I’ve wrestled with the idea of doing this for years. But the fundamental truth of my 9/11 account is that it was a first pass “quick, get it all on paper before it leaves your head. Come back to it later and edit it.” Years later I can’t look at the thing without wincing. So I decided to start undertaking the project of fleshing it out, seeing what was invoked by a good re-read.
As someone who’s narcissistic enough to enjoy chronicling my own life, I know now that I’m going to be adding to this. Probably as a yearly ritual for a while. There’s so much missing. But at least now, the things that I DO cover, I’m at least marginally satisfied with.
It’s almost impossible to describe that sound. When you think of a crash, you think of a cacophony of shattering and twisting noises, the high pitched squeal of twisting metal. A noise that hearts your ears with it’s pitch. But when you’re in side one of the objects in the crash, the experience is much different, almost inverted in a way. There was a resounding crunch almost too deep to be heard. It reminded me very much of the sound of a car crash from within one of the cars. A much more rounded sound, a crumbling sound.
It was a deep feeling as well. I’ve never experienced anything close, much less equivalent. Most of that was likely due to the fact that I was on the 51st floor of the building. It was a few seconds before the “oh my god’s” started coming from all over the office.
At the time I thought it was a strangely strong lightning strike. As such I was excited, having a great fondness for a good electrical storm.
I looked up from my desk in time to see what appeared to be debris of some sort falling past the window. It was a sunny morning and the debris sparkled as it fell, like some Disney pixie dust. It was among the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. It just didn’t look like it could possibly be real, much less shards and dust of glass.
My next thought was that a helicopter must have hit the building a few floors up. That would at least account for the shake and the debris.
It was about then that a few people started running. Shouts of “everybody out” accompanied the stampede of employees. I noted in passing that our fire marshal bolted and was among the first out the door, running so fast he left a smoke trail. Well, so much for making sure everybody’s out.
I could smell the energy level rise, until the whole office seemed to buzz around me. Some people were venturing over to my side of the floor (I sat in view of the North side) to look out the window at the falling debris, still not sure anything serious was wrong. There’s something that happens when you get into a fight and they’ve actually made a good enough movie effect of it that I can relate it here. Adrenaline rockets up and everything around you slows down, the sound dies down a bit as you come into a hyper clear focus but you feel almost calm relative to the situation.
I stood up and looked around. I had started to walk out, but hadn’t gotten all the way out of my “cube” before I thought to pack my backpack. it seemed unlikely that we were really going to evacuate, and if we did, we’d get about halfway down before they told us everything was secure, and to return to work. But in the event that we didn’t get back in the building that day, I wanted my bag with me. So for about 2 or 3 minutes while everyone ran around like ants on fire I packed my notebook, the “peerless” cartridge (a 20g usb drive) and a couple books.
I started walking towards the back door and ran into Henry (among the few people who had their wits about them) on the way out, confirming that everybody else had already gotten out safely. He said in passing that the computer room was smoking. I paused and sniffed the air and, sure enough, caught a whiff of that telltale acrid smell that anyone who’s ever handled a soldering iron is familiar with.
I watched Dana’s telltale red hair fly by as she made for the exit.
So I had my bag and my jacket on, and I made my way to the stairs. People were milling about in strange indecision, arguing about fire drill protocol, waiting for the red phone to ring. There was some light smoke in the hall. Someone raised the question of whether to take the elevators or stairs. We opted for the stairs.
I paused for a moment realizing I had to go to the bathroom, but for some reason thought better of it. In retrospect, a notion that evokes no small amount of laughter.
The stairwell was pleasant insofar as such things can be. People were pretty shaken. Clearly everyone’s neurons had all fired at the same moment and there was a bit of edginess about the whole affair in the beginning. But there was more nervous laughter than anything.
One of the reasons I live in New York City is for the people. This is a statement that evokes all manner of oxymoron jokes from the ministries of jokes and humor throughout the world which is only because they don’t know any better. I don’t mean that New Yorkers are such warm, welcoming, hospitable people in a day to day sense. But New Yorkers really just have a remarkably low tolerance for bullshit and when there’s a panic situation, the amount of panic is pretty much limited to the bridge and tunnel people. No offense, but when there’s an emergency in New York, stay the hell in Bayonne or Scarsdale.
We were descending at a decent pace, when a man to the left of me lost his footing. One of a pair of early 40s rotund latin women screamed at the top of her lungs, discharging some of their pent up stress. An assault on the senses I found it hard to forgive at the moment. Aside from that things were pretty quiet. The gentleman, who was clearly caught in an emotional state with which I am not particularly familiar by the look on his face and the strange paralysis that seemed to overtaken him, was caught before he hit the deck by several people, strangely unable to move his own legs enough to stand up again for an eternity of seconds. Such was the spirit of the descent.
