On 9/11: a trivial memory of the day

It is hard to assimilate the idea that the tenth anniversary of what has already — and maliciously — been translated into myth, is just one year away.

That seems like a long time, but it is not, of course.  A lot has happened, of course, and as I measure time at home, in the rhythm of a family’s seasons and my own, one-day-per-day march towards that moment when I resume non-existence, it sems quite a while.

For example:  September 11, 2001, That day was my son’s one-year+four-month birthday; now, just a couple of days ago, I walked him to the start of his fifth grade year.  The boy holding my hand as we crossed the one big street between us and school is almost impossible to fix within the image of the terrifyingly newly ambulatory little thing that once charged across the living room floor.

But really, even in personal memory, nine years is just not that broad a reach of time, certainly not when, as in my case, one now sees fifty in the rear view mirror, a milestone passed in that interval.

And so, I can remember still, with astonishing visual clarity, exactly where I was and what I was doing on the morning of September 11, 2001.

I was sitting in Joe Jr.’s diner on the corner of 12th St. and 6th Ave., just across from my borrowed apartment.

It was a beautiful morning — but you all know that; we’ve all seen the videotape that plays out its misery against that perfectly indifferent crystal blue sky.  The camera frames all focused on the towers of course, but this time the lens does not lie:  I was there I can tell you there was not a cloud in sight from horizon to  horizon.

I remember what I was eating, always with an odd moment of ethnic shame, just a little sense of the ridiculous: with my coffee I was eating light, just a toasted bialy with raspberry jam.  I ask you: who orders a bialy with a bit of jam?  No lantzman I know — but me that morning.

It was the morning after an New York Football Giants evening game, a crappy loss to the Denver Broncos.  Someone — this is one bit I can’t quite recall — had broken his leg in the game, and three or four of us at the counter — all strangers, all just waking up, in the last step of the routine before heading off to work — were talking about the outcome, and what the injury might mean for the rest of the season.

Just then a guy opened the door to the diner — a street guy, too many layers of clothes on for the tail-end-of-summer kindness of the day.  He poked his head in and said that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center.  He looked like someone for whom the ’60s had been much to interesting, and none of us paid him any attention. No one. We didn’t get up; we didn’t look; we just went on chewing, finishing our meals, and continuing with what would be, for a few minutes, an ordinary day.

If I had any thought in my mind it was of the last famous collision between a New York tower and an airplane, the time a WW II era B 25 bomber blew through the Empire State Building, a shooting an engine through the wreckage on to the street below.

I was just about done, grabbed a last sip, and paid my check.  I walked out onto 6th Ave. and saw first the crowd of people in the middle of the road.  I turned — I remember almost swiveling — and saw the north tower with that great scar in its side and the flames and smoke rising.  I was too far uptown to see any of the immediate horror you’ve read about over and over again.

I watched for a few minutes.  I called my wife in Boston — the cell phone towers on top of the World Trade Buildings were still there, and the call got through…a detail I keep stumbling over as I remember that day.

I turned away. I knew that I was watching people die from a safe distance, and I wanted to stop, I wanted to give myself no sense of spectacle.

I crossed the street and actually ran an errand — how utterly bizarre and banal is that? — picking up a couple of shirts at a dry cleaner across the street.  I recrossed the avenue and went back into my apartment building to drop off the dry cleaning.  My place was only on the second floor, so the whole interruption may have taking six or seven minutes, no more.  When I came out, the south tower was burning; that was precisely the interval in which the second plane hit, and it became impossible to hold onto even the thread of hope that the disaster we were witnessing could have been an accident.

I watched a while more and then walked up to 14th St. to catch the subway to go to work. It seemed absurd to do so of course — what on earth would I, could I, do in an office that day.

But what else was there to do?   I couldn’t quite think of anything, so I caught what may have been the last uptown train, and got off at Grand Central to walk the three blocks to the office.

No work happened of course.  We just watched TV, gathering around 20 inch screens to see what had been right in front of me downtown.  I couldn’t sit still, so I paced round and round the perimeter of our floor…which meant I missed the live shot of the first tower collapse, which meant I missed nothing at all, as you all know, for the thousands of times that image would be replayed over the next days.

