Jotham Sederstrom, 34, freelance reporter: On September 10th, my friends took me out for birthday drinks in Chicago. I was out until three or four, I think, at a place called “The Hideout.” Among other places. I didn’t wake up until about noon, at which point everything had changed.
George Spyros, 44, executive producer: I got married the weekend before. We had a bunch of friends and family from out of town, and went out Monday night for dinner. My wife and I were supposed to fly out on September 11th for our honeymoon. On top of that, it’s my birthday.
Michael Wright, 44, editorial director: September 11th has always been the best day of the year for me — and then it all goes to shit.
Allison Spensley, 31, mid-career change: It was my 21st birthday, so of course I had plans to go out.
Ochia Nsor, 29, quality assurance officer: In my family we have this tradition where whoever’s birthday it is, we all sing “Happy Birthday” when they wake up. That didn’t happen.
Will Beers, 25, computer specialist: It was my 15th, when you can get your learner’s permit. So I was actually in line at the DMV that morning in Miami with my dad.
Rob Knox, 40, commercial producer: I was woken up by a neighbor pounding on my door saying, “Turn on the TV, turn on the TV!” Really no thoughts about my birth at that point.
Evan Boorstyn, 45, publishing: I was at “The Today Show” with an author who was being interviewed at the time of the attacks. He’s basically the guy whose face they showed when Matt Lauer said they were going to breaking news.
Jessica Ford, 35, costume designer: I was on the train headed to Grand Central station. It was before cell phones were so prevalent, but a few people on the train had state-of-the-art phones. I remember someone said, “Something happened at the World Trade Center.”
Michael Wright: I thought it was like the World War II plane, where it was an accident. But then the second plane hit and that’s when you knew something terrible had gone on.
Hillary Kaye, 30, graduate student: I was in Berkeley where I went to school, fast asleep, and the phone rang. It was my dad. He was like, “Hillary, look what you did now. You brought in World War III!” Which is a nice way to wake up.
Jessica Ford: We got on the subway platform, and there was this mushroom cloud. There was a homeless man on the platform with a sign that said, “The end of the world is happening. Repent! Repent! Repent!”
Hillary Kaye: I think I was going to have some type of a party, but we just sat around and watched TV and ordered Chinese food.
Ochia Nsor: It was the first time I realized my birthday was 9–1–1, you know? I never thought of it like that before.
Will Beers: Especially because of the numerology. 9–1–1 is so easy to remember. “9/11” was such an innocuous thing.
Evan Boorstyn: And to hear “9/11” repeated so often, everywhere, when up until that point the only people talking about that day were people celebrating my birthday.
Jotham Sederstrom: My new boss was calling for three different reasons. He’d known it was my birthday. So he told me, listen, because of 9/11 we’re clearing out a portion of the sports department and we’re not going to need you to come in tonight. So, one, thanks for doing a great job. Two, we don’t need you to work tonight. And three, we’re working on getting you a raise.
Rob Knox: It was weird later in the day when the people in the office were singing this zombified attempt at “Happy Birthday.” They’d already bought the cake.
Jotham Sederstrom: Be nice when you write it, though. I don’t want it to sound like I’m gloating. But it was kind of a decent day for me in that way.
Allison Spensley: A few of us decided we’d still go out for my birthday, so we went to Buffalo Wild Wings. They had those huge TVs, usually with football and basketball and whatnot on. But there was news on every single TV. It was so somber. We had a couple of drinks and called it a night.
Evan Boorstyn: I was just sitting on the couch watching TV, and someone who lived near me called and said, “You’re going out. It’s your birthday, no matter what happens.” So we had some drinks.
Will Beers: My parents and I rented a movie to watch that night. The first Meet the Parents. It was supposed to be funny and light-hearted, and it was just, like, we’re not really enjoying this at all.
Jessica Ford: We ate an awkward meal in this restaurant. We were the only ones in there, and then the waiter came out and sang “Happy Birthday” in Spanish. It just felt so inappropriate.
Michael Wright: If I get carded or walk into a bank, they kind of look at you and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” And it’s like, “Fuck you, it’s my birthday.”
Ochia Nsor: Others have this loud laughter. It’s uncomfortable laughter. But there’s always a reaction. I always get a reaction.
Allison Spensley: “Ooohhh, honey. Oh, that’s too bad.”
Rob Knox: They show me this sympathy.
Jessica Ford: People usually wince. Or say, “I’m sorry. That sucked.”
George Spyros: Shortly thereafter, I was shooting something at West Point and showed my driver’s license and they’re like, “Oh, 9/11…” It’s, like, respect.
Jotham Sederstrom: When people do notice your birthday’s on 9/11, you develop a little way of reacting to it. You make awkward jokes like, “Never forget.” Shit like that. Just because so many people have said something, you have a way that you respond.
