Let us begin with some notes on grammar regarding the piece you are about to read. When events are written of in the present tense they are happening, as best remembered, on September 11, 2001. When events are written of in the past tense they are to be viewed as a recollection as recounted today, September 11, 2010. This will not be as difficult to follow as it sounds, and there will be markers to guide you along the way. Let us begin.
-Notes From The Author-
This is the last time I will ever write about any of this so it's important that I make it completely unreadable. This must be utterly incomprehensible. All measures should be taken to insure it is also totally repulsive, entirely reproachful, thoroughly repugnant, wholly revolting, altogether reprehensible, and in every respect insufferable. Let us begin.
It's Fall. It's Back-to-School time. So let's go to school.
You can do this. You can do what I am doing here. You can take your time and set it up carefully, meticulously, like a house of cards or an endless complex structure of dominoes. You can do this. You can waste your time and the time of everyone around you, and you can type out word after word that tells no story. You can do this. You can do this over nine long years. Eventually, you have to start. Let us begin.
"At 8:46:40 AM, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing everyone aboard, and an unknown number of people in the Trade Center."
-The Final Report of the 9/11 Commission, issued July 22, 2004
The buildings are already on fire when we exit the train station. The two airplanes have already struck, and already the sky has filled with long dense clouds of black smoke and ash and bits of paper. It has already started. It started when we were underground, me and the members of the straphangers club, the ones who are late to work like me. I'm running late for work. It is just after nine o'clock on a Tuesday morning. It is September 11, 2001. We are now in the present tense.
The color of the air around us is odd, not quite clear blue, not quite gray, but like that moment on a sunny day when a few random white clouds roll overhead and diffuse the sunlight like vaseline on a lens. The air is vaseline. It is not like air at all. This corner feels like a movie set, like the backlot of a studio. Everything only exists one block at a time and beyond the block you are on are people on phones, people holding lights and microphones, pulling cables and holding reflectors. It is not like air at all. It is the mirror reflection of air. This is not real.
I walk to my office, through a maze of streets and alleys that make up the Financial District, and I turn the corner into my building, and ride the elevator up to my floor.
I have no recollection anymore of which streets I would have taken to walk to my office. We are now in the past tense and all the small details are non-existent. These memories are not simply blurs, they truly just don't exist. I have not walked those streets in nine years, have not even been down below Canal street in that time. I've spent countless hours in the intervening years pouring over all kinds of maps - street maps, satellite maps, subway maps - maps of Lower Manhattan from before this day, maps of the area as it is today. I've gone nearly blind pushing little cursors and little yellow icons through internet street-level maps retracing different routes I could have walked to work every day, routes I may have taken when we were finally allowed to leave our building and evacuate the area. Very little of it looks familiar to me now. I drag the cursor around one corner and I'll recognize a place where I would buy soup for lunch, or a plaza where I would sit and have coffee on a break, but then the next street over will look completely wrong, not like how I remember it all. The orientation will be off. None of it makes any sense.
I'm in my office and it is Tuesday morning. My office is a cubicle at the end of a long row of cubicles. I am the head of the table, so to speak. Sitting at my desk my bodily orientation would have me facing North, toward Midtown. I am late by about ten minutes. I did not have time to get my coffee or morning bit of breakfast. Our office building is like many in Lower Manhattan, seemingly made entirely of glass, the windows stretch from floor to ceiling. I have worked for this company for almost a year now, but this is only my fifth day in this new position, on this new floor, with these new colleagues. Many are milling about at the northern windows gazing out at the two Towers of the Trade Center as clouds of smoke and ash billow out from them. One gentleman in a pale yellow dress shirt offers up that this was most definitely a premeditated attack, that it was two large passenger aircraft, that they could read the logo on the second plane as it careened into view and slammed into the South Tower. This was no accident. We were attacked. He tells me this and he is calm. We're all so calm. There are phones ringing in other offices, people typing away in random other cubicles. We were attacked, but it's still a morning at the office. It's still New York.
