9/11, New York, This World
by Matthew Gray
“Do you live in this world?”
I had ignored the telephone that morning. I was late for work, having stood in the shower too long with my lifeless thoughts, having sat at my desk in my towel with my morning stare. There are millions at work already while I am still staring at pictures of other countries I have tacked up above my desk. I’ll join them soon enough. Soon enough I will join you. Just leave me alone for now, with Jean Seberg looking over her bench at me with black and white eyes from the sidewalks of Champ Elysees. Morning. 9:30am.
I let the phone ring and ring until I hear my tinny electronic voice fielding the call. The message is from my sister back in Ohio. She speaks fast. I listened from my bedroom. “Matt or Keir. This is Matt’s sister Lisa. If one of you get this call me at my work.” Then she left her number. After I finished getting ready, I played the message again finding it sort of odd for her to ask for my roommate too. I called her back. After I combed my hair. After I flipped through a magazine on the table. Tie my shoes. Look at my eyes. Comb my hair again.
“Oh my God. You’re still at home. Thank God!”
“Why? What’s up?”
“Do you live in this world?!” And then she told me what had happened. You know this moment. Someone told you too, probably. Or perhaps you were the messenger.
I live in Brooklyn. But still, just a few blocks away on Metropolitan Avenue you can see them looming in the distance far over the shore on the southwest tip of Manhattan. On this morning, rushing outside I saw the smoke first, above the rooftops, like the feet of a murder victim behind the couch. Some walk slowly on the street looking up at it, as you would calmly read a banner trailing behind a plane. Others aren’t looking at the sky. They are standing in storefronts or huddled around cars with the radio turned way up. I still can’t see them yet, but I know of a vantage point nearby. At first I am jogging, but then I make myself walk slowly also. I don’t wish to seem morbid or scared. I keep my camera in my black leather briefcase. There is the tiniest of parks on the East River in Williamsburg, between the warehouses and a sugar factory. It is a clear view of Manhattan. A couple dozen people were already there. There. Where I had come before with friends or by myself to look at my adopted city. We never stayed long. After a few minutes you’ve seen it. The skyline. It never changes.
No one says anything. And it’s embarrassing to catch someone’s eye. There is a vagrant who is off to the side blathering something about Pearl Harbor hours before I’d hear it ad nauseam on TV. A group of Hasidic Jews are huddled together in their black and white attire. One speaks into his cell phone. A Puerto Rican woman sits with her barely-teenage daughter on the rocks of the shore. She saw the second plane hit, I find out. “It come in,” she says moving a flat hand across the sky, “like this. And Boom!” her hand collapses to her side. Then goes to her heart. “Fire comes out. I said, O My Lord. It, it just… I know, I see this…” She is silent again. Watching.
The smoke just burns on and on. Southeast. Across lower Brooklyn. They look like two cigarettes, lit in the wrong place. You don’t see any fire or red or glow. Just smoke from the large, black spots.
People pace now. It’s mostly young people. Williamsburg has fashioned itself as New York’s struggling artists’ colony finding cheap rent and large loft studios to squat in here. There are a great deal of cameras about; the media re-generation at work with their 35mm zoom lenses to the Hi-def Super 8s and Mini-DVs. One guy has his friend stand in the shot for perspective. It seems he is fighting his instinct to wave. I feel safe taking out my camera now. I feel safe behind the lens. I feel safe. The water laps pleasingly against the rocks.
From this distance it is impossible see from the flames 950 feet in the air people are jumping from windows.
Someone goes past in their small yacht toward the harbor, most likely for a better view.
“Look at this guy,” sneers a heavy, older man near me. He laughs to his wife.
“He probably doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. He’s just cruisin’ along there going, “Do-de-do-de-do!” I betcha he’s already sold tickets for tours. That’s what he’s doin’. Takin’ people out for tours. He sold tickets.” His wife is just staring at the buildings.
“I don’t know,” she mumbles.
