Martha’s Vineyard is an idyllic little island off the southern coast of Massachusetts, home to white sandy beaches bordered by long reedy grasses, lighthouses and old Yankee money. A Stromboli for Brahmans, there is not one traffic light on the entire island. The island has quaint harbours peppering the shoreline – some for working, some for playing – that are filled with bobbing boats for every budget: yachts, speedboats, trawlers, sailboats, tinnys and ferries, depending on whom they serve. The wealth there is nothing if not discreet; the real money (a lot of it ‘old’) is modestly tucked away up island, concealed from the road by thick New England sensibilities and vegetation, on properties with million-dollar views of the ocean.
The reserved quaintness of this place tells its story, and it is part of the patchwork of New England history. The Puritanical restraint of Edgartown is seen in the tidy white-trim cottages, their distinguished cedar shingles silvered by salt and wind; their only accessories are the blooming hydrangeas that stoically face the extremities of the seasons year in, year out. This is a contrast to the colourful gingerbread cottages of Oak Bluffs (still discreetly tucked behind the main street of the town) which look like they’re straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. Facing the harbours in both locations are the looming Victorian mansions, austere and intimidating as nuns, with their widow’s walks looking out across the churning dark Atlantic. All are testament to the Yankee work ethic, and built from the blood of whales, by the hands of prominent sea captains and the cheap labour of Portuguese immigrants. Before them all, were the Native Americans; like rolling waves over sand, they left no footprints behind. The only evidence of their existence is the tokenism in a few place names: Chilmark, Aquinnah, Menemsha – monikers infused with Yankee guilt.
This was the backdrop of my life at the time. Until September 11, 2001, when the outside world invaded in such a cruel and dramatic fashion. I had come to the Vineyard to lick my wounds after a marriage breakdown that had yet to be formally dissolved in an inevitable divorce. MV was close enough to my native Boston to make it attractive, yet far enough away (and an island) to make it feel like a significant change of scenery. My good friend Sue from high school knew what a shit show my life had become in the previous 12 months. She rang me one spring day and said, ‘Hey, what do you think about spending a summer on MV?’ She had some compelling arguments, enough to pique my interest. But my initial response was that we’d never find a place to live. Miraculously, everything aligned, and off we went for the season.
I had arrived in June of that year, and I spent the summer happily ensconced in a mostly media-free zone. This was when we were just on the precipice, before smartphones took over our lives and would make this reality a virtual impossibility. Sue and I didn’t have a TV in our little apartment. There was never a need for one. We worked nights, hosting vacationers, tending bar and waiting tables – so that was both our livelihood and our evening’s entertainment. Some weekend nights, there was even an almost hedonistic ‘what happens on the island, stays on the island’ vibe to the entire island. But it throbbed with fun, mostly of the good old fashioned variety: beers, beaches and bonfires.
Many of the tourists were from New England, and of course we had many New Yorkers, but it wasn’t uncommon to have overseas visitors either. For such a small place, the Vineyard has a pretty big reputation. It was, like most vacation destinations, easy to meet people, easy to socialize. Service industry work definitely requires chit chat and conversation, especially tending bar. But patrons didn’t want to talk about world events or wars or murders or crime. They were there to forget about all of that stuff, and that was part of the island’s appeal. They wanted to talk about where to get the best clams, ask where I was from, find out about hidden beaches. We were all willing participants in a collective media blackout bubble. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had watched the news or read a newspaper.
Until that morning of 9/11. It started off like any other morning. It was absolute perfection, weather-wise. I was enjoying my life so much, trying to savour every moment, as I knew the season was winding down. I would be gone in another six weeks, off to London for a teaching job. September on the Vineyard is an absolutely magic time. The rush of summer is finished; the kids have gone back to school. I wasn’t feeling compelled to work day upon day of double-shifts, gawking at the money I’d be turning down by not doing so. I got to be a tourist there too. Finally. It was like a reward and a recharge, after months of hard work. (August had felt about six months long.)
