Tuesday, September 11, 2012

That Day

What more can an American say about September 11, 2001?

I lived in Brooklyn at that time, and because I had a slacker record store job I didn't need to be in Manhattan by 9, like my previous office gig. I was sleeping when my roommate Casey woke up all of us at 226 Franklin to say something was happening. His mom had called from Texas after they cut in on TV.

We were in Greenpoint, so Casey, Ted, Sterling and I all headed down to the East River to see what was going on. Both of the World Trade Center buildings had smoke coming out of them. 

The WTC was, for me, the prime symbol of New York. I had been coming there for visits since 1998, and the buildings were always the first points of the city visible over the swamplands of northern New Jersey as I approached on the bus. And when I was in Manhattan, they served as a compass point if I got turned around. They were always south.

When I moved to Brooklyn, the box factory I lived in had a no-frills metal door on its long, blank side for an entrance, and whenever I stepped out to go to work in the morning, the first thing I saw across the water was the WTC. It was always there as some kind of reminder of permanence.

So it was bizarre to see it on fire from our vantage point on the concrete dock — something beyond a regular airplane crash, as both buildings had been hit. We were surrounded by Polish speakers, this being Greenpoint, but they seemed more curious than outraged and chattered away in wonder.

A street cleaner had parked his vehicle on the dock with the radio blasting. It was probably 1010 WINS, and the people on the air were stunned, grappling with the situation. They incorrectly reported that there had been a similar attack on Los Angeles, in addition to New York and Washington.

At some point amid all this background noise, one of the towers collapsed. I was not expecting this, and it's something I won't ever forget. A total disintegration, like dry dirt blowing away. A few minutes later the second tower fell apart. I turned to Ted and said that thousands of people had just died. There was no way to say it without a sense of detachment, and that made me feel very guilty.

A great gray cloud drifted across the south end of the East River over to Brooklyn Heights. Later that evening the acrid smell of burning entered our loft through the open windows. The collapse site apparently burned for weeks afterward.

What I remember most, however, is that the sky over Manhattan, always clogged with airplanes and helicopters at all hours of day and night, was completely clear and quiet. I'd never heard that before: a wide, eerie silence. New York City had shut down.

We headed back to our place and, like a great many people, holed up inside to watch the TV coverage, unsure if anything else would happen. We learned about the Pentagon attack and the third plane that had crashed in Pennsylvania. Sources said it was supposed to have hit Capitol Hill or the White House. We learned that one of the planes had taken off from Newark before doubling back.

Calls came in from relatives. My parents and brothers wanted to know what was happening. I was okay, but as I found out later in the day, some of my friends had been in Manhattan — some on public transportation going to work, some already there. One of my best friends, who worked downtown, headed toward the scene before the collapse. He got close enough to see people jumping out of the buildings.

Thousands of office workers had to get home by walking over the city's many bridges. I obviously didn't go in to the record store. Casey's band was slated to play a show at Brownie's the night of September 11. I still have the flier. Needless to say that didn’t happen either.

The next day we stayed inside and watched the continuing coverage. It was being called a terrorist act, and the government said it was carried out by agents of al Qaeda. They had learned that the hijackers used box-cutters to kill and subdue people on the planes.

The third day I had to go back to work in Chelsea. The authorities had closed streets below 14th and then after a week or two moved that line down to Canal. As the weeks went on, young people began to sneak past this barrier to get into the collapse site at night, just to see what had happened. I knew a couple of guys who did this. Others would snap pictures of themselves on the ruins, and these ended up in places like Vice Magazine.

From my vantage point behind the window display at Midnight Records I saw a great many police cars and emergency vehicles from outside the city — Connecticut, New Jersey, even Pennsylvania — run back and forth down 23rd, all part of a massive security and cleanup effort. City busses carrying construction workers and firefighters would pile past at the end of each day, the men looking weary.

As September turned into October, things began to resemble normal New York life again — well, almost. There were the soldiers with assault rifles searching trucks on our side of the Williamsburg Bridge. And then there was the anthrax attack. I worked as the mail order shipper at the record store, so every week I'd take a large bundle of boxes to the Chelsea Post Office. For a while all of the employees wore green plastic gloves when they handled my stuff.

None of it really worried me: the threat of more attacks, the unannounced checks of the subway, the war drum that beat across the headlines of the Post calling for an invasion of Afghanistan. I was in the most fatuous period of my life, well insulated from fear or inhibition by medication. People were moving away from the city, going to therapy for the first time for post-traumatic symptoms, mourning the loss of loved ones at the memorial in Union Square. In my case, I did a lot of drinking and drugs, staying out late trying to get girls interested in me. Strangely, they stopped calling after 9-11.

By March 2002, I was kicked out of the loft for missing several months of rent. I went to one last show in New York before I moved away. It was in the financial district, below the old WTC site. By then the city had installed two powerful lights in the tower holes as a memorial. The period of group sympathy after the attacks had passed, and most young hipsters were now openly mocking the lights. "Never forget: Your laundry is almost done." Or "Never forget: You left the stove on."

At the show, in the upstairs of an empty bar, I ran into a guy I knew from a band I once liked. There was a small contingent of art types living in the financial district, it secretly being affordable. He said that on 9-11 he heard the first tower collapse and went to his open window. He saw the great cloud of matter charging toward his building and pulled down the sash a second before it hit. He spent the next week inside, not leaving his room, waves of panic attacks washing over him.

It was a grim send-off. As sad as I was to leave New York, I wouldn't miss being so close to something so horrible. The city I'd moved to in 2000 had changed in ways I never expected.

By the first anniversary of the 9-11 attacks I was working at the AP bureau in downtown Chicago. I was an editorial assistant and from time to time got to do some interesting research projects. After the attacks, an army of AP reporters worked on creating profiles of the many victims. There was also a master list of names, and by that late stage they called in people like me to help root out the remaining probables and duplicates — mostly foreign nationals.

I called a lot of embassies and at some point reached an end point for my leg of the project. We'll never absolutely know who died that day in New York and Washington, but the AP gave the task its best effort.

In April 2002 I had moved in with my parents in the Chicago suburbs. On one of their windows my mom had taped a picture of an American flag clipped from the Sun Times. It said "Never forget September 11, 2001." In the morning on my way to work each day, the train passed a warehouse south of the Loop with a mural that bore two dates: 12.7.41 and 9.11.01. Though I'd by then come out of the waking sleep of meds, I didn't feel anything when I saw these images.

I watched the anniversary ceremony on the newsroom TVs and heard the names read. I don't know if I felt anything then, either. I'd never met anyone who'd lost a friend or family member in the attacks. No one I knew in Chicago had been there. A new war drum was already beating, this time for Iraq. Seven months later I'd be watching the flashes over Baghdad from the basement couch in my new apartment. 

These were the titanic events of my youth, and I could never muster what I felt was an appropriate response: in the days after the plane attacks, in the months of protests leading up to the second Iraq war. But maybe I was only thinking of them as images on TV. I do know that when I went to Union Square and saw a picture of someone's brother, or read the AP profile of someone's wife, or met an Iraq veteran, I felt great sadness. 

I wish I could say I was sorry to all these people. Sorry that I'm still alive and had been a drunken youth to boot while they suffered. I know my apology would just be insulting, so I'll have to make it silently. In some deserted place to the air.

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