The 9/ll Commission Report begins ordinarily enough: Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern United States. Millions of men and women readied themselves for work.
That morning, I was late getting to work in midtown Manhattan because I had gone to vote in a Democratic primary. By the time I arrived the first tower had been struck. The TV banks in the lobby of my office building were turned to the news. Fire engines wailed as they sped downtown, seemingly coming from all directions, which, as it turned out, they were.
I went upstairs and called my grandparents in Roanoke, Virginia. When my grandpa picked up the phone, I said, ‘Turn on the TV. I’m just calling to tell you I’m okay.” There was a long pause and he came back to the phone, “Well, I’m glad you called. We would have worried.”
People crowded in my boss’s office to watch his TV. Others frantically worked the phones, trying to figure out where their families and friends were. I could hear yelling and crying coming from some of those offices. One colleague vomited from sheer panic. Another hyperventilated and had to lie on a hallway floor with a paper bag. I called my father, who works near the White House. He answered his cell while walking across Memorial Bridge, which spans the Potomac from DC to my hometown of Arlington, Virginia. As we talked, he was watching smoke rising from the Pentagon in Arlington.
In Manhattan, as the towers fell, my homing instinct kicked in; I desperately wanted to get back across the river to Queens. It’s easy to forget that New York City is built on an archipelago…until the trains, bridges and tunnels shut down and you are locked onto your individual island. I called a cousin who lived on the Upper West Side to ask if I could stay there as a last resort if I couldn’t get out of Manhattan. His fiancee, who had just emigrated from Australia, answered the phone. I tried to make a joke about “Welcome to New York,” but, needless to say, it fell flat (Their wedding was in October. All her friends in Sydney cancelled their plane tickets, refusing to fly to New York.) But later in the afternoon the bridges opened to outbound traffic, and I joined thousands of people walking out of Manhattan.
I lived about five miles’ walk from my midtown office. Several friends and I walked home together across the Queensboro Bridge. There were no cars in the roadbed, just crowds of slightly dazed-looking New Yorkers crammed shoulder-to-shoulder. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “The city seen from the Queensboro bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.” On September 11, 2001, the city seen from the Queensboro bridge was partly shrouded by a giant acrid cloud of fuzzy grey and white. Even as far north as 59th street, it made my eyes water. A fighter jet screamed over our heads—the only plane in the sky. People sobbed and coughed as they walked.
Back in my neighborhood, things seemed eerily normal. It was late afternoon by then and no one had eaten since breakfast, so my friends and I went to our favorite Greek taverna, ordered lamb and french fries and multiple carafes of red wine. A television was on over the bar. We deliberately sat where we couldn’t see it. After the destruction of the communications tower on top of the World Trade Center, only one broadcast channel was functioning: CBS. (I didn’t have cable, so in the weeks after the attack I checked BBC costume dramas out of the library and watched those when I couldn’t stand CBS any longer. They were extremely therapeutic.)
I went back to work on Thursday. Midtown looked exactly the same but traffic barricades began at 14th Street, effectively cutting off all of downtown. Only emergency vehicles went in and out. Missing posters with family snapshots and pleas for help, hastily run off at Kinko’s, papered lampposts, bus shelters, and subway stations. The Bruce Springsteen song “You’re Missing” is a reference to those posters. I couldn’t look at them without crying. Ten years later I still can’t think of them without tearing up.
I joined a Red Cross volunteer corps that worked out of a temporary center hastily installed in a hotel on Washington Street, near the World Trade Center site (I’ve always found the term “ground zero” overly dramatic as well as inaccurate, given that people now call everything in the neighborhood “ground zero”, including the spot several blocks away from the WTC where a group of moderate Muslims wanted to move their community center.) It was late September when I started working night shifts. I’d go to work, go home, eat, nap briefly, then be at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn at 11, where we were met by buses that took us through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel—then still under heavy guard and used only by emergency vehicles and authorized personnel—and dropped us off at the hotel. We were given bright red vests to wear plus papery disposable surgical masks to protect us from the dust and smoke and ash that hung in the air. I don’t think the masks helped much, and when we saw that none of the police, firefighters or rescue workers were wearing masks, we took ours off.