The conversation was harsh with a strange feigned casualness. We talked about cell phone reception being dead in the collar of the stairwell, the likelihood of the building falling (waved off wholesale as ridiculous.) The 1993 bombing veterans were remarking about how much things had improved in eight years; sand paint, emergency lighting, reflective surfaces, etc. I can’t even imagine the carnage if those measures hadn’t been taken.
As we descended fashion fell prey to pragmatism as women’s shoes began to litter the stairs. The farther down we walked, the more there were. The resulting spectacle on the lower floors was really like something out of the twilight zone; random odd shoes all over the place. It was as much of a non sequitur to see as it is to read here.
It was about then that I first had the thought. “What if the fire is in the stairwell 20 floors down and there’s no way out?” It was a kind of understanding that caused me to become more calm. No, calm isn’t the right work. I was anything but calm. It just wasn’t being expressed by sweating and having that strange “I’m about to burst into panicked tears” facial expression that seemed to rule the day. I wasn’t spending alot of energy trying to reassure people so as to reassure myself. I was just being an observer, more and more detached form the reality of what was taking place as I descended each step. I could feel myself getting farther away with each new detail. It was as though the heat of my own fear drove me out of my body.
It was a good 10 or 15 floors before we started hearing “Get to the right!” from several floors above or below us. In the beginning this evoked a modest effort to scrunch along the walls as extremely distressed people came down with a clear-headed escort, or firemen went up, overloaded with gear (including 1 or 2 compressed air tanks, 6? polearms, a vast length of hose and sometimes drinking water, to say nothing of their suits) would come up, sweat poured off them like a bad special effect.
People were quiet, just watching the express lane when it was called for. There was a strange solemnity in watching them. I’d be lying if I said “foreboding” because that would imply we had any idea what was going to happen. The only thing we knew was that we were part of “the masses” and that perhaps this wasn’t a particularly ordinary circumstance.
By the 34th floor my bladder was beginning to govern my mind (having descended from 51 in an amount of time I have no ability to calculate or rederive) I needed a solution. So I opened the door and walked out into the hall. The smoke was fairly thick, which I didn’t understand. I thought I had seen forms moving behind one of the glass doors, so I went inside the office and talked to a couple people.
There were a half-dozen people who were just standing around waiting for the staircase to clear before beginning their descent (a phenomenon I noticed at many more ‘poke my head in’ moments on the way down.) Among them were a couple veterans of the ‘93 bombing who “weren’t going to die by being trampled to death.”
A kid (about 25) dressed in 1985 conservative garb was on the phone trying to figure out and report (rather clinically) what had happened. A request for directions to the bathroom resulted in my worst fears realized. They were locked on all floors, and nobody around had the key (these were apparently all squatters from higher up.) So I went back to the stairs.
Strangely, when I got there, nobody had moved. Henry said “Yo, you missed it. Some wounded came down.” This didn’t have the air of rubbernecking excitement that putting it on paper might imply. It was a simple fact. Someone standing next to me leaned in and near-whispered “yeah, it was pretty bad, a bunch of people had to turn away.” I could only imagine what that meant. It occurred to me that those could only have been the wounded that were still able to walk down the stairs.
From then on, when someone shouted “Get to the right” we hustled and found room for people to pass.
It was about the early 30s where the smell of smoke began to get dense. People were looking down the stairwell trying to figure out how bad it was going to get, and would we have to get off and wait in one of the offices until things had cleared. No, it was better to just go down through it. After all, the firemen were coming up, which is eventually what reassured us. They told us to keep going, that the air would only get worse for a couple more floors then start to clean up.
We caught some word from firemen that a plane had hit the building. I could imagine that being an accident, but it didn’t seem too likely. It wasn’t long after we started getting news that we got the telling piece of information. It wasn’t one plane, it was two. One hitting each tower. For some reason I don’t quite understand, most people didn’t seem to do the math and repeatedly declared how strange a coincidence that was.
I have to imagine that I felt and heard the second strike, but I just don’t remember, or can’t place the time closely enough to explore my surrounding memories for some telltale sign. Maybe the buildings were just that well insulated.
Perhaps it’s the cynic’s lot to accept such truths more readily than normal people. The couple people who seemed on the ball enough to handle the news (and close enough to me that I wouldn’t have to shout it) and I spoke a bit about how it could only have been a terrorist attack. They would shake off my hypothesis (or rather, the effect of hearing it) with a resigned “yeah, you’re right.”
