Sunday, September 11, 2011

where i was

I wasn’t going to write anything for this because frankly, I don’t consider my experience particularly remarkable. I wasn't close with anyone whose life was completely altered that day. I have no tale to tell of meeting someone who decided to wait in line for a 400-calorie bowtie from the coffee cart that morning instead of getting to work on time on the 97th floor. At the same time, I was there, on that same little island, and it was scary, and it was weird. It was an event that precipitated a drastic change in attitude in our country, and I was old enough to be cognizant of what that change really meant. My grandfather lived through the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, and I’ve always been thankful for having heard the telling of his experience. These days, we live in a world where everything is documented, sometimes ad nauseum. But at the end of the day, everyone does have a story to tell. I wasn’t there when JFK died. I missed the first men on the moon. But here’s my 9/11 tale, for what it’s worth.

First, a word about September 10th. On the morning of September 10th I ran into a friend from college on the way to work. This isn’t the kind of thing that happens to me too often; in 12 years of living in New York City I think I randomly bumped into friends and acquaintances maybe once a year⎯if that. I was never close with this guy, but he also happened to be the very first person I’d ever met from my college. We exchanged hellos the summer before I matriculated, when I was on vacation and we were at the same hotel, some 3,000 miles away from our school. I noticed he was holding something that had our university seal on it, so I asked, and sure enough, he was one year ahead of me. When coincidence brought us together once again, 24 hours before the most historic day I’ve lived through thus far, we were both going off in new and exciting directions in our lives. Josh, if you’re reading this, I’ll never forget chatting with you that day...

Also on September 10th: pandas. Yup, the night before the new world order began, I went to see a press screening of an IMAX film featuring pandas in China. It was on the Upper West Side, and it was a pretty lame flick. “Didn’t like it very much,” my 24-year-old self wrote. “But the pandas were ridiculously adorable and the scenery was breathtaking.” Not a bad way to spend a rainy Monday night in the middle of September, I suppose.

The next thing I remember was waking up to the sound of the phone. It was a bright, sunny morning and, being on the 30th floor of a midtown high rise, I had a clear view of the Hudson River and New Jersey just beyond. As was my custom in those days, I’d stay up ‘til all hours and sleep as late as possible before heading to work. The phone call, it turned out, was from my mom. I had no business being that far downtown, and she knew I was on a late schedule, but she had wanted to hear my voice and, in the event that I was still asleep (ahem), to tell me the news. I promptly ran into the living room and turned on the television. Without knowing anything else, with just the visual of fire, smoke and the understanding that this devastating thing had happened to innocent people in my city (and on the planes), I started to tear up. For a moment or so, it was unreal. Not just “unreal, man.” Actually not believably real. I ran up to the roof, six floors above me, to see if I could see anything. My apartment was just north of Times Square, so there were a lot of tall buildings in the way. But unmistakably, it was there: heavy black smoke, way downtown, rising in a ghastly plume. Holy shit. This was happening. It was then that I noticed the sirens: Firemen from local stations were headed downtown in droves to help out. Little did I know that many of them wouldn’t be coming back . . .

I returned to the television, my only connection to what was going on. I started to internalize the situation and cried some more. Mind you, I’m not someone who tends to get emotional on a dime, so the fact that this overwhelmed me so quickly is a testament to how powerful the moment was. It was noteworthy that even the local newscasters, who were trying to be “professional,” were also struggling to hide their shock and dismay. Finally, the unimaginable: “This is crazy. The whole fucking left tower just collapsed,” I wrote. “It was like one of those huge pyroclastic flows. I have this terrible feeling we’re about to go to war . . .”

Not long thereafter, I was on the roof again, looking south, when the second tower fell. All of a sudden the smoke just disappeared from view. In that moment, I started to worry for my own safety. It was obvious at that point that this was coordinated event, but no one knew if there was more to come. I lived relatively close to some pretty iconic buildings, and it seemed entirely plausible that I could be in some danger. I packed up a bag of stuff, put on some running shoes, and left the building. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was headed, but my thought was to walk north off of the island, where I could somehow get to my parents’ house in the suburbs. (At this time, there were no subways or trains, and bridges were being used primarily by fleeing pedestrians.)

When I got to the street, it was busy, but a calm busy⎯not like gridlock with people honking and frantic to get out of there. It was already a good hour or so after all of this began, and scores of people were headed north. As I looked down Broadway, toward Times Square, it seemed eerily quiet, at least as far as vehicular traffic. No one was going south. Every few blocks I’d find a car parked next to the sidewalk with its doors open, the radio cranked up, and people huddled around to hear the latest. I entered Central Park. Businessmen and women in suits, ties, and heels were walking quietly, briefcases and jackets in hand. Everyone on the main park road appeared cool and composed, and it was turning into a gorgeous day⎯not a cloud in the sky. In fact, aside from the parade of overdressed walkers, it would have been difficult to guess, if you weren’t already aware, that anything was terribly wrong on the lower tip of Manhattan. The only other clue was an unusual silence punctuated by the occasional deafening roar of F15s, which by then were zooming over the city at regular intervals.

