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One Street on One Day Twenty Years Ago

- Emily Menges

"And it’s really an amazing journey everybody’s been on. One common thread of course is Tree Street and the relationships and all that kind of stuff.

But it’s a little bit blurry, Emily. One of the things that happened with 9/11 is - I remember that period of time and a couple years later, everything was bullet proof in my head, but over the years it’s all gotten faded and I think that’s just because it was such a painful day, it was such an impactful day, that a lot of the stuff you had in your head you kind of put away and locked it away. It would almost take sitting around in a circle with everyone who was there to bring it back out again.”

– Matthew, 22 Tree Street

Part I

A Nine-Year Old’s Perspective

It’s been twenty years since the attacks on the World Trade Center. Since September 11th, 2001, SEAL Team Six killed Osama Bin Laden, a new World Trade Center was erected in New York City, and the families whose lives were ripped open on that day have spent the last 20 years trying to put the pieces back together.

Everyone has their own story of where they were and what they were doing when they heard what happened. That day is burned into many memories as a snapshot in time.

I was nine.

I grew up on a street in the suburbs of Long Island a few blocks from the train station, a street we’ll be calling Tree Street in a town we’ll be calling Greenville, for the sake of everyone’s privacy; all names have been changed as well. Twenty residents of our small town were killed in the attacks. Six fathers on the short block of Tree St. were in Manhattan at 8:46am on September 11th, 2001. Three of those fathers were in the World Trade Center that morning. One never came home.

My fourth-grade class was in Art that morning when I started to realize something might be wrong. One kid, Jeff, who lived 3 houses down on Tree St., was taken out of Art class early to go to church. This was highly unusual. No kid in my memory had ever been pulled out of school for church.

Throughout the rest of the school day, I was vaguely aware of my teacher stepping in and out of the classroom more often than usual to whisper with the other teachers down the hall.

Later, the school bus chugged up Tree Street.

The bus was its own playground back then; barely chaperoned, it was our little commute home from school - a mirror of our dads who sat together on the train. Tree Street was the last stop on the bus route which meant as the seats slowly emptied and our classmates got off at their stops, we were left with each other, our little Tree St. crew. We would have races under the seats, play hide and seek, fly into the air with our hands up as the bus bounced over the train tracks, create secret handshakes, call songs into Z-100, all while ignoring poor Joey, the bus driver, yelling at us to “Sit down in the back!!!”

That bus ride was like every other, until we pulled up to our stop and my Dad was there. This was not protocol. Mom and dad walked with me back to our house. They looked very serious, and mom’s eyes were red. “The Twin Towers collapsed. Mr. John is stuck inside.”

I dropped my backpack and sprinted down the street to my friend Beth’s house at 22 Tree St. I rang the doorbell and stood with my nose inches from the screen door. I learned afterwards that the babysitter had been given strict instructions not to tell Beth what was going on as Beth’s father was still in the city, but as she came into the foyer I blurted, “The Twin Towers collapsed, and Mr. John is stuck inside. We have to go see Kasey.”

We ran back down the block with the sense that we could make this all better.

Jeff, the boy who had been at church while we were in school, was in his driveway. “The Twin Towers collapsed. Mr. John is stuck inside.” He already knew. We three walked across the lawn to Kasey’s house next door.

A group of moms were sitting on the John’s front porch. John’s wife had a small box television on her lap and the phone on the arm of her wicker chair. The rest of the moms were huddled around. We ignored them and they ignored us as we skipped up the porch and let ourselves into the house, through the dining room and into the kitchen where we found Kasey, head down on the table, her homework open underneath her arms.

In 2001, we had about 40 kids on Tree Street, and about ten of them were between the ages of 6 and 11. On a normal day, we would democratically decide on what game to play after school, with consideration of the weather and the number of kids who had finished their homework. If the group decided on a game you didn’t want to play, well, that was too bad because it’s tough to argue with “majority rules”. However, that day we let Kasey choose what game she wanted to play - the best way we knew how to cheer her up. She chose swing baseball - a game we had invented and played often - that was basically kickball but with one of those huge yellow balls, and instead of standing and kicking, you had to make contact with the ball while swinging on a swing. When it got dark, we made our way down to the basement to play a different game and then one by one our moms called down to tell us that it was time to go home.

Mr. John, Kasey’s dad, never came home.

As I write this now, my emotions remain somewhat detached. I know what happened and I know how it ended. But somehow, I am still the 9-year-old who thought we could cheer Kasey up by playing her favorite game. I witnessed this event through a child’s eyes, but just outside, on the porch of the John’s house and in the houses up and down Tree Street, our parents were experiencing something entirely different.

My parents still live on Tree St. as do the John’s and many of the other families who lived there in 2001. Earlier this year, I reached out to every family who lived there back then, who would have been on the block that day. I was hoping to put together some sort of 20-year anniversary tribute. I envisioned something like a memory log from the perspective of the moms at home, the dads in the city, the kids in school, the grandparents watching the day’s events unfold; a conglomeration of stories from anyone on Tree St. who had something to share. I received only 6 responses, and all of them were from the fathers of Tree Street.

Four of the dads submitted written recollections which, except for grammar and spelling, I left entirely untouched. Two dads had a harder time putting words to paper and instead spoke through their stories to me over the phone. I begin and end with one of those conversations and insert the other five in the middle as stand-alone stories. Again, I changed all names to protect privacy.

This piece is for everyone around the world whose lives were changed on September 11, 2001, for all the families on Tree St., for the six fathers who shared their stories, and above all for the one who never came home.