But still, through all of this weirdness, no panicking. Only the rivers of sweating faces of the overloaded firemen and people in other more official uniforms I didn’t quite recognize coming up. The civil, if terrified, people going down.
Now, down below the 30th floor, the firemen were in the individual floors with their pokes, prying apart vending machines to get at something to drink. There were also firemen who’d started dropping their water bottles on the way up the stairs because they were just too damn heavy. Promptly someone would pick them up and offer drinks to the ones coming up behind them until the bottle was empty or accepted in it’s entirety.
My heart began to sink and I became heavy with guilt as the “rescue workers” (as is now apparently the polite euphemism) went up the stairs to do whatever they possibly could. Not knowing what that even might be. A part of me, a big part of me, wishes I could remember more if not all of those faces. I didn’t know it at the time; that they were climbing to their deaths. It was a couple days before I had another thought about that… That they may have known full well.
See, I’ve waited too long to pen this account. But it is only now I can keep my head clear and eyes dry enough to get a significant amount of words out on paper.
In the mid-20s, the flow of firemen became fairly consistent. People stayed to the outside edge of the stairwell by default now as best they could. Descent was extremely slow, taking a couple minutes at each floor. It was here I believe a number of people switched to other, reportedly less crowded stairwells. I didn’t find the going quite that slow, and frankly I wasn’t that bothered.
On 22 was where they were all congregating. They were stopping on the way up for a breather, and going up in shifts of 8 or 10. All of them had radios and they were referring to each other by what company they came from. It did me some good to see them resting. They were human after all, and after what I’d seen already, I had been beginning to wonder.
Things began to speed up dramatically down in the low teens. People’s spirits were lifting as the line was getting faster and the air clearer. More frequently though, the floor in the stairwells would be wet. After all, it was almost over. But the lower we got, the more water came out from under the doors to each successive floor resulting in quite a deluge. A couple teeny asian girls had trouble standing and were carried some bit of the way down. A strange site.
By the time we got down to the 6th floor, the water was coming off the floors themselves, pouring out from under the doors and down the steps. This was causing a fair bit of excitement. People began to try and make time getting down as quick as they could, sacrificing basic safety rather readily. By the 3rd floor it was difficult to walk. But you could hear the police at the bottom telling people to move on. The fact that the trudge downstairs was ending and the tenor of the cops added a bit of a panicked edge to the mood.
It wasn’t until I got out the door at the bottom of the stairwell, nearly pushed by the police, while they were looking at nobody in particular, yelling to keep moving, run, get away from the building. But the stairwell exits into the bottom of the building which is at least 2 floors underground.
I walked out the door into the lobby and saw some destruction for the first time.
The marble facades on the walls (the 3 or 4 story high walls) had come down in several places, leaving debris scattered everywhere. The turnstiles were battered to bits, presumably by the firemen who had larger things to get upstairs than just themselves. The floor was covered in 3 foot high piles of marble and plaster. They had dug a trail from the doorway out through to the mall entrance.
Everything I remember from those few minutes is white and gray. The color of concrete. How I wish I’d taken a few more seconds to soak in that scene. But the police were doing their jobs well, keeping us moving.
As we single-filed out of the stairwell, people were bewildered. There was destruction, the first signs of it with plaster and marble covering the floor in 3 foot deep piles that had been quickly shuttled around to clear some relatively safe pathways out to the mall. They stopped, looking to the police and FBI for some kind of information. But there was only one thing they would get:
“Keep moving. Do not stop to talk on your cell phone. Walk this way out to the mall. Move as fast as you can. Get away from the building.”
“But what’s goin’…”
“Keep moving. Less talking more walking. Let’s go. Let’s go.” They wouldn’t make eye contact. They wouldn’t address you or answer a question. Just the same speech.
There seemed to be hundreds of cops and FBI agents around, all saying the same thing; herding us into the mall, down a specific path. Positively herding us. It made my blood boil at the time. I just wanted more information, to understand what the hell was going on.
“Run as fast as you can, get away from the building.” They were programmed to not interact with us in any way, not to say anything that would cause us to stop and try and talk, just to get us out the door.
The sprinkler systems in the mall were going full blast and the floor is a glossy tile. The LAST thing a thinking person would do is run across that floor while it’s covered in an inch of water. In retrospect, yeah, I probably could have trotted a bit.
We were herded around a couple corners to an escalator exit that came up in front of Borders. By the time we got there the sprinklers had been shut off. Not that it mattered much, my hair, clothes and backpack were soaked to the bone.
