I had just moved back to Chicago after a year abroad. On the morning of 9/11 I walked to my old bank to reopen my account. I didn't watch TV or talk to anyone that morning, so I didn't know about the attacks until I was waiting in line at the bank. On my way home I was accosted by three Puerto Rican guys hanging out in front of a mom-and-pop corner store. They asked me if I was a Palestinian spy, if I had anything to do with the attacks, and other insane questions. I didn't tell them my ethnicity (Puerto Rican and Irish); I just stared at them dumbfounded, hardly believing what I was hearing. Then I thought about my appearance. I had short hair and a thick beard and I was wearing some vaguely foreign-looking clothes: a colorful vest from Costa Rica and a little red had with dragons on top from China. They didn't like the beard and the hat and commented to each other about it in Spanish, thinking a Palestinian spy like me wouldn't understand. I immediately took off the hat, they laughed, and I went home. Turned on the TV and saw that all Arab neighborhoods in the city were shut down by the police. No one was allowed in these areas without ID to prove that they lived there because vigilante attacks against Arabs had started almost immediately. I hardly left the house for a couple weeks.
I decided to keep wearing the beard and the Chinese hat even if it made me a target for rude comments and death threats. If the US of A is the great land of liberty that American nationalists say it is, then I was going to exercise the freedom to be myself rather than be cowed by pseudo-patriots. However, I didn't feel like sticking around Chicago anymore. I spent the next few months traveling around the eastern US.
I was in Boston for a week in mid-October. When I boarded the Amtrak train in Erie, the conductor saw that I was holding a newspaper with a headline announcing the commencement of the invasion of Afghanistan. He said, "Did we start nuking those bastards yet?" When I got to Boston and Cambridge, I saw that some stores had signs in their windows that showed an American flag next to a green flag with a star and crescent moon. They expressed solidarity with Muslims who suddenly found themselves living in a hostile environment and said that in these shops, at least, they "need not fear guilt by association." There were peace demonstrations on the streets. Local police took photographs of the demonstrators and said that they had been told to do so by the FBI. There was a cafe under construction on Mass. Ave. near MIT. The owners put up temporary wooden construction zone walls around the cafe. People from the neighborhood painted the walls with images and messages of peace. It was a beautiful and spontaneous communal effort.
I was in a bar in Central Square on October 11. George Bush was giving a press conference. His answer to every question, no matter what it was, was some variation on the phrase "We will bring Bin Laden to justice." He used the word "justice" easily over 100 times. Not surprisingly, the headline of the Boston Globe the following day read something to the effect of, "Bush Vows Justice for Bin Laden."
I went back to Chicago briefly over Halloween. I saw a young guy on the street at Logan Square who was dressed up as the anthrax envelope that was mailed to Senator Tom Daschle. It was actually very well done. He had the handwriting, the stamp, postmark... it looked just like the real envelope, except that this version was four feet wide. He was holding white powder in his hand and asking passersby, "Ya want some anthrax?" He was really pushing the envelope.
I went to New York two months after the attacks. I stayed with a couple of friends in Brooklyn, one of whom worked on the 51st floor of Tower 2 (the south tower) and the other in a building across the street that was severely damaged by falling debris and eventually demolished. They both started work late in the morning and so saw the events unfold from the roof of their apartment rather than up close. Since the trains didn't run for the rest of the day, a lot of people had to walk home. A river of people walked past my friends' place on their way to various points on Long Island. Residents stood outside their homes and gave out snacks and drinks to the foot commuters. My friend who worked on the 51st floor was pretty shaken up. He was having nightmares and would jump at sudden noises. He declared that he'd never work in another skyscraper again.
I went into Lower Manhattan. They were still cleaning dust off the streets and buildings in the neighborhood. The wreckage was still smoking and I could see the pile of debris over the top of the fence they put around the World Trade Center site. There was a steady flow of pilgrims coming and going to see Ground Zero. I distinctly remember a small contingent of sad clowns. Some local stormed through the crowd with a mean, angry face grumbling about the "fuckin' tourists." A couple blocks away was a sticker on the side of a pay phone that read "We have the right to go after the ARAB MUSLIMS (emphasis was capitalized, boldfaced, and italicized) who murdered thousands of our countrymen." I took a photo of the sticker before peeling it off and throwing it in the garbage.
Along a fence in Battery Park was a memorial people put up to their individual loved ones. People left flowers, teddy bears, cards, pictures, letters to the dearly departed. Throughout the city were posters with pictures, descriptions, and WTC places of work of the missing. One described a four-year-old girl who put her dead father's cologne on his shirts and slept in them every night. It was heart-wrenching.
In my home town of Danville, PA I got a lot of Taliban/terrorist/Muslim comments. Some of them were just jokes, though I didn't take them that way, and some were truly threatening. On Thanksgiving I walked into a bar (Knight Trax, for those who know Danville) wearing the little red hat and some meathead had a big problem with it. I tried to explain that it was a Chinese hat and pointed out the dragons so beautifully stitched on top. He kept saying, "I don't care! It looks like a Muslim hat!"
I went to a costume party in the neighboring college town of Bloomsburg wearing an Indian turban. It was cold out and nothing warms the head like nine yards of cloth. A drunken frat boy put his arm half around my shoulder and half around my neck and yelled, "Bin Laden! I found 'im! How do you fell about all those people you killed, huh?" Then he ripped the turban off my head, saying, "You can't wear a turban in America!" I didn't feel like partying anymore and left. As I was walking out to my car, he screamed after me, "Yeah, take it personally. USA! USA! USA!"
I was at the Sheetz gas station in Elysburg. I saw some guy in a t-shirt that had an outline of Afghanistan. There was a bullseye emanating from the middle of the country and a caption that read, "WARNING: NUCLEAR TESTING ZONE."
I went to New Orleans for the winter. Some guy ran up to me on Canal Street after a Mardi Gras parade, put his hand to my head as if it was a gun, and said, "Bin Laden! I kin get a million dollers fer you! Pow!" Then he walked away laughing.
I was walking past a couple of teenage kids leaning against a wall in the Central Business District when I heard one of them say, "He look like he from Islam. Let's smoke his ass."
I started writing a song called "I Am Not Bin Laden." I was sitting on a bus when I overheard some guys glancing at me at making Bin Laden jokes. I happened to be working on the lyrics at that moment and showed my notebook to one sitting closest to me. He sounded out in a sub-literate monotone, "I... am... not... Bin... Laden." He had a good laugh at that one.
I decided I'd had enough of America for a while and went to Europe. My first week there I was walking through Brussels at sunset when a man in a sleek black car pulled up next to me, rolled down the window, yelled "Terroriste!" and drove off.