September 11, 2003

9-11 + 2

I never bothered to yak about my experience of 9-11, such as it was, mainly because, as Jennifer wrote, it's not about me it's about them.
But I took a look around the blogosphere and see that people are finally relating their experiences, no matter how far removed. So, what the heck.

Really though, I think, in a way these anniversary observances ARE about us. Not in a "where I was and what I was doing at the time" way, but in a "what was I thinking and feeling and learning and how did it change me" way. We, as Americans, Britons, Australians, Philipinos, Germans, Italians, Japanese, etc etc etc... have to work toward a future taht doesn't have the kind of horror that we lived on 9-11. I say que sera sera, the future IS ours to see; we just need to have the will and patience and determination to make it happen.

I live in Bridgeport, Connecticut -- 51 miles from the World Trade Center as the crow flies -- and visit the City (to anyone in the tri-state area New York is called just "The City") several times a year. Well, I used to, anyway.

The last time I was in New York was September 2nd, 2001. It was the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and I met my friend Dave for beer and blather at McSorley's on East 6th Street. McSorley's is the oldest extant ale house (heck, Abe Lincoln got hammered here!) in New York, and we meet about once a year there just to catch up on things, do a couple of Sunday New York Times crossword puzzles, bitch about stuff, yammer about politics and philosophy and kids and nephews and life and mutual friends and, of course, get plastered.

After a long afternoon of banter and debauchery we walked to Dave's subway stop. He caught the train home and I began the long walk from Greenwich Village to Grand Central Station.

On the way back to midtown I stopped in Washington Square park and played two games of chess with a guy who asked for only $2 for a game (and "instruction if needed"). I used to play chess constantly, and was pretty good, but it'd been years since then. He creamed me twice!!

I then left the chess tables, walked around the edge of the center of the park (which was very crowded..lots of stuff going on [bands, acrobats, other stuff I couldn't get close enough to see] and found a small group of musicians playing folky songs on acoustic guitars and bongo drums, and stopped to listen.
They started playing the Bob Dylan song "To Ramona."

I mouthed along at first, then sang along. After three verses I noticed that two or three of the musicians had realized that this stranger (moi) actually knew the lyric. Kinda winking and nodding smiling and singing, one guy flicked his head to tell me to belt out the last verse along with them. So, spleen in throat, I did my best Dylan impression and sang:

"I'd forever talk to you, but soon my words
would turn into a meaningless ring
for deep in my heart I know that there
is no help I can bring
everything passes, everything changes
just do what you think you should do
and someday baby, who knows, maybe
I'll come and be crying to you"

What a fun bunch o' guys and gals and I'd've stayed longer but I had to catch my train and it was starting to get dark.

I was walking up 5th Avenue and I heard the roar of a jetplane. I looked up and watched it as it flew -- nearly overhead -- northerly and toward the Empire State Building. The plane seemed to be flying awfully low, I thought, just above the level of the antenna on the E.S.B., and I wondered for a second what it would look like if the plane crashed into it.
But it didn't, of course, and I thought: "What an amazing view those passengers must be enjoying."
I walked back to Grand Central and took the train home. That was the last time I'd been to New York.

My clock/radio went off at 7:30 and I hit the snooze.

Finally I dragged myself out of bed and heard Imus talking about a plane that had apparently crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Was it a passenger plane? An airliner? No one was sure. Did the pilot fall asleep? Have a heart attack? Who knew?! I then remembered the old photos of that plane that hit the Empire State Building back in 1946(?) with it's tail end sticking out. What a shame. I hit the shower.

Re-entered the bedroom and heard Imus say "Well (long pause), this is the worst attack on America since Pearl Harbor."
I went to the living room and turned on the TV. Both towers of the World Trade Center were on fucking fire (pardon my Freedom).

I continued to get dressed to go to work while I watched. I don't remember feeling anything then, but I do remember that it didn't seem real. No matter how many times they re-ran the footage of the second plane hitting the south tower I kept thinking: -- I mean really internally hard-grounded servo-neurally thinking -- "I'm watching this happen yet I still don't believe it."

But, I was staring at the TV for too long; I had to get to work. I got in the truck and turned on the radio. The south tower had just collapsed.
No way, that's rediculous!
There were so many people there...people trying to get out...others rushing to the scene...thousands of people running in and out and around the towers. It collapsed on them? Does. Not. Compute.

