An Infinitely Unimportant 9/11 Memory

My experience on that day is one of the millions that could be written down. I have never been able to write about it, let alone talk about it. I didn’t lose anyone close, and my story is insignificant when compared to the whole of that day, the enormity of the experience. The collective loss. But yesterday, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the attacks, two dear friends asked me to write about my experience. They said “take 60 minutes and sit down and WRITE” about that day that haunts me. This is a smattering of my memories, just a shard of a window, prompted by this phrase: “It’s been twenty years since 9/11, and …”

Molly Jacobson
10 min readSep 11, 2021


This is not an important story, but it’s mine.

It’s been 20 years since 9/11, and even just typing that prompt makes my blood pressure rise. I feel a stiffness in the center of my breastbone, a gripping like what a heart attack imagines it feels like.

I was so dead on that day. I was a dead walking woman, eating breakfast, glad that my husband had gone in to work early, thinking about making some more black tea. Feeling smug about not drinking coffee, planning on heading over to Whole Foods for a wheatgrass shot before settling into a day of pretending to have a life.

And then the phone rang, and my mother-in-law was on the line, and I steeled myself when I saw the caller ID, and just picked up, because if I waited another ring or (gasp) ignored her call and let it go to voicemail it would only make things worse when we finally did speak.

And J. did what J. always did: spoke as if we were in the middle of a conversation already. “Did he go to work today?”

“Who?” I asked because I fucking hate it when people don’t say hello first, and I wanted her to know that I thought she was rude.

“D.,” she snapped, “your husband, did he go to work?” It was just after 9AM, and he had just left about half an hour earlier. I said so.

“Oh no,” she wailed. “Why did he DO that? Doesn’t he normally go in at 10?”

“Yes,” I said, “but he had a meeting downtown at 10, so he had to go in early.” Drama Queen, I thought.

“What? Is he on the ferry?”

Her voice had changed. She sounded afraid.

“Yes, he’s taking the ferry, just like always,” I replied. “What’s wrong?”

“You don’t know?”

“Know what, J., what’s going on?”

She’s a drama queen, but this was not drama I was hearing. This was real, present fear.

“Did something happen to the ferry?”

“They flew a plane into the World Trade Center,” she answered. “You’re not watching? Turn on the TV.”

I did, and there it was, the burning tower.

“Oh, my God. What kind of plane?”

“They say it was a small plane. Was he going to the towers on the ferry?”

“No, he was going into midtown to the office first, and then heading down from there.”

“He’s not answering his phone,” she told me before I could ask.

D’s not answering his phone, and he’s on the ferry in the middle of the river, and the World Trade Center is burning on television. And his friends and colleagues are in that building. My friends and massage therapy clients are in that building.

“Well, I imagine cell towers were knocked down in that impact,” I managed. “I think he was taking the 8:50 ferry to midtown.”

“He’s on the water now,” she said. And we sat there, silent, thinking about D, her son, my husband, that man-child with beautiful floppy hair and blue-green-gray eyes, standing there at the bow of the ship, expensively suited and briefcased. Staring at the tower, worried. Alone.

“Oh God,” we both said as the plane hit the second tower, sending sheets of flames cascading down the walls.

“This is not an accident,” I said.

“Go down to the river and see what’s happening,” she told me.

“No, I don’t want to,” I replied. “I see what’s happening on the television — that’s enough. I’m not going to have a better view from over here.”

She sighed, and in that exhalation was all the pent-up frustration she’d felt for the previous ten years. I was too sensitive, too quiet, too loud, too smart, too relaxed, too artistic, too goyish. I worked too hard at the wrong things and not enough at the important ones. I was the kind of woman who had a tower burning across the river from her but didn’t want to go see it. I was a stupid, childish, mean-spirited girl who didn’t play well with others and never did as she was told.

She calculated that she shouldn’t push me on it.

“I better go,” I said, as she said, “Call me if you get through to him.”

“OK,” we said at the same time and hung up.

I called D. It rang and rang and rang and then it stopped ringing.

I redialed, and redialed, and redialed, and redialed, all the while watching the television burn, and listening as the Today Show anchors narrated the unbelievable scene. People were falling, I saw them, and then the camera zoomed away. People are jumping, I thought.

The phone rang. I answered halfway through the first bleat.

“D!? Are you OK?”

“Uh, hi Molly, it’s your aunt.” Her voice sounded strangled, far away, tinny. Was it because she was in Montana?

“Hi, I can’t really talk right now, I’m hoping D will call, I don’t know if you know what’s happening here, but a plane hit a building in New York and it’s totally crazy and the phone lines are all dead I think, I don’t even know how you got through to me.”

“I know Molly, that’s why I’m calling, F and I are watching it on TV and I want to be sure you are OK. Is D OK?”

“Oh. I don’t know if he is. He went to work, but I think he’s still on the ferry, so hopefully nothing worse will happen.”

She was worried about us.

This was something other people were worried about, people who live far away from New York. People who live in a mountain town with three rivers meeting in their valley.

“Oh my God,” I said as the south tower crumbled. “Oh, my God, turn off the television”

“F, turn that off, now,” she commanded, and then to me, “Molly, stay safe, I have to go talk to F,” and I said “Yes, I have to go,” and I hung up and I have never fully forgiven her for worrying about her little son seeing that tower fall when I KNOW PEOPLE who work in that tower.

When two of my best friends work in the tower that still stands there, shimmering in the heat of the fire that is burning in its core.