It’s quiet except for the sirens. A parade of flashing red lights buzz south along the FDR highway on the other shore. To my left, I see the JMZ subway line crossing slowly over the Williamsburg bridge. It reminds me of work.
“Are the all the trains still running?” I ask aloud.
The majority answer seems to be yes though I suspect their guessing because they see the JMZ running like I do. No cars go over the bridge, only the flashing lights in one direction - into Manhattan. We estimate this is what’s happening on all of them. There are also huge lines of people on the bridge, but it’s hard to tell if they are coming or going. I assume they’re going to get a closer look. I never consider that people might be running away. But the train is still running.
I call work on my cell phone. “I don’t think I can get in,” I tell the receptionist. “The trains have stopped running.” He tells me not to worry, everyone’s leaving. I work in Midtown on 44th Street near Times Square. It’s miles away from the financial district. It wasn’t that I was afraid of going into the city. It’s just that those words were echoing in my head… “Do you live in this world?” I look at the buildings burn.
I call my father next. He tells me that a plane has struck the Pentagon also. Everything takes on a new perspective, one bigger than what I’m seeing. Plots, plans, chapters open up, meetings of shadowy men in prologue revealing themselves only now to the whole country. We have come to this in media res. A war has started.
“Don’t go into work. You don’t know if this is over yet.”
“No, I’m not going to.”
“You’re probably a lot safer there in Brooklyn.” I have gone from being “safe” to being “safer” and I haven’t moved a step. He continues. “It would make sense to blow up the bridges. Then they’ve locked off the city.” I don’t see the JMZ running anymore.
We are logically strategizing now. “I don’t think there’s anything else to attack in New York. They’ve done it. There’s nothing in The Empire State Building. It’s just offices. It’s not a financial center, not really. Same with the Chrysler Building. That’s nearer where I work.”
“The U.N.,” my father says. I look down the coast at the U.N..
“Oh. Yeah. That’s a good point.”
“Is that close to where you work?”
I laugh weakly. “Close enough.”
And then the first tower falls. People begin screaming in short bursts, covering their mouths, grabbing their heads and moaning in terror. It’s a dull roar in the distance.
Something drops inside me as well and I can barely speak. “It just fell! One of them just came down! Oh my God! Jesus…!”
“I’m going to hang up now,” my father says quickly. I’ve spoken to him in all sorts of situations. But as a grown man, never in terror. He knows it’s better for me to not be on the phone. “I’ll call you in a bit.”
I can barely say, “Okay.” Tears are burning up my throat. People are pacing quickly, some flap their hands as if on fire. Others are still, frozen. At that moment we knew we had just seen hundreds of people die.
I turn away from it and walk in small circles. Neither tower is visible now through the cloud of smoke.
“Do you live in this world?”
People are settled down again. Silent. The sirens continue across the river. There are a group of young people who are trying to talk their friend out of bicycling into Manhattan for work. They tell him that no one’s going to be eating lunch at a restaurant today. The rest of the group have decided to drive over to Brooklyn Heights to go to the promenade - the clearest public view from Brooklyn of the south harbor. One girl decides not to go and hugs them goodbye.
She stands beside me with her arms folded. We talk in whispers without really looking at each other; one feels obligated to watch now as if observing religious rites.
“There are schools over there.”
“Visiting?” I ask. “Or actual schools?”
“Actual schools. The Stuyvesant’s right there.” She pauses. “I have stuff over there. I’m an artist…” She says it as if it’s very unique. I suppose I am in a white shirt and jacket. I must look like a businessman to her. “…and there’s a non-profit organization that’s there, probably the only one,” she laughs. “I just sent some of my work over yesterday to see about getting a grant.”
“Well, no. Mostly prints. I mean, yes, some were originals, yes. But I spent, like forever putting the… presentation together? The Portfolio? All nice and matted and messengered it over there. It’s probably sitting on a desk over there. Or it was.”
Her words are hollow and I think she realizes it. But she’s wanting to talk. She’s the first of many, many that I’ll hear in the next few days who desperately feel the need to express any and every connection they have with the buildings.
