9/11 Stories

John Friedman

I’m sitting in the chair where, for me, this all began. It was 18 hours ago and I haven’t had near enough time to form a coherent, thoughtful, intellectual response to this. But, I’m in a weird state of shock, not at all coherent. Thus, I’m perfectly suited to provide the following observations.

Know this: I am a 37-year old native New Yorker, born on this small sliver of an island called Manhattan. I’m an attorney in private practice and often work from my living room-where I was this morning. Though I’ve lived in many other places throughout the US and traveled extensively overseas, I always come back to the City I love and call home-the City of my birth. Seeing a place you love-your hometown-savagely attacked is an indescribable thing. I’ve done my best here to record what I felt, thought and saw. I hope you never have to do the same.

* * *

11 September 2001

We live on West 4th Street just west of 6th Avenue in the center of Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Our apartment is something of a floor-through on the 5th floor, north side of the block, with views to north, east and south. This morning only the southern exposure was of interest.

Because of the vagaries of New York City zoning, etc., West 4th Street runs one-way east at an angle from northwest to southeast with a dog-log just before it reaches 6th Avenue. (For those of you thinking, “Hey, West 4th Street runs west,” you are right-it also runs one-way west as it continues west of 7th Avenue-go figure.) At the dog-leg there is a ten story apartment building that dominates the local skyline.

Prior to this morning the ten story building shared that skyline with its much bigger twin-brothers: the Towers of the World Trade Center. I’m fairly certain that neither the Twin Towers nor the World Trade Center complex itself are still there.

At about 8:45 this morning I was sitting in this same chair I’m in now, staring at the same monitor from which these words stare back at me now. I was responding to some e-mail when the world changed. So prosaic.

The next section describes what Denora (our cleaning lady who came that day) and I saw over the next hour and a half. The section following that describes what you didn’t see on TV or hear on the radio: what life was like for a few of us on the streets of Greenwich Village and Chelsea in the immediate wake of the worst catastrophe any of us have ever-and hope ever-to witness in our lifetimes.

* * *

The best I can describe it, it sounded like a military jet at an air show I once attended in Mountain Home, Idaho. Sitting in my living room in the Village it was all wrong: too low, too loud, too sensory-rich, too over the permanent no-fly zone that extends over Manhattan. The plane was traveling from north to south so I ran into our south room overlooking 4th Street with its great view of the Twin Towers.

I assumed the plane was in trouble and would be steered over the bay. I was looking south-west towards the bay when I registered something out of the left corner of my eye. I swiveled just in time to see the first puff of flame-riddled black smoke billow out of a gaping hole in the north aspect of the Tower Two. I heard nothing; I felt no tremor. I felt nothing but numb. I still feel that way.

My wife, Mitchell, had left for an appointment about 5 minutes before so I was alone in the apartment except for our cats and canary. The cats immediately disappeared to those places that cats disappear to. The caged canary had no such luxury.

At about this time our housekeeper, Denora, arrived. Denora knew something had happened but her jaw joined mine on the floor when she came into the south room and saw first-hand the extent of the damage. By now, the smoke had obscured the flames and the top of the south Tower. Maybe 60 seconds had elapsed.

Mitchell called at about that moment, and I filled her in after making sure she was ok. She was staying put at a client’s apartment until she could figure out how to get back downtown when the entire population of the island was heading uptown and no cabs or subways were running. Denora wanted to call her husband to make sure he was ok since he worked about three blocks from the Trade Center. Her cell phone-along with those of all New Yorkers-was not in service. I gave her one of our phones when the second line rang: the first two of literally a hundred-plus calls Mitchell and I made and received that day.

While Denora determined her husband’s condition (he was ok and joined us shortly on West 4th Street), I answered a call from Steve in Moscow on the second line. Steve was already fully briefed on the situation unfolding out my window (ala CNN and the Internet) from his office near Red Square. He was very concerned about his brother, Jeff. Jeff had a showing of his artwork on one of the highest floors of the South Tower and it was scheduled to open this morning. Now, Steve and his family were getting no answer at Jeff’s apartment and Jeff has no cell phone. The family was very, and understandably, concerned. Knowing Jeff, I tried to assure Steve that his brother was likely running late and would be ok. Steve was too anxious to listen and merely asked me to call Jeff’s home until I got an answer and to let Steve know when I got through. Steve’s family would be calling, too. (In the event, I was right-Jeff ran late this morning and wasn’t in the North Tower when it was hit. The first evidence of several of our friends’ blessed good luck today.)

A few minutes later any hope that this was a terrible accident, literally, went up in smoke as the second plane slammed into the south aspect of the South Tower. Denora and I couldn’t see either the plane’s approach or impact as we were on the north side of the Trade Center complex. But we, and everybody else within eye sight, did see the result: a surreal red tumor of flame, smoke and glass shards blossomed out of the South Tower’s belly. Within seconds black smoke obscured the blown-out Tower. Denora began to mumble what I suspect where prayers in soft Spanish. My guts clenched. Without question someone-some people-had deliberately done this. I became very concerned about Mitchell’s safety and wanted her home. I tried to call her cell phone but . . . they were all out of service until much later in the afternoon.

We have all seen the videos so we all know what happened next. Tower One-the most recently hit-succumbed first. To me, from the relative safety of 15 blocks’ distance, it looked like a movie fade-out: it simply seemed to become a cloud of dust before my eyes and then . . . it wasn’t anymore. Just like that. Gone. Thirty minutes later I was still standing in the same spot when the top of its twenty-five year old twin exploded and within seconds it, too, was gone.