"At 9:03:11 AM, United Airlines Flight 175 struck the South Tower ... killing all aboard along with an unknown number of people in the Tower."
-The Final Report of the 9/11 Commission, issued July 22, 2004
I go back downstairs to buy a large latte from the cafe in the lobby. It's a morning at the office, and that calls for coffee. Let's look at this detail from the perspective of today. Let's see if we can make it make any sense at all. Two large commercial passenger jets had just been slammed into two 110 story skyscrapers, presumably killing all on board and probably a large number in each building, both of which were now on fire, which was undoubtably causing even more death and injury. This was happening a mere ten blocks away. I went downstairs to buy a coffee.
Here is how I rationalize the coffee. It is important to understand that at this point, everyone seemed quite calm, nothing seemed changed. Looking back from today it's remarkable to state this, it seems unbelievable to some people, that there was many of us just going about our normal morning routines; answering emails, checking voicemails, catching up on meeting notes with co-workers while stirring sugar into expensive coffees. Nothing seemed out of control. New York's finest and bravest were on the scene. They would save who they could save. They would put out the fire. That's what they always do. That's what we always do. At this point, there was no sense that anything could get any worse.
This is how this is going to be; a mad chronicling of as much minute detail as I can possibly remember; an obsessive piecing together of every moment culled from disparate shards of memory. It will continue like this. I assure you it does not get any better from here on out. You do not have to continue reading this. This isn't for you. This is for me. You can stop right here. I promise I will not be upset.
I am alone in the elevator riding up to the 34th or 37th floor. I have yet to be able to remember this bit exactly. It was mid-thirties, like I am now, today. This is then. I am alone in the elevator holding a ridiculously large coffee. I exit on my floor and for the first time decide to walk over to the North face. Along this part of the floor are another row of cubicles arranged perpendicular to the rows I head so as to form there own little neighborhood. Every grouping of cubicles is it's own district with it's own personality and character, forged by it's own unique residents. I have not been to this neighborhood before. I walk up to the glass. The Towers are ablaze. They are massive. It's hard to adequately express to someone who has never lived around skyscrapers just how enormous 110 stories actually is. Their power is extraordinary and this moment they are on fire, puffing forth smoke at their tips like two smoldering sticks of incense that have been stuck into the sandy pit of Lower Manhattan. This is when I first feel any real small sense of trepidation. No full-blown fear, but an awful sense of dread. Maybe it is worse than we think.
Next come the phone calls. I am sitting at my desk checking emails and voicemails for the woman I work for when the phone calls start. First off, my mother, to see if I'm OK. Of course I'm fine. It's close but not too close, about ten blocks. No, I was late by about five or ten minutes so I didn't actually see the planes hit, but some of my colleagues did. I'm glad I missed that. We're not evacuating. It's fine. It's OK. Yeah, terrorists, probably. This has happened here before.
Then, to my surprise, "J" calls. She is absolutely relieved to hear my voice, to hear I'm unharmed and safe. She has spent the last half-hour calling her students and friends to see if everyone is safe. There is one friend of a student that can't be located, who works in a bank or at a brokerage house or mortgage lender near the WTC. They can't find him. He's not answering his mobile. I offer reassuring words. Phone service is down. He's stuck on a subway. He's fine. I'm fine. You're fine. Everything's fine.
I'm at my desk. I'm shuffling around papers and post-it notes. Then, it all starts to break apart.
First comes her voice.
"Oh my god. OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!!"
I rush out from my cubicle towards the northern glass with others who are also responding to this desperate feminine wail. We are stopped cold at the sight. It is the South Tower, collapsing. It's silently crumbling in a massive cloud of white ash. There are shrieks, gasps, more 'oh-my-gods'. A woman next to me falls into a rolling desk chair, her hands to her face as she begins to cry uncontrollably. It was her who sounded the alarm. It was her voice that started this. She is of Asian descent, from her facial features I guess Korean. She is in a fitted yellow satin blouse patterned after a men's dress shirt and black suit slacks. On her left hand ring finger is a massive diamond engagement ring. Someone with money loves this woman. She is crying, she is scared, but at least she is loved.
