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9/11 Up Close. But from a Distance.

Being 19 at the end of the world.
September 10, 2021
9/11 Up Close. But from a Distance.
(GREG WOOD/AFP via Getty Images)

I had an ungodly hangover on 9/11, which was kinda unusual for a Tuesday. In fact, I only remember that 9/11 was on a Tuesday because of the hangover.

The night prior, armed with my New York state fake ID, I had pounded pitcher after pitcher at Lindy’s Red Lion, watching my hometown Denver Broncos open the season on Monday Night Football. I’d gotten back to the George Washington campus in D.C. for my sophomore year a week or two prior, with a lot of pent up energy that needed to get out. I could finally get blasted on a school night and sleep in the next morning without having to concern myself with the encroaching Catholic guilt (as represented by my mother’s high heels clacking above my basement bedroom).

So that morning I just laid there, in my disgusting campus apartment, blinds drawn, a blue Gatorade on the ground beside the bed, unblissfully unaware.

My roommate wasn’t around. He was a nerd who had 9 a.m. classes and was, of course, getting there early. I’m sure he woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed, having spent the night doing his homework, listening to Dave Matthews, and AIMing with friends from home.

The crisis of my generation unfolded outside my window: The State Department was a left-handed stone’s throw away. The White House five blocks the other direction. The Pentagon 2.5 miles as the plane flies. Yet the only sound that registered for me was the pounding in my head.

Then the door flew open.

Class was canceled. My roommate was leaving town. I should turn on the TV.

Annoyed, I stumbled the two paces to the couch, grabbed the remote, and saw the news. Talking heads were filling the air, trying to figure out what exactly was going on. Smoke billowed over lower Manhattan. There was concern and momentary uncertainty, until we all saw it and realized together, at 9:03 a.m. The second plane.

One of the reasons I’ve never fully understood the 9/11 conspiracies is that even in my foggy state I saw American Flight 175 gliding through the air, across the city, over the skyscrapers, into the South Tower.

The different angles of its approach were burned into my retinas as I watched and rewatched what felt like a slow-motion replay on the TV screen. I’m not certain they showed it as many times and as graphically as it seems in my mind’s eye. I have never actually gone back and rewatched the real-time coverage. I know that the memory plays tricks on you. But I also know that I saw it.

The next bit was more of a blur.

I started to feel ill. I stumbled into the bathroom, dropped to my knees and started hurling into the bowl. I stuck my fingers down my throat to try to exhume every last bit as quickly as possible so I could get back to the couch and the news.

But then, as I laid in the fetal position on the cold bathroom tile, I heard it.


It sounded like a bomb somewhere in the middle distance. I stumbled back to my bed to look out the window. Sirens were everywhere now. It could’ve been anything. I thought I heard another boom, further away, but I can’t be certain. I turned to the TV and saw that the Pentagon was on fire. I wanted to know all the details, to understand what was happening but my body wouldn’t allow it.

I went back in the bathroom, retching, emptying all the bile from my belly, when there was another bang. But this time it was the door to my apartment. It was my BFF’s girlfriend, they were fleeing the city and had come to fetch me. This idea hadn’t even occurred to me, my fight-or-flight instinct overmatched by the brain fog.

I wiped my chin and asked her if I had time to go to the roof to look out at the Pentagon. She looked at me like I was insane, first laughing, then sternly, motherly, saying no it’s time to go. It’s now or never.

I sure as shit didn’t want to be alone.

I met them in a neighboring parking garage and we packed into a beat-up Tahoe and headed north to our friend’s mom’s house in Bethesda.

D.C. looked like a scene from one of those Rolland Emmerich disaster movies: Everyone heading out, both lanes, nobody heading in. Cars honking and people yelling in frustration, a sense of panic and bewilderment. There were armored military vehicles at the traffic circles. Men with guns.

We were desperate for sustenance. Most places were closed. One friend ran into a liquor store, but the line snaked down the block. Famished I made a bee-line for one of those D.C. hot-dog carts that I only frequented as a last resort. And if there was ever a last resort, it was this. I stood in line, thinking about how these hot-dog vendors were the only ones who would go down with the city. They would be our Titanic band, offering one last bite of steamed sausage and a pack of cigs before we all sank into the sea.

I sprinted back to the car a half-block down with some Fritos and assorted nibbles.

We all sat there for a bit, talking about what we thought might be happening; what might come next. We were alternately nervous, sanguine, and enlivened.

Our phones were not getting any service, only useful for a few idle games of Snake to distract the mind. It seemed as if it would be hours until we made it out. Eventually we decided there wasn’t much else to do, so we should do what we always did.

