I am among the few who on September 11, 2001 was both physically within a mile of the World Trade AND managed to sleep through the attacks.
I admit to feeling a bit ashamed about my lethargy, but I have an excuse, albeit a lame one. I was on California time.
By coincidence, or less likely fate, I flew into NY from LA on the 10th. I was excited to be apartment sitting my friend’s huge place in Brooklyn Heights. I had it to myself for the week! When I had lived in NY, all through college and for some years afterwards, I had never been able to afford to live alone. Staying in my friend’s apartment solo was a luxury.
I didn’t hang out for long though. I freshened up and met some friends in the East Village. I had dinner and then drank my way through the Lower East Side. Drunk, I took a cab back to Brooklyn at around 3 am.
As the cab rolled over the Brooklyn Bridge, my head spinning, I leaned back on the vinyl-covered seat. I wanted a better look at downtown. I remember the moment distinctly, because I was very aware that it was kind of gross to be putting my head down on the germ-laden taxi seat. There was a full moon (or close to it) and at that angle it was framed between the twin towers. I’d always liked the buildings, being a fan of blocky, impersonal architecture of the late 60’s and early 70’s. The more impersonal, the less sense the human form makes in the context of the structure, the better.
Of course the ride home that night has been built up in my memory over the years, it was after all, the last time I saw the buildings. But the trip was meaningful before Mohammed Atta’s swarthy, hell-bound ass blew the fuckers up.
The trip was a homecoming of sorts. I had moved to California in 1999 and I was, finally, coming back to the city on a high note. I was fucking stoked to be there. Walking down the street on the 10th I had that feeling you can only get walking down a sidewalk in NY. The city’s bustle is unique and the possibility inherent in a sunny day in NY cannot be found elsewhere. Not with the same intensity. Not in America.
I had left NY 5 years or so before 2001, literally with my tail between my legs. The city had gotten the best of me. I couldn’t hack it. I had not lived up to the Sinatra song’s rally cry. I had not made it there; hence I wouldn’t be making it anywhere. I was forced to retreat back to my hometown of Boston, which for me, was it’s own unique punishment (a subject for another entry). I was forced to regroup and lick my wounds for a couple of years.
And here I was, years later, in town on business and on the company dime no less. I felt like things were finally starting to pick up. So it was that I woke to my alarm at about 10am on the 11th.
First things first, I set some coffee brewing. I sat out on the stoop of the brownstone to smoke cigarettes, as was my custom. Outside it was immediately clear that something wasn’t right. It was snowing ash and an acrid, burning smell was sharply apparent. I later learned that the wind blew the smoke and remnants of the fire directly across the river to Brooklyn Heights.
Ever the pragmatist I thought to myself, “hmm, must be a fire in the neighborhood.” There was hardly anyone out on the street and those that were had bandanas or their shirts pulled up over their noses. I took the thought a step further and decided that the fire had to be really close by. Eh, no worries, happens every day, I thought. It was also quiet; the only sounds were sirens in the far distance.
A cup of coffee in front of me I booted up the laptop to check email. The usual spam flowed in. There was one email however that stuck out right away. It was from my brother and the subject line made it stick out from the rest, “terrorism.”
The email read something like, “Dear Jared, I hope you are ok and not anywhere near those buildings. Call me. Love, Jonah.”
I popped open a browser and went to nytimes.com. I read the headline “World Trade Attacked” and look at the insane photography that we all know so well. I was no longer oblivious. Just across the river the mayhem that was New York finally dawned on me. Holy shit. By this time it is 10:30. I hear and feel a rumble, like a subway car deep beneath the building. I wouldn’t piece it together that it’s the second tower collapsing until later. Nobody that wasn’t in front of a television or watching in real time could easily conceive that such a thing was possible.
I try and call my brother from my cell, but I just get a recording telling me to try my call again later. I’m at a loss. What does one do in this situation? I decide to see if there is roof access in the building. I go up to the top floor. The door to the only apartment on the floor is open. “Hello,” I yell. There is no answer, but I look around the corner and into the apartment. There is a ladder leading up to the roof next to a skylight in someone’s kitchen.
I go up the ladder. All the building’s residents (I assume) are standing, slack-jawed at the precipice of the roof. We can’t see the bottom of the trade center, but we can easily see where the towers should have been. The bellows of smoke lie before us like a painting. It’s eerily silent; all that can be heard are the wail of sirens in the far distance and the buzz of the helicopters circling around and hovering over lower Manhattan.