I walked for a good hour or so through the park with only my thoughts, and then ventured back onto the streets, where it sounded from various reports as though officials believed the attacks to be over. Eventually I reached the campus of Columbia University. It was there that I decided I wasn’t going to walk off the island. It was also at Columbia that I saw the first signs of organization to rally around the victims. At the medical center, passers-by in threes and fours came and glanced at a piece of paper that had been taped to a door announcing in magic marker that no further blood donations were needed. I also witnessed a peaceful ceremony of students sitting in a circle, praying, and singing softly. I sat and reflected for a while on the campus green. I was unsure of how to proceed at that point. Should I walk home again? Sit tight and just wait to see if anything else unfolded? Either way, my feet needed some tending: In my haste to leave the apartment, I had neglected to put on socks, and I was developing blisters. I went into the student bookstore and purchased some socks with the school’s logo on them. I still have those socks, and will always remember buying them that fateful day.

I did indeed walk back home to midtown. I had a cell phone with me, but the lines were completely jammed, and folks were being asked to stay off of them unless it was truly necessary. The feeling on the street was one of somber camaraderie. When you looked into the eye of the people you passed, it was as though you were already acquainted. . . a knowing glance, and then you moved on. In the hours that I walked, I learned more of the details surrounding the situation downtown, and heard rumors as to the number of fatalities. When I finally got home, my roommate was there with a friend of hers who had been across the street from the World Trade Center when everything began. We sat and listened to his story before he left to meet up with his family outside of the city.

The rest of the day is a bit of a blur, but that evening, I recall being glued to the television and wondering what this was going to mean for our city and for our country. I wasn’t a Giuliani fan, but I will give him credit: At least for a few days, he calmed a lot of nerves, and he handled the situation as best as anyone could under the circumstances. Later that night I returned to the roof to take in the city below me, and it was eerily empty and silent. Times Square, which of course is bustling at most hours⎯especially on a warm night in mid-September⎯should have been packed with people and cars. There was nothing. The traffic lights turned from green to yellow to red and back to green, directing no one. I think I counted two or three people and maybe one taxicab from 56th Street all the way down to 42nd. It was spooky.

The next day, I went down to 14th Street, the farthest south you could go without proof of residency or some other good reason for being down there. Looking downtown from there and not seeing the towers was absolutely surreal⎯and it’s something I didn’t get used to for at least a year. There was some military presence, but the overall feeling was that the city had come out to mourn together and search for victims. American flags and “missing” signs were everywhere—street posts, statue pedestals, makeshift message boards. In Union Square a huge shrine with candles, flowers, handwritten notes, and drawings from children had been erected and was getting larger. Media cameramen were present at every corner. Brown dust from the towers was visible as a thin layer on the few cars parked in the area. And you could definitely smell that musty odor from the destruction. I shuddered every time I thought of what I was actually smelling . . . No one really knew what to say, but we all wanted to be there, to quietly take in what was happening. I picked up a copy of The New York Times and read it cover to cover, wondering again how the country was going to respond.

Slowly, the city carried on. I was certainly one of the fortunate ones, not to have been affected directly by the loss of a loved one. My feelings about the events of that day, though, have been complicated by the anger toward our country’s actions following the attacks. It seems clear to me that one kind of evil beget another kind of evil, the kind that deftly manipulated public sentiment for those we lost and turned the country’s outrage into a justification to start a costly and unfounded war against a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11—all in the name of money and power. To be honest, it makes me sick.

Four years after the attacks, I moved to Brooklyn, close to the harbor and the Promenade, which boasts one of the best views of the city, especially of downtown. I never had a chance to experience the view from there with the towers still standing, but every year on this date I would witness from my window or from the Promenade the huge twin beams lighting up the sky from where the towers once stood.

In all this time there were daily reminders, too. The one that touched me most was the Cortlandt Street subway station, which sustained major damage but whose main supports were deemed safe enough for trains to pass through. For years, the Cortlandt R stop remained shaded out on subway maps, like a ghost station that existed only in memory. But reconstruction did take place, if at a snail’s pace, and a year and a half ago the northbound station quietly reopened for business. I’ll never forget the day my train stopped there for the first time after so many years… I had gotten used to the conductors giving their spiel every time we were about to bypass the station. But on that day, it was “Next stop: Cortlandt Street.” No one said a word, but as I looked at the women and men around me, I felt that everyone on that train knew what a significant moment it was. As for the southbound platform, it remained in shambles until very recently. Even just a few months ago you could still see daylight through the perforated wall that opened up into Ground Zero. It was clear that work had picked up in preparation for today, though, and I’m happy to report that earlier this week, the southbound Cortlandt Street station received its final shiny white tiles, restored original artwork, and commemorative plaques before opening to traffic. It was a little bittersweet to know that I couldn’t be there to experience the train slowing and the doors opening for the first time that day, but I’ll certainly make a visit the next time I’m in town.

Today, I’m in a new city, in a different state altogether. It feels strange not being in New York on this morning, my first 9/11 away since that day in ‘01. I do think it’s time for the city and the country to move on, though, and I welcome the thought that this 10th anniversary might serve as a mark of closure for all of us. In any case, thanks for listening.

2 comments:

  1. Tweet isn't going through so let me just say, this is a beautiful piece.

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  2. Turning a pair of Columbia University socks and an abandoned subway station into a compelling reason to read another 9/11 story takes more than talent, Maia - it takes soul. Thank you for this very beautiful and affecting account of the mundane made monumental, spellbindingly told.

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