Sunday, September 11, 2011

Anniversaries, Part 2

I'd left my apartment on East 4th Street, only to see my neighbor, Maritza (now gone; I miss her and the lovebirds that hung from her fire escape, and the way she'd say about Jamie, "He's gonna be a football playah"). She told me a plane had hit; a small gathering of people stood on the corner of East 4th Street and Bowery looking up at the billowing black smoke. I went back home to tell Jim so he'd come and look with me. It was unbelievable was that some guy, probably an amateur pilot, had crashed into the building. We gawked. Then I walked to the subway and went to work. The day, as is described by everyone recollecting it, was the most beautiful clear crisp day. The sky was so blue.

I got onto the F train and there was a Hasidic man who'd just come over a bridge and was visibly distressed said that he'd been crossing the bridge (which one?) when he saw a second plane hit. Everyone was talking about it. The next part of the day is a blur. I had to attend an editorial meeting at CosmoGirl, and we all felt agitated that we didn't know what was going on. A TV went on at some point.

Towers fell; work ended; subways shut down. The walk home from 57th Street was chaotic. My memory's of the whole day are an impressionistic patchwork. Here are some of the random swipes of memory: strangers on 7th Avenue in the 50's handing out water bottles to pedestrians. Moving south down Bowery I saw the the waves of people moving uptown by foot, covered in ash. People pouring up Bowery, many holding their shoes, covered in ash, scratches, blood. Stunned. Men in business suits holding their briefcases, white from head to toe with ash, everyone walking as a unit and each somehow separate in their shock; the picture of the man is what every other third person walking north looked like.

Jim and I eventually connected. He had seen the first tower fall from a corner of Washington Park South. That night we sat at an outdoor cafe or bar on Second Avenue, having gathered with friends. I don't remember if we'd called one another, or just run into each other because everyone was out. We watched a convoy of pick up trucks headed downtown, filled with nothing but upright shovels, obviously new. The smell was that of an electric fire, and lasted for weeks. Checkpoints were set up very quickly; for a day or two we had to show ID to get as far downtown as we lived.

At some point we ended up at Union Square, and I can't remember if it was that night or the next that the piles of candles started burning in impromptu memorials, and fliers with faces of the missing began showing up posted everywhere. Missing: Any kind of face you could imagine, faces you'd see anywhere in a cross-section of people. Old and young, black, white, hispanic. Most of the faces were snapshots that were hastily used to create the fliers, so most of them were smiling, probably on vacation or at birthday parties, standing next to Christmas trees. Men had their arms around children; Grandmas smiled. The people poured out in the nighttime to Union Square, and strangers hugged. I just remember feeling like I needed to be around other people to help me absorb what had happened.

A particularly ugly memory I have is that the next morning I got a phone call from my Managing Editor telling me that work was on, "It's business as usual." It was so upsetting that Jim called her back and said, "The next time you call someone you might want to ask them how they are or if they lost anyone." It was difficult to understand how clueless and disconnected she was, and how much pressure she must have felt from her bosses to have to call her staff with a chirpy tone like that to tell them to come into work.

In 1998, I was Managing Editor at Balliett and Fitzgerald, a book packaging company located two blocks north of the towers on Warren Street. On the coldest winter days I'd spend my lunch hours at the WTC, knocking around the shopping concourse beneath the towers, or hanging out at the giant Borders. The clean lines and wide open space of it was a respite of sorts from the quirky lines of the East Village; the Mall-feel of the concourse was also atypical of my normal stomping grounds. The mundane nature of the Bath & Body Works; Sharper Image; Gap stores, and other familiar franchisey places were appealing in a way.

I didn't know anyone who died. I know that our Firehouse on Great Jones took a big hit, and the firehouse on 12th Street and every other firehouse within walking distance. For weeks you'd see giant memorials of flowers outside the firehouses, and every year on September 11th you still do. Ultimately, something happens when I try to write about this; a spaced out zoning where I can't remember what I wanted to say, what I was thinking. The zoned out state is how I cope with other things, so it doesn't surprise me that I can't put a linear thought together. The smell and the ash lingered for so long, so when I remember those days, smell is a sense that is invoked. It's my hope that today the heroism and bravery in the face of it all will rise above the horror and sadness.

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