Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dies Irae

My friend Jim lived uptown, and I lived in Brooklyn. We'd meet up midway between us, often at the World Trade Center. Jim had an entirely questionable fetish for Marvin the Martian and underneath the WTC plaza, near the massive banks of escalators going down to the Path trains was a shop that sold cartoon trinkets like Marvin the Martian figurines. So stopping there was always a plus for him, before walking to Chinatown for lunch or hopping on a Path train to visit a mall in Jersey. I remember seeing a poster for the Windows on the World restaurant, thinking that it would be an awesome place to get a meal. Somehow we never made it there, until, well, it stopped being there; returned to an ethereal spot of empty sky.

On Tuesday, September 11, I walked a couple short blocks from my apartment in Brooklyn to the school where I was going to cast votes in an election primary. God what a beautiful day. Blue sky, warm but not hot. It wasn't a presidential year--that had been a disaster the previous fall--and I don't even remember who I was voting for. I got to the school when I noticed a small handful of people standing on the corner. I asked them what was going on. Prospect Heights wasn't called that for nothing; one of the highest spots in Brooklyn. They pointed and plain as day you could see the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Funny thing, there was smoke coming out of one of them. "It's on fire," someone said. If there was anything in their voice it was doubt and confusion. Such a thing was hard to fathom. How would the fire trucks spray water up so high? "Oh wow my wife works there. I hope she's ok," said a man nervously. Others muttered reassuringly. I went into the school. Turnout was light, of course. When I got out of the school the people were still on the corner. I looked up at the smoke. Strange, I thought.

As I crossed the street out of view of the Manhattan sky I heard loud gasps behind me. Two women had moved their hands to their faces. I walked on, a little more confused, but I didn't want to be late for work. I walked around the corner to the diner to pick up coffee and a roll. I could see smoke drifting in the sky, but couldn't see the towers. When I got to the diner I said to the lady who made me coffee every morning, "Hey look. The World Trade Center is on fire." "Really?" You couldn't really see it from inside. She kinda scrunched down so she could see the sky. "Oh my God, what happened?" She quickly turned on the radio.

I had two more blocks til I reached the subway. At Flatbush Avenue there was a crowd looking across to Manhattan. Hey wait, now there was smoke coming from both towers. That made no sense at all. "What happened?" I asked. "Two small planes crashed into the towers," someone told me. "Somebody must have gone crazy at Newark and got their directions wrong and sent planes into the buildings!" somebody speculated. There was a lot of smoke. You could see a thin line of fire, even at that distance. I didn't want to be late for work so I went down into the subway.

As the train rolled over the Manhattan bridge the motorman or conductor made an announcement. "The World Trade Center is on fire." There were loud cries in the car and people rushed to the windows on the left side of the train. It was a crazy sight. "What happened?" No one could figure it out. The train crossed the bridge and plunged back into the darkness underground.

At Times Square I got out. I came up that secret back stairway by the recruiting center. There was nobody on the street. It was weird. The huge jumbotrons had these strange pictures I didn't understand. It looked like smoke pouring off cascading dust and rubble like liquid. I couldn't make sense of what I was seeing. I looked downtown. I saw some smoke, high in the sky. But you could never see the towers from Times Square. I walked the two blocks to work.

I took the elevator up and somebody ran by me, crying. The floor was strangely empty, its energy electric and off-center. I found my boss and some coworkers huddled around a television in a conference room. "The first tower fell!" someone said. "People were jumping!" said another. "Did they say what happened? Somebody in Brooklyn said a flight controller had freaked out." I wanted to know. "Terrorists," somebody said. Somebody ran into the conference room. "There are more planes. Another one hit the Pentagon. They say some are heading this way. They don't know how many more there are. We have to get out of here."

We all paused; picturing the canyons of Times Square beckoning like a giant target to all comers. Even indoors I found myself wanting to look up to scour the sky for approaching danger. I wanted to duck. I went to find one of my coworkers; she was gone already or hadn't come in. My boss rushed by me saying "Oh my God the second tower fell. We have to get out of here. Come to our place." My boss lived near Union Square. It seemed like a very good suggestion. The streets were no longer empty; we met up with his partner on a corner and walked down to the apartment they shared. Although I know for days and days later I had trouble getting television and radio reception, they had cable, and we watched the unfolding story on the television unable to speak much. The towers were gone; it seemed like building after building was being consumed by a huge fire.

