Remembering 9/11: A firsthand account, 15 years later

This story, of my father’s experiences on Sept. 11, 2001, was originally published in the Sept. 7, 2016 issue of The Hawk.

Around 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, the phone started ringing.

The night before, Michael Christaldi had been attending acting classes at HB Studios in Greenwich Village, and had arrived back home in Cherry Hill, N.J. around 1 a.m.

Christaldi had the day off from his job as a conductor at Amtrak, where he had been working for almost three years.

After getting home so late, he had hoped to get some sleep. But the shrill ring of the phone kept breaking the silence.

One call after another came in, going to the answering machine.

“Mike, give me a call when you get this message and let me know that you’re ok.”

“Mike, give me a call when you get a chance.”

“Give me a call and let me know, I want to know if you’re going to pick Angela up with everything that’s going on in New York and Washington, D.C.”

This last message, from Christaldi’s ex-wife Sonya, prompted him to turn on the television.

“I put CNN on right away, and just as I did, the second plane hit the second tower,” Christaldi recalled.

As Christaldi watched the news, his phone continued to ring in the background. With the sun shining outside, in sharp contrast with the images on the television, the magnitude of what was happening started to rush over him. He realized that New York City was under attack. It wasn’t just a movie trailer. These scenes were real.

“I thought it was a commercial for a film that was coming out,” Christaldi said. “The absurdity of seeing an airplane go through a skyscraper was just unfathomable. It had never happened before, and you didn’t think that it would ever happen.”

With the news playing in the background, repeating the footage on a seemingly eternal loop, yet another phone call came in.

This time, it wasn’t a concerned family member on the other end of the line. It was the Amtrak dispatcher.

“Mr. Christaldi, there’s a lot of people calling out of work today, and we need people to come in. Would you mind coming in to work?”

All transportation had been running normally in New York City earlier that morning. However, following the attacks, Amtrak was the only service running in and out of New York City. The company had suspended service immediately following the attacks, but planned on resuming operation in the early afternoon.

Bridges and tunnels were closed to all traffic except for emergency vehicles. Nothing was allowed in the sky, save for the aircraft broadcasting live images for the news stations. All forms of transportation were shut down.

Everyone in the city was stuck.

No one wanted to be the one working the train straight into the epicenter of the tragedy.

Christaldi called the dispatcher back, and was told that he was to ride from Philadelphia to New York, then back to Washington, D.C., and finally, on to Philadelphia.

“I’m not going to all the places they’re blowing up,” he told the dispatcher. “I’ll go to one of the places they’re blowing up, but I’m not going to all the places they’re blowing up.

He chose to go to New York.

Christaldi, along with a coworker, boarded a 2 p.m. train out of Philadelphia.

What was usually his daily routine was warped into something that he would never forget.

Prior to that day, he would always point out some of the city’s landmarks to the tourists riding his train: the World Trade Center towers, and the Empire State Building, among them.

That was never going to happen again.

“As we’re going in, and I look at where the World Trade Center used to be, all I see is two big black cylinders of smoke, going from the ground into the sky,” he recalled. “At some point in the sky, the cylinders of smoke met, and went out to the right, from New York into New Jersey. Just this huge, huge billowing smoke.”

After the train arrived at Penn Station, Christaldi immediately went up to the street level at Seventh Avenue.

Everything was deadly quiet. No cabs honking their horns, no people bustling around and chatting, no musicians playing on the street corners. Just silence.

Silence, and the smell of smoke.

Even 35 blocks from what would become known as Ground Zero, the air smelled like the burning wreckage.

“My first impression was, ‘My God, look how they devastated this city.'”

The next day, he was called into work and returned to Manhattan again.

New York City had changed drastically over the course of 24 hours. Every available, vaguely flat surface–trash cans, walls, construction barriers–was covered with signs posted by desperate relatives searching for their loved ones.

“It was devastating,” Christaldi said, “because it put a face to all the people that died in the building. Because at that point, you weren’t really putting a face to it. There was just so much confusion going on. But when you actually saw these papers… it hit you in the face at that point.”

A month later, he traveled to Ground Zero with some friends.

“There was still smoke, and things smoldering in the wreckage, still at that point,” he said.

Even years later, Christaldi is still haunted by what he saw that day: The silent, burning streets of New York City. The faces of the missing, that would eventually become the faces of the dead.

The desperation. The fear. The smoke.

“You could smell whatever was coming down in those buildings, and the fire, it was in the air. I can still remember that eerie silence, I can still remember how the air smelled,” he recalled.

