All right, I'm doing the stupidest thing right now.
CNN is streaming their coverage from 5 years ago and I'm running it. Tears dripping down my face, it's so hard to take.
We were on our way to the pediatrician's office, we had a 9:15 appointment, Big Man's first post-natal checkup, when we saw an enormous column of smoke off in the direction of downtown Brooklyn. We said to each other, "My god what could be on fire in that part of Brooklyn to produce that much smoke?" Gives you an idea the scale - we guessed it was a huge fire, but a mile closer to us than it actually was.
When we got in to the dr's office, people were sort of scrambling to try to get the TV in the waiting room to work. We groused about it, "Jeez it's 9am, who needs TV?" Somebody said something about Windows on the World.
And when we saw the doc, a good guy who used to joke about Big Man's name (in Yiddish, it's funny) he said, "I don't know how to say this, but a plane crashed into the World Trade Center."
I said, "Ha ha. That was 1934, and it was the Empire State Building."
He said, "No, it's true."
I still wouldn't go for it, "Why would you say that? I mean, it's not like that's not something we can check!"
I think he might have convinced us - we got up and looked at the smoke again through the window.
After the exam, we got the baby strapped in the carseat and Bob went into the underground parking garage to retrieve the car. As he drove up the ramps of the garage WNYC kept staticking in and out, and he heard scraps of stuff that sounded really bad. He pulled up, we snapped the carseat into place and pulled away. He told me, "I think one of the World Trade Center buildings collapsed."
I laughed. It was absurd, so I laughed. Then, like it was something that someone ELSE had neglected to take into consideration, I said, "But what about all the people in there?"
I took a break just now to do a puzzle with my three year old geography prodigy. It's the United States - he likes me to hold up each piece and he says their names and tells me where to put them. Calmed me down.
WTC from a helicopter - Bob's birthday present in, I'd say, 1998
This CNN thing is unbelievable. I didn't see it at the time. The reactions by the anchors make them sound so stupid, but we all were - see above.
As we drove back to our neighborhood, it was like it was snowing. "What is this shit?" I remember one of us saying, and the other realizing, "It's ash." We were a couple miles away.
At the time, when was the last time you'd heard the word "hijacked"? You know, it was a Cuba word, an Entebbe word. So strange, I remember it being so current when I was a kid but I guess it got replaced by carjacking. I don't know if it stopped happening but the idea of a screaming political terrorist (my image is Al Pacino, I think Dog Day Afternoon really formed my images of hostage takers) holding a gun to the temple of a stewardess just seemed so 70's at the time.
Thank god we were together. Bob worked for the City about 8 blocks away from the WTC. He would have been fine, but he would have had to walk home across the Brooklyn Bridge. The cell phones went out because the transmitters were on top of the towers, so I wouldn't have been able to get ahold of him. I would have lost my mind.
We didn't even go into the apartment when we got home. The park at the end of our street, Sunset Park, is the highest point in Brooklyn. We carried the carseat up there. People were standing around randomly, all facing Manhattan, not speaking at all. Hands to their faces. Like statues, like Pompeii but standing up. We couldn't see anything but smoke and dust where lower Manhattan was.
One time, my friend Sean visited us in Brooklyn. As we walked to the subway in the morning, I pointed out to him that we had a funny vantage point on lower Manhattan - one Trade Tower completely blocked the other, so it looked like there was only one. Sean shares my taste for speculative fiction so I pointed it out to him as, "What the world would look like if anarchists blew up one of the towers." I knew about the 1993 bombing, of course, but the idea that one of these massive structures could be erased from the surface of the earth was so absurd, it was science fiction.
I cried in the park, looking down at our baby. I knew the world was a violent, unstable place already, but I thought this was probably going to change everything. I felt so bad for him. And as it turns out, we have been at war for his entire life.
9:55am CNN used the words "Osama bin Laden," reporting that he had made threats against the United States. And the guy's still at large? What the fuck?
We went inside and watched CNN and New York 1. The WYNC person on the radio hadn't been able to keep it together. WNYC had transmitters and other equipment up there. Bob's sister Janie and her husband Miles had worked with that equipment.
My daily commute on the subway took me over the Manhattan Bridge. It was a privelege, to come up out of the ground and see the sun sparkling on the river, and at night to rise past the tall buildings with their sparkling lights. One time as we came out into the sunlight, two little Chinese girls in our car crowed, "Outside! Outside!" and Bob and I looked at each other and grinned. We felt exactly the same way.