We gave up around two.We all headed for home, with more or less effort; the subways and buses had long since stopped running, and the bridges and tunnels were closed.  Some folks from HQ on Long Island (I was working for Cablevision that fall on a doomed project) had helicoptered into Manhattan early that morning, and they ended walking across the 57th St. Bridge to reach the Town Cars sent to collect them — and I remember with some of my co-workers feeling an odd satisfaction that in the midst of disaster the suits had had to hoof it for a while.

All I wanted to do was get back up to Boston to my wife and very small boy, so I headed across to Penn Station to see if any train was running north, but there was nothing.  So I pointed myself back to my sublet on 12th, walking oddly down the middle of a dead empty 7th Ave., staring out the dust cloud that had been the WTC for twenty blocks.

Living downtown, I was able to pass the security cordon at 14th St., and made it to my building.  Another tenant was there, shaking, talking without stopping.

He had worked in one of the smaller WTC buildings, and he couldn’t stop telling of the sight of those who chose to fall rather than burn, and the sound their bodies made as they came to earth.  More:  he had only a short while before heard from his brother, who usually worked in one of the towers, but who had missed his usual PATH train that morning — pissing him off — and thus lived.  It had taken much of the day to get word through the communications madness to his sibling, convinced until that moment that he had lost his nearest kin.

Some of us, friends, an accretion of circles of work and college and neighborhood acquaintances gathered then, around eight, I guess, at a bar-grill on 6th Ave.  By then, the restaurant had run out of everything, just about — they could give us hamburgers, but not buns; no fries…whatever.  No one cared, obviously.   They still had beer.

We kept talking, all of us, over and at each other, where we had been at the moment, where we went, who we knew, what other friends we were sure were safe.  I learned later about some connections to those who died that day — distant ones, luckily enough for me, friends or colleagues of friends of mine, but no one intimately connected to me.  Not so for some of the others at the table that night, but no one knew anything then.  We stayed on and on into the night, well past any usual work day prudence, but not drinking much — which seemed typical that night at that bar; no one wanted to get blasted and no one wished to be alone.

Finally we gave up, went home severally, and separately to our beds.  When we rose, the cloud was still there, and I remember walking along a cross street — I can’t remember which, maybe 14th, maybe 23rd, and seeing a parade of out of town fire and rescue trucks, a convoy of twenty or more, driving slowly, as if in a cortege.

All of which to say that this is a day for memory, and now you have mine.  I was there on September 11th, right there in downtown Manhattan.  I was not endangered — never for a moment; and I did not suffer as so many others did.  But I was there, and I saw, and I remember, and I mourn again for neighbors (firefighters) and acquaintances, and that guy who could not go up into his apartment to be alone with the feeling of relief for his brother, the grief he had not yet banished for that same brother, and the sounds and sights he had witnessed that morning.

You can guess what I think of those who have made a fetish of this day, of those who charge C notes and more for the privilege of wallowing in terror porn and the easy thrill of wars other people fight a great distance away.  But I’m not going to write what is in my head about those grotesque excuses for human beings. This is a day for memory, and those who buy and sell such remembrances for cash or power…I abominate them, most days, but on this day, they are merely people I choose to forget.

To all  for whom that day marks loss and sorrow, I wish you solace.

Images: Edward Hopper, “Nighthawks at the Diner,” 1942.

The Empire State Building after a plane strike.

I do not choose to put up any images of the day itself.  We have seen them, all of us.

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7 Comments on “On 9/11: a trivial memory of the day”

  1. Isis the Scientist Says:

    I was supposed to fly that afternoon. Clearly, I didn’t. Maybe it’s all worth writing about…

    I was on the first flight out of lax on the 13th.

  2. PalMD Says:

    Wonderful, but I also noticed something interesting (to me). Lots of “of course” and “obviously”. This is such a shared experience for so many of us, and the way things are politically now, it’s easy to forget how close we all felt then.

    We were, of course, but not forever.