 

Grad School Diaries: A Prologue

Do you remember the feeling in the pit of your stomach on Christmas morning? The anticipation and excitement caused all kinds of flutters and butterflies. Or maybe the feeling you had as an awkward 7th grader, seeing your crush walk by–the warm, fluttery feeling of contentment and potential that popped up whenever you’d run into them “by accident” in the hallway.

That same sort of fluttery anticipation is how I feel about starting grad school tomorrow. Every time I think about classes starting I get that same feeling of excitement. I guess that’s a sign that I made the right choice?

It’s another first day of school, one I didn’t originally anticipate happening, but here it is.

Is there a specific etiquette I’m supposed to follow now that I’m a grad student? I’ve got the stressed, over-caffeinated part down pat after four years at a newspaper, but is that not cool anymore? Am I supposed to be calm, cool, and collected now, giving off a vibe of “I’m totally in control of my life,” rather than exuding the panic everyone felt during undergrad? If so, that’s a role I need a lot more practice for.

Of course, there’s always the “be yourself” route, but that’s never really what anyone does, is it? What always ends up happening is that, in trying to be “yourself,” you play the role of what you think is the best version of you–the one who shows up in your highly-curated instagram feed, not the one who regularly hits the snooze button and leaves the house with a run in her tights.

Is there a happy medium? I’m not sure. If there is, I haven’t found it yet.

I may be blowing this whole thing out of proportion.

“Pfft, Ange,” you may be saying to yourself, “Of course there’s not a specific code of etiquette in grad school, everyone is broke and stressed, you’ll be fine.”

Sorry, can’t help the whole ‘blowing things out of proportion’ thing–it comes with the anxiety that I can’t seem to shake. 

Speaking of anxiety–I attended my orientation this evening, and while I was nervous to show up to a room full of strangers, it went far better than I had anticipated. Probably because I was jamming to Lorde before I got out of the car, in hopes of a confidence boost. Despite the fact that I made a couple wrong turns on campus, and that I didn’t know anyone in my program, tonight’s orientation  reaffirmed that I made the right choice about the school, the program, and my path.

There are so many incredible, brilliant people I can’t wait to know better, and though we’ve all come from different places and paths, we’re all bound by one common thread: our desire to delve deeper into the pages of the books we love so much. While I wasn’t sure about my plans until last fall, I know now that this is what I am meant to do.

I do truly feel that this is what I’m meant to be doing with my life, but that doesn’t mean I have the hang of it quite yet. Full disclosure: Despite the fact that tomorrow is the first day of classes, I’m not quite caught up on my reading (James Joyce might be the death of me), I have no idea what I’m going to wear (not that that’s particularly important, but I do want to look like something resembling a functional adult), and I’m really not sure what to expect.

I’m sure everything will turn out fine–no matter how nervous I get, I can’t deny the presence of the butterflies that appear in my stomach whenever I think about starting classes.

As someone dear to me once wrote, “Dream big. Learn. Create. Teach. Repeat.”

That’s the goal.

Here’s hoping I can pull it off.

“You Are Here:” Meeting The Bloggess in Philadelphia

I wrote something for the writer who inspired me to keep writing #verklempt

“Weird on, you bad-ass motherfucker.”

Even after a flight delay, several inches of snow, and forgotten medications, Jenny Lawson, better known as The Bloggess, shined during her reading and Q&A in Philadelphia on Wednesday night.

Jenny Lawson speaking at the Rittenhouse Barnes and Noble in Philadelphia

I first discovered The Bloggess my freshman year of college, when her first book Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) popped up on a list of the best memoirs for young women to read. I had recently been diagnosed with anxiety and depression (though I wouldn’t begin taking medication for it until a year later), so reading about someone else’s struggles with mental illness made me feel less alone. Jenny Lawson is candid about her struggles, and as a young woman feeling a bit lost in the world, I felt understood.

In that book, she writes, “…you are defined not by life’s imperfect moments, but by your reaction to them. And because there is joy in embracing – rather than running from – the utter absurdity of life.”

This quote, more than any other from that book, has stuck with me, even years after I first read it. I needed to learn how to embrace what she calls “the utter absurdity of life,” and I’d like to think that, since then, I have.

Ever since I read her first book, I’ve followed Jenny Lawson’s work. As a young writer, and as someone who struggles with mental health issues, she is the very definition of a role model.

Is bringing a signed copy to a reading to get signed again frowned upon? “Double-signed for awesomeness!!”

Her second book, Furiously Happy, is a collection of essays that completely changed my life. She delves into more detail about her mental health issues and how she deals with them, and again, I saw myself reflected in the things she discussed. It’s rare to find an author whose writing strikes such a chord; I felt understood and loved and not alone. I felt like, in a way, she was writing about me. I felt like she could be one of my best friends.

