I have a meeting scheduled today, 9/11. I remember seeing that date and immediately thinking that I did not want to have a meeting on that date. I did not want to do anything on that date; not anything that required planning and noting the date. I always want it to be like any other date, just another day to go about my normal schedule. But that it will never be.
As a kid my Dad often walked us over the Brooklyn Bridge to burn energy–we were an active bunch. Our summer staycations included these walks and visits to many of our city’s monuments. As we walked over the bridge, we always noted the Twin Towers. They were the tallest buildings of the Manhattan skyline and a prominent feature of the southern tip of the island. My Dad was the first to take us to the observation deck. Our ears popped because the elevators were climbing so high and so fast. I remember the roof painted in swimming pool blue. My siblings and I hated it because it reminded us that we would rather be swimming somewhere–ocean or pool–than at the top of a tall building looking over the harbor (another reminder of what we would rather be doing). Nevertheless we appreciated these trips; even as youngsters we looked forward to these family outings, times with Dad (Mom often stayed home with toddler and infant foster kids). He reflected on watching the buildings being built and remarked that the heavy equipment used to dig the foundation were buried under the buildings because they were worn out. I don’t know if that was true, Dad was good at telling us stuff to make our imaginations run wild.
The Twin Towers featured in The Wiz. It was Oz’s palace. I immediately recognized the fountain and arched windows at the bottom. The socialites in the City of Oz changed color according to what Oz said was in style…Mean Green, Dead Red and Mellow Yellow. No blue.
(got this image from pinterest)
On 9/11/2001, I got out of the subway and went to the ATM to get lunch money. The screens were acting funny. I had to go to several machines before I got my cash. I walked from 72nd Street up to the American Museum of Natural History, where I worked at the time. Freddy, the security guard said, “a plane hit the Twin Towers.” I responded, “Oh?” while in my mind thinking it was someone’s Cessna that went wildly off course. I pictured this poor little airplane stuck in the tower. I went up to my floor and saw people looking very dazed. My boss, Maritza said, “a plane hit the World Trade Center, I have not heard from Alicia.” Alicia was my co-worker who took the Path to the WTC before boarding an MTA train uptown to work. The magnitude of the situation still did not hit me. I walked down to my office and my officemate Jim was glued to his screen. Face in shock. I turned on my computer and, like I always did, glanced the news. There was this image of the Twin Towers in flames. Large flames. Smoke. This was more than a Cessna. My stomach started to turn and I ran down to my boss’s office just as my co-worker ran in, hysterical. She saw one of the planes hit.
Since the museum was a landmark and all landmarks became immediately vulnerable, we had to evacuate. Five of us who needed to head downtown left together and wandered the streets of the Upper West Side. We had no clue what was happening but knew that, simply put, it was not good. We passed a police station and a cop said to us, “one of the buildings collapsed.”
“A building collapsed.”
“How could that building collapse?”
I recalled my childhood visits and how sturdy those buildings felt to me. I remembered that only less than a year prior some of my colleagues and I went there for some odd party at the Windows on the World restaurant and overlooked the expanse of the city lights and dark harbor of the night. Buildings like that don’t just collapse. We were having a hard time processing that information.
We decided to get something to eat before the long and uncertain walk home and went to Uno’s Pizzeria where the news was on. Before our eyes, the building collapsed. The second building collapsed. Dust, smoke, papers, people covered in ash, dazed, walking, running, crying, gasping. This was not a catastrophe in a dystopian movie. This was our city. This was happening just a few miles south of where we stood and watched it unfold on the TV.
We left the restaurant and entered Central Park to cross over to the East side and head south to Brooklyn. The sky overhead was blue. It was clear. It was early September so the trees were still green. Bright green contrasting against the blue sky. Beautiful. Everything was okay in the park. Everyone was okay in the park, some people seeming oblivious to the unfolding horror (they were probably there for a couple of hours and therefore had no clue as the weather was pleasant). We exited on the East side and were jolted back to the reality of the current events as we saw throngs of people streaming uptown. Schools, offices, buildings etc. were closed. People evacuated, many not knowing where to go as the trains in Manhattan were all shut down. People wanted to get back to their loved ones. Buses were rerouted and no traffic was allowed downtown. We ended up walking over the Queensborough Bridge and got a train in Queens to downtown Brooklyn. As we crossed the bridge, the sky overhead was an afternoon reddish-blue and eerily quiet with just a couple of jet fighters streaking by. Blocking the descending sun was a large, thick and dark plume of smoke blowing towards Brooklyn. This plume and those jets were the only things in the sky. Neither cloud nor, strangely, birds.
As we approached Queens, we thought about donating blood. Pia had a car and asked about donating her time to transport patients if necessary. Sadly, neither the blood nor the transport was needed. Triage beds stood empty outside of hospitals as the hordes of victims never arrived.
At home that night I smelled the burning plastic, the plume of smoke was thick right above my head. I smelled and saw that smoke for weeks after as the rubble smoldered.
About a week after the towers fell, the city began to slowly creeped back to a new normal. The subways were eerily quiet–no conversations, no overheard music–only the strange and rhythmic screech of the brakes on the relatively new R142 subway cars.
I have still yet to visit what became known as Ground Zero. I don’t think I will. The closest I’ve come was on a ride back from New Jersey on the Path and having a view of the site from the train as it passed by. This was maybe a couple of years after. There was a light dusting of snow on the ground it reminded me of the ashes that fell that day.