  3. AJ Hill Says:

    I had just gotten home from Dulles Airport, when the first plane hit the North Tower, but I didn’t learn about it until my wife directed my attention to the television coverage. Even though I had boarded my flight in California, it felt strange to realize that I had been in the air, while the grim prologue to all that horrow took place in cockpits around the northeast air corridor.
    Stranger still was the moment, when my son remarked on the huge amount of dust that had suddenly filled the air around the towers. I looked at the image and blurted out my first thought: “I’ve only seen that kind of dust cloud in one circumstance … .” I was right.
    Strangest of all, however, was the evening, many months later, when I came across the NIST analysis of the tower collapse. It had been posted on line. I stayed up most of the night, poring over the 100 page report – read it three times carefully and eventually had to admit that it was bogus: a model that didn’t work unless the physical parameters were adjusted far beyond anything that had been observed. Basically it showed that the buildings should not have fallen.
    In spite of that realization, I put 9-11 out of my mind again for a long time. Then one day I ran across David Griffin’s book and realized with a chill that the NIST report had been the tip of an iceburg. That iceburg, composed of fear and denial, persists to this day, and because of it, I don’t discuss 9-11 anymore.
    The fact that otherwise intelligent people will accept ridiculous propositions and demonize honest doubt rather than confront unpleasant possibilities is for me the real darkness behind 9-11.

  4. aimai Says:

    Beautiful piece, Tom. I was standing, with the baby in the stroller, at my older daughter’s pre-school, in the hallway. Chatting with the other mothers before heading back home. It was hot, and blue–a classic September morning. Both my father and brother were in NYC and I actually thought my father might be at the WTC. One of the women told me about the first plane hitting, but she assured me that it had happened once before and that it was probably no big deal. We didn’t know then that it was such a big plane. But by the time I left the pre-school we did know and I started walking back home as fast as I could to try to call my father and brother. When I got home of course there was no reaching them–they were out of danger as it turns out–but my neighbor and her two children came over and huddled with me. Her husband was on a plane somewhere and she was worried about him and couldn’t reach him. Actually–and they subsequently divorced–when the planes hit he didn’t get on his own flight to Canada but instead turned around and went to work and didn’t bother to contact her or answer her calls from his nearby office.


  5. aimai Says:

    What I meant to say, although interrupted by the now 11 year old “baby” is that although I point and laugh quite a bit at the Becks and Palins who were apparently traumatized by the event though thousands of miles away its important to remember that we didn’t know how many planes would be involved, or from what airports, or with what targets. For us in Boston, or those in NY or DC, there was a clear sense that we were involved, or could be involved. But its not the case that the panic artists and hate mongers from around the country didn’t also feel something pretty strong for their anesthetized way of life. I remember lying in bed with my husband that night wondering if we were going to see the start of world war III. We only saw the start of the longest botched war of agression since the 100 years war, of course.


  6. Ian Preston Says:

    As others have said, a fine piece. I think that experience of absurdity in carrying on with work must have affected people all over the world. I was at a small interdisciplinary conference on the Poor Laws in Cambridge (England), five hours ahead of and five thousand km away from you. As people were already shuffling out for the mid-afternoon coffee break, the conference organiser came to the lectern and announced incongruously that something so awful was happening in the world outside that he felt compelled to inform us, that terrorists had flown planes into the towers in New York and thousands were believed dead. I was discussing the paper immediately after the break and did so to a half-emptied room, unsure whether it was seemly to be carrying on, trying to extract the levity from my prepared comments as I was going along, distracted by separation from home (there wasn’t just a feeling of immediate fellowship with New York, there was a vague fear around that London might be attacked and a less specific fear that global politics was changing irrevocably for the worse around you). The main feeling was a sense of disquieted disconnectedness between the banality of events continuing locally and the enormity of events going on elsewhere.

  7. PalMD Says:

    On that day, I was just finishing grand rounds at a downtown detroit hospital (technically midtown, but…). The talk was very, very interesting. Southeast michigan is one of the largest arab populations outside the mideast. A large percentage of my colleagues were arab (mostly syrian, but some palestinian, jordanian, and lebenese).

    Much of the water cooler talk (esp among non-arabs) centered around whether being a large arab center made “us” more or less of a target.

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