As was repeated countless times over the next few days, the incomprehensible was there to be taken in on the most perfect summer day imaginable. A woman explains the second tower had collapsed just 10 or 15 minutes earlier. What to say? We sat mostly in silence for a long time watching the billowing plume of smoke.
I got dressed and walked to my friend’s house in Park Slope. We spent the day going up and down the staircase between the TV and the roof. The F-16s showed up not long after. They flew in pairs in large swooping arcs around the city. The sky was so clear you could easily track them as they approached from the North. They skirted the edges of Brooklyn and down to Staten Island, Lower Manhattan and back again up along the Hudson. The sonic booms were incredibly jarring, totally alien to the cityscape that most everyone knows, if only by photograph. Fighter jets just don’t belong in that setting. The screaming engines blot out everything.
I was having rotten luck getting through to family on my cell phone. At one point my phone rang. I picked it up and hear the voice of a random friend from California. A work colleague, who I barely knew but was aware I was in New York. He was the last person I wanted to speak with, but I thanked him for calling and assured him that I was fine.
I finally got through to my father on the phone. He and my step-mom were planning on flying down that afternoon and had booked a few nights in a hotel in Soho. In what serves as a poignant summation of my father’s worldview, he was confidant things with the airlines would be back to normal in no time. He assumed his flight would be late but that certainly we would still be meeting for dinner. Obviously, he did not make it to New York that night.
I spent the day with the same old friend in Park Slope checking in with relatives when the intermittent cell service came on. Throughout the day we’d go up to the roof and watch the smoke streaming from Ground zero and then back down to the television, where like everyone else in the world we’d watch the loop of the 2nd plane slamming into the North tower.
At mid-day the streams of office workers made it to Park Slope. They appeared like refugees, in various states of undress making their way home to the different parts of Brooklyn beyond. Bodega owners were offering water and I imagine whatever else these people wanted or needed as they passed by. The faces of some were covered in soot; most were still slack with shock.
That night I spent in a bar room somewhere near Clinton Hill. I met an old girlfriend that I hadn’t seen in years. The mood was somber and the shock still fresh but there was something else, a feeling not quite as gloomy in the room as well. I’m sure whatever adjectives I end up using will pale to whatever the “spirit of brotherhood” or “civility” has been labeled elsewhere. People were extending themselves to strangers. People who would never have interacted in other circumstances said hello that night. They asked how you were. Race, which is an unacknowledged but constant differentiator for good or ill, was not a divider that evening. We were New Yorkers, experiencing a collective trauma and we were going out of our way to be human to one another.
Cell phones and ATM’s were still only intermittently functional. Drinks were bought for strangers. I doubt many went home alone that evening. I didn’t, and it was a distinct experience. There was a carnal need for intimacy or human connection. We were scared. Physically, mortally fearful and that was born out in a need for physical closeness.
That evening the first of the “Missing” posters went up and within hours they were just about everywhere; inside and outside of stores, light poles, walls, electrical boxes. The missing signs’ presence was otherworldly and disquieting. An unnatural, artificial rapture had occurred. All of a sudden a large number of people had gone missing, affecting so many other lives, it was still too much to process. Nobody knew how many people had been killed yet, but we knew it had to be a lot.
The next few days were spent around the television, fretting about where and when the next attack would be. I took the subway into mid-town. The most potent memory of the whole week happened while I was walking on 6th Ave. one afternoon. A sonic boom thundered overhead and I looked up to see another couple of F-16s flying low, parallel to the avenue. It was just so out of place. That shriek of those engines drowning out the city noise. Many of us on the crowded avenue stopped and watched. I hope I never have to see a fighter jet over an American city again (unless it’s the Blue Angels).
I had a flight (by chance) booked back to LA the same day the airports reopened. Obviously security was crazy tight but I still had my terrorist pegged, a large bearded man, and I was ready to take him out the second he got up to use the bathroom.
The real mourning for me, started when I got back to LA. All the American flags stuck on car antennae just weren’t cutting it. It seemed a hollow gesture and very Los Angeles.
OK, so obviously 9/11 is an American tragedy. But the fact it was born out on a city that is at once the most and the least American city of all seemed paradoxically unfair. That the mouth-breathing American public, those that disdain the democratic ideals of the most liberal melting pot in America (NYC) could somehow stick a flag on their SUV’s antennae and be in any way a part of the solution, seemed maniacal. That I was being a hypocrite to an only slightly lesser degree was also not lost on me. But I had been there! I was a New Yorker! It wasn’t just random chance that I had been less than a mile away and slept through the attacks. Or was it?