I realized I had to go home. The subways had been turned off. We imagined the two subway lines that passed under the towers turned to caverns of rubble. There was no choice but walking. All of Manhattan was emptying out. By the time I reached the Manhattan Bridge I was part of a long column of tired, silent people trudging home. The further south we all walked the more the air was acrid with burning. Some people had congealed smoke on their upper lips. Huge columns of smoke pulsed into the sky below us, but none of us stopped to stare at them. The people were silent but the air was filled with the screams of sirens and the whirl of flashing lights. So many sirens. At the foot of the bridge volunteers had amassed with paper cups from the Red Cross full of fresh, cool, water. When a woman handed me a cup I started to cry. I still have that cup. (The photo above is not my cup. My cup is in a paper bag with newspapers from the days that followed that I can't bear to consider looking at but can't bear to consider throwing away either. This cup photo is from somebody's flickr.) After downing that impossibly delicious liquid, I hung onto that cup across the bridge; and I didn't look back.

Somewhere in downtown Brooklyn the crowd thinned. The streets were oddly calm, no sirens, no rushing about. Somebody said that the subway under Flatbush Avenue was running again, and I went underground and rode the last way home. Once home I checked in with friends and family. Jim was okay, but two of his coworkers had been at a conference at Windows on the World and they were missing. David was okay, but he had watched the whole day from his roof in the East Village. He described roofs full of clots of people all screaming as the towers twisted and fell. I reassured my mom I was okay. Strangely (we had not actually talked in over a decade), I even got email from my father.

In the morning the air smelled of fire. You could see smoke from my tiny bathroom window. A pillar of smoke where you could previously see silver towers. Crazily I went into work. Which was a mess. My department head's brother who worked in the towers was missing. Coworkers were xeroxing flyers with his face on it and dividing up into squads to scour the hospitals. An IT's guys fiancee who worked across the street from the towers had somehow died at her desk. Nobody was working. There was a lot of crying. In the early afternoon all of us who had made the futile attempt to carry on with normality called it a day. We all realized the utter impossibility of faking it, and stayed home til the next Monday.

I remember that week through a daze of tears. What had happened? It made no sense. The papers were filled with unbelievable photos and accounts of what had happened; details burned into my memory that writers had to get off their chests that now we know are better left unspelled out. You'd look at the photos with the tiny falling people, or the ones with figures peering out from the wreckage high in the sky, trying to make out the expression on a tiny doomed face. And then of course you'd cry. I'd be trying to watch TV, the antenna positioned weirdly to get the one channel that worked. I'd start crying. Alone with my thoughts, I'd start crying. I walked over to Park Slope. At the firehouse there the sidewalk was filled with candles and flowers. The air there was so thick with spirits and grief it vibrated; it was like walking through waves. I cried, and turned back. At a local Presbyterian church there was a service, I went in just in time for its ending. I stood by the door, my lips and eyes quivering with coming tears, as a procession of black women dressed as though it were Sunday walked by me, shaking my hands with the softest palms and fingers I have ever felt, sharing a state of grace that brings me back to those tears even in memory. Few words needed to be shared. We all knew what it was about.

Out and about everywhere you went were walls of photos. Faces of the missing, the lost. People were not yet ready to believe all these faces had just vanished into smoke. I went to Union Square in Manhattan. It was filled with candles and flowers and signs and love. And unlike the belligerent voices threatening from the airwaves it was filled with calls for peace. I have never seen it so beautiful. It was such a healing place. I passed by there and paused often til one night they carted it all away. You couldn't go downtown. There was still a pillar of fire. And a terrible chemical-tainted stench. And now metal fences and bars.

I wondered where I would meet up with Jim. Ironically at some point I saw a post-911 photo of the basement of the World Trade Center. It was after the fires had been extinguished but before the ruins were demolished and the pit was cleared out. There was a photo of that underground lobby and the banks of escalators. They were still there. Dead still and empty; dust-covered. But not crushed. Not damaged; somehow the collapsing towers had missed them. They looked pretty much like Jim could have been standing there next to his favorite store window waiting for me to show up.

Months later, before he moved out of town, when meeting up with Jim in the Village, I'd find him stopping and staring into the sky with a puzzled look on his face. "I'm trying to remember," he'd say, "if I could see them from here. Now that they're gone, I can't seem to figure out where they were." And although he had seen the pillars of smoke on his trip home from work and in the days that followed, he had seen the burning towers only on TV. To him, one minute they were there in the background, and then in another, they weren't. Me, I remember details about the streets around the World Trade Center that I realize I'm not sure where they were; even today I can't really register the changed landscape downtown with the one in my memory.

In the days and weeks and months that followed gradually the posters were all taken down. After months of ritually retelling our survival stories, we eventually tired of them. The intimacy felt by strangers on the street eventually faded back into the anonymity favored by us city dwellers. While now "911" tumbles easily off the lips, for at least a year the people I knew just referred to it as The Day, or The Events. To name it seemed casually obscene. To turn what we had been through into a jingoism-tinged catchphrase was unthinkable.