We got up the stairs and it was more of the same…
“Keep moving. Run! Run away from the building as far as you can get.”
“How many blocks?”
“Just keep going.”
“But how far?”
“As far as you can get.”
“Any direction, just go!”
This was representative of the conversations I heard between people just trying to understand their plight and those who were expected to know more than us. In retrospect, it was genius. Call attention to nothing, don’t engage anyone, just keep them moving. It’s the only thing that could have worked to get people out of there.
So we walked. Some trotted, but not too many. We were out of the building, what could possibly have been the need? More debris maybe. But they were being a bit melodramatic about that if that was the reason. It occurred to me finally that I wasn’t even half way up to start with. If they were evacuating the whole building then just to have the crowd there would be dangerous, so of course they would want us “as far away as possible.” It kept the density of people thin.
Satisfied with my own explanation I walked off in the direction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Worse comes to worse, I’ll just walk home that way and figure out what’s going on later.
I remember my route fairly precisely. I could rewalk it in a heartbeat if it were there anymore. Unfortunately I don’t think I ever knew the street names so it would be of no use to anybody. I walked diagonally across the street in front of Borders off to the left and passed in front of Staples, still amazed at the police presence. It wasn’t until I was in front of J&R Computer World that I turned around and saw what had become of WTC-2.
I could see the flames. From what amounted to 6 blocks away from the building and 60 floors down I could see the flames. The closest thing to a clear thought I had was the strange realization that hollywood would be getting burning building special effects down much better with the footage they’d no doubt scrounge from this. Other than that my mind was as empty of thought as it has ever been. I had absolutely no reaction. For seconds I watched it burn, thoughts slowly returning as I remembered those guys from the 34th floor “I’m not going to die by getting trampled to death.” Was the most coherent thing I remembered. No sir. I’m deeply sorry to say, you weren’t.
I returned to my exodus with hundreds of people on the street. Slowly people began to realize what was going on as they turned around for the first time and looked at what I had just seen, and screamed. People stopped to take pictures. Occasionally I had the presence of mind to scream at them “Are you fucking stupid !?!”
I heard the source of a noise in my stomach and bones. It was a sound of cosmic import. I turned around a bit quizzical. I watched as each successive floor blew out with flames, then smoke. The sound would have been deafening but it was almost too low to even hear. My feet heard it, my stomach and bones heard it, and my spirit was fractured by it. In a steady meter, obscuring the floors above them in smoke that rose to the top of the building (and above) each floor exploded, pausing only a fragment of a second before the one below erupted, obscuring the next floor up in it’s entirety. I couldn’t help but think of it as the perfect movie effect.
I trotted a bit, sprinted for a little while, but not very long, then went back to a fast walk as the screaming people came on. Frankly I was far more afraid of them than anything else, so my speed was intended to match theirs so I could ‘bodysurf the crowd’ rather than getting trampled by a bunch of panicking morons.
I turned around to see which way I would be most likely to dodge them when I saw the cloud of smoke and ash beginning to snake it’s way between the buildings. It didn’t look like a cloud of ash, but more like an animator had been slowly erasing the background of his entire cartoon world. It took a good 10 seconds to register, then I did some very quick math and started tearing off in more or less the direction of the bridge, having come to a frightening conclusion. That thing was moving really fast. There’s no way I could outrun it.
I noticed as I ran that it was getting quiet behind me. There weren’t any screams. but it wasn’t a “clear” sensation. It was a great thing, a monster that swallowed screams and the people who made them, swallow them whole. And it was going to get me, strangle me, and kill me.
My shoes started looking a little grey as strange particles of ash blew forward between my feet. I turned around to look and there was nothing. Just grey. By the time I turned back around to face forward the rest of the world had disappeared.
Complete and perfect.
I couldn’t hear myself breathe. I couldn’t feel the air entering my lungs. I couldn’t see my own feet. I looked down at my clothes, and could only make out the barest outline of myself, if that was even him. There was no sound, there were no people. There was no Brooklyn Bridge to run to. There was no East River to get to where the cloud would have dispersed. There was no City Hall, no fountain, no J&R. There were no cop cars. There were no camera wielding fools. There were no cops or FBI agents, no matter how well armed. 500 panicking screaming people within 100 yards of me were gone.
Just like me.
There was no lower Manhattan, no new York City, no United States, no North America, no earth, Solar system. No milky way galaxy. No universe. No black, no white. No hope, no light. No love, no life.
Nothing but grey.
Nothing but fear.
Nothing but death.