It takes me about a half an hour to get to work, and as I approached my destination I heard that the north tower had collapsed.
You can't explain a feeling you've never had before. It was just disbelief mixed with I don't know what. It wasn't anger (yet). It wasn't sadness (yet). It wasn't anything yet. It wasn't fear at all, It was just disbelief mixed with some kind of something... a need to do something about it, but having nothing to do and no way to do it. And then the certainty that this is a monsterous evil that must be destroyed. No grey area there. Deluded self-ordained holy men murdering bystanders for some kind of sick idea about what is righteous? We just found out that the world is too small to accomodate that shit.

Around 11:00 I called my friend Dave who works at Battery Plaza (a few blocks from the WTC) and left a message. Of course, he'd evacuated already.
He called me back a day or so later and left a message that went something like:
"I'm fine, thanks for the call. I have no energy left to recount the ordeal of walking up the FDR Drive covered in ash, but I'll tell you about it another time."

I've never asked him for a recounting of that ordeal. I don't know how to do it without sounding maudlin.

At McSorley's, our favorite hangout, there is a wire (I think it's fishing wire) stretched above the bar. On that wire hangs wishbones covered in dust. Thick-ass dust. I mean, a wishbone is the size of a pair of tweezers; but these are the size of your middle and index fingers when you flash a "victory" sign because they're caked in the undisturbed dust of the past 85 years.

They were placed there during World War I by local draftees. Each man placed a wishbone on the wire when he left; and took it down when he came back.
The ones that still hang there are the wishbones that were placed by those guys that didn't come back.

New York may forgive (when it's appropriate), but she'll never ever forget.

Semper Fidelis.
Sic Semper Tyranus.

Posted by Tuning Spork at September 11, 2003 11:10 PM

Wow. Thanks, Bob.

Posted by: Susie at September 12, 2003 12:29 AM

I'm glad you decided to post about it after all.

Posted by: Jennifer at September 12, 2003 12:56 AM

Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Ted at September 12, 2003 08:13 AM

Thank you for sharing your experience with us. The way I learned about the terrorist attacks was more prosaic. After waking up that morning in my Colorado Springs apartment, I turned on the TV, as is my habit, and was stunned at what I saw. At first I found it hard to believe that seeing the World Trade Center in flames was for real, until another plane came by and crashed into the second tower. But the anger which gave rise to my "Bloodthirsty Warmonger" persona came later.

Posted by: Bloodthirsty Warmonger at September 13, 2003 03:45 AM

Hey, Spork. I'm surprised I never told you about my day. (Yeah, I know I'm outing myself.) Since we don't see each other very often, and since I hate talking on the phone and generally lack the patience to write long emails, I guess I never got around to it. Was that McSorley's trip the last time we hung out? (I know we haven't been to McSorley's since then. We're long overdue, my friend.)

I'm always hesitant to relate my experience that day. I'm alive, I didn't lose anyone close to me, thank God, and, although I didn't know it at the time, I was never really in danger. So, in a way, I feel like my experience isn't important enough to dwell on. So many people had such worse days. But since I never told you, I'll tell you now (in this intimate public forum you've sponsored). Sorry I'm days late.

As you know, my office is about 8 or 10 blocks south of the World Trade Center site, at the very southern tip of Manhattan, right next to Battery Park. I was on my way into the city from Long Island that morning, on the second leg of the trip (Jamaica, Queens, to Brooklyn) when everyone on the train suddenly sat up and looked out the windows at the smoke pouring from one of the towers. I think most people probably thought maybe there was a fire or, at worst, a reprise of 1993. Rather than turn around and go home when I got to Brooklyn, I took the 4/5 subway up to Bowling Green, which is right near my office. (It's amazing to me now, now that we comprehend our enemies' objectives and the nature of this war, how unconcerned I was at the thought of another 1993-style attack. It was off to work for me . . . la-di-da.)

When I walked up the subway stairs and stepped out into the public plaza at Bowling Green, I looked up and to my left and got a closer look at the damage -- smoke pouring forth, debris raining down. But I continued the block-and-a-half walk down to my office building. When I got to my building, the security and maintenance guys had a radio playing in the lobby and that's when I first learned what had happened -- by then, the second tower and the Pentagon had been hit (I'm not sure about the fourth plane) and there was hysterical speculation about additional targets. Everyone was nervously milling around outside the building, debating whether to go home or go upstairs (it still hadn't sunk in somehow, even though, by now, no one thought this was an accident), how to get home (no one wanted to go back down into the subway; they might have even been taken out of service by then). People were naturally horrified by what had happened, by the thought of people in the towers, but it wasn't mayhem. Yet. Everyone was trying to remain levelheaded and come up a plan.

