I was taking grad courses in suburban Philadelphia that morning. (Last night, I found the careful notes I'd taken on that long ago morning, in Saul Wachs' class on Shabbat Liturgy.) By lunchtime, classes were cancelled and, because the trains were shut down, I hitced a ride from a classmate, who took me as far south as Temple University before traffic got ridiculous and she had to turn and head west. I thanked her, hopped out and walked the rest of the way home, rubbing shoulders with Temple students and worried residents of the surrounding neighborhood.
When I got to a phone booth in front of the Free Library at 17th and JFK -- I didn't have a cell phone back then -- I stood in line and waited to call my father, who would be worried that his youngest was living between two of the attack sites. Philadelphia was, roughly, only a hundred miles from everywhere that things were happening. What I remember is the sound of Dad's voice -- deep and resonant as always, and sad and a little scared. He was so glad to hear from me. I couldn't talk long -- there were many dozens of people in line behind me -- so we told each other "I love you" and I hung up, and walked the rest of the way home to my roach-infested apartment near Rittenhouse Square. I sat there for the rest of the afternoon, watching the occasional cockroach skitter across the kitchen floor and listening to the radio. After a few hours, I turned it off when I could no longer bear to listen, and went for an aimless walk around the neighborhood. People were waiting in lines at phone booths, sitting huddled together in bars and coffeehouses; a few shops had turned their TV sets to the front of their display windows so passersby could watch the news, bleating the same awful things over and over as if on some kind of loop. Churches in the neighborhood had their doors open and people came and went, to light a candle or say a prayer on their way home. The synagogue nearest my place was locked up tight. I walked all the way down to the bike shop on South Street where I worked part-time. The owner was there, sitting on a bench in front of his closed-up shop, drinking beer and eating a huge chicken sandwich his wife had made him. I enjoyed his wife's cooking when I worked nights there -- free dinner was part of the deal. C held out the other half of the sandwich to me. I wasn't hungry and politely refused. He wrapped it up in a newspaper and told me to take it home for later, and then loaded up my cargo shorts pockets with four stubbies of beer and an apple. We hugged silently and then he got on his bike and rode away. I walked the ten blocks home in silence. Along the way, I looked at burned-out buildings and vacant lots with gravel and potholes. My father had grown up in this city; his voice on the phone had been my excited tour guide when I moved there to take graduate school classes. I wonder how much of South Philly looked this way when he'd left in the fifties.
I tried to sleep, but it was too warm and I was too wound up. In the end I sat on the front stoop of my apartment house, with a candle in a jar for some light. Several front stoops on my block displayed similar candles. At midnight, I finally ate the half sandwich and drank a beer and stared at the sky. In my head, I heard my father's voice, comforting me, reassuring me, telling me things would be alright. They wouldn't be, of course -- and in some ways, they haven't been ever since. But that night, I went to bed with the sound of my father's voice in my head, terribly sad about the day but grateful that I still had a parent in the world to worry about me so. Thirteen years later, I can still hear his voice in my head, and I miss him.