Houston remembers the day that changed our lives forever

As the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks arrives, there will be no shortage of words trying to make sense of the event. There also will likely be little success in the effort.

The mind can reel at t he thousands of moms, dads, sons, daughters, friends and family whose lives ended that day. It can accept the cruel fact that fanaticism abounds in the world, and will often bring tears to innocents. But wrapping everything up in a tidy package is quite another thing.

If the big picture cannot be made clear, the individual tiles that make up that mosaic can be seen more clearly. September 11 spawned millions of stories. Even Houston, half a country away from the tragedy, felt the ripples. Some lives changed forever, others only temporarily. Each offers a different perspective on what was let loose upon the world that day.

Clay Bland landed in Kandahar on his 25th birthday.
Troy Fields
Clay Bland landed in Kandahar on his 25th birthday.
Metro's Jeffrey Arndt had to coordinate a mass exodus from downtown.
Troy Fields
Metro's Jeffrey Arndt had to coordinate a mass exodus from downtown.

No collection of such stories will ever be comprehensive. But here is one such collection, a sampling of what 9/11 was to Houstonians. It's bookended by the memories of two Houston Press staffers.

Houston Press writer Wendy Grossman was overseas on September 11:

I was having a lovely day on Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich's Rodeo Drive. I shopped, sat in cafes drinking coffee and writing in my journal about what a bitch my friend Tonya was for leaving me homeless in a foreign country. (Long story.)

At dusk, I took the tram and the cable car up the mountain to my new friend Hans-Henrick's house. He asked if I'd seen the news.

No. Why would I watch the news when I was shopping?

Inside his living room, CNN showed the twin towers fall again and again. Next they showed the footage of the Pentagon. And I thought about how my brother takes the Tuesday-morning flight out of Dulles nearly every week. And how my uncle works at the Pentagon. And of all my college friends who work at the World Trade Center.

I wanted to go home. But the FAA had closed all the airports. Plus, I was far too afraid to get on a plane.

I met an American at the art museum Thursday. He had been returning to Chicago on a flight Tuesday. It had gotten halfway across the ocean when the terrorists attacked and the plane turned around. The airline had put those passengers up for a night, then told them they were on their own. The hotels and hostels were all booked with trapped travelers, so my new American friend was paying $100 a night to sleep on a cot.

We drank beer and talked about how if the world was at war, Switzerland wasn't a bad place to be.

Hans-Henrick's American roommate came home that night. He's a blond, blue-eyed frat boy who collects Maxim magazines. He works for UBS, the Swiss bank, and said he hadn't felt American until Tuesday. We bonded through our newfound patriotism until he started talking about how if it weren't for the Jews and Israel, the fucking ragheads wouldn't have blown up the buildings.

I'm Jewish.

I wanted to go home even more. On Friday, the U.S. was supposed to let flights back into the States. People boarded the planes. But then at the last minute, they canceled. My American friend took a flight to Canada and drove 14 hours in a rental car to return home.

Saturday morning I was on one of the first flights back. We had to tell a guard which items we carried had batteries, and we were asked which of our belongings could be used as a weapon.

My toothbrush? Maybe?

The girl behind me said her hairbrush was kind of sharp.

They let me bring a wrapped, ticking package onto the plane. A cuckoo clock for my mom.

Before the flight took off we had to fill out a form stating which of our loved ones should be called if the flight went down. That did not make me feel even remotely safe. I was too scared to sleep on the plane. I kept my dry eyes peeled awake through Dr. Dolittle 2 and old in-flight episodes of Andy Griffith. If the plane went down I wanted to be like that CNN reporter who made a bunch of phone calls.

When we neared New York, the plane silenced. The pilot made an arc far wider than usual. "This isn't how it's supposed to be," said the guy sitting next to me. He said they were flying off-route so we wouldn't see the skyline. It was nearly a week after the attack, but the smoke billowing from the twin towers was three times as high as the other buildings.

We had one of those horrible we're-gonna-die-now bumpy landings. But when we touched down and we weren't dead, everyone applauded.

Even though I had a boarding pass, the airport personnel in Newark wouldn't let me go to the gate. I have dark skin and dark eyes, and the bandanna I tied around my dark curly hair turned out to be a poor fashion choice. A gate agent told me she thought I looked too much like a terrorist.

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