I redialed D, and redialed, and redialed until finally there was a message about Verizon being overwhelmed and I realized that it was hopeless. That he was not going to be able to call me. That I was not going to be able to call him.

And I called my mother and the call went through she said “Hi Molly, how are you, are you guys OK? D doesn’t work down there, does he?”

And I thought you fucking bitch, how dare you think this is only about us, this is about NEW YORK. This is WAR. And I also thought WHY AREN’T YOU PANICKING.

“He was going down there for a meeting this morning, but I’m pretty sure he’s just landing at the midtown ferry now,” I told her. “Mom, I can’t believe this.”

“I know, it’s terrible,” she answered, “we were just watching The Today Show and saw what happened and we’re just in shock. Do you think anyone died, honey?”

And I said “I imagine yes, Mom, I think they did,” and inside I screamed into the abyss WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE ARE ON A SINGLE FLOOR IN THOSE BUILDINGS.

And she tried to talk about something else, and I said “mom, I gotta go,” and hung up on her.

I didn’t care if I never spoke to her again.

I watched TV and I ate and I drank black tea and I redialed D, and I called my friends and I cursed and cried as the phones rang and rang. No one answered. I imagined their deaths, and I planned for how to help their loved ones bury them and grieve them.

B, who was so smart and talented, and only worked there on Tuesdays, and today was Tuesday, and so she was there.

And C, who was so happy, so newlywed and happy in her Upper West Side apartment, right on the park, the exact view you wanted for the Parade, the view from Miracle on 34th Street.

And now, yup, there it was, crumbled. Not a bomb, a plane, a bomb of immense proportions, loaded with fuel for its cross-continental trip, slammed into her building.

Was. C. Alive.

I kept calling her, and B, and all of the other people I loved, hoping someone’s phone would connect, someone would be alive and answer questions.

They were so simple, my questions. Alive, or dead? Injured or whole?

The buildings were spread out now, climbing the wind in particles, in ghost dust, spreading out over the sky in the television’s screen. There was still this inverted mushroom cloud where they once stood, this topsy-turvy cap of gray swirling and boiling around the buildings in lower Manhattan.

I decided to go outside and down to the river. I wasn’t going to get more information from the mystified anchors, and Donald Trump was on, noting that now his tower was the tallest. They were playing the impacts and the collapses on repeat, endless loops of erections and deflations. It was terroristic. There were hundreds of thousands of people, right there.

Or were there?

I put on my shoes and let myself out into the hall.

I had the air conditioning on, and I hadn’t opened the windows, and when the smell hit me, I slammed the door shut behind me so it wouldn’t get into the apartment.

It was putrid outside in our hall. I looked down to the end, and someone had left a window open. Why? I had never once seen that useless hall window open.

I went to the stairs and double-timed them down to the sidewalk. Our condo complex was ugly and spare and the only thing going for it was the huge size of the condos and the location: right next to a strip mall with a Whole Foods, Outback, TJ Maxx, and Starbucks and, on the other side, a retirement community and beyond that a 17-plex that had a food court.

A ten-minute shuttle bus ride to the ferry, two parking spots in the underground garage, and a twenty-minute ride north to J’s house.

So. Convenient.

And so awful. The condo and all these malls and communities were built next to the old Maxwell House coffee plant, and the whole area was a Superfund site. The Hudson River hurtled past the bottom of the complex, where a brick walkway had been placed.

It was all a shoddy imitation of the gorgeous communities on the Upper West Side of Manhattan directly across the water.

J had chastised us for renting a unit close to the road, when an ocean view unit was available. But once she came by and smelled the rotting river, and the seeping sludge of whatever toxins were oozing out of the irrigated plantings, she clamped her mouth shut and said only “you made the right choice. Being close to the road means you’re closer to home!”

The river was gray and brown, as always. The walkway was wet, the tide was high and splashing. The sky overhead was brown and gray, too, and the smells of toxins and dead fish were base notes for the new smells, the top notes acrid and stinging, the mid-notes smokey and pungent.

It smelled like hell out there. Brimstone. I thought about what was in the smoke, for the first time.

It wasn’t clean smoke. It wasn’t wood, like the pine we burned in firepits in Vermont in winters. It wasn’t leaves on a fall day.

It was concrete. PVC pipes. Copper wires and black plastic. It was asbestos and insulation. I could feel the spikes in the air, the tiny little shards of glass that make up most building and insulation materials. I could smell flesh and bones burned to ash.

My uncle had once grossed us all out by pointing out that anything you can smell is actually that substance, swirling through the air. So when you smell a fart, he told us fascinated kids, you are smelling the actual poop of the person who farted. It’s in your NOSE.

I closed my tearing eyes and felt the wind sweeping the whole of the disaster into my nose. I breathed deeply.

These are the people, the lives, the history, the lost, I thought. I drew them up into my body, I cried as I stood there, facing hell, breathing it in, thinking if I could just draw them in, deep into my body, I could help them to hear home, help them to get to where they were going.

I could make them feel safe.

I could, I could, I could let them live, in me.

Over the next six weeks, as I went into the comfort station at the pier and tried to convince first responders to get a chair massage, I breathed deeply. Everyone else seemed to do the same. It was disrespectful to mask up. It was disrespectful to even notice the smell.

It was wrong to turn away, to cover our noses and our faces.

We only did it if we were ordered.

Otherwise, we breathed, deeply, and preserved whatever we could of the love, the immense love that day unleashed upon us all.

The skies were pink, and orange, and gold for months, lit up by our gratitude and our loss.



Molly Jacobson

Writer and Reader Who Lives on Maui.