What I Remember
I never thought I'd need so many people.There will be well-choreographed memorials and opportunistic speeches today. But I'd like to remember the tragedy with a messy, emotional recollection. Five years after the events that "changed everything" it still hurts so much more than I would have ever imagined to recall that serious things that happened day. It seems silly really...but allowing myself to watch a trailer for a film about it or see photos of the carnage brings it all rushing back so vividly, I cringe. So I'll recall the minor, incidental things as my five year memorial.
---David Bowie, Five Years
I was in a cab heading uptown at the precise moment the first plane struck the WTC. When I arrived at the office building I was working in, folks were already huddled around computers, whispering about the "accident" at the towers. It seemed awful, but credible that some fool pilot had gotten too close to the buildings and crashed. When the second plane reports came in, though, credibility vaporized and my mind went scrambling for some point of reference.
The day wore on, with a string of seemingly endless and more horrific updates, until our office building was closed and folks were told to make their way home at about 1:30 pm. When I stepped out onto Third Avenue, the streets were packed with people and cars, but it was surreally quiet. About half a block from where I started, I saw the first car covered in ash. How useless were its windscreen wipers at moving the ash away as it inched uptown through the gridlock.
I walked downtown, watching the smoke blacken the southeastern sky, and watching the dazed expressions of the people walking uptown become more and more vacant the further I travelled. About 18th and Fifth, I found an open deli, and decided I should stock up on food and water, unsure what the next few days would be like or when they'd be able to bring new supplies into the island. I half expected the owners to be giving food away for free in solidarity (there were restaruants and other businesses doing their part to make the millions travelling many miles home a bit more comfortable).
At 14th Street I hit the first checkpoint. I had navigated over to 7th Avenue and the police were polite in informing folks that only those with valid ID proving you lived downtown were allowed passed. There were two more checkpoints before I reached home (I live two blocks north of where they weren't allowing anyone to enter).
My neighborhood was deserted, eerie, and smokey. A local restaruant was handing out its linen napkins to locals as face masks. Ambulances were still making their way up 6th Avenue toward St. Vincent's, but no where near enough of them. Overhead, the helicopters pulsated, and the smell (dear God, that smell) was inescapable.
I met some friends later in the East Village. We very consciously chose a Middle Eastern restaurant for dinner, fearing a backlash against American Muslims, and wanting to show our support. Later still we watched the President address the nation on TV at a friend's house in the neighborhood. The nation had been attacked. What had started as a glorious September morning had morphed into a hellish nightmare so completey unimaginable just a day before that we felt we must have been sleeping all our lives.
I got home about 10:30 pm. With my partner at that time (yes, 9/11 was pre-Bambino), I walked the two blocks down to Canal Street. It was as far as any unauthorized person was allowed to go. Not that anyone else was trying. We stood the lone pedestrians in the street, covering our mouths against the clouds of white dust churned up by the massive trucks moving through, all lit up so unearthily with huge flood lights.
Most people in my nieghborhood must not have returned. I didn't have cable and there was no reception (the WTC had been how we got local broadcasts), so we listened to nothing until we were simply too exhausted and fell asleep. It was so freaking quiet that first night, I'll never forget it. No cars, no people, no anything. I dreamt that a blanket of ghostly white ash had covered the world.
The next day I had business to attend to (framed work to collect for an opening that Friday), or so I thought. Anything to have something to do. The framers were closed, of course, but people were milling about. I saw my first "lost person" on the street of the closed framers. He walked with a homemade sandwich board covered in photos of a woman and a scrawled question: "have you seen her?" He walked like a zombie. There were to be many, many more lost people in the coming days and countless pictures posted around the city. I saw dozens of people walking the streets over the next few weeks break down right before me.
Over the coming days I would hear that two people close to me who worked in the towers had been spared. One was late to work that morning, and the other (trapped in an elevator and rescued) was placed into an ambulance that drove away just before the first tower collapsed. I was remarkably lucky in that regard. Many people I knew had lost at least one friend or relative or neighbor or acquaintance.
I'll also never forget the day, three weeks later, I realized things were returning to normal. All of New York had been stunned into being much nicer versions of themselves. It wasn't natural and it freaked me out a bit. Then finally, one night while walking along Avenue A, this princess hipster strutted her way past us, rudely cutting us off like she was the only person in the city who mattered, and I thought..."Ahh...signs of normalcy."
It's a lovely day in New York again, this September 11th. My thoughts and prayers return to the friends and families of those who were lost five years ago. It seems like so long ago now, but I know the pain is still sharp and real.