I stepped back into the building lobby to see if I could get to a pay phone. (I figured my wife must have heard what had happened and would be in a panic, and I wasn't carrying a cell phone in those days). The phones were all being used and the lines were ten deep, so I started to walk back outside. Just then, the building started to rumble (even so many blocks away, it felt like it was right there) and people started screaming that one of the towers was collapsing. I ran outside and, within seconds, ash and dust were raining down on us, the sky was filled with black smoke and now it was total mayhem. People were panicking. It was difficult to breath. Our mouths and lungs were filled with smoke and ash. We were sure we heard airplanes overhead but we couldn't see anything through the clouds of smoke. If there were planes (now I’m not sure), they must have been fighter jets, but we didn't know it at the time. Now we felt like we were under attack, and we were just waiting for our building, which is right off the water and therefore totally exposed, to be hit. At least that's what I was thinking.

No one had any clue where to go, but it seemed like a good idea to get as far away as possible. A throng of people started walking toward the old ferry terminal and up the FDR Drive. The weaker leaned on the stronger for support. As we walked, the air eventually started to improve a bit and people started to calm down. Then, a new rumble -- we witnessed the second tower collapse and new hysteria ensued. One of my colleagues with whom I was walking was 6 months pregnant. Someone had the presence of mind to flag a police officer, who hailed a charter bus that just happened to be inching its way up the FDR at that moment. The officer put her on the bus and she wanted me to go with her because she lived on Long Island, too. At first, I didn't want to get on because I thought that I'd be taking up space that should be put to more appropriate use (like other pregnant women or disabled people), but she insisted, so I joined her. (At that moment, I felt like the captain of a ship, pushing aside women and children to get into the life boat.)

The bus took us up the FDR and then switched to First Avenue at some point when the driver started to feel uncomfortable about being up high and exposed along the East River. After numerous tries on her cell phone, my colleague was finally able to get through to her husband (a doctor at one of the Long Island hospitals), who was able to call my wife to let her know we were safe and trying to get out of the city. We got stuck in traffic in front of the U.N. building (which, at the time, seemed like a possible next target) but finally got to 59th Street, where I asked the driver to let us off. We then walked across the 59th Street Bridge with thousands of others, which was rather frightening -- as we looked to our right, down the river, we could see lower Manhattan burning and we all just held our breath, waiting for another plane to appear out of nowhere and take out the bridge as we were walking -- excruciatingly slowly -- what felt like a few hundred feet above the river.

When we got to the other side, we were in Long Island City, Queens, and we settled at an outdoor plaza at the big green glass Citicorp building. All around, people were helping one another, telling horrific stories of having witnessed victims jumping out of windows (we hadn't been close enough to see them). After my companion's husband was unable to rescue us (he tried for an hour and a half to get to us, but the Long Island parkways to the city were closed), my father-in-law, who had a business in Ozone Park, Queens, was able to find us. We finally got back to Long Island at about 5:00. Coincidentally, my traveling companion's parents lived 5 minutes from my in-laws' house, so I drove her home after we got in. In retrospect, I was very glad that I'd gotten on the bus with her because she might have been stranded alone in Queens for the evening. I was also happy to have had her company -- I was very impressed with her strength and stamina and generally positive outlook throughout the ordeal (despite the obvious discomfort of being pregnant, including having to pee frequently). Whenever I hear stories about her son, who will soon be 2, I think of that day.

I was extremely grateful to be back home with my beautiful wife and beautiful daughters, who were then 4 and 1. I remember feeling relieved that they were so young that I wouldn't have to explain any of it to them. That it would never directly impact their lives and cause them nightmares. They'd learn about it someday in history class the way we learned about Pearl Harbor -- a piece of ancient history, with no direct impact on their lives. And I remember that relief later melting away as I realized that this was just the beginning of a long war, that someday, without a doubt, I would find myself having to face and answer two lovely and innocent children's questions about a world where people want to kill them because they are free to go to school, express their opinions, address boys as equals, wear pretty barrettes in their pony tails, and play with Barbie dolls. My girls are now 6 and 3. I still haven't had to answer those questions, but I know I've only gotten a temporary deferral.

Posted by: Freedom's Slave at September 15, 2003 04:11 PM

Thanks, Dave.

I talked to my nephew a day or two afterward and asked if he knew what had happened. He said he had, and understood it.
I hope so, for as someone said: "The future is all we've got left."

(Okay, no one said that; I made it up. I'm gonna go write that on the men's room wall....)

Posted by: Tuning Spork at September 17, 2003 12:56 AM
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