Thursday, September 11, 2008

Remembering September 11, 2001

Seven years ago today I was planning to wake up early to attend an interesting new media breakfast being held at in the restaurant of the top of the World Trade Center. We'd just moved from the Manhattan to New Jersey, so I rolled out of bed early - 6:30 am - and drove my car to the train station where, being early, I found one of the few daily parking spaces. We'd had our own company for four years, by then, and attending these conferences was one of the ways I met potential clients, kept up on industry things: it was part of my job, but a part where I selected what conference or breakfast to go to based on whether a particular event happened to interest me, or fit with my schedule. This one did interest me. And, except for being so god damned early in the morning, it fit with my schedule. Having just moved out of the city, commuting in for an 8:00 am breakfast meant getting up at an ungodly early hour, and being a partner in my own business, not having to get up early was just about the only perk I had. But I had set the alarm, and I was awake.

On the train heading into the station, I remember thinking about how blue, clear, and perfect the day was. I think this is one of those things about that day that many people remember, no matter what they were doing. It was just a glorious September day, still warm enough to want to be outside, but suddenly without any of the end-of-summer humidity of the previous weeks. A day on the edge of the season's turn, heralding the coming of fall, but still redolent of all the freedom of the summer just ending. I remember looking out the train window and seeing a jet trail in the sky passing across the skyline of Manhattan, across the familiar downtown, the twin towers, and having a yearn in my chest for all such fall days of being outside, on a playground or weekend hike or being a tourist in big city like New York where you could walk for blocks and blocks taking in the sites and smells and people of all kinds living out their amazing dreams for the day. I wanted to break through the windows and take in the weather. It was a glorious day like that.

I don't know whether it was the weather outside or my feeling nostalgic for playing hooky or just laziness, but it was on the train that I decided to bag the extra effort of attending the breakfast (in the end, would it be that important anyway?) and instead, just head to the gym in NY, of which I still belonged, for a good morning workout, which I hadn't had in a few days. I know this is not perhaps the most precipitous story of fate for that day - many others, people I knew then and have met since - did or did not go downtown or to the towers or to their jobs that day, and lived or not. There was, for example, a company whose business in the Twin Towers whose business our small development firm had pitched six months earlier, and who hadn't given us the job - everyone in that company died that day. And many who lived had more amazing and defining adventures than I. Probably everyone in the city that day had some kind of similar story to tell, some story about narrow escape or a search for a loved one or just the sheer unknowingness of where to go or what to do next. It was a day that most of us who lived through it pray that no one in our country ever has to know again, and sympathize with citizens of war-torn countries where people live a September 11th every day of their lives.

Like most Americans, I was watching television when I heard about the first plane hitting the tower. Like most, I thought of the small bi-plane that hit the Empire State Building in the 1940's, and thought it an incident like that. I was on the stationary bicycle, going through my routine at the gym, just thirty blocks from the towers, watching the news on the mini-tv. As I watched, the second plane flew into Tower Two. It just went right in there, like a man poking a stick into a beehive, sending up a small plume of papers and flame. It was then I decided to get off the bicycle. I changed clothes and went outside to see what was going on.

My friends in LA later described what they saw on TV as "like a movie." It was like a movie, and so were the streets outside. It reminded me of Ghostbusters, as all of the various New Yorkers stand staring agape at the giant marshmallow walking down the street: here was the same assembled cast of thousands, the policemen and the messenger boys, nanny's and construction workers, businesswomen and street kids of all races and nationalities. Could this be real? Was this all a bad dream, or a movie set? Everyone was standing in the same frozen position, mouths open, staring at the two towers downtown as billows of black smoke issued out, obscuring the city. I stood there with them. We formed a line of astonishment. Was this really happening? Everyone had stopped in their tracks to look in the same direction. We were all zombies.

What to do then? The towers are strong, they've withstood two plane crashes, and they're still standing; they're built well, they have fire systems. I heard people saying that to each other. An old lady and three black teenage boys were talking to a sobbing policeman, trying to console him. Did he know someone in the towers or was he simply overcome with grief at the immensity of what was happening? You can protect and serve but on a day like today even the protectors are just like the other people breaking down. Women and old men were crying too; some people were authoritative, with advice what to do, others just seemed to be having fun, but it wasn't like any one emotion fit with any one type of person: small children could be the most level headed, construction workers the most shook up, it didn't matter. Bars along the street are crowded with people cramming inside, trying to see better on television what was obscured by the distance and the smoke, but no one on the news had any better story about what was going on. I had a brief thought to walk downtown to see the disaster close up - or head into a drugstore to buy a disposable camera for some pictures - but at the same time, common sense told me no, neither of those were very smart things to do. Instead, I head toward my office, uptown on 36th Street, to find a telephone and the internet, to call family and get some news.

Before I get there, the stream of refugees from downtown is already making its way up the block. They reach me somewhere around 32nd Street. You can tell they are coming from the Towers because they are the people covered in soot, faces ashen, clothes askew, carrying briefcases or high-heeled shoes or some remnant of their lives prior to 8:45am. Everyone is headed uptown, like an exodus. In the cross way at 32nd Street, two German tourists stop me - "which way to the plane crash?" they ask, as if it were a special tourist exhibition being staged just for today. I point toward downtown but advise, "it's probably best you don't go down there." They ignore my warning and head off eagerly downtown with their cameras, into the migrating crowds. Who knows what fate befell them.

