sight. This day should have been such a day, but all you could see looking south was a deathly gray fog obscuring all of Lower Manhattan. After this surreal “ten minute break to process things” I went back upstairs still somehow thinking I was supposed to finish class. No one else was there so I packed up my stuff and started walking with a girl from class to her high-rise apartment which was within walking distance of the school — maybe we’d be able to see something from her roof. Maybe seeing it would make it real because it didn’t make any sense.
We were on Eighth Avenue and 41st Street when a random passer-by (I can’t say stranger because no New Yorker was a stranger that day) announced incredulously that Tower 2 had just collapsed. How could that happen? and if that really had just happened how much worse would the death toll be now? I imagined the next few weeks being full of funerals, possibly now of people I knew (but thankfully it wasn’t). And what would New York City be like with only one tower? Of course at the time I never even considered for a moment that its surviving twin would fall down too. But it did, and before we even got to her apartment. By the time we got to her roof there was nothing to see but a vast grey fog of dust and smoke over Lower Manhattan that was wafting over to Brooklyn and a horribly sickening, empty space above it where the Twin Towers, and all the people in them, should have been.