Alone. Again. Still. After everything in my life. To die,
Fuck you too.
Huge deep panic breaths. Every breath I take is killing me; reducing my lung capacity as I inhaled more of that crap. Put your shirt over your mouth. “But I can’t see.” Just walk.
I had been untethered from everything. All I wanted was something to put my feet onto that could move, something to grab on to that was made of steel.
There was someone else moving out there, in the infinity of 10 feet away. I got to him and put my hand on his back. We walked for a while and got separated. It must have been a hallucination.
I found a wall and followed it with one hand. but I didn’t know where it led so I moved away from it and walked out into the street. But I don’t know which one.
This shirt (over my face) is doing me no good.
I couldn’t see anything. I felt my lungs filling up with this crap. How much would it take to kill me? Before my lung capacity was reduced to the point of suffocation?
I saw the lights of a cop car and approached it. I looked at the driver’s side window, but couldn’t see in. Cops were doing important things. I wasn’t important enough to bother them. Besides, all that ash would just get in their car.
A fence… I didn’t know any fences around there. I must not’ve been there. Which way then?
Another form, moving quickly.
A cop hat.
He sees me.
“Give me your hand. We’re going to run.”
I may have said something about not wanting to
He didn’t wear a mask. But I think he had glasses. Shorter than me by about 5 inches, with a grip I was thankful for.
“You’re going to see a triangle of light in the upper left side of your vision. When you do, keep running to that.” What the hell did that mean?
It wasn’t long. I could see it. We were running under something. The Bridge! It was the overpass to the bridge.
“I see it.”
He ran with me for another second.
“It’s clear there.”
“I’m not going to die. I’m good. I’m ok.” I was reassuring him (or was it me) and letting him know that he could let go and get back to whatever important stuff he had been doing before getting sidetracked by running into me.
He was gone. But I was here, and there was color and people and New York City. Damn I love New York.
I came out on the “wrong” side of the street. Out from under an overpass I didn’t recognize (until going back to retrace my steps.) There was an FBI agent armed with a combat shotgun and a vest. “You’re on the wrong side of the street. You need to be over there.”
“Dude after what I just came out of, I’ll go wherever the hell you tell me as long as it’s not back that way. Damn, he couldn’t even smile. It took a bit to register that the cop car I’d seen earlier could come through there and cream me. Hell of a way to go after all that.
My thought seems to be tightly tied to my ability to see, because as the detail of the world emerged from the cloud, my brain popped the clutch and lit up the tires of my mind.
I vaulted over the guardrail to get on to the right side of the street and started walking. I am I and I had deep purpose. There were things that needed to be done now. Between steps I could summon up as much spit as I could to get the grit, gravel, dust, and ash out of my mouth and throat.
My teeth crunched and I spit continuously for the next 10 minutes.
I walked north. Everybody walked north. It was only a block or two before there weren’t very many people covered in ash the way I was. As I approached Canal street, people started looking at me funny. I stood for a moment on some median near the Manhattan Bridge, I think. It might not have been that far up.
The moment I stood still people started feeling guilty about being overcome by their urge to crowd. there were a couple guys begin worn by “nice” suits (read: expensive as they were boring.) I think one had a yellow tie and a beeper. he started talking about having been down on wall street when they evacuated. He looked like he had just stepped out of the shower, talking to me about a harrowing experience.
“Where were you when the building came down?”
“You know, when it fell.”
“WHAT!?! It didn’t occur to me that I hadn’t turned around. I did. There was only one tower. “IT’S FUCKING GONE?”
It took me a minute to rejoin the conversation. There were only the two of us talking before. He didn’t seem to need my attention. But I snapped back, having replayed from the beginning.
“Look at me, where the hell do you think I was? Just below city hall, in front of J&R. I’d just gotten out of the building.”
“No, the one that’s still there.” Because at the moment, it was.
A couple asian people asked what questions they could with the English they knew. Frankly I don’t remember them. I was happy to stand there and answer people for a while though. Something in me understands the need of people to have a first hand account. After all, you’re reading this, aren’t you.
In my left periphery I saw a short hispanic man kneeling with a disposable camera tilted on it’s end trying to get a discrete picture, as if somehow I was too big to get into frame otherwise. He saw me notice him and was overcome with shame, his head sunk and his shoulders closed around it. As he started to turn around, his head slung between his shoulders, I smiled and waved him forward.
He lit up, giddy at the opportunity he took the picture, paused a second, then handed his camera to a friend, came over and put his arm around me. We smiled as he took the shot. Then they switched places. I just laughed, really hard. Dust billowing from my lungs. “Come to New York, see a real-live terrorist attack! Get your very own picture taken with a real-live victim.” What I wouldn’t give for a copy of those pictures.