I had been to the top of the World Trade Center only once, a month or two after arriving in the city two years ago. I dropped off an application to bartend at Windows On the World. I didn’t get the job. Oh, and I’d been to the Borders bookstore there on the ground level several times. And the underground mall. But I can’t remember buying anything from the stores, I don’t think.
We say some other things, just to talk. We’re more conversational now. It’s as if we’re in a bar. She’s attractive if somewhat self-important and my thoughts build normal futures with her. Mirages in the distance. And then I look up and see the smoke.
“I’m going to find some of my friends,” she says.
“I’m thinking of heading back to my apartment.”
We walk together out of the park silently. Then we diverge. Like everyone else I spoke to there, we didn’t exchange names.
Church bells are tolling now. I pass people heading toward the park. Many have cameras with them. Several take their dogs.
I stop in a corner bodega where three people are looking up at a television. It talks about how a bomb has gone off in the state department. I have begun to hear the rumors that a plane has hit the Capitol building as well. A newscaster tells us people are being evacuated from buildings in L.A. also. We smile at this because right now we’re still New Yorkers more than anything and we can’t imagine anything worth destroying there. That they’re still second to us. Sorry, but it’s true. That’s what we were thinking. L.A. was trying to crowd in on our action.
But then we sober to the fact that it’s not over yet. Anywhere. The ATM only lets me take out a hundred dollars. I was thinking of taking all the money I had out. Who knew if your bank would still be there tomorrow? I buy two more rolls of film and head back to the park.
I have just reached the edge of the park and notice the American flag that flies there on its pole. I walk up along a warehouse to take a photo with it in the foreground and the lone tower in the background. I have just finished loading my camera when the screams and moans erupt again. The second tower is collapsing. I’m away from everyone else this time and behind my camera where it’s safe. But then the shiver goes through my body again. Hundreds more are dead.
After a while there’s nothing left to say. Nothing left to look at. We mill about quietly. The cameras are resting now, except for a few who take pictures of the aftermath on strangers’ faces. I can’t bring myself to. Everyone looks sick. A girl in a bright pink Elvis shirt cries heavily. Her boyfriend rubs her shoulders and leads her out of the park.
Minutes pass eternally with nothing to do, trapped with thoughts so obvious they don’t need expression. (The media does it for us anyway in the next few days.) Only a few delicate, stranded comments bubble up around the park. Then we hear something that makes time stop completely.
It’s the sonic roar of a jet. Everyone is looking up. The vast cerulean sky is empty. The noise seems to come from everywhere and nowhere. It sounds like the sky is tearing. And then we see it, a military jet going over into Manhattan. I look over at the U.N.. No one says anything. We have no idea what country it’s from. Everyone watches it circle slowly over Manhattan. It is heading toward us again. One guy near me mutters what we’re all thinking, “Man, please don’t be droppin’ anything down on us.” I think of my apartment blocks away and the concrete basement and how big a nuclear bomb is and whether I could outrun it. Finally, it disappears to the east, down Long Island, dragging it’s rumble slowly behind, until all is quiet again.
I decide to walk back to the apartment.
My roommate and I watch the rest of the day on the television. Some people call to find out if we were all right. Most can’t get through but fortunately some get in contact with my parents in Ohio. The phone lines of New York are pushed to the max and would be for the rest of the week. We leave briefly to get some food.
Walking down the sidewalk he says to me, “Do you think that if we didn’t know what happened we could tell something’s different?”
“I don’t know.” I look around. “Yes. Nobody’s talking.”
And then of course there’s the smoke in the southern sky.
Two weeks ago I was flying from Las Vegas from my sister’s wedding. Next to me was an older couple from Wyoming who were going to visit New York for a week. The wife had never been there and they asked me questions about the different sites to see.
“Actually, I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never been up to the Empire State Building. Or the Statue of Liberty.”
They were filled with the usual amazement tourists give to that statement. “I’ve been up to the World Trade Center though.”
“Well, that’s probably more your generation’s building, I imagine.”