In the office, I get on the phone, trying to reach my partner in New Jersey, but can't get through on the line. I can't pull up the CNN or NY Times websites either. I finally reach my father in Ohio, tell him I'm okay, and ask him to call home for me. The office is eerily quiet and I've got no radio, no way to know what's going on. Still, I'm not completely sure if there won't be some business to do, some invoices to write or bills to pay, at some point today. After all, routine, it seems, is the only thing to grasp to. But there is no routine I can bring my mind to do. And nothing happening in this part of town. There was one siren going by - a fire engine speeding downtown - but that was it. Eventually, my co-worker, Mark, arrives around 10:30am. He was on the subway riding across the Brooklyn Bridge when it happened, he explains: they stopped the train, but then they eventually let it pull into the city, the final train of the morning. Since we tend to have a late start of the day (10:00am) and Mark and I are the only early birds, I don't expect that anyone else will make it in. I think of calling some of the other employees, seeing if they're okay, but the phones are still all jammed, the cells don't get a signal.

Mark brings some news. "I think one of the towers fell," he says. I don't believe it, I tell him. They're just obscured by smoke, I say. He tells me he heard someone talking about it. We look around and realize, nothing is going to happen, today. No one will do business. So we decide to go back outside and take a look.

Outside, looking downtown, it's impossible to tell. All we can see is a huge billow of smoke. The billow is large, there's no way to see what's behind it. We start walking around, heading into bars, asking people what's going on. "The Towers fell," people say, pointing to the news on TV. There is shock, fear, resignation and anger on people's faces. "We're being attacked," people finally explain. "I hear there are planes flying into Washington."

"I hear it's still going on. No one knows how many planes they have."

"The government's had to shoot down some of the airplanes."

"They think there could be planes headed to attack Chicago and Atlanta too."

So. It was time to go home, and be with family. We're being attacked, in a war zone. Get out while the getting's good. I tell Mark to make his way back to Brooklyn - I'll see what I can do to get back to Jersey.

There are, as are typical of such situations, hundreds of thousands of people waiting for a train in Penn Station. Many of them don't even fit into the station. But amongst the confusion of cancelled trains and directions to alternate transportation, many people simply mill around, and miss the announcement for the one 2pm train headed out to my town. Seems I'm lucky again, as it's one of the only trains leaving the city that afternoon. Others, I later find out, walk the five or six miles to get over bridges by foot and out of the city, or find a friend willing to offer a bunk on a couch, or, in the case of one friend, nearly escape with their family and lives on the last ferry leaving the Battery dock before Tower Two falls down.

As the train leaves the city and pulls out of the tunnel into New Jersey, I see clearly from the window for the first time what's now become so iconic: a gape, a whole, downtown, where the towers once were, and a massive flume of black smoke engulfing their absence. Seeing that for the first time was startling, for one never thinks of a city being able to maimed like that, having one of it's most defining features suddenly ripped out of it. One thinks of cities and enduring, growing, living beyond oneself and creating a continuity with one's life and what will come after it. It was as if everyone who lived in New York had been personally maimed, had personally had the context of their lives and aspirations and historic legacy permanently damaged. And the symbolic power of what had been done fully struck me.

Surprisingly, by three pm, getting off the train at my stop, there were not that many people coming back, or cars left in the parking lot. Many may not have made it in to the city to begin with, or turned around, more sensibly, sooner than I had. There were, however, several cars sitting in the best spots, close to the train, where the early-bird downtown commuters usually park. And I knew that many of those cars would be sitting there overnight, and for days to come, until some relative would come to collect them.

I was glad, of course, to be home, and my partner - even though he had heard from my father - was relieved to see me. But I had to show him what I'd seen on the train. I had to show him, in person, how irreparably the cityscape had been damaged.

We got in the car and drove to a nearby park, one that has an overlook where you can peer out across northern New Jersey and see, in the distance, the skyline of New York City. At this park, I showed my partner the shocking site: the smoke, from the missing towers, drifting now like the plume from a sea liner from the remnants of our downtown skyline. Already, local residence had brought flowers, pictures, keepsakes and remembrances to place along the overlook, along with a row of candles. I'd seen this gesture before - I'd been in London when Diana was killed - but it was still powerful to see it on this scale, knowing that these were remembrances of my neighbors, people in the town where I lived, who had gone into work that morning, just like I had - but out of whatever decision of fate, unlike me, were never coming back.

So that's my remembrance of this day, seven years ago. There was more that happened, of course, afterwards, with the city, and the people I knew. It was an experience unlike any other. Millions of us lived through it. And as it gets farther away, I think about it less and less often, and yet, I'm still struck, sometimes, how this day gets used by people: by preachers who want to make a political point about behavior they don't like, be it a point on the left or on the right; by politicians who want to use it as a photo op or to bolster their image and score votes, however sincere a feeling they might, somehow, simulate; by newscasters who want to turn it into a national holiday and another excuse for all-day appointment viewing and capturing ratings; by acquaintances in cities like Phoenix or Des Moines or Portsmouth, Ohio, who, yes, might have been scared a plane could be headed their way, but have no idea what it was like to actually have their town attacked and colleagues and neighbors killed, and yet still see the day as an affront against themselves and an unquestionable justification for a questionable war; by pundits who want to weave it into a clever comment or snarky "gotcha" of one kind or another. I see people using this day and I just think, what a shame. These people have no idea what they are talking about. They aren't talking about the September 11th that I lived through. And I only hope that, if nothing else, they might take a moment and pause from their normal daily aspersions and cynicisms and maneuverings, and just think, for a few moments, what our country went through, and what we lost. And now, seven years later, instead of getting angry and thinking about who we can strike back for it, perhaps we can think about a lesson that those of us who were there learned, deep in our gut: how precious life is, how little time we all have, and how, if we aren't, at all times, making the most of it, at any time, everything we take for granted about our life and the world we live in, could all - in an instant, out of a clear blue sky - suddenly change.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I saw the misery of that day... which also happened to be my birthday. What a horrible coincidence.

It took me years to get over it.