It has been an odd week in New York City. Counting from last Thursday, the days have been peculiar mini-revelations unto themselves as the days until September 11th—the mathematically true anniversary of the attacks, as those were on a Tuesday, and this one as well, thanks to time's passage on the Gregorian calendar, melted away one by one.
Ride the trains. Walk the streets. Breathe the oddly temperate air here, and your mind inexorably does its own synaptic walkabout. Going where it goes.
And ending up...there again.
Thursday, September 6th—8:41 a.m.: I know the time because in getting ready to head out the door, I chronically check the cable box for the time display. The phone rings .
I walk over and see on the caller I.D. that it's my wife—on her cell phone. It rings again, and in between rings, the mind flies.
She left here an hour ago. It's 8:41 a.m.—not far from the time of the first plane's impacting six years ago. The sun shoots through the vertical slats, painting odd, late summer gold on the couch. A bright, warm day disturbingly much like the fateful one in question. She never calls here once she's gone...she waits and calls me at my desk every day at about a quarter after eleven. I don't have the TV on—what's going on?
I snatch the phone up, and I hear her take a quick breath. Before she can speak, I'm several questions in.
“What's up? What's going on? Everything okay? What's the problem?”
“Turn on the news.”
My heart sinks as my eyes sweep for the remote.
“What's...happening? Where are you?”, I ask , straining for calm.
“I'm at Kingston Avenue. There's no trains into Manhattan—”
“Ohhhhhh, shit.”, I'm thinking—almost aloud as I spot the remote.
“—It's a police action they're saying. That somebody jumped in front of a train.”
I stop. “Somebody jumped...in front of a train?” My shoulders un-tense. “That's what it is?”
“Yeah...I need to know if I have to walk over and get the A—oh... Wait. Ohhhh...were you thinking...?”
“Look at the time. I mean...look outside.”
“Yeah. I thought about that just before I went down in the subway. Sky's really blue, out. Can't help it.”
“Do me a favor...hang there. I'm out the door. I'll meet you and we can walk crosstown.”
She agreed, and we hung up the phone. One should not breathe a sigh of relief because another person has opted to end it all under the deadly wheels of an onrushing subway train...but damned if I didn't. Damned if I didn't.
And as I walked out the door...I looked up at that blue sky, and frowned a bit—and then looking west, I smiled a bit. Clouds and haze were rolling in—changing that pretty, but discomfiting late summer color palette. Thankfully. Thankfully.
Friday, September 7th—11:25 p.m.: I'm walking south on Broadway, after celebrating at a bar, the first win of my co-ed softball team's fall season. The drinks are flowing verrry freely, and as it's Friday night, the crew is verrrry loosey-goosey. Especially the women. I can't be down. I'm married...so I punk out and leave. But the Friday night streets are full of beautiful women as the club and bar-filled blocks toward Union Square go by. I'm buzzed, and basically walking through a hothouse of dazzling, rare orchids. All I can do is look on this warm night at the scads of lovelies sporting the city's official evening “party” attire—snug Von Furstenburg, patterned rayon dresses. Blue Triangles on this one, orange and cocoa teardrops on that one.
And the lovely stopped in front of me, in green and white concentric circles. Raven hair and black patent heels. Legs...magnificent. Lush, maned head craned upwards as she talked quietly on her cell phone. Lord, the Kristin Davis “clone’ is cute, but Goddamn, girl! Get outta the middle of the sidewalk there, yappin'! You're in the way!
“What the hell are you standing there looking up at?”, I'm yelling with my body language as I near her and start to sidestep. And then? Then, I look up.
And see them.
I'd forgotten about them this year—the commemorative light display from Ground Zero some seventeen blocks south. The pit. Ghostly, and ultimately intangible twin tent-poles of remembrance holding up an inky night sky. The air is still, and I realize that others have stopped to look. The girl. Me. Other people standing in the cutaway entrance into Union Square Park. All silently looking. The Asian man at the newsstand looks heavenward, and shakes his head ruefully.
And grabs a fistful of ice from the bin holding the spring water, rubbing it all over his face as he quietly sighs into his hands, “Oh lordy.”
Just like that...there are no pretty girls anymore...at least...I can't see them anymore. There's just people standing about, mouths turned downward, looking up at the two columns of light.
And they're not strong enough to hold back the weight of the dark—the dark, and what it carries with it.
