I wrote this post on September 18, 2001. I haven’t changed a word.
I titled it “Ago.”
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That morning, I was awakened by the silence.
I don’t recall what woke me up early, at 8:45 a.m., but it must have been something. Probably something I heard in my sleep, like the grumble of a garbage truck two blocks away. But the morning was so very still, the streets so unusually quiet outside my window, that I had to nestle deeper in my bed. I never get up before 9:00.
So I went back to sleep, shallowly. In the hallway outside my apartment, someone dropped something metal and it clattered to the ground. A few minutes later (ten? fifteen?) I had drifted mostly to sleep again, when once again I was awakened by the silence. This time, finally. I lay in the pleasant silence of a Tuesday morning in early September, as the city shook off the overnight rains.
Usually, only my alarm can roust me. That morning, for some reason, I made the sudden decision to be awake. I got out of bed, still bleary, and turned on the TV. I expected to see Regis or Kelly, the silly make-up people who usually start my day with a fired blank.
Everybody knows what I saw. Why say it?
The flames were just billowing out of the second building. The news voice was trying to remain calm as he said “…second plane just hit.”
I think I know now how people feel when vast stores of knowledge are suddenly released to them, when understanding suddenly deepens and taps into new reservoirs. It isn’t rapture, like the Christians say, or enlightenment, like the philosophers. It’s anguish — by law, the knowledge that anything is possible must have its potent flip side.
So I had feared this sort of thing for years. People told me I was being foolish. When I went on my world tour, which is covered in the first 30 dispatches on this site, I actually put my possessions in storage in New Jersey because I fully expected a terrorist attack to cripple Manhattan while I was away. I hate to say it once again, but cynics should get more credit.
I called my mother right away, knowing the phone lines would soon be jammed. She was already sobbing because she had been watching. I also called my grandfather, in Atlanta, because I knew the worry could trouble his weak heart. I told them to tell everyone I was fine.
I threw clothes on and grabbed a coat I didn’t need and flew down the stairs. A few people were walking down the street, slowly, as if they didn’t know yet. They probably didn’t. I suddenly got cotton mouth, and I jogged down 29th Street and turned down Eighth Avenue, and one block down, the World Trade Centers crept out from behind the building where Amnesty International has its offices. They were aflame, like we all know.
No one wants to hear about my emotions. We all had our own. But people do want to know what it was like in New York City when this happened. That is what I will tell you now.
People on the street were, at first, mildly interested. It was pretty impressive to see those things burning like that. More than one person remarked that it was just like a movie. Pretty sad that we find those kinds of movies entertaining, and pretty sad that we have no more facile ways to express ourselves anymore. But it did look like a movie, burning off in the distance, poking up over the New York Sports Club and the Duane Reade and the donut shop like a matte painting from a ’70s potboiler. The smoke gushed off to the left and we could look directly into the black gash made by what we later learned was The First Plane.
Now and then, little bits of debris would drip out of the gash, like sooty goblets of wax from a candle, and plummet to earth. We later learned what those were, too.
You have to understand that none of us thought they would fall. It didn’t enter our minds. We knew it was a big deal, of course, and that it was a day to remember, but we thought it would go something like, “Remember that day the Twin Towers got hit and burned out at the top? I saw it. It was awful!” Some of us had cameras, including me.
People came out of the subway at 25th Street and saw it for the first time. As crowds grew, someone would rush over and tell them what was just going on, the very latest from the TV. They were commercial airlines, it was no accident.
“It was no accident.”
This is where New York’s story differs from all others. The instant we understood that this was an attack, each of us was (without saying so) filled with instant dread. What if the smoke pouring out of the WTC was toxic, or tainted with germs—and here we were, standing on the street, breathing it. What if there were coordinated bombs riding on the subway, ready to explode beneath our feet? Behind us, the Empire State Building rose into the sky, tempting more jets. Some people suggested going to the grocery store to stockpile. There were a hundred possibilities for panic.
Cars parked at the curb were blasting their radios, and soon word spread that the Pentagon had been hit, and more planes were missing.
The rest of the country was shocked by what was unfolding on their TV screens. We in Manhattan, though, realized that without a doubt, we were in the crosshairs. anything could come next, right on top of our heads. People in Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, Los Angeles, Seattle — their fears were based on conjecture. Ours were based on the towers burning in front of us. I cannot adequately convey the sensation of futility, and of suppressed panic, that gripped all of us.
I wasn’t chancing anything. I went indoors. I turned on the TV and started sending e-mails to everyone I knew.
The rest of the day was a blur. The first tower fell as the TV anchor wailed. The roar came in on my television and through my window. I remember grabbing my head, gasping a silent sob, and saying “From now on, there’s only going to be one!”
