Tuesday, September 11, 2007

old writing - September 11th edition

What follows is an excerpt from an essay I wrote shortly after that tragic day. I haven't touched it since, but given the anniversary, I thought it worth digging out.

That morning, I followed the same basic routine I’ve followed since leaving the city two years ago—coffee, NPR, and the New York Times and Daily News online. The night before the Yankees and Red Sox were scheduled to play and Roger Clemens was trying to become the first pitcher ever with a 20-1 record. The game, however, was rained out. I continued to read headlines until the voices on the radio shifted and the news broke.

For the rest of that day, then, I sat glued to the TV while NPR continued to blare out of the stereo speakers. Everyone was confused over the “apparent terrorist action.” The coverage shifted to President Bush in Florida, then a short while later to reports of smoke billowing from the Pentagon, then of a plane that had crashed in rural Pennsylvania. At that point, facts were muddled; rumor after rumor spun out about the possibility of planes over the White House, a car bomb outside the State Department. Federal offices and major landmarks around the country were evacuated in a CNN-fueled panic and security increased even at the Federal building here in Fayetteville.

My first instinct was that I needed to be there; I needed to see this with my own eyes, not through a camera’s lens. I paced my small house and in the background CNN replaced the dearth of new developments with footage of the second plane crashing into the South tower. A ball of flame burst each time out of the east side of the building. I tried to reach my father in Washington. No luck. I tried to reach friends in New York. No luck. I called my mother at our house in Maine and told her what was happening. Ten minutes after I I hung up the phone, the South tower collapsed. I had no idea what to do. More phone calls and occasionally there was a fast busy signal, occasionally a voice explaining that that the circuits were full, and all too often a dead silence when the line simply couldn’t connect.

The silences were the worst—I needed to talk to someone in the city, someone who understood the sickening feeling in my stomach. I needed to do something. Then the second tower collapsed. I called my mother again and could say nothing more than, “The towers are fucking gone. They’re gone.” And still no luck getting through to New York or Washington.

As the rumors of new threats devolved into images of the real destruction, the nausea settled into my chest—it felt as though a frigid hand had reached in and pulled out my heart and lungs. I couldn’t take a full breath. Every time the images of the collapse flashed across the screen, the twin beacons I had seen so many mornings disappeared into a gray cloud and the dead phone did not help the worry that at least one of my very close friends might still have been working for the same law firm at 2 World Trade Center.

Thankfully she wasn’t. The first phone call that got through was to her and she answered; she had been scheduled to return to work the next day. The next fucking day. We repeated the words to each other as though they were a mantra that might help make sense of what was happening. “It’s crazy here, Paul, just crazy right now.” After that, a few brief emails dribbled in telling me that people were okay. Alive, but stunned beyond words. One friend, Arthur, had been at LaGuardia preparing to board a plane to Ohio when the towers were hit; he walked five miles home to the Upper West Side and said the reactions he saw of people on the street were indescribable, beyond words. This man is a therapist and a writer, and he couldn’t find words to describe the effect of what happened. Another friend had walked the opposite direction from midtown on the East side across the Queensboro Bridge and she described the crowds as most closely resembling the large pro-choice marches in which she had taken part. But she also said that the numbness with which people moved was beyond comprehension. Another friend sent a ten word email from her cellphone. Another described the dust now settling over my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. Nearly everyone signed their emails with “Love.”

The relief of knowing that everyone closest to me was safe was shortlived. There was a news conference with Giuliani and I was torn apart again. He wore a NYPD windbreaker and kept his face barely composed as he described the devastation, and the period during which his own entourage was trapped in a nearby building while assessing the initial damage. Then his efforts at composure cracked as he listed the fire fighters and police officers, all veterans and high-ranking officials, who were known to be among the dead. This hit me hard: they had been doing their jobs, on the scene of an untenable emergency, directing efforts to save people’s lives before the fire engulfed the towers. The Fire Department Chaplain, with twenty years of service behind him. The Fire Chief and First Deputy, both with nearly thirty years of service. Giuliani had to be prompted by the Police Commissioner to make it through the brief iteration of the names. More even than the images of people jumping after the planes had hit—what must it take for a person to choose between burning and falling one thousand feet?—or the repeated images of the collapse, more than anything so far, oddly it was Giuliani’s reaction that finally got to me and brought out the tears that I’d held back earlier in the day.