Sunday, September 9th—7:35 p.m.:
I'm vacuuming the living room, and the whine of the machine white noises everything in the house. Voices, phone rings, and very nearly my own thoughts. The TV is on and I'm watching—I can't hear—the award ceremony for the U.S. Open. Roger Federer smiles his wan smile, laughs at something and is given a huge check. Over the din, I can hear the faint whoop of the crowd, and then it's over. Right into CBS' “60 Minutes”.
Still, no sound...but the images scream as if piped through a hundred speakers. There's a chopped together montage of shots—people running through the streets of Lower Manhattan, organic clouds of ash, pulverized building, and...bits of just-alive people...billowing, roaring and practically chasing the panicked masses through the financial district's canyons. An overhead shot of the grey devil-cloud, seeming to breathe and exhale, and then, grow outward, gobbling a bit more of the city's southern end. Shots of newly statue-gray survivors, coughing and throwing up. Firefighters doing the same—sucking oxygen from masks. Folks and Firefighters both, staggering away from the awful, hellish precipitation.
Then...a shot of Rudy Giuliani from that day, “heroically” directing passersby and the rapt cameramen to and fro as he strode his tin-pot “MacArthur” stride into pundit lore.
And finally, a talking head shot of the blinking, mendacious wonder that is former EPA boss, Christine Todd Whitman—GOP apparatchik, and pre-Brownie, “Brownie”. saying something I cannot hear, but know is an ass-covering lie as surely as I know gravity holds me to the floor.
The vacuum goes off. I'm gonna watch this.
The report is a mock-tough, Katie Couric reputation-rehab piece, where she feigns high-dudgeon at the farce that was the government's handling/massaging of information about the air quality in Lower Manhattan in those days immediately following September 11th. Couric clucked her tongue and dipped her head. She lowered her voice for pretend-grave intonations in asking Whitman difficult questions about the “mishandling” of information and willful disregard for the lives of the rescuers and survivors.
And Christie Whitman blinked, and stammered, and triggered a power in me that manifested itself as soon as my kids learned to talk. The power...to instantly see when someone is prancing about like Rip Taylor, madly scattering confetti when on the hot seat, for what it really is—a liar scattering bullshit. Having kids and seeing them lamely try to wheedle their way out of “Who finished off the Cheez Doodles?/Who broke the remote I found behind their bed?,” trains you to sniff out lies with ease. Watching Whitman quaveringly deflect Couric's questions about her craven spin in those fateful days infuriated me.
“Lie. Lie. Obfuscation. Buck pass. Lie. Lie. Dodge. BIG lie. BIGGER lie. Play dumb. Lie.”
Couric later notes that Rudy Giuliani was asked to appear to defend his statements hurrying people back into Ground Zero—and he refused to come on and answer questions. He would only give a terse “Those people down there were heroes, and we must do everything we can to help them now.” P.R. statement. When Rudy Giuliani—Presidential Candidate, opts to duck a 9-11 photo-op within 48 hours of the anniversary—a day that is morning sunlight to the flower that is him—he is afraid of something, or someones.
“Mr. Bravery” is running from the firefighters who are dogging his every step while he continues to pose callously atop 343 of their corpses. Who would have thunk it?
Couric's ineffectual questioning infuriated me—and my wife. We changed the channel and landed on MSNBC, to find them promoting their broadcasting in real time on Tuesday, the September 11th, 2001 episode of “Today”—as it happened.
“Are they-”, my wife asked, “-gonna just show that day's episode of Today? Why? Only a masochist would wanna watch that!”
“I dunno what the fuck that's about.”, I replied.
“I can't think of anybody I know who'd wanna watch it!”, she hissed. “I mean...I was down there! 3000 people got vaporized down there—do their families wanna tune in and catch a three-hour flashback?”
“In real time, too.”, I said.
“A retrospective I could understand. You do that.”, she railed. “But a Jesus!...Whaddyacallit...um...encore presentation? An encore presentation?! Grrrrrrrrrrrr!” Forgetting herself for a minute, she actually asked me “Would you watch something like that?”
It's an easy mistake for her to make. She was down there that day, in the midst of it. My day is an abstraction for her as I wasn't there with her to share in the direct events. But I'd sooner eat broken glass-laced pig entrails than have that day played out for me again in real-time on TV.
You see, the actual memories are bad enough.
I was in front of the Twin Towers the night before on the 10th, having walked up Whitehall Street from a freelance gig. I wanted a fish sandwich and the McDonald's on B'way was packed, so I stopped at the Burger King on the corner opposite 4 WTC on Liberty Street.
