Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11 - 1984, 2001, and 2009

A break from the food today.

It's the 8th anniversary of 9/11. It is also my first one back in NY since I left in 2003.

My 9/11 story starts twenty five years ago in 1984. We moved to Governors Island that year. Our historic apartment building faced lower Manhattan. Our playground was in a courtyard that faced the gleaming Twin Towers, which my family affectionately called The Trades. We could also see up the East River and to the west out of our bedroom windows, the Statue of Liberty. I know we visited the Trades while we lived here, but about all I remember from those visits is that the carpet in the high-speed, ear-popping elevators was a reddish-orange color. Being short and a kid, I noticed things at ground level. For the two and a half years we lived there, the towers were always there, looking over our shoulders.

Fast forward to 2000. I moved back to the city at the tail end of August and found a apartment in Brooklyn to share with a roommate. Our building was owned by a local guy, John, who was born and raised in the neighborhood and who still lived there with his wife and daughters, who were around our age. He was retired but had worked stints both in the NYPD and NYFD. We had a small, railroad place (meaning that all the rooms are connected, there is no hallway) that faced north. If we stood up in the windowsills in my roommate's room we could glimpse lower Manhattan. My commute to work was about 35-45 minutes on the F line. Often during my morning commute, the train would be crowded and I would be standing. When I stood, I oriented myself so I could see the Statue of Liberty and the towers as the train pulled around the curve after the Smith and 9th Street station. The view didn't last very long as the train next went underground but it was usually enough of a sight that I would often think that I couldn't believe I was living in NYC.

In 2001, Mom and Dad came to visit me and go to the US Open. We went all over the city. On August 30, we were in the lobby of 2 World Trade Center - the South Tower - to get discount tickets to Cabaret from the Tkts Tkts outlet there. I used an ATM to get cash.

On 9/11/01, I was running early or for once. Not being a morning person, I was frequently a slow mover getting to work. I was standing on the train that morning and it was a gorgeous morning. I took in the view of Manhattan and once again thought I can't believe I'm here and how beautiful the day was. That would be the last time I saw the towers whole.

I had a habit of checking the digital clock on the station attendant's booth when I would get off at my stop in Manhattan. That morning, it said it was 8:46. I hustled up the stairs that exited on the northeast corner of 6th Ave and 16th Street. I saw that I had a walk signal to cross 6th. I started across. I remember there was no traffic coming down 6th. I was about half way across the street when I realized that no one was crossing the street towards me. In fact, everyone on the west side of 6th was standing stock still. No one was moving. They were looking south and up. I glanced that direction straight down 6th Ave. I saw a huge gaping maw in the side up near the top of the north tower. I finished crossing the street. I said out loud to anyone who could hear me on the sidewalk, "what happened?" Someone answered that a small plane had hit the building. I thought, that's not a small plane that did that. There was very little smoke or flame at that point.

Instead of standing there gaping, I turned my back on the scene and practically ran the two blocks north to the office. At 8:46 in the morning, most people haven't arrived to work yet, so I knew it would still be pretty quiet in the office. I met our art director in the elevator. She had also seen the hole but didn't know what had happened. We immediately went into the 6th floor conference room which had a television and a south-facing view of the towers. The smoke was starting to thicken.

The news anchors didn't know what happened either. We kept looking out the south facing window and back to the television. We were still the only people in the conference room. Then, very quickly, we saw a flash of silver as an airplane nose and wing turned and then disappeared on the other side of the south tower. Then there was an explosion that we could see as it blew past the edges of the tower. I was on her left and she on my right and we grabbed each other and said things at the same time like "did that just happen?" and "was that another one?" We didn't know what was happening. Just after that, more people in our company arrived. We crammed up to those conference room windows.

At some point after the second plane hit, I decided to call my parents. They were out in Los Angeles and probably not aware of what was going on yet. Even though it was early out there, I figured they would be up as Dad was probably getting ready for work and Mom has always been a morning person. I called and said, "I'm okay, but you have to get up and turn on the tv to see what is happening in New York." I called them from a spare phone in the adult publicity department as it was closer to the conference room and the other television in the publicity director's office than my office was. I also seemed to have claimed the only phone line out of the office as all others were not going through. While I was on the phone with them, the Pentagon was hit. The towers fell. The other plane in Pennsylvania went down. One of the publicists was crying because she couldn't get through to her husband who worked in the financial district. My parents got calls on their cell phones from other family members checking up on me. I had to hang up to see what we were supposed to do.

Communication in New York that day came to a standstill. Land line phones and cell phones weren't connecting. The Internet was spotty. Not everyone had texting like they do now. Our company's CEO went around to everyone to make sure they didn't have anyone down there or had a place to stay that night if public transportation didn't start running. I think about how close I was to being caught underground in the subway system that day.

A group of co-workers who lived in my neighborhood in Brooklyn were making plans to walk home across via the Brooklyn Bridge before it got dark. It's strange the things that go through one's head during a emotional, scary, and confusing event such as this, but I remember looking down at my feet and being relieved I hadn't put on heels that morning. Right before we were going to leave, news got around that the subways were running again. I decided to take the train home.

The train was full but not packed. I was standing again. The car was silent. No one was talking. No one was reading. Everyone was just sitting or standing there thinking or numb. Near me, some men starting squabbling over a seat. A Jewish Orthodox man intervened and said, "not today guys." They quickly quieted down,and nodded apologies to each other. I don't think the squabble really had anything to do with the seat. The rest of the ride home was quiet.

I got home before my roommate. I hadn't been able to reach her so I didn't know if she was even going to come home or stay with someone in the city. She eventually made it home that night. We never lost power or cable so we were able to continually flip between the news stations - NY1, FoxNews, MSNBC, CNN (gasp!), and all the networks and local channels. The images were incredible. Unbelievable. Beyond comprehension.

