I never hear sirens anymore. Too many years of living in New York rendered my ears unable to distinguish the sound of them from any other background noise. The same thing happened with other loud noises, especially the BOOM trucks make when they drive over the slabs of steel that cover road work all over Manhattan. Tourists always flinch at this, thinking there’s been an explosion. Originally from Denver but after living in the Big Apple for nearly 15 years, I’d heard it tens of thousands of times. So I don’t hear booms anymore, which is why the explosion on the first plane’s impact didn’t faze me. 1010WINS radio didn’t either, at first. Now living back in my alma mater’s own Berkeley but spending that week in my company’s New York office, I was blow-drying my hair in the Wall Street Holiday Inn bathroom with a large round brush when the announcer said for about the fifth time “apparently there is some type of problem in the south tower of the World Trade Center.” I thought: AM radio is so idiotic. When isn’t there some type of problem in one of the towers?
I was feeling rather chipper that Tuesday morning, having made the inexplicable decision to blow off an expensive financial technology conference to which I had a complimentary ticket. It was held at Windows on the World, in the north tower of the World Trade Center. I was rested, since I’d arrived in New York on Sunday night, so jetlag can’t explain my decision. I woke up hungry and knew that Windows on the World would put on a great breakfast. I had plenty of time. It was just a few blocks away for Christ’s sake, so that wasn’t it. It would have been prime networking opportunity to peddle my company’s bond-trading software. My suit was laid out on the chair, with scarf, shoes. But I lay there in the hotel bed and just said, “nah.”
* * *
For whatever reason, my life had been intersecting and diverging from the World Trade Center for years. I feel like I knew them before they were born; one of my favorite photos is that of several construction workers having lunch on a beam, thousands of feet over Manhattan as they take a break from their work constructing a skyscraper. The photo predated the construction of the towers by some twenty years, but I’d adopted it as my image of their birth anyway. I loved to stand between the towers and watch the surprisingly noticeable arc of their sway in the wind, like massive palm trees. I was Jack and they were my Beanstalk, my own private ventilation shaft from the grimy depths of industry up to the carefree gardens in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. When I was asked to submit a painting for an art show in the summer of 1991, instinctively I went to the rooftop of my Brooklyn Heights brownstone and sketched them onto a canvas. It wasn’t necessary to paint the buildings themselves; their twin forms emerged as I applied hundreds of yellowish dots to depict their lights flickering through the heavy summer evening haze. For the north tower’s antenna, I just made a vertical line of red dots for their lights. After the Brooklyn show, the painting moved to another show at the First Street Café on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I was glad no one bought it.
* * *
As I applied mascara, the announcements began to clarify – a plane had hit the tower. As the Jim Backus scene from It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World flashed into my mind, I subconsciously decided that a drunken recreational pilot had crashed into the tower. Not that big of a deal, in fact rather comedic. It must have been once they said it was a commercial airliner – like that could ever happen – that I became exasperated and turned off the hair dryer. Now 1010WINS is just incompetent! I switched on the television and saw the minor-looking flames. I thought I’d have an interesting view from my office window, directly across Church Street from the towers, so got dressed with slightly increased urgency. I may not remember any outfit more clearly than the one I put on that day: white silk tank top, black Ann Taylor suit, DKNY belt, favorite neck scarf with red and white flowers, black Joan & David loafers over black micro-fiber trouser socks, hair pushed back with Massimo sunglasses. Dressed for a long, productive day.
Except for the jumbo shards of glass all over the street, the route to One Liberty Plaza was the same as ever. But I realized everyone was walking in the same direction, for some reason, toward my building. I walked along and never heard the second plane hitting the north tower – just another Manhattan BOOM. Arriving minutes later, I tried to get inside, not even looking up at the flames leaping from both towers above me. The security guard said the building was being evacuated. I pointed out that our building wasn’t on fire, it was only the World Trade Towers. He looked apologetic and said, “I know, I know, but we’re not allowed to let anyone in,” rolling his eyes. I further explained that I had a lunch meeting with Morgan Stanley and had to prepare, but he shook his head and walked away. So I squeezed my way through the growing crowd along Church Street and looked up at the towers for the first time. I had to admit, there was a rather large fire coming out of the north side of WTC 2, as well as an enormous column of black smoke rising from somewhere on the south side of WTC 1 – but it was way up there on the eighty-somethingth floor. Surely it could be put out by lunch, not that it really mattered either way. Was the fire going to jump across Church Street or something?