I called my then-fiancée from the pay phone on the corner—I didn't own a cell phone yet. Just to say “Goodnight”, and shoot the breeze before heading to my mom's house to help her out with a school project and spend the night. The thing I'll always remember about that night was how still the air was—how perfect the temperature. And how quiet that area gets around 11 p.m. It was...beautiful.
The next day, the train in to work sat at 23rd Street & Ely Avenue in Long Island City for way too long—one stop outside of Manhattan. And then, an announcement from a frazzled-sounding platform worker: “There are no trains entering Manhattan at this time. NO TRAINS ENTERING MANHATTAN AT THIS TIME, DUE TO POLICE ACTIVITY!”
As one cloying white-collar fella brusquely queried the worker, I was on my way up the stairs and out of the station to call my job. I heard the worker snap oddly, “WHAT ABOUT NO TRAINS ENTERING MANHATTAN DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?”
Getting upstairs, I was outside a luncheonette/ newsstand waiting on line to use the pay phone, when I could hear from within the store a rising murmur of agitation. As I was at the end of the line, I drifted back to the store's door to see what was going on—and an overhead TV told a disturbing tale. There, on the screen, I could see the smoldering top of WTC1—just hit, as I would soon hear the panicked people leaving the store saying. My pulse quickened. My wife-to-be was employed in WTC2, and what I was looking at onscreen was to say the least—worrisome. I had to reach her, to tell her to get the fuck out of WTC2 and get the fuck out of that area immediately, as the building next to it looked perilously close to an area-dangerous total loss. So, I hurried back out to the now empty phone and dialed it—only to get an “all circuits are busy” message. I dialed three, four, FIVE MORE TIMES, and got that damned message again every time, only to hear a passer-by say, “No phones, man—nobody can get through.” I was panicked now, knowing the fire would get no better, and I tried to figure out a plan. I could hear gasps in the newsstand again, and see people with their hands over their mouths now. I ducked back in to see on TV two towers ablaze now. Had it spread? What? What was all that confetti-like stuff falling down? And where was my fiancée?!
I stumbled outside knowing I couldn't get a train into Manhattan, and would soon discover that NO TRAFFIC AT ALL was being allowed into the city. No cars, no buses, no cabs. But the area was crawling with cabs, as there were about five different cab “depots” within eyeshot. I figured I should get home. Perhaps my fiancée had called there. No way of knowing, but I had no choice. Me and two other people grabbed a cab back to Southeastern Queens, and pleaded with the driver to hot-foot it—which he did, with the radio giving the awful blow-by-blow of what was happening—in real time. As the cab flew through the Queens streets, my mind reeled. I became very anxious. The wife-to-be liked to get to work early nowadays—especially as we were a month away from getting married. The earlier she got out of there, the more wedding planning she could do. She was generally at her desk at 8:45, and liked to get to the Morgan Stanley cafeteria 10 floors up after 9 a.m.
People next to me in the cab futilely dialed inoperable cell phones. I just wanted to get to my mom's house to use a phone—or maybe have a message there for me.
I got there and cleared the twelve steps in three bounds. I was in the door instantly, and the news was on. Mom was sitting there—chased back from her work sojourn by the non-operating trains as well. My brother was there as well, having heard the news and coming to check up on mom. No messages...and no operational phone, either. Not for my lack of trying, though. I wore that phone out—dialing my beloved's job, where there was no answer, and no voicemail, then her home, where I couldn't get through, and too many times, most actually, where I heard the dreaded “All circuits are busy.”
My panic ramped up as I worked the phone feverishly—the towers were now twin spouts of flame and smoke.
“Why hadn't I heard from her?” She's fastidious—she'd have called me to let me know if she was at least okay. “Please God, don't let her have gone to that Goddamned cafeteria...please...”
We'd dated for three years in college, broken up, and gone our separate ways fifteen years before. Married other people, had kids....still cared for one another ...and after our respective marriages ended, fate brought us back together in the summer of 2000. I proposed in January of '01. The wedding was scheduled for October.
And here I was about to lose her. Again.
Still, no phone—and I could hear my brother saying “Man...those buildings are a total loss...they can't fix that. They're gonna have to knock 'em down...if there's anything left to knock down. Oh shit. Oh shit! They're...jumping. They're fucking JUMPING!””
I'm “shhhhhhhhh-ing” him because his words while true aren't helping. People are jumping. Some of what appeared to be simple “confetti/debris” falling is people, making the grisly choice to fall rather than burn.
