9/11 Reflections, 13 Years Later

Photo: CNN

Eddie Brill is a comedian, writer and actor.  He is also a native New Yorker living in the East Village. HooplaHa invited Eddie to visit the museum and share with us his memory of that tragic day and how now, 13 years later, tragedy turns to triumph as we honor those we lost.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was leaning against one of the towers.

It was June 7th, 2001 and I was hosting a show for Mad Magazine.

It was a combination stand-up show and an Alfred E. Neuman look-a-like contest, held on the Twin Towers Stage at the World Trade Center’s Austin J. Tobin Plaza.  While the acts were on…I stood to the back of the stage…propped up against the wall.

Three months later the walls were gone, and there was nothing funny going on in that space.

Photo: Jin Lee

On that incredibly beautiful Tuesday morning, I kissed my girlfriend goodbye as she headed up north to work and I got ready to fly to Los Angeles.

In March of that year I was made booker of the stand-up comedians for The Late Show with David Letterman.  I was on my way to audition thirty comics at three different L.A. comedy clubs, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights, September 11th, 12th and 13th.  On Friday the 14th I had an audition set of my own at the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard for the Politically Incorrect TV program.  On Saturday, I would attend the Emmy party that David Letterman would throw for all of the casts and crews of the shows under his Worldwide Pants umbrella.  And then on Sunday, I’d wear the tuxedo I just had made for me in mid-August during my first stand-up venture in the majestic city of Hong Kong…to go to the Emmy Awards Telecast.

The very same tuxedo that stayed hanging on my door in NYC.

It turns out, I wasn’t going anywhere.

My flight was scheduled at 11 am out of Newark.  I had arranged for the car service to pick me up at 9:30.

I was checking last minute details on my computer when I got an Instant Message from my nephew telling me to turn the television on.  Supposedly a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  Most people speculated that it was a tiny Cessna plane that had gotten into trouble and although it was still a tragedy…the scenario seemed more careless than horrific.

As a typical New Yorker, who by chance had to take the Holland Tunnel to Newark Airport, which was not far from the WTC, I was pissed that I was now inconvenienced by this "accident."  I immediately called the car service company to contact the driver to pick me up as soon as he could because we now had to take the more northern, out-of-the-way route to the Lincoln Tunnel.

And then it happened.  A second plane hit the World Trade Center.

A few moments later, which seemed like an hour, where everything was moving in slow motion, the driver called me to tell me he was on his way.  I let him know that in my heart of hearts, that it didn’t matter.

We weren’t going anywhere.

Photo: Jin Lee

So many things were wrong.  It was like I was watching twenty different movies at once and none of them were making sense.  I lived close to the action.  I could see the buildings on fire, I could literally smell the tragedy in the air.  The only thing that really stood out to me, was how beautiful a day it was.

A psychotic dichotomy.

So much beauty juxtaposed against so much horror.

As I walked around in a haze, with the surreal sound of F-15 fighters flying overhead, I was glad in a way that I wasn’t out of the city when it happened.  This was my city, and I will always be oddly thankful for spending the morning after in my home.  One of eight million captains staying with our ship.

After a long day of being glued to the TV news, I decided to try and take the legs out from under this horrific day.

My city was attacked.

Many people I knew…and many, many more who I didn’t know…had died for no reason.

I felt I needed a comedy fix.

I went across the street and rented three movies.

“Waiting For Guffman,” “Best in Show” and “Dr Strangelove.”

Funny, clever and dark.  The last one about a bomb.   I was basically numbing myself with comedy, my drug of choice.  Yet after watching these films, the horror was still in the pit of my stomach.

The next day, I called some friends.  I said we need to take this sadness back from who brought it.  Let’s get together and play cards and turn off the TV news and listen to music and joke around about it all.

Joking in the same way oncologist nurses do all the time about death, because they can’t allow themselves to get too close to their patients.

Since I lived south of Union Square...my friends had to get out of the subway and walk downtown past the barriers that started at 14th street to come to my place.

We got together and were making the best of a horrific situation, on the surface, by getting a cathartic laugh or two.

Just a few minutes later, the phone rang.

It was a friend’s sister.  Telling us that there was a bomb scare at the Empire State Building.

It seemed like all of the blood rushed out of our heads…and we turned on the TV to see.  After a while it turned out to be a false alarm.  But it frightened us.  The game broke up immediately and everyone somberly made their way back home.

The news never got better.  The loss of lives were staggering.  The only good I could take out of this was in the beauty of the human soul that came together instead of coming apart as a result of this maleficent attack.

Photo: Jin Lee

In Cosmopolitan magazine in February of 1957, Tonight Show host Steve Allen presented his viewpoint on the genesis of comedy:

“Man jokes about the things that depress him, but he usually waits till a certain amount of time has passed. It must have been a tragedy when Judge Crater disappeared, but everybody jokes about it now. I guess you can make a mathematical formula out of it. Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”

It seemed like nothing was ever gonna be funny again.

As the days wore on…slowly but surely we started the healing process.  And, yes, comedy played a big part in it.

I experienced it first hand working for David Letterman, the night he came back after 9/11.  I was so proud to work for that man and so proud to be on that illustrious stage that day.  Dave made it okay to start that healing process. First talking seriously with Dan Rather, and then joking around with Regis Philbin.

A week later I did my first stand up comedy show since the tragedy at the aptly named, “Stress Factory” comedy club in East Brunswick, NJ.  The audience laughed hard and often.  It felt good for them to laugh and it felt powerful for me to hear it.

I had only heard laughter that HARD once before.  The time I performed for the fine folks of San Francisco right after the earthquake in 1989.  The laughter was powerful, healing, cathartic.

But this time it was close to home.  In my heart, in my soul, in my city.

Today, the feelings of that tragic event in lower Manhattan came rushing back.

Photo: Amy Dreher

I went to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, located snugly between the Freedom Tower and the 9/11 Memorial Fountain.

It was full of artifacts, remnants and memories that honor and haunt all at the same time.

Everyone was walking around slowly and there was no laughing anywhere.  The sound of a baby crying abruptly broke the silence in the place for me.  It brought me out of the spell I was in.

I had found out something at the museum that I didn’t know until today.  That all of the planes that were hijacked were heading to California.  Most likely because they had the most fuel in them.  That fateful morning, I was heading to California.  It made me shudder to think about MY fate.

Why is there so much hate in the world?  And what could drive people to be so ruthless?  Those were some of the themes running through my head all day.  Could it be greed, could it be fear-based teaching?  We might never know.

At the museum I saw a masonry brick from Osama Bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad.  It seemed out of place…and I didn’t want it to be there.  I didn’t want that piece of acrimony in the building.

Photo: Jin Lee

But more than that, the museum represented to me the incredible bravery and honor of the human spirit.  The men and women who risked everything that day to save other’s lives.  The extraordinary compassion and dignity of so many amazing people in the face of so much immorality.

I have lost many people in my life.  And way too young.  I have learned the best way for me to heal is to focus on celebrating their lives, as opposed to just mourning their deaths.

I witnessed that the 9/11 Museum is a precious way to do that.

You can complain about the museum having a gift shop or them charging admission price to see the exhibits, but you’d be missing the point.

This museum, despite it’s sometimes horrible reminders, is a tribute to those people, those survivors, those heroes.

Nothing to laugh about, a lot to cry about, and so much more to be proud of.

Photo: Jin Lee

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