When the second tower fell, with the double roar again, the TV anchor said, “If there are any children watching…sorry, but I don’t know what to tell you.” Several stations went black when the antenna slipped into the smoke. The vibrations shook my house. It felt like the end of the world, like existence itself was slipping beneath the waves.
Most people don’t know how it feels to have an important landmark suddenly deleted from the landscape of their lives. It’s like taking the sea away from Miami Beach, or the Eiffel Tower from Paris. All of a sudden, it feels like you’re in a different place altogether, with new buildings, new streets. Things you never noticed before become the dominant feature. Everything dies and is uncomfortably reborn on its own terms.
You come out of the subway and glance downtown. You think, “What’s missing?” before you tell yourself you know very well what’s missing. You can’t help it.
I don’t remember what I did that whole day. Fifteen hours that I cannot account for. The man I used to call Adolf Giuliani appeared on TV, dusted with powder and blood, and told us that entire fields of people were dead, and he saw it. Somehow, I felt reassured by that. Probably because it’s the first time I can remember that Americans politicians used candor. (Within days, President Bush would be back to public relations, and the honesty would end.)
My friend Lee, who evacuated his office near the U.N. walked all the way over to my house through people-clogged streets. We staggered downtown, to the Village, and watched vans trailing concrete dust and saw red-eyed, dust-caked businessmen walk past us. No one had any particular emotion. It was as if we were going to the grocery story in slow-motion. I realize now that we were all in shock.
We heard that the island was sealed off, that all flights were grounded. We couldn’t get out if we wanted to. We might as well sit and wait for whatever. If the World Trade Center was truly gone, you couldn’t tell through the mighty white cloud issuing from the bottom of Manhattan. All traffic ceased, and the people overtook the streets. I’ve seen that happen only once before, in 1996, when a massive snowstorm turned all New Yorkers into good neighbors.
We each had a slice of pizza. We sat near the stoop where they shot “Sex and the City” that one time. Fighter jets stormed over our buildings.
The following days were just as hazy. I don’t know how I lived through them. I don’t know what I did except wait for more death.
In the nights after the carnage, something else happened. It’s something you didn’t hear about on your TV. How could they explain to you what I’m about to tell you?
The night of the attacks, the air my apartment felt tense. It felt charged with activity. For many hours, I was unable to separate the sensation of activity from that of my own fear. At first, I thought I was simply feeling anxious, which explained the constant feeling that I was being watched from behind.
If I had to describe it in one word, I would say that I felt an intense sensation of insistence. It was almost as if I felt strongly that there was something important that I had left undone, that there was something I had to get up and do, right away.
As the night went on, though, I couldn’t imagine what that responsibility could be. I had been released from work, and my kitchen was full of uneaten food. It took me a while to realize what was truly happening in my house.
In one 90-minute stretch, some 5,000 souls were violently unleashed from their bodies, and it happened a little over a mile from my bedroom. The feeling of insistence, I believe, was them. The recently deceased, you often hear, find themselves confused about their new state. The World Trade Center people were telling me that they couldn’t understand what had happened to them. It had happened so quickly, without preparation. They were confused, and they felt lost. It was almost as if they were trying to get my attention for some confirmation.
I folded myself tightly on my couch at 3 in the morning, shivering with chills, and told them quickly that yes, it was true, that they had died. But they should go leave me alone, or they should go to their families and comfort them, or they should go back to Ground Zero and help other people die. Or they should simply move on.
I feel silly saying this. But I know what I felt. Something was in my apartment. And no one can laugh at me unless they, too, have been very near a place where thousands of lives have just been suddenly snuffed out. Scoff if you like, but you have never been so close to such devastation. I felt them, and it happened.
Night by night, they began to drift away. By the fourth night, they were completely gone. On Friday, my apartment felt hollow, and I could finally focus on the fear.
Everyone became skittish. If someone happened to run to catch a crosswalk light, everyone around them shifted nervously. People were wary of everyone around them. Someone showed up in our office with an egg salad sandwich and I thought, for a moment, that we were being attacked with poison gas. It sounds funny. It wasn’t.
Everyone in the world can sympathize, but no one can understand. No one else saw it all unfold in front of their own eyes, or heard the sounds, or felt the fear. We all became exceedingly polite to one another, mostly because we realized, together, that life is hard enough.
And no one could be prepared for the smell. When the winds shifted to the north, the stink of burning metal and scorched concrete seized the lungs, and sent you back inside.
I have heard the sound of sirens more than my own name. Every single one could be the telltale beginning of another unexpected end.
When I hear about some housewife in Alabama who gnashes her teeth and mourns the death of her peace of mind, I have to admit I get pissed. What are you so mad about? You live in safety. We lived through all of this. We didn’t merely witness it.
A marginally talented TV actress named Shannon Elizabeth now carries a gas mask and biohazard suit in her car. She lives in Los Angeles. She represents how disappointed I am in Americans. We could have used this as a chance to plug into reality and to understand our role in the world. Instead, many of us have merely grown more ignorant, more reactionary, and more self-indulgent.