“Oh God, I hope not,” I laughed. “They’re hideous. They’re so garish. Modernist crap. Uggh. But the Empire State Building…”
“Or the Chrysler Building…”
“Yes! The Chrysler Building…!”
And I talked about New York architecture the way most New Yorkers do. Leaving out the World Trade Center. That irrefutable, egoistic double blot on the skyline. I am a fan of old classic monuments. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Colossus of Rhodes, the Statue of Zeus, and, my personal love, the Pharos of Alexandria. What beauty and majesty. Sometimes I well with sadness thinking of it and the earthquake that brought it crashing to the ground. How I wish I could have seen it! There in 279BC, this marvel of the Ptolemies soaring over 400 feet into the air! Imagine it! I can almost hear the Alexandrians, the Greeks, what all of the ancient world must have thought!
“It’s hideous. It’s so garish. Modernist crap.”
Do you live in this world?
Giuliani said to only go into Manhattan if it was absolutely necessary. I work as the assistant to the head of a talent and literary agency. We get work for actors and directors and writers. Absolutely necessary.
I went in anyway. There was nothing else to do but watch TV or give blood, but the blood drives were full, sending people home - to watch TV. Despite the great rallying of good will and masses doing whatever they could to help like you all probably saw on the news, I’m sure that watching TV is what most New Yorkers were doing. Watching the city from the safety of their apartment, like an afternoon documentary on The History Channel. Outside there’s no one to help tell you with what to think, how to feel. Inside it doesn’t smell like smoke.
Most all of the newsstands were sold out of The Times. I found one finally in Brooklyn. I was able to sit down on the subway to work. If you’ve never been to New York and been on the subway at 9:30am, believe me, this is highly unusual. I didn’t take the paper out from my bag though. Somehow, it seemed rude.
The streets of Midtown were barren. The handful of people that there were walked across the street pell-mell with no fear of traffic. There wasn’t any. But here, here is how New York was different, miles away from the carnage on the southern tip:
Almost every morning, I go to a deli on the way to work and get a breakfast sandwich and a coffee, as many others do. People bustle up to the counter saying, “How’s it going there, Chief?” to which the guy behind the counter says, “Okay, Boss! What can I getcha?”
There wasn’t anyone to bustle against on this day. I watched a man in a suit (he wore no tie today) calmly wander up to the counter. And with the voice of a funeral minister:
“How are you?”
To which was quietly, but steadily replied, “Okay. What can I get for you.” On the way out someone held the door for me. Only four people showed up to work - the receptionist, the mailroom guy, my boss, and me.
I like my boss. I really do. He’s a kind, patient, jovial old man - a gentleman and a scholar among lizardy agents, a rare breed. But I was amazed at how little he seemed to care. It was like we had merely lost the World Series or something. He smiled over the phone when a call was able to come through from the L.A. office wondering how he was.
“Good!” he said cheerily. “How are you? Oh well, yes, who knows, who knows. Did Norman’s wife have the baby? Really? That’s wonderful!”
Halfway through the day our L.A. office was evacuated because of a bomb threat. So was the Empire State Building. “They just evacuated that black building down on the corner because of a bomb threat. And Grand Central Station,” the receptionist said. I hated this. I hated this panic - people running about the city like they’re involved in a schoolyard game: “MetLife has cootie-bombs!” and suddenly everyone is running down the street. Nothing seems in perspective anymore. Ashes. Ashes. We all fall down.
“These people don’t announce when they’re going to blow something up,” I replied. “They just do it.”
I did what business I could, but we had no internet for most of the morning and no outgoing phone lines. It all seemed so irrelevant.
I was filled with anger and sadness and loneliness. But I wasn’t sad for America or mad at the terrorists or anything like that. It was because something had changed. But a lot didn’t.
Or maybe it did. But I couldn’t feel it. I remembered seeing them fall and I felt it again. And then it went away again. Why was I here? In this office. Going about like nothing was different. Was this what I was supposed to be doing? Am I showing that I’m not afraid or that I am? Moving on or digging in?