The pictures came fast then, too. The coffee carts and fruit stands deserted and covered in ash, like Pompeiian memorials to workaday life in the city. I could taste the buttered bagels and the hot, sweet, thin coffee; I wondered what the middle-Asian immigrant in the cart must have thought as the planes hit. The crowds must have pushed past as he turned off the coffee urns and worked to hitch the cart—complete with its cargo of donuts, bagels, rolls, apples and bananas—to the van with which he had towed it in from Queens. At the urging of the police, he must finally have given up on trying to drive his cart away from the disaster zone. In the picture, the van sits just off Church Street, covered in dust and debris, the coffee cart tilted to the side. Many of these immigrants have no insurance and get into the coffee cart business through an underground of connections from their old country, and for most of them it is a hand-to-mouth existence. What happens to him now? The quandary must be the same for the man, perhaps Bangladeshi or Chinese, who abandoned the debris-covered fruit and vegetable cart captured in another photograph. Here is their land of opportunity. That gets me every time.

Another picture from The Daily News captures people, all of them dressed for their morning commute, many already covered in dust, running down Greenwich Street. Their faces are frozen in paroxysms of terror—they look like horror film extras, in fact—and men’s ties blow out over their shoulders as they run from the expanding cloud of debris following them through the canyons of buildings. I pore over this photo the way I look at every photo coming out of the horror of that day and each day following, to see if there are any faces I recognize, any friends among the refugees and mourners.

As I scan these photos, I also notice the streets, the places, and one in particular gets me. It was taken at a spot from which one could see, if the lens were turned a bit, The Raccoon Lodge. I used to play pool there from time to time, and when I worked jobs downtown I’d stop there for a beer. It was a classic old joint with a good jukebox and enough grime to keep it from seeming like it belonged anywhere near the financial district. But even old bars often survive on shoestrings in New York City, and I wonder if the owner had enough insurance to keep him afloat until the streets two blocks from Ground Zero were opened again. That gets me.

As I continued to pore over the news, there was a picture that captured a simple handwritten sign that read in capital letters, “Morgue,” with an arrow pointing left. The sign was tacked up outside the broken windows of the Brooks Brothers store across Church Street from the Trade Centers. The sign directed those carrying bodybags into the tweed-lined room where several medical examiners worked to separate pieces of bodies. As I read the accompanying story, I couldn’t stop thinking about the three pairs of boxer shorts I had bought at that store six years ago when I didn’t have time to do laundry.

Then there are all the photographs of the fire fighters from departments across the Northeastern states, police, and other rescue workers—the construction workers, the volunteers, the steelworkers, the pipefitters, the canine search-and-rescue corps. The sheer determination tempered by exhaustion creasing these faces made me wish I could hop the subway to the Javits Center and add my name to the list of volunteers even though I didn’t have any of the skills they really needed. With each picture, the sense of helplessness grew. There were more American flags; the firefighters wore them. Mementos of lost departments appeared on helmets and jackets. The Yankees stopped wearing the interlocking NY hats and instead wore NYPD and FDNY hats as they returned to practice a few days later. Mike Piazza plastered NYPD over the Mets’ orange NY on his batting helmet. None of these men were directly involved in the rescue effort, but any show of solidarity was enough to get to me in the days after.
In the meantime, other buildings in the area collapsed and the structural integrity of several others came into question. With each piece of news, I thought back to freelance jobs that took me to 5 World Trade, 2 World Trade, lunches and dinners consumed in the Winter Garden; a picture of the atrium shows a ghost-town of restaurants and escalators bowing under the weight of debris. You take these things for granted when you’re in the city; they may not be your favorite places, but they will always be there when you need to meet a friend downtown or to show a visitor. Now they aren’t.

In their place is a 16 square acre, 70 foot deep and 40 foot tall pile of debris and what is left of more than 6000 bodies. When the World Trade Center was built, the foundation was carved out of century-old landfill and the foundation was set in such a way as to keep the Hudson River at bay. In my media frenzy, I came across articles that bring up yet more chilling possibilities of collateral damage brought on by the attacks: the civil engineers who designed this crater worry that a single wrong move while cleaning up debris may flood the entire area, and the subway tunnels, PATH train tunnels, other areas, in short that things could all-too-easily get much worse.