I would look at those buildings at night and think about how much they were made of air. They looked solid but of course they were just matrixes of cement and steel, honeycombs full of light. It made me think of the structure of solids at the molecular level. They try to tell us that there is more space between the molecules than there is space taken up by the molecules.
I read the New York Times this morning. I have cried more reading that fucking paper than I have cried reading all other literature put together. Some of the companies that had people in the building had bought ads listing their lost. 75 people at one company, over 300 at another. The names were so New York - Economos, Wisniewski, Chen, Pham, Romero, Aquilino, Novotny, Costello, Hafiz, Ranganath.
When the one was gone and the other was still standing it looked so lonely. It stuck up so dangerously.
Everyone I knew didn't die; everyone I knew didn't lose anyone close to them. Everyone I knew who might have been hurt missed it by 'that much.' Mark was late for the train that would have taken him under the buildings. Meghann and her dad canceled their breakfast date at Windows on the World. That kind of thing. There must have been twenty or thirty thousand people working in those buildings. The WTC Evacuation Study reports about 15,000 evacuated. 3,000 died. From the report:
The high rate of survivability of persons on floors in WTC 1 and 2 that were below the aircraft impacts was attributed to the small percentage (estimated at 20%--30%) of the building occupants at their work stations at the time of the first attack
A strong argument against getting to work early. It was such a beautiful day - in my mind I see these lower-Manhattan go-getters deciding, fuck it, I'm going to have an extra stroll this morning before buckling myself into my cubicle. I'm going to sit in the sun and read another section of the paper before going up to work. Those kind of decisions should be the decisions that save your life.
We were so isolated, out there in Brooklyn with our baby. We quit watching the TV when the president started talking about retaliation. I couldn't look at my fragile baby and think of Afghan villages under fire. So we slept, and ate cookies, and had visitors. Lots of people wanted to come see and hold the baby.
Sept 14, 2001
He was so little and beautiful and warm. They would come and want to talk about my labor, and his sleep, and they didn't want to tell their story about that Tuesday. We were like a little vacation from the smoke of Manhattan.
We went into town a couple times right after. My laptop had a virus; someone was moving out of town. My co-workers were astonished that we had tried it: traffic was closely monitored and everyone was still on edge that there might be more coming. Plus the air was awful.
Bob's sister Theresa came for a visit in October, and the first time she caught the scent, she had a violent fight-or-flight reaction. You could see her hair standing on end, her spine stiffen. Her house had burned down several years ago and that disgusting smell, plastic and scorched cement and god knows what, brought her right back to standing in the snow with her family and her dog going crazy watching everything burn.
Fighter jets patrolled the city. Once when I was in college, my two best friends and I went downtown on a weekend day and climbed buildings and explored the empty streets. Downtown Cleveland back then was a ghost town on weekends, it was like a giant movie set.
As we sat on a roof, we saw a pod of F-16s fly past in formation, low, just briefly visible in the space between two buildings. I was chilled: the word "Libya" passed through my brain as the wrongness of that sight struck me right in the heart.
It was the Cleveland Air Show, of course, and those were the Blue Angels. Cleveland not likely to be on the front lines of anything after all. Seeing those F-16s in the air over New York though - that wasn't speculation, or what-if - they were capable of shooting another plane out of the sky. Too late.
Bob stayed home a little past his family leave I think, because his building was being used to shelter rescue workers. When he arrived back at his office there was a stray work boot on the floor.
We passed by the site only once or twice. The amount of space they used to take up is enormous. As you drove by you felt like ducking, like flinching. Like all that empty air would crush you.
Five years later, beautiful blue-sky days no longer fill me with unease (although I'm glad today isn't one). It took me a couple years to realize why days like that made me grim and alert. Once, on a 2004 visit to New York, Jaime commented, "Well you really picked a perfect day to be here," and I replied, "Yeah I keep waiting for a plane to fly into a building." Jaime said, "That's not funny," and Bob quickly agreed. I wasn't making a joke, those days fucked with me like that.
Then a couple years when, in the middle of a beautiful blue-sky afternoon, I'd realize, "Hey! I haven't thought about disaster all day! Til now! Oh." And the day the kids tried on the neighbor kid's football gear, it wasn't til the next day that I realized I went through an entire beautiful day and just enjoyed it.
That's enough. Time to fix lunch for my littlest man.