We didn't go to work the next day.

After getting back to work, our office collected donations for supplies to deliver to the firehouse on the next block. We also made them sandwiches and took books for their kids. I gave blood. Later I heard that the blood banks received more donations than they could use and some spoiled. We found out that no one in our office lost anyone that day but almost everyone knew someone who had lost someone. A friend of a friend.

Erin and I didn't see John for a long time after 9/11. We had heard from his wife that he was spending all his time working down at the site. He had lost friends. When I moved to NY, I didn't have a place to live, so my parents didn't send out my things until after I was there. By mistake, one of their boxes ended up in my Brooklyn apartment. This box contained miscellaneous items from their garage - flower pots, an old camping tent, an Army blanket, and an American flag. The flag was still in it's box with the pole. I decided to put it downstairs with a note to John and told him he could use and keep the flag. I never saw him or his wife put up the flag, but the next time I left the apartment, it was on the front of the building in the flag holder. Later, when I did eventually see John, he thanked me for it. I asked him if there was anything we could do and he said the flag was enough. We lived in that apartment another year and that flag never came down except for inclement weather. John had lit it with a spotlight so it was even there at night.

For a while after 9/11, everyone wanted to talk about it. The "where were you" story was shared in bars, on subway cars, with cab drivers, and in print. My friend (an boss at the time) Lori and I were in a bar sometime after 9/11. It wasn't a bar we usually went to so we didn't know anyone there. A woman started talking to us. She and her husband were artists. He had taken pictures of lower Manhattan before 9/11 from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. The three of us talked about the events that day. Before we left, she gave each of us magnets. The magnets were of her husband's black and white photograph. In it, a hand is reaching out towards Manhattan. The Twin Towers are there but they are faint, ghostly almost, as they blend in with the sky behind them. It's an eerie image and it's still on my refrigerator.

In October 2001, I went to two concerts at Madison Square Garden - U2 and Neil Diamond. The concerts and music couldn't have been more different but the emotion was the same at each. I flew for the first time in November. I was going to a conference for work. That was the first time traveling with the new security measures. They were checking every carry on by hand at the gate.

I moved from NY in July 2003. After five years in San Diego, I came back October 2008. The city doesn't change. Everything is just how I remember it from when we lived here in the '80s, when I lived here in the early 2000's, except those towers are gone. It took a while for New York to get back to normal. Even today, people still think of terror when something unexpected happens. When the president's 747 buzzed NY harbor, that unnerved and angered the city. People here are still sensitive to the events eight years ago. People think New Yorkers are hard people, and I would agree that they do have hard outer shells. But there are still reminders everywhere of 2001. The subways and buses still have American flag decals on them. Images of the towers are still in restaurants and bodegas. The impromptu memorials that lined the subway station walls at Union Square and fence around St. Paul's Chapel are gone but remain in our memories.

Just like they did in 2001, Mom and Dad were here last week visiting me and attending the US Open. During their trip, we visited Liberty and Ellis Islands. We also visited Ground Zero. In eight years, I had not been to Ground Zero. We started at St. Paul's Chapel. Despite the tour bus crowds, the chapel was quiet. The display they have is moving, difficult, and personal. After we left there, we walked the entire perimeter of the 16-acre Ground Zero. We walked across the amputated pedestrian bridge to the other financial buildings. We looked out onto the site from the Winter Garden. I felt very little looking at the site. It just looks like a construction site now. The Pit is gone, the ramp is gone, and we couldn't get high enough to see the reflecting pool. There were about a dozen cranes working. Mom said that it was a big empty sky now. I told her Bruce Springsteen wrote song called "Empty Sky" about 9/11.

My brother was also here recently. We visited Governors Island for the first time since we moved from there in 1986. We stood in our apartment courtyard and looked across the water to Manhattan. He said he will never get used to seeing the towers gone. That it looks weird. Dad said something similar as we walked along the Promenade going for pizza at Grimaldi's.

I have kept newspaper clippings people have sent me, issues of New York Magazine, the NYT Magazine, The New Yorker, and even an issue of Time. I have a subway and city map that are pre-9/11. I kept a transcript of an on-air statement by Tony Snow. I even have my bank statement that shows when and where I used that ATM. It's all in a large envelope that is in with my important papers.

I'm glad I was here in 2001. To see the city work together, be tolerant of each other, grieve together, and live history together was an unforgettable experience. Recently, I saw that same spirit back in action although on a much smaller scale, when a passenger in my car of the A train started having seizures. The riders reacted to this with urgency, concern, and humanity. There was the real desire to help this person. I also saw strangers - two Jewish grandmothers and one young African-American man - on another train start talking about their kids and grandkids. While no one in this situation needed help, it was interesting and refreshing to see three people talk about people they cared about. When we were riding the 7 trains to and from the Open this year, we talked to people from Queens, New Jersey, Atlanta, and Canada. When Mom and Dad left for the airport, they noticed a young couple at their station clearly going out to the the airport as well. The later saw them at the airport and it turns out they were on the same flight. The world is small and everyone seems to be connected somehow.

When you visit New York, remember that it has taken longer for New York to heal from 9/11 than it has taken the rest of the country. Even though New Yorkers look tough, cool, indifferent, rude, annoyed, in a rush, snobby, or whatever, they still remember the feeling of that day and the days, weeks, months, and years that have followed.


  1. Thanks for sharing. It really meant a lot to me to read this. I could write so much more but I'll leave it at that.

  2. I got chills reading your story. Thanks for sharing it. It is a good reminder to all of us. I am a friend of Kathy's in San Antonio.