"At 9:59 A.M., the South Tower collapsed in ten seconds, killing all civilians and emergency personnel inside, as well as a number of individuals - both responders and civilians - in the concourse, in the Marriott, and on neighboring streets."
-The Final Report of the 9/11 Commission, issued July 22, 2004
It is collapsed and a gargantuan cloud of ash, smoke, and debris hurtles towards us. A few of us press ourselves against the glass to peer down to the street where we see people rushing madly like little ants desperately running from the oncoming clouds. The smoke reaches our windows, bits of paper debris float before us, and then we are overtaken, our view north completely obscured.
The woman next to me is crying so hard, her hands pressed against her face with such force, the yellow satin cuffs of her shirt have darkened with splotches of wet tears. It's as if she is bleeding water.
This is where it becomes a hazy mess.
"The North Tower collapsed at 10:28:25 AM, killing all civilians still alive on the upper floors, an undetermined number below and scores of first responders."
-The Final Report of the 9/11 Commission, issued July 22, 2004
The clouds had barely begun to dissipate before the North Tower gave up the ghost. The debris clouds are so thick and black that our building is completely surrounded, north, south, east and west. I'm at my desk. The internet is down but the landlines are still working. A few people who keep small radios at their desks have them on and reports are coming in of other missing planes, of other explosions. There is mention of the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. We can not see out of our building. Word comes down from building security that we should remain inside, that the air outside is unbreathable and visibility nil. I'm at my desk.
The feeling that any moment could be your last is one that is utterly indescribable. The feeling that death is ready, that the glass walls around us could shatter in a billion little pieces, the ground underneath us could give way in a rumble of gas and fire, life could be over without any warning, that this is your very last small bit of life left, is the worst and most horrifying thing I've ever felt. Helpless is the word. There is no help for this.
Just an hour before we were all stirring coffee, answering phones, checking email, thinking it was already over, that the fire and rescue and police would take care of it all and we would move on. Now it feels like it will never end until we are all dead.
At some point there is another phone call with my mother in which I express none of this. I'm certain I reassure her everything is OK where I'm at. I'm certain I tell her we are not that close to it, like 20 blocks or so. I'm certain of this, though I really don't know. I have no recollection of our conversation other than knowing it took place.
There is another call from "J". She tells me their missing friend has been found and he is fine. She tells me that all subway service has been shut down and that when we evacuate I'm welcome to come to her apartment to wait it out. She lives around the corner from the Empire State Building. There is such deep concern in her voice, such compassion. I'm elated by this. I'm so utterly convinced I'm in love with this woman.
Over the course of the next hour the debris cloud turns from black to gray to soft white as if the building has been draped in loose gauze. We gaze out over the new horizon. The Towers are now completely gone. This is the first hour of New New York and we are it's first citizens.
We are all alive in this building and we have been given the all-clear to vacate. Lower Manhattan is closed for business and we are to leave immediately. It is around Noon.
We take the elevators down to the building lobby. It's quiet. No one is saying anything. At all. We are just riding the elevator down to the lobby. We are alive today.
The lobby is full of people, there are security agents directing people but it is remarkably orderly and calm. Outside is still hazy, dusty, ashy, smoky. At various points around the lobby there are water coolers set up, accompanied by stacks of tri-fold paper towels. We are advised to take advantage of this. I stand online with men in suits and women in pencil skirts. I reach the cooler and calmly pour out a few pulls of water onto a folded stack of paper towels in my hand. I shake out the excess into a trash can that is set beside. I turn to leave.
Outside is covered in gray dust. Everywhere. Everything. Cars, trees, buildings, streets, curbs, people. The air is fluttering with specks of paper and ash. There is no glass between us and it now. This is real.