During her book tour for Furiously Happy, Lawson began posting photos of her drawings to social media; she has stated that she draws to “keep [her] hands from hurting [herself].” She revealed during her reading at Barnes and Noble that she was supposed to be starting another collection of essays, but her depression was preventing her from writing. Instead, she drew gorgeous patterns and pictures, which eventually became You are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds.

Signed copy of Jenny Lawson’s latest book, “You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds”

I don’t often go to readings, and I almost didn’t attend this one. However, there was something telling me that I had to go, that I would regret it if I missed this chance. I drove to Philadelphia in a swirling snowstorm, and trudged through the leftover snowbanks to get to the bookstore. I arrived late, and ended up sitting on the floor behind the author’s table.

I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

It’s not often you get to meet one of your idols. It’s even rarer that you’re able to thank them for everything they’ve done for you.

After her reading, and a Q&A session that was honest and inspiring, I got in line to get my books signed (well, Furiously Happy would be getting signed again…). All day, I had thought about what I would say when I finally got to meet her. When the time came? Everything I’d planned to say disappeared from my head. My hands were shaking. I could barely form a sentence beyond, “Thank you.” After a few seconds to compose myself, I handed her the letter I’d written, thanked her profusely for everything, and got my picture with her.

In a matter of minutes, it was over. But they were some of the best minutes of my life.

Jenny Lawson taught me to be furiously happy. She taught me that I don’t have to be afraid of myself, but rather, that my imperfections make me who I am. She showed me that depression lies, and that sometimes, it’s okay not to be okay. She is brilliant, hilarious, and so, so kind, and I still can’t believe I was lucky enough to meet her. I’ll never be able to thank her enough for the inspiration and courage she’s given me, but I hope that, through some cosmic, universal magic, she knows how much she means to me and everyone else whose lives she’s touched.

Thank you, Jenny Lawson, for everything.    

When you get to meet one of your favorite authors!!

Here goes nothing

Well, here we are.

In my reasonless insomnia last night, I decided that 2:30 a.m. was the perfect time to design a website. I’ve been meaning to do so for a long time, and I guess there’s no time like the present. I’m not entirely sure what I want to write about, so this will probably end up as a mess of pop culture discussions, political rants, and a lot of emotions.

The emotions come with the territory of having anxiety and depression. I’ve been on medication for about two years now, and I’m still learning how to deal with everything that the diagnosis entails. There’s such a stigma about mental illness–don’t talk about it, just go on pretending that everything is alright, and you’ll be fine in the end. Right?

Not so much.

I’ve been doing well lately but my brain chemistry always keeps things interesting. It seems to vacillate between being well-adjusted and comfortable, super on-edge, and feeling nothing at all. It depends on the day, really.

As a college student, this can be really inconvenient–school is hard enough without your own body trying to sabotage your progress.

Like I said, though–I’m dealing with it.

Why don’t you join me on this marvelous adventure?

Bloodline

I am from the green hills and rainy skies of County Mayo.

I am from Caltabellotta, on the western coast of Sicily.

I am from South Philadelphia, the descendant of a seamstress.

From Germantown, a housemaid’s proud great-great-granddaughter.

I am from New Jersey, the fourth generation to live in a small city full of Italian Catholics.

I come from women who sacrificed everything.

Who left behind everything in search of a better life

Who worked their whole lives to make sure their daughters’ would be better.

Working in tailor’s shops, hospitals, doctor’s offices, hair salons, hotels, casinos, restaurants

As seamstresses, nurses, secretaries, waitresses, hairstylists, entrepreneurs.

I come from women unafraid of the future, brave in the face of loss and the unknown

Women who raised their daughters to be strong, to fight back, to work hard and never give in.

They faced discrimination, hardships, uncertainties, with their heads held high.

I grew up under the guidance of two of the greatest women this world has ever known:

A divorcée who worked as a secretary, a cleaning lady, a single mother

Who raised a daughter

Who fought back against the people who hurt her

And wasn’t afraid to leave.

She worked every day she could, in order to create a better life.

She had a daughter, and raised her to be strong, to be smart, to always know her worth and follow her dreams.

Her daughter was always told that she could do anything she wanted.

The daughter grew up to be her mother’s best friend, and to this day wants nothing else to be as strong and incredible as the woman who raised her.

She knows the women who paved the way for her faced impossibilities

Of loss, discrimination, work, refusal, abuse.

These sacrifices are what gave her life

And she will never forget

where she came from:

From women who worked their whole lives to give their daughters better lives, who raised their daughters to work hard, be confident, and stand their ground.

She wants nothing more than to make them proud.