I’d biked into work, and I was listening to NPR in the shower. “We are getting reports that a small plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center in downtown New York…” Did he really say “small plane”? I believe he did, and that he repeated it several times, programmed, no doubt, by images of a plane sticking out of the Empire State Building, of Cessnas splintering against concrete walls.
At Vindigo, we straggled around our desks. We were still at the getting-coffee morning warm-up and half the staff hadn’t arrived yet. Should we get to work? We waited for a signal from Jason and the managers. CNN.com and MSNBC were overwhelmed, so there was no news from our desks. Eventually, we drifted into the foosball room to watch the local CBS affiliate, the only station still broadcasting.
A panicked mom called from the midwest: does anyone know where David is? Is he all right? David had left Vindigo a month before but she couldn’t reach him at his new office, a block from the Trade Center. Someone had heard from him, he’d had a doctor’s appointment uptown and he was fine. “Thank God, thank God,” she said, close to sobbing. Then her maternal antennae twitched again. “David is at the doctor? Why is he at the doctor? What’s wrong with him?”
Marci had been heading to a meeting in San Francisco. Her flight had left Newark from the gate next to one of the doomed planes. She eventually got cranky word to the office that she’d been diverted to the middle of Ohio with _no_ explanation. Miyuki told her what was going on, and spread the joyful word that Marci was okay. After a few days subsisting on midwestern airport snacks, she eventually got a ride back to New York a in a limo hired by a fellow passenger, a woman who produced Richard Simmons workout videos.
We got a group mail from a distant former co-worker: “We’re all fine in Queens!” In Manhattan, we snorted. Bully for Queens.
I felt outside it all, an imposter. Instead of horror and grief, I felt weirdly thrilled as the great dramatic event unfolded, caught up in silently practising “I was there that day, you know…“. I watched my friends’ stricken reactions and tried to mirror them, the strategy of a good immigrant. No one knew what to do, not the fluff-trained newscasters, not the Manhattanites who watched the TV towers fall over and over just a mile or two from reality. They groped for narrative sense. “It’s like…” “It’s like…”
I was angry at the co-workers who went on the roof to take photos as the towers collapsed. Ghouls, I thought then, though that makes no sense to me now. If we wanted to _help_, I said crossly, we should give blood. I wanted, in fact, to make a big show of being normal, practical, of getting on with things. I went back to my desk to send ostentatious business emails. I dug these out of my Outbox months later and sat amazed at these fatuous messages, requests for copy approval on a newsletter that would never be sent. Did I think it would make me seem hard-nosed and professional, a real New York pro?
By lunchtime we had figured out where to give blood, at the Red Cross Center on the Upper West Side. It was one of those perfect days that was too hot for me, and I worried about my face burning as we walked fifty blocks north in a straggly group. Everyone was moving north. I saw people eating icecream and wanted some, but it seemed faintly sacriligious. Outside the Red Cross there was chaos. People yakked on the few remaining cellphone connections. Volunteers handed out forms and told us to come back tomorrow, they were awash in donated blood. They didn’t want mine anyway; I’d lived in London and might have a mad cow taint. Instead I drifted towards Central Park to meet my sister, needing the company of a fellow faker. Then I walked back to collect my bike from the office and sat down to write a few more self-righteous business emails.
I remember the smell of the burning. I remember the thrill of the carfree streets, the Manhattan Bridge choked with dazed pedestrians who kept craning back to look at the clouds of smoke coloring the sun a sunset orange in the middle of the day. I took photos on my digital camera, lost now, and tried to hide how festive I felt, excited by a carnival world where rules were turned upside down.
In the weeks afterwards we were afraid. The first round of anthrax letters were processed through the post office on 30th Street, a block from the office. Subway stations were pits of fear. Heads snapped up when the F16 fighter jets flew overhead. People were evacuated from their buildings, over and over, for weeks, and I was relieved to sleep in Brooklyn every night. At the weekend we lingered by the railings in Brooklyn Heights, reading the messages of grief tied to the bars in sight of the gaping lack still marked by plumes of smoke. Candles dripped wax all over the promenade, bouquets of rotting flowers were stacked high. We wondered if downtown would always smell of acrid smoke. We wondered if it would ever rain again.
In Brooklyn, charred words floated in the streets: burning Dilbert calendars, safety memos, meeting notes. Four doors down, someone had lost a son. We passed the grieving friends and neighbors quietly, heads down. Gennie Gambale had lived on the block behind ours. Now she smiled out of thousands of posters pleading for information on where she was. Her family had plastered every block in the five boroughs, it seemed. Gennie smiled from the TV coverage, from the _New York Times_, literally the poster girl for the missing. Every night for weeks neighbors gathered at the gate of her family’s home, staring up at the candles in her bedroom window. I could hear the sobbing as I rode my bike home.
A few days later I sat next to a Ground Zero worker on the subway. His overalls and safety boots were covered in dust, and he wore them proudly; people thanked him for helping. He was a metalworker. The money was good, he said, and it looked like it would keep going for months, great for the family. The food was fucking fantastic. All these restaurant people were bringing food every day, as much as you wanted. And bagels, Danishes, all day long, you could barely move with the food.
Then his face changed and his voice dropped. They weren’t finding bodies, he said. Just parts. Pawts.
The New York streets were like Babel before an angry God scrambled tongues. Every knot of people was telling the same story; only the accents and the details differed. Every day brought new details: the firefighter’s funeral on 30th Street, station colleagues lined up in dress uniforms while a single trumpet played. Numbers of the missing were revised down or up, friends of friends added to the list. There were subway evacuation scares. Calls to accompany Muslim women shopping on Atlantic Avenue, where they were too frightened to go out.
“I was in the subway…”
“I was supposed to be doing a Series 7 exam there next Tuesday…”
“I had a shrink appointment in midtown, otherwise…”
“My neighbor’s brother…”
“My friend’s sister…”
All over the world, people have wanted to tell me what they were doing when they heard that the World Trade Center had been attacked.
“I was at the Home Hardware in Kitchener getting drywall. The girl at the checkout told me.”
“We were on holiday in Greece. We were having coffee after lunch when the people at the next table told us. It didn’t make sense”
In a hilltop monastery in Burma, a country cut off from the world for over over forty years, a Buddhist abbot carefully explained to me what had happened. There were two big houses in America, and they fell down and many people died. Now there was soon a war to punish the people who made them fall…
When you tell a story over and over, it becomes a part of you. The meaning surfaces from a place deeper than a watchful mind can reach. The grief for all those lives, for all that my city lost, for the painful changes it brought, was slow to percolate. Now it grabs at my heart from unexpected places, like a cinema in Mexico City, watching the credits for Scorcese’s _Gangs of New York_. It was months after September 11th when I found that even a picture of the towers would bring fast, hot tears. It was perhaps a year before I realized how much it had changed my life. I am still telling myself this story.
This summer I found a picture taken at a SoHo roof-garden party in June 2000. We were celebrating a round of big-bucks funding in an optimistic time. I am beaming, and the Twin Towers sprout from my head; glorious, silly, silvery Deely-boppers. Look, ma, I’m on top of the world.