Hillary Kaye: I always make light of it by saying, “If we were at a sporting event and there were 40,000 people watching a game, and one person got shit on by a bird, it would be me.” It’s just my luck.
Will Beers: “Well, maybe we’ll make it a holiday.”
Evan Boorstyn: And then of course you run into people who don’t even make the connection. I’m always amazed at airports when they’re checking IDs, how many people don’t bat an eye. Not that they’re supposed to do anything about it, but…
Rob Knox: I compare it to my grandfather’s generation when people were born on Pearl Harbor day. For a decade or two, people were very aware of December 7th.
Jessica Ford: It’s like being born on D-Day. It’s the biggest tragedy we’ve experienced in our lifetime. So I can’t say, “Gosh, I hate that it ruined my birthday.”
Jotham Sederstrom: Something I realized a little after the fact was that my mom was born on Pearl Harbor Day. So, there’s definitely no feelings of “why me?”
George Spyros: There was never a thought of, “Why would this happen on my birthday?” It just never computed for me.
Evan Boorstyn: I never took it personally.
Jessica Ford: I feel like I have a morbid outlook anyway, so if it was going to happen to anyone, it would happen to me.
Hillary Kaye: Aside from the fact that it’s a huge tragedy and ruined many people’s lives, in my own selfish world I’m like, “Of course, it’s on my birthday.”
Allison Spensley: I guess I was a little bummed out, but there are far worse things than having your party ruined.
Hillary Kaye: Definitely I didn’t do anything that year. It felt weird to send out an Evite.
Jotham Sederstrom: The very next year, I moved to New York. And at the time, there was like this dividing line. You know, the people who were there for that and the people who weren’t. I remember feeling a little bit like a foreigner, so I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it
Will Beers: But I did get a car that next year, since it was my 16th. So it was still kind of positive.
Michael Wright: The first year I was like everyone else, just bummed out, not even halfway in the mind of celebrating. But the second year I was like, fuck that, I’m reclaiming it. My band played, we had a big party, everybody drank, had a grand old time. We kind of took it back.
George Spyros: There’s this weird sense of responsibility to celebrate life. I know everyone’s hung up with it being about the people who died and mourning. But how do you celebrate someone’s life and the meaning it had for those people who died? You double your commitments to living and living life well.
Hillary Kaye: I think enough time’s passed where it’s socially acceptable to be born on that day and still want to do something. There’s not this stigma attached to it.
Rob Knox: There’s me, Harry Connick Jr., Kristy McNichol and, rest in peace, Tom Landry. All born on 9/11. You should probably call Kristy McNichol. I’m sure she’s hoping somebody will call.
[Kristy McNichol could not be reached for comment.]
George Spyros: Sometimes, filling out stuff online on Trip Advisor or whatever, when the TSA wants to know your birthday. Whenever I’m typing in “9/11,” I feel like someone at the NSA is watching. The paranoia that I’m some Al-Qaeda person and they’re going to be like, “He must be one of the bad guys because he likes that bad things happened to America.” It’s a crazy non-logic.
Rob Knox: Before it was, “Hey, isn’t your birthday in September?” And now it’s not necessarily people who should know my exact birthday, know it.
Ochia Nsor: People are always aware of my birthday now.
Will Beers: So that’s positive. People never forget it.
Evan Boorstyn: There are a couple of people who say “I’ll never forget your birthday now.” But human nature being what it is, they’re usually the people who do.
George Spyros: The short answer is whether or not I remember birthdays before 9/11.
Allison Spensley: Before? There was less alcohol. Just because I was not yet of age.
Rob Knox: People are willing to say “Happy Birthday” to me the last couple of years without both of us having to stop and take a moment and have caveats.
Jessica Ford: Ten years later, it still feels inappropriate to make birthday plans on my actual birthday.
Allison Spensley: Now I’m at the age where I don’t have to celebrate them at all anymore!
Hillary Kaye: Although I think this year will be another … because of the media and the events planned around the 10th anniversary, it’ll jog people’s memories.
Michael Wright: There’s all these reasons to stay in this year, but it’s not that I’m bummed out because it’s the 10th anniversary. It’s because I’m content to sit at the table and watch my three year old and one year old make a mess of themselves. You know?
Jotham Sederstrom: For the first few years after, if I called anyone up to say, “It’s my birthday, let’s get a drink,” I was worried some people would a. not want to celebrate on that day, or b. actually have some kinds of plans related to honoring the dead. These days if I have some friends who can’t make it, it’s because of Fashion Week.
Will Beers: Yeah, it’s odd. But then again, it could have been on any other of the 364 days of the year.
N.B. All ages as of 9/11/11.
Rick Paulas can be reached at rickpaulas at gmail dot com.
Illustration from a photo by Amanda Slater; art direction by Joe MacLeod and Tom Scocca.