The media and the government — those people who tell us how to think — have already conditioned people well. Now, if you suggest that America has perhaps been too arrogant in its dealings with other countries, and that perhaps we did things to anger less powerful countries, then you are labelled an anti-patriot. The merest suggestion that America could have avoided this, or that America is itself guilty of atrocities abroad in Iraq or Afghanistan, is tantamount to agreeing with the terrorists.
When I am told that my political opinion is better left unvoiced, I am ashamed to be an American. Free speech is dying. I will not tailor my opinions to “support” a president who was not popularly elected — or any other leader. It is my right as an American to not support the millionaire boobs who run this country.
America did have warnings that this could happen, both political and specific. But we’re too greedy, to set in our ways, too crushed by the weight of our own bureaucracy to have any impulse other than intractable arrogance. How could an anointed land like America ever be wrong? Now, our blind patriotism, drummed up to galvanize a war, merely reinforces that heedlessly deadly habit.
The world is so big, but I have made it small. It seems like I always look up to see the middle of it. I want to find some big pocket of the world and vanish into it. A month before this happened, I was in the Australian outback. I would like to return, and never leave.
Within a day, Ground Zero was forbidden to visit. From then, New Yorkers’ only connection with the event was through television, same as everyone else. Might as well be going on in Taiwan.
We went to a Union Square peace night, which was really a mass gathering for healing. I bought extra candles at the 99-cent store and passed them out. We all sort of stood there and groped with the reality of what just happened to us, and warded off the fear of it happening again tomorrow. Then a show-off started playing patriotic tunes on her trumpet. The news crews, who had previously wandered listlessly among the mourners, honed in on her like ticks on livestock. They dashed over and shot video of her rabble-rousing and ignored the thousands of people who were there just for peace, with no political agenda. They turned our mourning into a political act.
We got disgusted and left.
Why should mourning ever be a political act? That implies that any government could be more righteous than our own humanity.
Then came the wallpaper of the missing. Bus stands, buildings, hospitals, random stretches of brick wall. Everywhere. Thousands of color-copier fliers with the faces of the dead. Some of the Poster People had wealthier families than others, you could tell. Mark Rasweiler, who worked in the rich-man’s office of Cantor Fitzgerald, a few feet beneath the poor men of the Windows on the World scullery rooms, was the most prominent Poster Person. He was everywhere; his family spared no expense.
Except on the posters, each dead loved one was called “Missing.” So began the euphemisms. Soon, we’d all be thrust into a world of propaganda, of hyper-p.c. watchcries, and of modern-day Victory Garden manure.
I bought a butane lighter and carried it with me in my day bag. Whenever I passed a shrine with candles (at 21st and Eighth, at the bus stand across from St. Vincent’s, at Washington Square Park, etc.) I would light all the extinguished candles. I wasn’t the only person who did that. All week, I carried that lighter with me and used it as regularly as my cell phone or my MetroCard.
I fear the phrase “United We Stand.” Beyond the message of defiance, the wording of that bumper-sticker phrase implies that challenging opinions are not welcome. Tow the line, don’t dissent, “support our president.” We have entered a time when free speech is not welcomed, when rational discussion is shunted on grounds of patriotism. Ironic, since my patriotism is stoked in no small part by the constitutional guarantee of free speech.
Housewives in Alabama and passionate patriots in Georgia can put up all the “Fuck Osama” posters they want. Their cities were not attacked. They never worried for a moment that, realistically, death could turn toward them next. So it’s easy for them to want war. In New York City’s Union Square, an ongoing peace protest has been mounted. The press doesn’t cover it; they only show little children waving American flags, as if to say, “Well, if they’re smart enough to love America, everyone should support our president.” But if you live in a war zone, and if you see two 110-story towers dripping burning humans — right before your groggy eyes on a Tuesday morning — then the idea of war means something else to you. It is real, it is dangerous, and it could come back to your yard. And to many of us who were here, no civilian death will ever be excusable.
I was there the night before, by the way. I rode right by them in a taxi at 7 p.m. on September 10.
In the pouring rain, I attended a function sponsored by the Hong Kong tourism board, held on a ferry. We rode out from South Street Seaport, down around the bottom tip of Manhattan, past the Statue of Liberty. We looked back at downtown New York City and admired it through the gales of rain.
And I said, “Have you ever seen an old picture of Manhattan, or an old movie? It’s very strange to see those fancy skyscrapers aren’t there. It’s odd to think years ago, when whole generations of people thought of New York, they didn’t think of those.”
After that, I didn’t really notice them. I turned away from them and started a different conversation.
Something about the past week makes me think about one single, elusive word: ago.
What exactly does it mean? What, now, is the context?
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