Last evening when I finished volunteering at the hospital, I took a taxi home. I don’t live that far away and usually take the subway, but I was tired and thought, “What the heck, I don’t feel like dealing with crowds tonight.” No sooner was I in the car, then the driver started talking about 9/11, telling me where he’d been when he heard the news. As it happens, he was at the license bureau, renewing his license; and then he said, “I’ll never forget where I was.”
And neither will I.
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is always right after Labour Day. I’m a real film fanatic and have been going for years (not this year, though). And I’m one of the crazies — in 10 days, I’d see 50 films. You do the math. Anyway, I was in a movie. It started at 8:30 a.m. and, because it was a ‘small’ movie made by a totally unknown director, it was showing in a small theatre, at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum). I had four more movies to see that day; and a friend of mine was meeting me for the next one.
When the film was over I went outside and checked my voice mail. Now that I think back, it is very strange that no one was talking about what had happened, when we exited the theatre. There were film festival staff and volunteers there, who had to have heard the news by then. But not a word was said. It just seemed like a regular day.
I did, however, have a totally bizarre message from my mother, on my cell phone. She was a volunteer at the hospital where I now volunteer. Coincidentally, it is just a couple of doors down from the U.S. Embassy. In her message she said, “Can you believe a plane flew into a building, Fransi?” And then she went on to assure me that she was fine and I didn’t have to worry about her. To be honest, I thought she was losing her mind. In hindsight, she probably assumed that I’d be afraid of potential problems at the Embassy, and her proximity to it. But at that moment, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was clueless.
Cell phones have to be turned off in the hospital, so I knew calling her would be a waste of time. So I went back into the ROM, walked up to one of the volunteers and sheepishly asked if she’d heard anything about a plane flying into a building. To my utter amazement, shock and dismay, she was sketchy on the details, but she did say that two planes had flown into a building in New York. I even remember my next question: “Private planes?” “No”, she answered, “commercial planes”. And that was all she knew. Or all she was prepared to say.
Dazed and confused, I went back outside; and it still looked like a totally normal day. I was desperate to get more information, but honestly, I was completely discombobulated. I was having a tough time processing what little I did know. I couldn’t figure out where to go. And suddenly I realized that the Four Seasons Hotel was a block away and they’d have to know more. I’ll never forget the scene when I got there.
The lobby was filled, and I mean filled, with people. Sitting on the floor, sitting on tables and whatever furniture was around, leaning against walls. They were on cell phones and computers, and huddled together in groups, talking. Everyone was crying. There was not a square inch of space. Luggage was piled up everywhere. A TV, on a high trolley, had obviously been brought down to the lobby from Banquet Service, and it was against a wall.
As I carefully navigated my way around and through the crowd, trying to get close enough to the TV to see what they were watching, I heard a man say: “I feel like I’m watching a B movie.” Of course, everyone there was in the film business. They were here for TIFF. As what he was saying registered with me, I looked up and saw what was being shown on the screen. It was a replay of the first of the towers literally collapsing to the ground, like a huge deck of cards. A Salvador Dali painting, like the melting clocks. Flames and smoke everywhere. And people running. Running for their lives.
It was like a B movie. But it was real. Unbelievably, horrifically real.
Needless to say, the Festival shut down for the rest of the day. I moved from the hotel, to a neighbourhood restaurant that has a TV in the bar area, back to the hotel bar, where I joined up with friends who, like me, couldn’t bear the idea of going home.
And now that I think about it, I also remember where I was when President Kennedy got shot, when his brother, Robert Kennedy was shot, when the Challenger broke up seconds into its flight and when Princess Diana died in that car crash.
It’s ironic that the very tragedies and disasters we wish we could forget, we remember for the rest of our lives. In vivid detail. Ironic. But it’s as it should be. Some things should never be forgotten.