“Sunday afternoon, Pearl Harbor was sure of only one thing—wherever the Japanese were, they would be back.”—Walter Lord, Day of Infamy.
Most of my real World Trade Center memories were from a great distance, as I walked to work or from a movie or to or from somewhere that used to be. I was at the top of the towers only once. My uncle took me, in 1980, on December 7th.
The new World Trade Center era dawned on September 11th, when I surfaced outside the 14th Street subway station and looked down Seventh Avenue. I had a kamakazi’s-eye of the huge black patch on the silver side of one of the towers. Orange licked the edges of the patch. I asked someone what happened. Plane, he said, off-course. Pilot error. Standing there, looking south as history rose in thick black ribbons of smoke, I thought at least it wasn’t terrorists, who would have packed a plane with explosives and aimed for the towers’ bases.
I headed for work, passing knots of people at all the intersections. I work about a mile north of the Trade Center, and had a clear view all the way. I got to my office at about 9:20. Co-workers said it was like watching a movie. “You can’t believe what you’re seeing out the window,” I heard a colleague tell his wife on the phone. Jill called twice. She’d tuned in to see “Martha Stewart” and just couldn’t believe what she was seeing on television.
I told my boss my base and explosives theory. “Yes,” he said, “but this way the firefighters have a harder time getting at the fire, and it’s more spectacular.” My boss is a good guy to have around when things get wonky.
At one end of my office is a conference room—at least a conference room was there when I saw my office last—and the room has a big, big window that faces south. At one point a co-worker said, “The roof is collapsing. Better go quick if we want a look.” By the time I got into the conference room one of the towers was gone, and lower Manhattan was dust and smoke at the base of the one tower that still stood. Co-workers who were making any noise at all were crying.
“Wow,” I thought, “imagine a world with just one World Trade Center tower.”
I told my boss I was heading immediately to scoop Alex from his school, on 19th Street off Fifth Avenue. I said I’d walk him home if necessary, but I was sure that I’d catch a bus. All the way to the school, I turned often to glance south. The tower was still there, still smoking. With the forethought of a child of the Cold War, I stopped into a grocer’s and bought a bottle of water. The counterwoman brushed tears as she took my $1.25.
At 17th Street and Fifth Avenue I turned around again, and as I watched the smoke and dust billowed hard and dark, and from the edges of the cloud rained silver confetti. The smoke and dust billowed solid at the base of the tower. Then above the smoke, against the sky, there was no more tower.
The street moaned. “It’s gone, it’s gone, too,” someone said. “Fuckers!” one man screamed southward. “Motherfuckers! This is my country, goddammit! I love the United States of America!” He moved off. I think he was disappointed that no one applauded.
Most people cried. I moved toward the school’s door with what I hoped was an appropriate expression of shock—much as anything was appropriate anymore. As I rang for the elevator, a sobbing woman tried to touch my arm. She still cried as the doors closed, but by the second floor she had collected herself enough to say, “You wife called. She said you’d be coming.”
I found Alex in his classroom, silent over his mid-morning granola bar. He reached up his arms to me. He hates school. I turned to his teachers. Are there any subways, had they heard? Buses, maybe? They started to give me directions to the nearest subway stop, then realized that they’d heard no trains were running. I asked if the school would be open tomorrow. “Call us,” they said.
“Up for a hike, Alex?” I asked. We started east, toward Madison Avenue, on 19th Street. Jill and Ned were waiting home, on 108th Street. It takes about a minute to walk a Manhattan block, a little longer if you have to carry a 3-year-old boy, his bat backpack, and one of daddy’s T shirts that he keeps at school to feel secure during naptime.
To pass the time this clear fall day of infamy, I told Alex how they’d gotten the Trade Center, how he and Ned wouldn’t remember the Twin Towers, how somebody was going to get the shit bombed out of them for this. People moved in a human river north—cars and buses were sparse, but just numerous enough to keep the pedestrians on the sidewalk—and every few blocks a knot would be gathered around an open, parked car that would have the stereo blaring one of New York’s all-news stations. Imagine that: a car stereo blaring an all-news station.
Alex and I had gone about nine blocks, and I was prattling to him how his grandma wouldn’t have thought twice about an 89-block stroll when I crashed into a knee-high standpipe. My forehead closed with the sidewalk as I shot the heel of my right hand to the pavement and tried to lift Alex’s head clear. I made it by about two inches. It would have been a bad morning to have an injured child on your hands in Manhattan. People offered me help up.
This was a good day to be a New Yorker and an American, even if you’d just lost your biggest building. One church set up a table on the sidewalk and offered paper cups of water. “This is nice,” said one woman who stopped for a drink. “This is New York,” the church water guy answered, then he turned tp bellow inside the church, “I need trashbags!”
Every 10 blocks I stepped out of the river into the doorway of an office building, into the cigarette smoke of suddenly discharged office workers, and set Alex down and gave us both a swig from the bottle of water. I then stepped back into the human river flowing north on Madison Avenue—flowing smoothly at times, slow at other times as mobs of optimists waited for a city bus or gathered around a storefront TV. Many hugged cell phones.
“You know the World Trade Center towers? They ain’t there no more.”
“That’s what I’m tellin’ you! The World Trade Center is gone.”
I held onto Alex and kept walking, walking, walking. My feet burned and my shirt was wet with sweat when, on 100th Street, a messenger asked me, “Is it true about the World Trade Center?”
I said it was, and that I’d seen the second one go.
“I just made a delivery there yesterday,” he marveled.
Small world. Eight more blocks and Alex and I were home. He could watch Elmo while Ned played on the blanket and Jill got me a glass of ice water, and we all waited for what would happen next.