I can not remember what streets I took to get around all of this, to get myself onto Broadway for the long walk North up to the Empire State Building, to "J"s apartment. I know I had to walk around the south-east side of Lower Manhattan, curl around to avoid what was now being called Ground Zero. I remember eventually finding myself walking alone, passing a group of Red Cross workers at a make-shift station going over maps and instructing volunteers. Maybe I took Water Street to Fulton and crossed over through City Hall Park? Maybe I took William Street, or Nassau? Is it possible I went up the Bowery or Centre Street, crossed over to Lafayette? This is all a guess. I'm looking at another map right now as I write this. I'm waiting for it to tell me what I can't remember. It never does. Instead, every map tells me I've done something wrong. They point out my failings, my mistakes, my half-remembered truths. They chip away at everything I think I know, destroy all my confidence in my own memory. Every map kills me a little.
There are papers everywhere, torn, charred, shredded. I stop somewhere to pick one up. It is the top-half of a fax cover sheet, it's bottom-half burnt away. I put this in my bag. This honestly sickens me now, to see myself taking this piece of paper from off the ashen ground and stowing it away like a collectible, but to be fair to myself, at the time it seemed like the right thing to do. Was it archeology? Was it needing to hold onto something that had been on someone's desk just a few hours earlier, knowing that person is likely dead? I don't know what I was thinking as I carefully placed the brittle piece of paper inside a notebook inside my bag. A few months later, while packing for a move, I will find this piece of paper folded together with a stiff dry stack of paper towels. I will throw them both away.
Eventually, I find myself on Broadway. I turn around to look back at the smoke clouds. I continue walking. I pass people who are all looking up and South, staring off downtown. A few people give me odd sad looks. I realize I'm still holding the paper towels to my face.
I reach "J"s apartment. I dial her number and she buzzes me up. She greets me at her door with a strong hug. I don't remember what we say to each other. I enter her apartment. It is a typical Midtown Manhattan one-bedroom; small, with everything in it also small. Small kitchen. Small bedroom. Small furniture. The television is on. There is footage of downtown, of people covered in ash, of firefighters and police hauling people through debris, pouring water over their faces, of the second plane hitting the South Tower. It's the first time I've seen that footage. "J" is not alone. There is another man in her apartment, another student of hers who is also stranded in Manhattan waiting for the subways to start service again to the outer boroughs. I've not met him before. He shakes my hand as "J" introduces us. He is friendly with a big smile. He seems to be in too good a mood all things considered. He sits back down and continues to watch the news.
I am holding her in my arms. We are holding each other at the end of the kitchen. I can not remember how this feels. It is 2010 when I write this and I have been unemployed for two years. I have not touched a woman in two years. It is amazing how quickly certain sensations will leave you. The feel of a person's body against yours is the first to go. It is 2010 and I can not remember how it feels in 2001 to be holding this woman in my arms. We are holding each other at the end of the kitchen. I am completely convinced I am in love with this woman. We have not slept together, nor have we even come close to the level of physical intimacy that would be recognized as being a precursor to sexual activity. We have never even kissed. The kitchen is a small galley that runs into the bathroom at one end. Around the corner of the other end is the tiny bedroom that lends truth to the rental listing. It is the bedroom of "J"s roommate, the woman who's apartment this is. "J" sleeps in what would be the living room if not for the small twin bed in the corner that makes the living room a bedroom. Around it are a few small bookshelves, the type one buys in a flat-pack and assembles themselves. They house various books of various sizes, all covered in Japanese characters. Alongside the bed stands the large electronic keyboard "J" practices on; it is on a large keyboard stand and in front of it is a chrome wire sheet-music stand that is full of dog-eared and pencil-marked sheets of Mozart. I am holding her in my arms. She is holding me in her arms. I am completely convinced I am in love with this woman and it's a ridiculous thought. We have never even kissed. Except for one very awkward non-kiss on a park bench in Union Square she has never allowed my lips to come near hers, the closest she has offered is her cheek. We have not slept together. There has been no groping of erogenous areas, of breasts, of crotches, of buttocks. We are holding each other at the end of the small galley kitchen. Her head is nestled on my left shoulder. She is facing the apartment entrance. I am facing her small bed, keyboard, and music stand. The television is on an endless loop of the second plane hitting the South Tower. Jammed between her mattress and the bed frame underneath a stack of small pillows is an open box of condoms.