Once at the hotel, we were specifically ordered not to roam around. The whole area was ringed by National Guardsmen with guns, so we couldn’t have gotten across the street even if we’d wanted to. In the lobby, two large flags had been rigged to hang from the ceiling, the US flag and the Red Cross flag. In the former reception room where we served meals, the drapes stayed closed. At one point, during a lull, I slipped behind one of them and realized why—the window had a breathtaking view of “the pile”, lit bright as day by massive banks of white halogen lights. It was horrifying, unrecognizable, and still smoldering. The men whose meals we were serving—and they were nearly all men—were mainly firefighters, police, and recovery workers. No matter how much they tried to keep the hotel’s interior uncontaminated, they tracked in the grayish ash and dust, which clung to their boots and the folds of their clothes. Some of them thanked us. Many just ate mechanically and stared at the walls. We did occasionally take breaks to sit with them, refilling their drinks and making occasional forays at light conversation that studiously avoided mentioning why we were all at this hotel at 3 AM anyway. The police officers were a bit chattier and less obviously traumatized than the firefighters—I remember one of them taking off his bulletproof vest so I could try it on (it was much lighter than I’d expected). I spent the night sticking big trays of pre-prepared food in the industrial warming ovens, taking the hot food out to the serving line and then washing the trays in the hotel’s giant kitchen sinks. By 4 AM, I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open. At 5, the buses came for us. I went home, cleaned up, napped, then went to work at noon. I did this a couple times a week until the end of September. Every morning when I came home, I had a headache and sore throat.
At the beginning of November I left New York for the first time since the attacks and met my parents and sister in Barcelona. I think MamaSharper and BigStepdaddy sponsored the trip just so they’d have a chance to see how I was doing. Almost as soon as I arrived, I got sick. With, like, everything. There was a pharmacy across the street from our hotel, and I’m sure the pharmacist thought I was the sickliest excuse of an American tourist she’d ever seen, because I was there nearly every day picking up decongestants, Advil, Immodium, Monistat, etc. I think I had been so focused on keeping it together—emotionally and physically—in New York that as soon as I was somewhere else, my immune system just shorted out. I felt vaguely ashamed of feeling so sick because, comparatively speaking, I’d had it easy.
That winter was hard—for everyone. Then, little by little, it got easier. The barricades disappeared. The smoke cleared up. The missing posters came down. The pile turned into a fairly regular-looking, albeit large, construction site. I got used to orienting myself without the Twin Towers as a compass point. Anniversaries came and went. 9/11 became an excuse for bigotry, hate-mongering, war, and crass political opportunism, most legendarily on the part of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who woke up that Tuesday morning a lame duck nearly ruined by a sex scandal but by Wednesday night was transformed into “America’s mayor”, a public relations coup that he rode all the way to the 2008 presidential primaries.
Ironically, New York, which had always been despised by more than a few Americans for being too full of liberals, immigrants, gays, non-whites, and non-Christians, was magically transformed into “Real America” by the 9/11 attacks, at least temporarily. All of a sudden we were being lovingly embraced by red-staters who now saw New York as a city of Real American martyrs and heroes who had taken one for the team, as it were. It was…weird. In March of 2002, I sat in a bar in Jackson, Mississippi listening to a bunch of half-drunk sherriff’s deputies tell me how much they loved New York now—even though they’d never been there and would never go now that “y’all are fuckin’ target number one!” They seemed surprised when I failed to express any gratitude for their sentiments. In general, New Yorkers have been similarly ungrateful for the wars that were fought in the name of the 9/11 attacks (although I think most of us are grateful to SEAL Team Six.)
The truth is, most of the flag-waving and and jingoistic iconography of 9/11 come from outside New York; New Yorkers themselves had little interest in promoting our own Real American heroism and mugging for the camera the way the media wanted. I suspect that ultimately helped Congress to ignore the continuing damage we live with, especially the illness of 9/11 survivors, particularly first responders—the people for whom I poured coffee in that grim hotel overlooking the pile.
This week, I’ve been avoiding TV. I’m not a masochist and I know my triggers well enough by now. And really, all the mythologizing, the shameless political opportunism, the almost pornographic news footage with sickening slo-mo—it can all go fuck itself. We’re not an exceptional city or community—at least, not because of 9/11. We’re simply a city and community that suffered exceptional damage in one catastrophic terrorist attack. And then we continued our lives as best we could.