WHERE? IS? SHE?!!!!!
And then? Then, as I'm watching footage of Tower Two's flaming upper floors (they've switched to this strangely benign feed) a commentator says that he's been told that Tower 2 is “beginning to list” several degrees, and could collapse. Still, no word, and I have to wait 30 seconds for a dial tone to come up. Tom Clancy's on via phone—WHY IS HIS FUCKING PHONE WORKING?—talking about his eerily prescient book scenario of a plane being flown into the U.S Capitol building, when...
When...something surreal happens.
WTC2 shudders for a moment, and just falls out of the picture. in a cloud of smoke. Period. I follow it down in disbelief, tilting my head like a confused cat. “That didn't happen—I'm dreaming. I must be—because they'd be saying something!” The commentator and Clancy go on for about 10 seconds—unaware in the horriffic change in the live feed—and then there's a change in the chyron on-screen, from “WTC2 Tower Attacked”, to “WTC2 Tower Has COLLAPSED.”
Cut to ashen newscasters on the set—stammering...
And cut back to me—losing it. It's a blur now when I think of it. But I recall dropping/throwing the phone. Stumbling into the hall, and falling on a hamper? Crawling and running and falling down the steps and then—I'm outside—the beautiful weather , the sun hitting me full in the face, as I turned this way and that, yelling something. I'm on the lawn, and I can't remember what I was saying, but I do recall feeling my heart pounding, my arms flailing—and everything spinning. Something's roaring in my head.
It's me I guess, screaming.
And then, I'm knocked on my belly—pinned, as a voice whispers in my ear “Come on...come on. You've gotta relax. Re-laaaxxxxxx...” It was my brother. He'd practically tackled me on the lawn—as I'd lost it, totally. He lay there on top of me until my senses came back enough to feel the grass against my face. He wouldn't let go of me until we were back in the house, my mother standing at the steps, arms outstretched with the phone, and saying “Keep trying! Keep trying!”
And I did...through a veil of tears until around 1 p.m., when the phone rang and it was my sister-in-law to be. Somehow, local calls weren't working, but my fiancée had managed to get a call through to her sister in Jersey, who then called me. She was okay. Trapped in a building, and covered with dust a block from Ground Zero, but okay. I burst into tears of happiness and thanked God—Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, Jehovah, rocks, trees and the Goddamned sun that she was apparently “okay”.
Hours later when I actually heard from her, I would find that she missed being in the building by 15 minutes that morning because she was delayed by voting, and dropping off pants at the cleaners, and that she'd heard the roar of the too-low jet turbines, and felt the heat of the explosion burn her neck as she called upstairs to warn her co-workers to "GET OUT!", 'cause the sister tower was ablaze— just as WTC 2 was hit.
That close. That... close. That's my real-time memory. On the phone telling her the way out of downtown and home, as she was in shock and brain-scrambled. The days afterward are etched into my mind because I worked 11 blocks north of it, and remember that dank stink of torn-open earth and yes...death.
Rat traps every 40-60 feet in the area because the vermin were wild with post-massacre activity.
I didn't need the Today Show's “retrospective...and neither did anyone else.
Tuesday, September 11th—10:00 a.m.: I finally hear from Giuliani on the radio—during the commemorative ceremonies. He speaks for about 30 seconds and is gone. Thankfully. Still I can't help but think about his scarceness in recent days. Hell hath no fury like firefighters trashed.
The sky darkens in the early afternoon—black nearly, and the heavens dump a deluge on Manhattan, thankfully. It's a welcome weather distraction from the day's events, and it washes the “any-other-day-of-the-year-perfectly-fine” blue out of the sky. “Shit! I need an umbrella!”, and “Urrrrrgh! Look at my suede shoes!” is a welcome respite from the peculiar quiet.
No one's “Singin' In The Rain”...but nobody's crying either.
Wednesday, September 12th—10:30 a.m.: Just got off the phone with my wife. She's headed uptown to bring her mom her glasses and some magazines at the nursing home. She asks me what the weather's like outside. I tap “Dashboard” on my computer, and the temp reads at 69ª degrees—with a high of 76ª predicted.
“Nice day.”, she says.
“Sun's out, big time. Not a cloud in the sky.” I reply.
There's a silence. Because of that weather. And this time of year. We don't call it “Indian Summer” anymore in New York, when the sun blazes bright and perfect, and warms, but doesn't burn.
You call it one of “those days”.
Eleven months, twenty-nine days and counting.