Within twenty minutes of Tower Two’s collapse Mitchell arrived home, safe and sound having walked from the Upper East Side. Shortly thereafter, Denora’s husband, Wilfredo, got here. I made coffee and got out a bottle of bourbon. It was just before 11 in the morning.

* * *

By 12:30 Denora and Wilfredo decided they should begin walking home-across the Manhattan Bridge to Brooklyn and their children. Mitchell and I had made and responded to about two dozen telephone calls by this time. Many of outbound attempts failed and I’m sure a lot of calls bound for us failed also-the circuits still intact were humming with traffic. All the calls were of the “you ok?” “yeah, you?” “yeah” variety. Thankfully, all our friends who worked at or near the World Trade Center had managed, for one reason or another, to be elsewhere at the crucial moments.

I guess it was about 3:00 when I decided I couldn’t take anymore CNN and the repeated replays of the devastation I had personally witnessed here in New York and the carnage I had only witnessed electronically at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. I wanted to get out of the apartment, away from the pictures and sounds. I wanted to go somewhere and do something but what? Where to go when you are there, in the midst of it, when you can still hear it even with the TV turned off. When you can smell the burning concrete, sheetrock, plastic and . . . all of it. Mitchell was reluctant at first, probably already understanding there was no place to go. But she shortly agreed-anything was better than sitting there and watching.

I can’t adequately describe the streets. They were quiet. There were a few people walking around, but everybody spoke in hushed tones, afraid to disturb the overwhelming quietness. Granted it was a Tuesday afternoon, not Friday at midnight. But this is West 4th Street, the heart of Greenwich Village, a strip of bars, restaurants, tattoo/piercing parlors and shops selling designer watches, handmade chocolates and sex toys. On any given afternoon, especially in early September, there are always a few NYU students either starting early or finishing the prior night particularly late. Not today. When we did see someone we knew, we looked at each other with shock and disbelief. Everybody was asking everybody they knew, even if only tangentially, “how are you? Are you ok?” No one was in enough of a rush to jostle their neighbor. Everybody was very polite and solicitous.

And the shops-the Korean sex shop, the French patisserie, the Japanese anime gallery/tattoo parlor, the Indian paper store and the Lebanese tobacco/head shop-everything was closed. Everything except the restaurants and bars. They were packed.

I guess it’s human nature: we seek each other out for conversation, for camaraderie, for warmth. In every joint we passed, the patrons stared at TVs, drink in hand, while conversations and tears flowed all around. From West 4th Street up to 18th at 7th Avenue (where we ended up) the scene was the same. With a couple of exceptions.

Besides the bars, the liquor stores were also open. And doing great. We stopped in one near 17th Street on 7th Avenue. More of a wine shop than a liquor store, it’s clientele that afternoon included many, like me, who could barely tell more about a wine than its color. But we all waited in line patiently-a most un-New York patience-while the credit card terminal fought invisibly for an open line. I’d guess that each transaction took about 3 to 5 minutes.

The other exception was between 11th and 12th Streets at 7th Avenue: Saint Vincent’s Hospital, where the wounded were being brought for triage.

To understand the situation at the hospital, you have to understand the traffic patterns in that part of the City. Sixth Avenue, one block east of 7th, runs one way north. Seventh Avenue runs one way south. With the entire downtown area closed off to all but emergency vehicles, loaded ambulances and commandeered vehicles roared up 6th with their sirens screaming, unloaded in front of the hospital on 7th, then roared downtown on 7th, sirens still screaming. And where they unloaded, that’s where the doctors and nurses did their triage-right there in the middle of the street. Surrounded by scores of onlookers and reporters as well as a multitude of support staff doing everything from ferrying patients into the emergency room to making sandwiches for the other workers.

We called our friend Skip from in front of Saint Vincent’s. We already knew Skip was alright. We also knew he had been home drinking a bottle of wine by about 11:30. He told us to come over and bring some more wine. We did. And beer, too. And cigarettes-even though Mitchell and I had both quit in May. Sometimes you know you’re alive because of all the death and danger around you. And being alive is all that counts in those moments.

Misery loves company and that’s what we found at Skip’s. Three of his co-workers at an advertising agency downtown live in the boroughs and were essentially stranded in Manhattan until further notice. They were crowded in Skip’s bedroom watching the news and drinking. We joined them. A bit later, Skip’s sister arrived from her job with the New York City Department of Health, which is worried about anthrax. Soon, we were worried about it, too. And, in and with their company, we passed the remainder of the afternoon in communal dis-ease.

One more memorable moment from the afternoon: at about 5 or 6 I heard a tremendous number of sirens approaching. Unlike all that I’d heard earlier, these were not coming down 7th towards the scene. Instead, they were coming from the west, across 18th Street. At 7th, they all headed south. And then I could see what they were-ambulances. Scores of ambulances. And none from New York City. Most not even from New York State. New Jersey mostly, but some Connecticut, too. And Long Island. Nearly everywhere in the immediate tri-state area was represented in that caravan.

By 9 PM Mitchell and I were home. By 11 the bars and restaurants were quiet. By 11:30 every apartment I can see from our apartment was lit up. This is unprecedented. People had nowhere to go-no movies, no concerts, no shows, no late suppers, no drinks.

And now, at about 2 AM on Wednesday, September 12, with no traffic, and all the apartments dark, their occupants in troubled sleep, with no Twin Towers and all their lights, and Broadway dark I see the second-most remarkable thing of this most memorable day, something else I though I’d never see in Manhattan. With the City so dark I can see the stars.

John Friedman