I am a fucking idiot.
We break from our hug and turn to the television. Words are spoken. This other man in the room wants to talk to me, pleasantries and small talk that is meaningless when your city has just been attacked by terrorists. I want to remind him of this, but he is not worth it. His smile is so big, so genuinely effusive. I want to punch him really hard in his head.
The phone rings periodically over the next hour or so, as other friends of "J" check in. There are other people coming over. One of them tells her the subways are running again above Union Square and service to Queens is restored. She relays this to me, and I decide to leave. She hugs me one more time. We hold each other and she tells me we should get together later this evening, that she will come by my apartment in Astoria to see me. I should call her when I get home.
I walk to the 34th St. - Herald Square Station and take a Ditmars bound N train.
When the train emerges out into the daylight of Long Island City, and makes the pass over Silvercup Studios, all of us aboard turn collectively back towards the large plume of smoke and dust still rising out of Lower Manhattan. The train is completely silent and had been the entire ride. I mean completely. You won't believe me now, but I swear to you, not even the train itself was making noise. No grinding wheels or gears. No dings when the doors opened and closed. Nothing. It was complete silence. No radios. No talking. No words. Nothing made a sound.
I'm back at the apartment and my roommate is packing a small bag. I think we hug, but I'm not sure. We did not ever seem comfortable with each other in any physical way. It would make sense to think we hugged given the circumstances, but in all likelihood, the circumstances changed nothing. Why would we want to hug now?
She is packing a small bag. She is heading up to Tarrytown to stay with her boyfriend for a few days, maybe the week. She is upset, visibly shaken, and she doesn't want to be alone. We talk about our respective days. I gloss over my story fairly quickly. She does the same. She is anxious to leave. Maybe we hug, maybe we don't. She leaves. She doesn't want to be alone.
The paragraphs are coming fast and loose now. There are less details now. There is less story. I'm home. I'm safe at home. I'm alone in a two-bed in Astoria, Queens.
The evening is filled with phone calls with friends. We share our stories of the day, express our happiness in each other's safety and friendship. I talk with my parents again. I talk with an estranged brother who lives in the Bay Area. The surprise of the night is a conversation with "M". I'm almost positive we talked, that she called me all the way from Taiwan. I know she called, but she may have only left a voicemail, and the conversation I think I had with her may have just been me mumbling "I love you" into the phone receiver as I played her message over and over. I sincerely, truly, genuinely, honestly don't know. But I'm sure we talked somehow, in some way.
"J" and I talk on the phone but it is only so she can tell me she will not be coming over, that we will not be seeing each other. There are still friends of hers over at her apartment. I can here them in the background. It sounds like a party. There is wine open.
At some point, I order Chinese delivery from one of the two take-outs in the neighborhood I would split orders with. There is a level of normalcy to this, to eating dumplings and wonton soup from plastic containers while sitting on the floor. I'm watching the news since that is all that is on. I switch from channel to channel and it is all one endless loop of the second plane hitting the South Tower. Except for Food Network, which has suspended programming and in it's place stands a screen which states that they have done this out of sensitivity to the day's events. I leave it here for awhile. The only light is this screen, the moonlight coming in the bedroom windows and the soft light coming in from the kitchen. I'm eating a large dumpling stuffed with pieces of pork and vegetables. There is a hole in my bedroom wall. There are cuts on my right hand. I can not remember when in the evening I did that.
This is what I remember of that day.