Eventually I said my polite good days and started walking North. On a lark I dug out my cell phone. It was working but all the lines were busy. Liz was clearly the person to call. This classified as “emergency” status. They’d all wonder where I was, if I was alive, and where I’d go. If they’d bothered to trust their instincts they’d know the answers to all those questions, but I’m not here to bore you with my cosmology. Failing that though, I’d call Liz and she’d get the word out. I’d have called Laura just as readily had I known where she was.
In those first 20 minutes, when people were still finishing up their first couple breaths, you could see the fraternity of New York City already in full tilt. Like I said, New Yorkers’ distinguishing characteristic is that they’ve no patience for bullshit. And there was no bullshit in the way here. Something larger than us had happened, and it had given us purpose. It’s a sense of purpose whose flare will die down, but will be integrated forever into The City, forging us all a bit closer together. You could smell the difference.
People had woken up.
Someone once posed the question “How do you wake a person who’s dreaming they’re awake?” I know the answer now. You crack the walls of their dream reality with something they have no choice but to handle, and no basis or tools for handling it.
So many conversations erupted spontaneously in those next few blocks. Busses filled to capacity and beyond were picking up whoever they could, then just heading North to whatever destination they could reach. People in cars were picking up anybody who caught their attention.
I’ve met people I would like to have kept in touch with. Other alumni of the event. I wish I remembered them. But I don’t.
“Well, they started evacuating tower 2 as soon as the plane hit tower 1, which was a 20 minute time difference. It’s just chaotic down here. I wouldn’t worry too much.” In the immortal words of Edward Norton “I’d like to thank the academy.” There was no way I was going to tell this poor guy that no, I think everybody he worked with was just blasted off the face of the Earth.
People on the sidewalk were crowded around parked cars with their doors open or huddled around store window televisions like in the movies, listening to the breaking news on whatever would play it.
I had given up on putting my cell phone back in my bag after every attempt, and just kept hitting redial hoping that at some point I’d get in a window and get through to Liz’s work number. She’d deal with the rest of the calls. It occurred to me that I was walking there as well. She works on 44th street, around the corner from Grand Central Station. It was an easy 3-4 miles away. It was just the easiest place to know to get to. My father works in the Empire State building, but you couldn’t get me near there with a cattle prod and duct tape. Besides, he was in Colorado on vacation.
After some length, but still south enough that the streets had names, not numbers, there was someone standing on the sidewalk nearly shouting “Does anyone need anything?” It was a fairly peculiar site. He was standing underneath some scaffolding in front of a large pair of open doors in a stone building that looked like an old carriage house, scanning the crowd for something. Then he caught sight of me. “Excuse me… do you need something? Men’s room? Some water?”
“No, I’m good man, thanks. Wait, you know, I’ve had to go to the bathroom since I was on the 51st floor of that building.” I knew something mundane was bothering me but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. I probably would have gotten all the way uptown before realizing it.
“Right through here sir.”
There was a woman in the men’s room since the ladies room was out of order, so a couple of us waited outside. As I did so I took a bit of a better look around where I was. The people were predominately black, with a couple exceptions. Several of them were missing teeth. They weren’t dressed very well and they all had the same look in their eyes as they watched the exodus from lower Manhattan. It was pure sorrow and compassion. They looked to me and nodded, asked how I was. I imagine it was a look they’ve seen at least as often as worn.
Unfortunately (perhaps) there was no mirror in the bathroom, but the relief was an ecstasy without words. I stepped outside and started talking to a couple guys standing there watching all this goin on shaking their heads. One white guy, a big “biker stereotype” looking fellow and an older less-descript black guy. they were standing there smoking some thin chestnut colored cigarettes I see now and again. I talked with them for a good 15 minutes about who knows what.
Finally I started North again, but paused.
“Hey, where am I anyway?”
“You’re on Bowery.” There’s one in every bunch, usually it’s me.
“No no, this place. What is it?”
“Oh, this is the Bowery Street Mission.”
“Ok, thanks a bunch.”
Of course it was. What the hell else could it have been. A place where people come to blame their impulse to do good on God. Hey, whatever works. It’s the doing that matters, and these people were doing it. I wasn’t.
I couldn’t help but think, as I looked around at the people there and thought about them later, that these are people who have had struggle in their life. I understand that everybody’s pain is based on their own experience and position in life and that it’s not possible to compare. But these people were working on the border of living and surviving. I’m not. I know where my next meal is coming from. If I was particularly worried about it I could probably buy all my meals for the next year tomorrow just to be safe.