Let me tell you what most people in New York are not doing, what you are not seeing on television or reading in a very special issue of Time magazine. We’re not down in the rubble listening for survivors. We’re not standing with our candles in the sunlight wondering if it was 7pm Eastern Standard Time that we were supposed to light them. We’re not sending brownies down to people choking on smoke. Or buying up all the flags at K-mart. Or singing “God bless America” from the rooftops. Or telling police officers in the subway station that we love them. But thousands are! And it’s amazing and it’s inspiring and it looks real good.
Most of us are meeting with friends and doing everything we can not to think about it. Trying to think of something else to talk about, unable to find catharsis in symbols or psychic relief in internet chat rooms. In fact mostly I hear people telling the quiet, off-color joke to get it out of their system. My personal favorite is that Osama Bin Laden had nothing to do with it but rather this is merely just the latest series of shark attacks - the second phase of their coming global domination. Giant fish in trenchcoats and sunglasses hijacking a plane is funny to me. I’m sure you have compiled some favorite jokes in your mind as well.
We feel guilty and worthless and angry and sick inside but not for any of the reasons anyone else seems to be saying. We have no scratches or bruises and we don’t recognize anyone in the “missing” posters that are taped to the lightpoles. Only occasionally we get an e-mail like this:
Just thought I’d let you all know that my friend Maria Barreto’s fiancee’s (she was to be married next month) body was found on Saturday in a stairwell at WTC still clutching his firehose. He was a lieutenant for Rescue 1 and one of Giuliani’s right hand men. He was also present at the WTC bombing in 94 (or was it 93) and the Oklahoma City bombing. Giuliani is giving him a send-off at St. Patrick’s Cathedral this week. She is a single mom of two and just a temp here at my office. We’re trying to get together donations for her here and whatever else we can do. If we have a program for the shows could we mention her and her fiancee, Dennis Mojica? Thanks.
I am tragedy twice removed. But we can’t shut it out, we can’t turn the station, it’s always there, inescapable, outside, giving us the Henny Penny nightmares that make the restless nights. Or we don’t feel anything at all and we don’t know why.
We come home with a new import CD, put it on the stereo and bop, bop, bop until we catch ourselves in the mirror and laugh and pick at some dandruff. Only it’s ash. The wind was blowing north today.
“Is something the matter?” my boss asked. “You’re so quiet.”
“No. I’m fine.” I made a vain gesture to the city with my hand. “It’s just this… whole thing I guess.”
All of my friends in the city had been accounted for. An e-mail check-in list had gone around all day on Tuesday. Someone found out I was safe and posted my name. Safe.
I decided to go home around five. The other two besides my boss had left. The streets were even emptier. But slowly I felt it, in the faces of those who were around me.
We were all thinking the same thing.
This is something that happens. And this is something that happens to me. And before yesterday I had my pains and my ridiculous hope and I lived an embarrassed life, but now it’s been erased. One. Two. I am no longer so alone inside because I know that the hurt I feel today my brothers-sisters-strangers feel today and today I am not alone in this city of six million because you have looked at me and I know you have understood. And my cold messenger box that used to suck away my life and dreams with commercial breaks is now telling me that there is something alive in the heavy word “country” and that it is inviting me in and telling me, “I am not dead and neither are you. Why have you felt so alone?”
There are other cities to destroy. Inside us. The ones with thicker steel and denser concrete that we have scrawled with “No Trespassing” signs. I have lived inside mine and furnished it beautifully. “I am Kublai Khan and I am a god here and since you are not worthy of my joys and suffering, I will not let you in.” And my footsteps echo loudly in the hollow, empty halls. It is a proud city. But perhaps today it has started to fall, in the tiniest ways, flaking away like abandoned frescoes, and I am finding a beauty in letting it happen, because I look across and see that yours is doing the same. Today.
Do you live in this world?
It’s nice to meet you. So do I.
MATTHEW GRAY was born and raised in Marysville, Ohio. He is a writer, director, and actor for film and stage in New York City.