There are those who curl their lips when recalling that day, snarling out vengeance. "Never forget. Never forgive." It's still stencilled on firetrucks and police cars and pickup trucks. Me I don't like those words. Oh I know the terrorists who committed this horrible crime could just have easily been aiming at me. I'm well aware of God's grace and there but for where I might be going. But I'm tired of the rage of 911; tired of that day of wrath, and as tired of the hatred it has spawned as of the hatred that spawned it. I'm tired of seeing American flags pasted and painted on any possible flat space as some kind of chest-thumping passive-aggressive dare. I'm tired of the crimes committed in the name of that Day.

The people who died that day weren't special. They were just regular people going on with their lives. Some were working, some were travelling. Some were just passing by. Some were selflessly doing some very dangerous jobs. But there aren't none of us better than any of the rest. And no amount of killing other regular people thousands of miles away is gonna bring them back or make meaning out of a senseless loss. That "two wrongs don't make a right" cliche? It's actually pretty wise.

It's not my religion, but the hymn "Day of Wrath" resonates:

Worthless are my prayers and sighing,
yet, good Lord, in grace complying,
rescue me from fires undying!
While the wicked are confounded,
doomed to flames of woe unbounded
call me with thy saints surrounded.
Low I kneel, with heart submission,
see, like ashes, my contrition;
help me in my last condition.
Ah ! that day of tears and mourning !
From the dust of earth returning
man for judgment must prepare him;
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him !

It's time for a season of mercy.


  1. I enjoyed reading your story, ish, so I thought I would share mine. I was only 13 years old on 9/11/01, an eighth grader. For me, it was like what schoolchildren probably felt when JFK was shot. My hometown, which I've since moved away from to attend graduate school, is famous for nothing at all but its local town fair we have every year. My middle school is about two minutes on foot from those fairgrounds, so on Tuesday every year during the fair, we have a half day, because that day is 'student day': all local school students get in for a discount. My school district had stupidly chosen not to tell anyone anything about what had gone on that morning, so I spent 9-10am doing 'ankle-flips' with a soccer ball in gym class while the biggest symbols of our global commerce crumbled. Upon leaving around noon, my mother was waiting for me in her car, and she told me that some planes had hit the World Trade Center, and I'll always remember her saying "That means we're going to war. This could be World War III." My mom is an exaggerator, but she could have been right. Shit, I was 13; I didn't know. Anyway, without really seeing or hearing much else, we went to the fair that day. Later, while I watched the news, I remember thinking that whoever was responsible for these horrible acts had to be filled to the brim with hate. It probably was the biggest focusing point in life towards my positivity, oddly enough. I saw what hate did. It ruined lives. It killed in huge numbers, and it fueled further and even more irrational hate.

    Somehow, even though everyone else in the world saw those events (at least recorded) as well, many seem to have forgotten that hate caused it. So they just went right on hating. Hate fueled more hate. Muslims, Jews, most foreigners, they all got the brunt of it. Tangentially, thanks to the right-wing surge, gays, minorities, and intellectuals have seen more hate directed at them in recent years too.

    We all saw what hate does. Why do we keep hating?

  2. Thanks for your story freebones. And thank you very much for your optimism!

  3. Ian thanks for this. I remember being frightened and grief stricken and wanting to talk about my fear and my grief but so many people wanted me to join in some agenda, whether left wing or right wing. I suppose it was just another TV show for them, albeit a better than usual show.

  4. Jon most of the people I know turned out to be profoundly decent in the aftermath of 911. I was happy to discover that.

  5. I think most people are decent when confronted with reality but we were 3,000 miles away and what we saw was both frightening and distant. The media, for reasons of their own, almost immediately began trying to impose meaning. Lots of people responded to the media message, not to their own distant and mediated feelings. I think the strongest and best feeling we all shared was that we were all in this together and everybody had to do their part to make the world work. In the little world of my job, that meant that nobody called in sick for a few weeks. We were all waiting to be told what our part was.

  6. I came to your article after watching six back-to-back hours of 911 documentaries on National Geographic, somehow I felt the need to revisit it all this year, maybe because of the contemporary pot-stirring of that crazy preacher. As always, you bring you humanity to it Ish ..

    I was of course on the other side if the planet at the time, but a friend alerted me to the first plane hit on MSN, so I switched on CNN and watched the rest live. Even in Australia it was profoundly shocking, the "real Hollywood" imagery and structure of those attacks and events meant that everyone pondered the representations. Many of my sound students in 2001 produced dark, fearful works that either directly ir indirectly reflected emotions and ideas that were stirred up by it ..

  7. Thanks Simon.

    Yeah I surprised myself with the urge to retell this story. It's hard to avoid the anniversary living in NYC, of course. Something about the crazy in the air this year.