Here were people who dedicated some significant portion of themselves to helping others keep their heads above water (or on the wagon as the case may be.) I was diddling with computers at a bond market company. You can argue that my job helps the economy and therefore benefits everybody. But it would be pretty damn thin and I wouldn’t take you very seriously.
I have some idea of my potential as a human. It’s one of those very very few things I believe that sets me apart from most other people. Not that I’m capable of anything more than anyone else, but that I have some visceral idea of the limitlessness of that potential. And there are people in the world that need help. And yes, it IS my responsibility to help them.
Enough of that for now.
I wasn’t half a block away from the mission before I heard it. My body recognized the sound, but my brain didn’t. I looked forward to see people shouting and pointing in a fairly predictable direction. I turned around but couldn’t see anything so I ran up the block to where everybody was standing and turned around again. I still couldn’t see anything. It didn’t occur to me why.
“The second tower just came down.”
Again my mind was wiped completely clean. The destruction was complete. People talked and guessed about how many floors were still standing but that didn’t seem to make much sense.
I understand something now, about my reaction to those events. I wasn’t emotionless. I was experience a level of emotion that could not even be fractionally expressed. The reason to express emotion is to get it out of your head and make it a part of the world. Sometimes that includes removing yourself from it. There were simply not enough tears for crying, nor enough wind for screaming that could possibly express the weight of those buildings coming down on my heart. The attempt would be nearly insulting and would achieve nothing.
With new resolve I walked North.
People kept what they thought was a “safe” distance from me. I must’ve been quite a sight.
I was in the mid 30s when a very well dressed Chinese gentleman approached me and my fly-by-night coterie (my clothes, hair, skin, and backpack white with ash after having been through the sprinklers, then the cloud, gave me away.) He was wearing a white suit, suspenders and a bow tie. He held out his business card towards me with a shaking hand. “I…I…Iwwwas llllate.” He stuttered. “I worked on the 82nd floor of building 2. Are any of the people I worked with alive?” Somewhere in there he said that he wasn’t sure he was making himself clear, so that’s why he was holding out his card.
The rest of the trip to 44th street is a bit of a blur. Probably because it was largely uneventful. I walked with a strangely refreshing singularity of purpose; something that, with a massive case of ADD, I don’t get the chance to enjoy very often.
By the time I arrived, more or less, I had been able to leave a message that I truly enjoyed: “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Yes I really said that. In fact, I left that message on 4 answering machines that day. Life is not worth living if not for the sake of humor. And nothing is quite as funny as humor borne of hardship.
I saw Grand Central approaching a block or so away, and all of a sudden I was stopped. Wait, where exactly DID Liz work? I knew it was around there somewhere. So I started weaving between blocks in the low 40s slightly east of Grand Central, to no avail.
For the first time. I decided to sit my ass down. So I chose a nice marble building and backed myself up against it and plopped down on the sidewalk. It occurred to me that I must have looked like a really nasty homeless person with an attitude. That was followed almost immediately with the strange thought that it might not have been a terribly inaccurate comparison.
Sitting down wasn’t going to get me anywhere, and I had a funny feeling that I was the punch line in one of the universe’s simple little amusements. Besides, I was far too high strung to stay in one place for too long. I stood up and turned around to look at the building I was sitting against.
Yep, this was it. Again I reinforced my image as a crazy person, laughing in this state. While people were on ‘smoke break’ out front of the building.
I walked in the building, quite purposefully, and walked right past the guard.
“Uhm… Excuse me.”
I hit the elevator call button and one opened almost immediately as the guard rounded the corner.
“Excuse me! Sir?”
I walked in and hit #4. The doors closed.
Yeah, you’re excused.
I left the elevator and knocked on the glass door to my sister’s place of employment, making great ash smudges that pigpen would have envied.
Poor Ruth, the receptionist. I knew her from nights out with Liz and her posse from work. She looked at me like I was her personal Jacob Marley. It took a couple seconds to realize she need to buzz me in.
“Hi I’m here to see Liz Wilson?” An attempt at disaster humor that was completely lost on poor Ruth.
“She’s not here. Laura came and got her and they went to her apartment… Uhh… Liz’s that is… thinking that you’d go there.”
Great. Liz lived on east 6th street. Almost all the way back.
“Well, what the hell would she think that for?” A rhetorical question. I really didn’t want to walk downtown 2 miles, especially not against the tide of crazed desperate New Yorkers, however tightly bonded they were.