WTC = World Trade Center

North Tower = Tower 1

South Tower = Tower 2

Long Island Rail Road = LIRR

Part II

Parallel Lives: September 11th, 2001

Scroll through their words

Part II Continued

Parallel Lives: September 11th, 2001

Read through their stories







Part III

Parallel Lives: September 12th and On

Scroll through their words

Part IV

The Bubble Was Burst

“And ya know, Emily, in a sense Greenville was a bubble. We had 20 people killed that day, but the bubble of Greenville was even narrowed down to the bubble of Tree Street, and the relationships that we all had. John was a peer to me in that he was a husband, a father, a neighbor, a friend, a train companion. Both your dad, Peter, and Phillip. And John, while he was a relatively quiet guy, he also had a great sense of humor, there was no doubt about how much he loved his wife and he loved his kids, and he was always playing with the kids and putting them in front of anything else.

“We all lived in this bubble of Greenville - in this safe, secure world. We were not privy to terrors and terrorism, the Al-Qaeda’s of the world, Bin Laden, all that stuff. That was never anything that would ever happen, we barely ever even saw crime, and we sent our kids off to safe schools and they got to ride their bikes and stay on a safe street, but now when you think of what happened after that day - meaning we saw a family get fractured - we all went to an incredibly sad memorial/funeral mass for him. We, and you guys [kids] did the same thing, we all had peers that you really had a hard time knowing how to comfort. You almost didn’t know what to say. And your mom and my wife, as much as they had a relationship with Mrs. John, there’s almost no way to explain how to try to rebuild that relationship after something like that happens.

“Because it is so hard for someone to walk in someone else’s shoes. No one could know what it would be like if it has never happened to you. And of course, that can be said for tons and tons of people. Right? Everybody has somebody they’ve lost. But when you’re in the same kind of timeline with everybody else, in other words you’ve got this family - they’re literally right next door to you, your kids are the same age, you go to the same school, you go to the same church, you have the same morals - it’s almost indescribable to try to understand how those people move forward when really nothing happened to you in comparison.

“And when it happens to you, you try to justify ‘why did that happen to him and to us? Nothing happened to those guys over there.’ And let me give you an expression, I say this all the time: when you’re driving in HOV, or in the left lane, it’s an expression my dad used to say, ‘Oh he’s doing great, he’s in the left lane. He’s just cruising through life.’ That expression, the left lane, is a metaphor. There’s no traffic, there’s no slow down, so if you use that metaphor talking about families – parallel families – it’s very difficult because 9/11, even though it glued us together in a way that’s very hard to explain, even though it happened to all of us at the same time, some were effected way more than others and, upon reflection, it really shows you the inequity and the unfairness of life.

“We were all hitting our stride and feeling pretty good about stuff and all of a sudden – whamo! None of us were really in that quote-on-quote easy “left lane of life” from that day forward. The bubble was burst and we went on in life, and there was more pain and suffering to come beyond 9/11.”

- Matthew, 22 Tree St.

And Tree Street was a bubble.

Even as kids we were aware of that. Not in the sense our parents talk about, the safety and security of it, but as kids we had our own world. As long as we stayed on the block, as long as we were home by dinner, we had ultimate freedom. We had 23 houses, 23 front and backyards to run through, a couple of basements to play in, a group of friends, multiple fridges for snacks, and a quiet street to walk up and down at night talking and messing around.

I don’t remember much in the days after the attacks. My mom told me the teachers were obsessed

with helping us process everything. God Bless America and “Draw a picture of what you can do to cheer yourself up when you’re feeling sad.”

But of course, I don’t remember that; that just felt like normal school.

I do remember how Kasey went to school the next day. I remember holding out hope for weeks that Mr. John was still alive somewhere, at a hospital in New York City, memory lost and unidentifiable like the dad in A Little Princess, and how he would eventually walk up Tree St as if he’d only been gone a few hours. Again, I was 9. But I think everyone held out hope since hardly any bodies were found.

And I remember being so fixated and fascinated with all the close calls back then. The grown-ups who almost got on a flight but decided against it because they had a weird feeling. The ones who hadn’t missed a day of work in years but decided to skip that day. The ones whose wives convinced them to stay home, the ones who missed the train or their flights. I was in awe of the people who skirted death by some lucky accident.

But what I never spent much time thinking about was how there was another whole group of people: the ones who went into work that morning to do their job but never came home. The thousands who weren’t lucky. Those who ignored the “funny” feeling or were on time for the train. And like Mr. Matthew said, it really exposes the true unfairness of the world, and how luck, in the end, really is the only variable that matters.

Twenty families on Tree St., a group of fathers hitting their stride, three in the buildings that day, one never came home. It makes life feel a little bit more like a crapshoot.

Eventually there was a memorial service for Mr. John. I remember the sadness and Kasey in a dress, a rare occurrence, but mostly I remember everyone from Tree Street. All the kids and parents, all my friends and my safe little world, cracked and bruised, devastated, and missing a member, but still there together, holding one another up. We had cups of candy, individually wrapped wintergreen mints, and Kasey got to pick the movie we watched in the back room as her mom, surrounded by our parents, thanked the guests.

The 9-year-olds, Beth, Jeff, Kasey, myself and all the other kids on the block are nearing the age our parents were when those attacks happened. We are the ones hitting our stride. Spread all around the country now, we’ve watched and been there for each other’s successes, struggles, life, and death. And we will always have a second family who, at one time 20 years ago, rode the bus home from school on September 11, 2001 and stepped off the bus and onto Tree St.

- Emily, Corner of Tree St.


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