Welcome to the Tenth Anniversary

I feel weird and almost ghoulish writing this. It sounds like the invitation to a party and it’s anything but. It’s a commemoration of one of the worst things that ever happened in this country. It’s certainly one of the worst things that ever happened in my eyesight.

I hope my kids will forgive me but they play a part in this narrative, especially if gets fed to OpenSalon and Facebook. I don’t know how to turn off the feeds.

Anyway, in September 2001 I was working in lower Manhattan, about 1/2 mile north of the Trade Center. I was a grossly overpaid technical writer employed on a contract for a project that ostensibly could have gone on for years. As for the buildings themselves, they were just there: slabs of steel, glass, and marble with subway stations and a shopping mall under the structures. They weren’t an architectural marvel or an eyesore: they were just a big multi-building complex that nobody thought much about after the first few years. The high-speed elevators were awesome, and the view was to die for. But that was about it.

I got up as usual, at 5:00 on the morning of September 11, and took a 5:46 AM train from Long Branch, NJ to Hoboken. Same as always. Then I switched to the PATH train and rode it to the first stop, Christopher Street. The train would proceed north to West 33rd Street. I walked down Greenwich Street toward my job on Washington Street. I arrived a minute late at about 8:47 AM. Nobody can account for train schedules in New York or New Jersey, but nobody was taking attendance.

It was, as I recall it, one of the most beautiful mornings I could remember: there was a touch of a new autumn in the air. I went to my desk, booted my PC, and someone said “Someone just flew a plane into the North Tower of the Trade Center.” My immediate assumption–and I’m sure it was shared by others–was that some jerk was drunk or had too much coke in his system and had caused a terrible accident. A tragedy for someone but on a limited scale.

I should have known when I could not get to the CNN or Yahoo websites that this going to be a bit larger than a localized disaster.

Twenty minutes later the same man said, “Oh shit. Someone flew a 767 into the South Tower. It’s on fire.” You don’t fly a Cessna into one building and a large passenger jet into the other. That’s when the enormity began to come home. Something horrible was happening and I didn’t know what it was. Did I, Mr. Jones.

Then I went outside.

What I did not see? I did not see anyone jumping out of windows. I did not see any collisions. I did not see the buildings cave in.

What did I see? I saw fire. A Biblical pillar of it. I saw smoke pouring upward as though an atomic bomb had gone off on Vesey Street. It was terrifying and I could not stop looking at it. It was a bit like watching a car accident or someone burning at the stake.

I talked to one of my colleagues. We tried to laugh. “I guess we’ll be doing disaster recovery procedures forever.”  We headed back upstairs.

I called the older of my two sons. He was at Emerson College in Boston, working on an MA in broadcasting. “What do you think?” I asked him.

“About what?”

“Do you have the TV on?” I asked.

When he said no I told him to go switch it on.  A few seconds later he was back and was almost incoherent with anger.

“Welcome to World War III,” I said. Well, I spoke too soon but it did not feel that way at the time. [It still doesn’t.] I assured him I was okay–I had absolutely no idea whether that was true–and found an email from his brother, who was an undergraduate at Goucher in Towson, MD. “Dad, I just put on the TV.  Are you OK? What the fuck is going on?”

I got an outside dial tone on the first try–a miracle in itself–and there he was.

“I’m okay,” I said, having no idea whether that was true. “Just tell your mother not to try to collect on the insurance yet. I doubt I’m gonna get off the Island today. The Army or someone has sealed off all the train tunnels and harbor exits. I have no place to sleep except a church or public shelter. I’ll be okay.”

My insides were churning with rage. Truthfully I wanted to kill every Muslim who ever lived. I assume that by now Al Qaeda had taken credit for what it had done to us.

I told my young son “Good luck.”

He replied “Daddy, I love you.”

I told him I loved (and love) him.

I hung up and broke down. We are not an emotionally demonstrative family but that did it for me. Ben had given me a gift: He erased hatred from me and replaced it with love for him and his brother. He got me through the rest of the day. Whether or not I got home was of less moment than the fact I had reestablished an emotional connection to my kids, who both had been wounded by their parents’ divorce.

I went outside again. The cell phone services to Jersey were hosed. No signal, no nothing. The buildings were still afire. At about 12:45 [what took you so long?] the fire department told everyone to vacate the premises and walk north. Not south, not west into the river, not east. Just due north.

I still had no clue about how I would get home or if I would at all. Everything faded into insignificance. I just had to walk my way north up Hudson Street to Penn Station to see what would happen. The task was small and easy.

When I made it to 31st Street I found the Capuchin Franciscan church. A monk took one look at me and said “You’ve seen something.” Duh, Father.

And I told the priest what I’d seen. I told him I did not know why I could or would believe in a God who would do what I saw that morning. He said it was not God, it was sick men who need our prayers as we need the prayers of one another. I went into the rest of the Mass but did not receive the Sacrament.

And then I crossed the street to Penn Station just as the gates were open. That indeed felt like a miracle. All phone calls were free that day, so I phoned the woman I was living with and said, “I’m in the train station, I’m on the way home.” It took a bit longer than we expected. As in almost an hour more. But at Long Branch–my stop–a man stood up and embraced the woman who met him at the train. “I’m alive!” he exclaimed. He was acknowledging a gift. I had to do the same. I was alive.

I would have several days to go through fear-filled nights, through nightmares and memories of what I called mobiles of Hell sweeping out of the skies. But I remember most of all taking our dog for a walk. It was dark and he needed to go out. Then I realized how quiet it was. There was no air traffic. We lived at the confluence of LaGuardia, Newark, and Kennedy airports but there was no sound…except for the jet trail from one lone fighter-bomber in a steep climb away from McGuire Air Force Base, headed somewhat East.

ZERO PLUS, 9/11/01

What I did not do:

Drink.  Eat.
Not even cry.

What I did:

Stagger like a drunk
stagger still
toward the words I can gnaw
fit in my mouth

become the homeless culture-mutt who is
Armenian     Jewish     Polish     Irish
Greek    Palestinian     Anabaptist     Ba’hai
Vietnamese     Chinese     Japanese     Afghan
yes     even that
gnawed alive by war

Welcome home.

2

What I did:

walked north on Washington Street,
Lot’s wife looking backward
at the column of smoke.

Hudson Street, passed the White Horse
where Dylan Thomas fell off a barstool
8th Avenue street for which
God can make no excuse except
a planning accident    the rubber broke

It is today Poe’s Haunted Palace
laughing people in and out of Ray’s Pizza
jammed bars and restaurants
but not subways
but no smiles
but quiet     but frantic

What I did:

talked to a friar
who saw through my skin
transparent

What I did not do:

tell the truth to him
about the ways of God
justified to man

fuck them
I saw people die

3

What I did not do:

Curse Him
lose trust
get drunk
give up
talk on a cell phone
use a payphone
fuck a stranger
die
want to die
pity myself
pity even the dead

What I did:

pray for sleep
pray for home
pray to accept

What I did:

find a train
curse it for being too slow
hear a man say “I’m alive!”
know that I am

Wonder why

What I did not do:

Stop wondering.

What I did:

Start weeping.

What I did not do:

Stop.

KTW/10-30-01

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