As I write, my computer keyboard is covered with a fine dusting of white ash. I could clean it off, but feeling it on my fingertips as I try to communicate what I’ve seen and felt in the last week keeps me rooted in reality. For New Yorkers reality has become a delicate thing, like a thin sheet of ice over a quick flowing river. One draws back from placing a firm foot on it, but one must try. From my fire escape balcony in Brooklyn I can still see the massive plume of smoke rising from lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty, looking small and confused out in the harbor.
I grew up in Madison and moved to New York City the year of the first World Trade Center bombing – remember that one? The one that looks tiny and insignificant compared to the what’s going on now? Ever since I was about ten years old I fantasized about living in New York. It was the center of everything, where everything happened first; a city of bridges and elegant skyscrapers and endless human commotion. Everything that excited my about it as a child still excites me today.
On Tuesday morning, September 11th, I left my Brooklyn apartment and took the subway to work as usual. I remember looking at my watch when I exited the station at Union Square. It was five minutes to nine. I wanted to stop at the drug store on 14th street before heading into work. When I got to the corner of 14th and University a crowd had gathered there, all gawking at something downtown and high in the air. One guy was aiming a camera with a telephoto lens at it. I rounded the corner, looked in that direction and my heart dropped as I saw billows of black smoke pouring from both the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The buildings looked like a giant pair of industrial smokestacks. People in the crowd were debating what had just happened.
“It was two American Airlines planes, I saw the logos on the side.”
“Was it an accident? Did they collide in the air?”
“No, the second one was later, like ten minutes later. How could that happen twice? No way was it an accident!”
“Are you sure it was commercial airlines?”
A woman listening to a walkman said, “Yes, the radio just said,—definitely passenger airlines.”
“That’s what I’m saying! They flew so low you could read the writing on them!”
The fire impinging on the side of the second tower spread upward until the whole top half of the building was covered in oily black smoke. On the first tower the impact was higher, and the fire crept downward, turning the shiny blue facing black. Windows popped off like tiddlywinks and formed a glittering cloud around the towers, like crystal confetti in the morning sun. You could see it clearly from our vantage point, three-quarters of a mile away. I thought of the people trying to get out, and those sheets of glass plummeting towards the earth, each one a flying guillotine. I turned and ran into my office to find that the building was being evacuated. A radio booming out of a parked taxicab reported that the Pentagon had just been hit.
What would the next piece of horrifying news be? Biological weapons? A tactical nuclear strike? My heart pounded and I felt like puking. All traffic came to a halt on Fifth Avenue. I joined the crowd of cashiers, fry-cooks in greasy aprons, hairdressers, students, executives, delivery guys looking out the doors of their trucks at the smoking ruin of the first tower, which had just collapsed. The second tower’s top was engulfed in flames and crumbling. People wept openly, frantically tried to make cell phone calls, but they had all stopped working. I felt faint and realized I needed water immediately. I vaguely remember buying a liter of Poland Spring next to a man with an expensive camera who was trying to buy film, but his hands were shaking so badly, he could barely get his money on the counter. By the time I was back on the street, the end of Fifth Avenue was a solid wall of smoke, so much that it took a few moments to realize the second tower had just come down. Helicopters pounded overhead and sirens screamed through the city. My brain could only produce one coherent thought. Uptown.
I knew friends of mine were probably headed right now for a long walk across the Brooklyn bridge, but if I was certain of only one thing, it was that my feet would agree to take me even one inch closer to the inferno in front of us. Of course, walking uptown meant passing other potential targets – the Empire State Building, the UN – but in a situation like that, there are no happy options to weigh. I stopped in at the office where I used to work. It was on the way, and I was hoping to find some walking company. They were all staying put, except for a 16-year-old intern who had just shown up after his school had been evacuated near Broadway and Houston. He and his classmates had been out in the street when the first tower collapsed—much closer to it than I had been. He was on the verge of complete panic and asked if anybody would walk with him up to his mom’s house on 83rd street. I said I would, and we left together.
Rattled as he was, he had done the right thing in opting against making the 78-block journey alone. Every subway station we passed was roped off and surrounded by cops. The buses were sardine-packed with people, many of them, I imagined, less able-bodied than the two of us. I felt better immediately for having something to do, somewhere to go. My new purpose in life was to keep this kid company and talk to him all the way up to 83rd street until we can get in front of a TV and find out what to do next. Periodically we looked back in disbelief at the cloud of dust and ash where the towers had been. At one point an incredibly loud airplane roared overhead and we ducked below the stoop of an apartment building on 23rd Street. Crouching next to the trash cans we saw that what we had just heard was an F-16 fighter jet. My companion looked at me and said, “This can’t be happening. This is dream. Right? It can still be a dream, can’t it?”
I realized he was dead serious. “I mean, those towers have been there all my life. They can’t be gone. All those people…they can’t be dead. This can’t be happening.”
Whatever I said in response was going count for a lot, whether I wanted it to or not. His eyes told me he didn’t need to be comforted. He wanted the truth.
“I think that’s the difference between you and me.” I said. ” I grew up in the Reagan era. We always believed something like this would happen. When I was your age, I didn’t think I’d live to be thirty. But no, this isn’t a dream. I wish it was. Come on, let’s keep walking.”
We passed groups of people huddled on street corners, squatting around radios, listening to the reports. Some opened the doors to their parked cars and cranked the radio volume up to maximum as a public service. Pedestrians sat on the sidewalk and stoops in front of these cars and just listened, silently, with their heads in their hands. Some storefront businesses brought out TVs on extension cords and propped them up on stools tuned in to CNN. These street TVs gathered large, rapt crowds. Groups of people who’d never met or spoken before were tied together by threads of disaster and although there was an almost total absence of talking, a new kind of public space was being created. The raucous voices of New Yorkers were replaced by sound of a hundred emergency broadcasts echoing off buildings.
With aching feet we finally reached the apartment on 83rd street. We turned on the TV and took turns trying to make calls. No calls were going through outside the 212 area code. I finally reached an old friend of mine who lived up on 118th street – another Madison native who I’d gone to high school with. He was amazed I had reached him, as he hadn’t been able to receive a call for over an hour. He offered to get on his bike, meet me and escort me up to his place in Harlem. His next words were music to my ears. “I’ve got bottled water, food, and plenty of bourbon.”