Get really high.

For block after block, past Embassy Row, past the vice president’s residence, we ripped the bubbler, telling macabre jokes. Red-eyed and giggling. Guessing what atrocity might come next. Speculating about other planes in the air. Smoke swelling from our mouths.

After who knows how long, we got out of the city and cell phone service returned. There were a series of voicemails that I found hilarious in my chonged state. The first was from my mother calmly wanting me to check in, the second and third also my mother, becoming increasingly panicked. Then one from my dad in his severe but kind manner, saying that I really needed to check in. And finally from my high school bestie in his Brahalardo chill making sure things were all good, man.

After that I don’t really recall much. We were young and together in Maryland. We watched the horror unfold on the TV. We distracted each other from the sadness with jokes and games. We smoked more bowls.

I tried to avoid letting this girl’s mom realize how stoned I was. I checked in with friends at other schools. I wondered what happens next.

It seems like everyone with a Medium page has written one of these 9/11 accounts, because living through it was so arresting and disorienting. The unexpectedness, the piercing of our bubble, the manifest mass death. It all makes our collective memory so vivid.

But as I reflected on my close-ish call with history, the only feeling I can really summon is a low-key survivor’s guilt.

Looking back on that day, now in middle age, I’m struck mostly by how little a 19-year-old has lived. How much more life was in front of me.

By that point I hadn’t met some of my closest friends, or my husband, or my daughter, my nephews, my sister-in-law, my godson. I hadn’t really challenged myself or accomplished anything. I hadn’t suffered any real loss and come out the other side. I’d only seen Widespread Panic like three times. I was still wearing baggy khakis and hiding my sexuality.

I didn’t even know who I was yet. Understanding what was happening as the world convulsed around me? No chance. It was just too big, I wasn’t ready.

In the weeks and months that followed 9/11 my life was, for all intents and purposes, unaltered. There was no great epiphany. I didn’t know anyone who died or who lost a loved one. Forget going to war—the idea of joining the military never even crossed my mind. I didn’t rededicate myself to love our country. I already watched a lot of news so that didn’t change much either. September 11 was not the crux point of my personal bildungsroman. It was simply the color, the dark mise en scène.

I blazed forward, consumed by my own little world while so many others had their lives upended by twists of fate. For thousands upon thousands of my peers, such youthful indiscretion and misdirection was not even an option that was on the table.

Those who swan-dove from on high to their demise. Who charged the cockpit and protected our capital. Who were crushed by falling debris. Who survived but were forever haunted.

Steven Markley, two years my junior, wrote beautifully in his novel Ohio about the impact of 9/11 and the ensuing crises on his working-class town, much further from the scene of the crime than I had been. “Overnight everything was different. There were military recruiters everywhere, and everyone was talking to them about enlisting,” he said.

Kids in his town of Mt. Vernon, and Berlin Heights, Ohio, and Wentzville, Missouri, and other working-class communities across this country were transformed forever. They weren’t gifted with the privilege of emotional and financial distance from the attacks. They went off to war because it was the best of bad options. War that we waged for revenge, for payback. War to protect the safety of the homeland. War that endeavored to bring some type of freedom or hope to those who attacked us because they hate us.

War to make sure the people who knocked down those buildings heard from “all of us soon.”

It seemed like it made sense at the time. That unifying notion sounded nice. Plus it satisfied our animal emotions, our national bloodlust. But as it turned out the “all” was more of a royal all, an editorial. In reality all was just some. They were going to hear from some of us soon. And the same some of us were going to suffer the consequences.

That “some” were disproportionately young men and women who were not much older than I had been that day. They, too, hadn’t really lived yet. They were kids, going home on leave, slamming pitchers and hotboxing cars and trying to figure out who they were.

Thousands of them were stamped out before they had the opportunity to sit back and write and reflect on who they had become. For the last 20 years people who had not really lived were asked to die.

They died because of the fuckers who hijacked those planes. They died because we made a horrifying tragedy worse by piling catastrophe upon clusterfuck in the years that followed. They died because some, admirably, decided that 9/11 was going to be the crux point of their life story, the moment they decided they wanted to be a part of something greater than themselves. Be the some that did the work for all of us.

And so this year we have brought a close to the 9/11 era in the same tragic way that it started.

With 20-year-olds such as David Espinoza, Rylee McCollum, Dylan Merola, Kareem Nikoui, and Jared Schmitz, denied the full life they deserved by other evil fuckers.

Meanwhile the rest of us move on, drive to Bethesda to get away, reminisce on what we did that day, and drink a pitcher to try and forget.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.