Christie, another friend of Liz’s came in about then and “oh my god”ed up a storm. So I started with the “yeah, I was in there.” and went through the highlights. Ruth had been on the phone. She started relating what I was saying, but then resigned herself to just holding the phone out what I talked. It was a pretty strange scene as people came in and out past me wondering who I was.
Yep. Back South. It was a much quicker walk down to East 6th street. I went east a couple blocks to get away from the madness, but it was still like trying to iceskate uphill.
There’s a little strip-mall looking arrangement in the low 30s down on 2nd avenue or so. They have a bunch of cafe’ tables out. But the whole thing is pretty contrived in a Murray Hill kind of way. I became quite the attraction as I walked through there.
I don’t remember what got me stopped to talk, but there were a few separate groups there. One girl asked me about people she knew in the high 90s. This was beginning to get old and somewhere down in there I cracked…
“Wanna know what I think? I was on the 51st floor of building 1 and I damn near didn’t get out.” She handled it pretty well. they must not have been great friends. Besides, what was I going to say: “I think your friend have been liquefied?”
Another girl approached me in almost the same spot ( probably just waiting until I was done with the first one) and started talking about how how she’s spent almost 10 years setting up this deal where she’d be working with some company (I think she mentioned a phone company, but I can’t be sure) and she finally got the deal, started working in WTC the day before and moved into an apartment 2 blocks from there 3 days earlier. She wanted to know if she had an apartment.
I felt really bad for her. She ventured a bunch to come out here from some middle America suburb state to try and make it happen in the big city. She didn’t know anybody out here. But I was just not clear enough in my head. I didn’t know what to tell her, other than I didn’t know what to tell her. Frankly I should have taken her with me. It was the only right thing to do. But I didn’t. I kept walking.
I was beginning to get a blister on my thumb from hitting redial. But the phone did something strange this time, on about 31st street, it rang. I held it up to my head and Liz answered her apartment phone.
“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” No WAY I was going to waste an opportunity like that.
All I really remember was a whole lot of incoherent excitement and sniffly babbling.
“I’m coming there. I’m on 31st street. I’ll be there when I get there. It won’t be real soon.”
“Uhm… Uh… Ok… Uhm.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty happy I’m alive too. I’ll see you in a few.”
There were some cracks in the cell phone blackout and I was able to leave “Reports of my death” messages on several machines. My father scolded me much later, saying “I know you think that’s funny…” Sorry Dad. I’m allowed to think that’s funny.
I eventually got there of course. It was about an hour later, factoring in all the mini encounters and conversations I had on the way down.
I stopped at the corner deli and bought a 2 liter bottle of regular coke, a half pound of salted cashews and some other yummy stuff.
She buzzed me in and I started climbing the stairs. I really learned to hate stairs that day. When I got to the 3rd floor I could hear Laura out in the hall. I started thinking about what they must be doing and had a uniquely sharp thought.
“The television MUST be off before I get there.” My message was relayed and the telltale sound of “dramatic news background music” died. I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to deal with the news yet.
Now this is where I’d put some emotional scene about the cosmic relief of being together with my sisters. I’m sure it happened pretty much that way. But frankly, I don’t remember anything like that. My memory skips forward to sitting on my ass on Liz’s floor so I wouldn’t shit up her couch and taking off my shirt and backpack, then plumpfing down in a newly formed cloud that would make pigpen green with envy.
Liz, Laura, and Dan were sitting around wondering what the hell to say. they were doing an honorable job at trying not to stare. But frankly, nothing would have bothered me less.
I have to say it all peters off a bit here. I sat on the roof and watched the burning rubble, a couple miles south, for a long time while they whispered downstairs, wondering about my mental state.
We ate chinese food and I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor, being watched. Laura headed out and bought me a pair of jeans and a shirt. I gummed up Liz’s shower with dust and grime, the contents of which make me shudder still. At about 2 in the morning I walked home over the Manhattan Bridge.
I did still have an internet connection and I signed on to ICQ/AIM/YIM. I spent a couple hours going back and forth with people about what had happened. I tracked down a couple relatives and friends for people who couldn’t get in touch. It was really something.
Eventually I passed out.
And it was days before I ventured in to Manhattan again. I walked in and headed to 8th street to have some lunch at Johnny Rockets. I know, not impeccable fare. But as a “taste of America” you can’t beat a place that serves vanilla coke, egg creams, and diner food. It was exactly what I needed and wanted. I felt like a blood cell in the organism of my city, and the best thing I could do was get back up to speed quickly.
It was weeks before I went back to work (a sanctioned leave frankly.)
But that’s another story.