That morning, I had been out for either a run or a trip to the beach – I can’t recall now. But when I came back to our little apartment in Oak Bluffs, the answering machine’s little red light was on, indicating I had a message. I hit play, and heard Sue’s voice. She had gone back to Boston over the weekend, in preparation to start her nursing degree. ‘Hey Kell, I know we don’t have a TV, so I thought I’d let you know that a plane’s just hit the World Trade Center in New York.’ She made an apology about being the bearer of bad news on an answering machine, said her good byes and that we’d talk soon. I remember thinking, ‘Huh…’ but not much else. I certainly wasn’t worried. I just thought, ‘typical New Yorkers, with all their dramas.’ (I was a bit cynical after spending a summer serving up their oysters and pouring their beers. They were generally good tippers though.) I figured it was one of those commuter planes – they were so abundant at this time of year with people still to-in and fro-ing from their vacations out of the city. I went down to get a coffee, and I didn’t give too much more thought.
A few minutes later when I got to the coffee shop, I was waited on by one of the statuesque Eastern European girls, interchangeable Melanias so they were – all long limbs and bone structure. ‘Hey, did you hear a plane just hit a building in New York?’ she asked me while I waited for my coffee. ‘Yeah I did. Hopefully, it was just an accident.’ Obviously, this was big news if even the coffee shop girls were talking about it. Their customer service skills were brusque (they didn’t work for tips) and they usually just spent most of their time talking to one another in their native tongue – not chatting with customers. But I still didn’t think it was anything disastrous, just a testament to our relative proximity to Manhattan.
I went back to my apartment and drank my coffee and got ready for work – a lunch shift. Sue called again. There had been another plane. It was a suspected terrorist attack. But whatever it was, it was clearly no accident. My stomach contracted; it felt as small and puckered as a walnut. I quickly headed out the door to work so I could watch the TV in the bar. The shift in the atmosphere even outside was already palpable – no doubt because everyone was watching or listening to this all unfold in front of whatever TV or radio they had available. It was so still and quiet – eerily so – as I scooted up the street as quickly as I could, walk-running the three minutes in to work at Offshore Ale.
When I got to work, Bob, the owner and my boss, was already there with the TV on. This was highly unusual. (He was generally anti-TV, but had one to keep the Yankees fans happy as he liked to joke.) We spent the rest of morning, along with other colleagues as they arrived, glued to the TV. Like everyone in the nation. At some point, probably around noon, I made the decision to go home. To take the ferry back to Boston. I was probably on one of the safest locations I could have been at the time, but I just had to get back to family.
I packed a few things and tried to find out about the ferries – were they even still going to be running? At this stage, they were already grounding planes across the country, especially as news of the other catastrophes continued to roll in. They were, and I managed to get on one that afternoon.
I distinctly remember feeling both relieved as that ferry pulled away, and then anxious. All public transport could be a risk. I tried to put my fears aside. They seemed ridiculous. As the ferry chugged along, I distinctly remember going outside and looking out across that bright blue nearly cloudless September sky. That this same beautiful sky was also the very same one over Manhattan right at this very moment – with the smoke and debris and death – seemed an impossibility. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with that thought. It was so subdued on the ferry that day. The usual convivial atmosphere was gone. The sky above had no planes either, which just added to the unsettling quiet. I don’t ever recall feeling so alone, and just sad. For the people impacted, for the victims, for our collective national vulnerability. For my own marriage that had also officially died a death that summer. It was truly the end of an era.
Most of the rest of the minutiae of the day is lost. I made it back to my parents’ house in Dorchester, where they were also in shock. We all felt sad and helpless. We have family in New York. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, my cousin Dan was in the south tower when it was struck. He fortunately made it out that day. But we all know the stories: many others didn’t. As the stories of the first responders started to emerge in the wake of the events, the grief just intensified. I don’t remember when life started to resume its normal rythms. But when I got back to the Vineyard, it just wasn’t the same. A couple of weeks after the attacks, I was back waiting tables. The ale house was at capacity, and mostly full of New Yorkers that weekend, no doubt gripped by a sense of carpe diem. A guy at one of my tables started complaining to me about how long his burger was taking. I turned to him awash in unexpected anger and said, ‘Really? Well, at least you’re not trapped under rubble in lower Manhattan right now!’ A wave of contrition flashed briefly across his smug face. I just stared at him. I was pissed off at how quickly the gravity of the recent events seemed to have dissipated. It just didn’t seem right.
Now, 20 years on and a disastrous exit from Afghanistan later, we’re still feeling the consequences. This is something that has been a global cross to bear for an entire generation – not just for the West either. My heart still feels heavy when I think about all the hardships that have occurred, especially for Muslims. In many places impacted by US-led ‘conflicts’ it’s always civilians (in particular, women and children) who pay the consequences. We can never forget this day for so many reasons.