I heard a nearby woman say she’d just walked down from the 50th floor of the north tower. Another one said, in a pure Edith Bunker-style Queens accent, “those towahs ah comin daaahwn!” I couldn’t hold back my laughter – as if the towers could ever fall! Their foundations are drilled into the bedrock! The New York Mercantile Exchange vaults are in there!
* * *
Almost exactly three years beforehand, the painting hung in my living room in the world’s best apartment building at 225 W. 106th Street. It was over the television I’d found on the street near a past Brooklyn apartment. I remember looking at it when I came inside after seeing Dianne on the ground, when she jumped from her window on the 12th floor. I guess God was testing her – did she pass or fail?
It had been a long day of trying to impress partners at Goldman Sachs, so I took a brief run in the lovely September evening air in Central Park. Heading home, jogging west on 106th toward the building, I could see a crowd forming on the sidewalk in front of the arched entrance with stained glass around it. Truly the world’s best building. I think someone had told them to scatter, since just as I approached the crowd parted and I saw the sheet hastily tossed over her, partly absorbing the expanding pool of blood. A painfully thin, bruised hand stuck out, faintly clutching a flower. I always assumed she jumped with the flower but maybe someone put it in her hand. Maybe she thought the flower was the pull-cord to some sort of parachute.
Torres, the doorman, said that despite what some were saying, she didn’t bounce. He knew she was dead instantly, he said, because “her head opened right up.” All those times I crowded into the tiny elevator with her, as she stared through her tinted Coke-bottle glasses at the black rubber flooring, I never said a word to her. Clutching my mail, dashing home for a microwaved dinner before heading back up to 116th for class, I couldn’t be bothered with the lesser problems of others. Why the hell couldn’t I have just said “hi, how’s your day going?” once or twice? Apparently her brother showed up at her place a few times, once getting arrested for beating her. She was nearly blind, Torres said, and was too frightened to leave her apartment most of the time.
So, I looked at the painting and tried to enter its electric blue evening skies, hoping to catch Dianne on her way up to Heaven. At my party the previous spring semester, someone pointed at the painting and asked if it was a photograph. No, I said, turning it around to show my sloppy signature and “June 1991” on the back, in the same blue oil paint as the skies. Over the years a few others have asked if it’s a photo. They should have known better since no other buildings are shown. I did that partly because I was too lazy to paint the other, more difficult-shaped buildings but also because I wanted to show their majesty, all alone, in a class by themselves.
* * *
The Tuesday morning sky was sapphire blue, it was truly one of the most beautiful days I can remember in New York. Standing among the crowd along Church Street, looking up at the burning towers, I was transfixed by the contrast of orange flames against the blue sky. No wonder my home team, the Broncos, picked these colors. And I guess the Mets too. I turned to my right and saw a Black woman looking upward, maybe in her mid-50s. Her brown skin and the creases in it were so beautiful and vivid, time stopped while I stared at her. She held a cellphone in her hand, looking upward, with tears in her eyes. She said into her phone:
“Honey, what floor?” The resignation in her voice burrowed into my stomach, bypassing my brain and its logical assurances. Among the sea of people punching the keys of cellphones without coverage, like mine, several were talking into theirs, all looking upward as they spoke:
“I love you.”
“It’s okay, Baby, I’m here.”
“Don’t be crazy, no one’s jumping.”
At this point, I may have seen people jumping. Twenty-four hours later, at my second refugee camp on the Upper East Side in Sapna and Ashish’s apartment, as I came out of their guest room, I heard Ashish say, “Don’t let Mo see this picture, she might have seen them.” They were looking at the front page of the New York Times. I grabbed it and saw a large color photo of a man who’d jumped out of WTC 1, his body sailing down in a tuck position, head-first, between the two towers. It looked awfully familiar, but my memory of the live descent is blessedly blank.
I tried to call my boss but had no cellphone reception. I gave up trying and figured I’d try a landline at the hotel so did an about-face, heading away from Church Street, across Broadway, along Maiden Lane. Snippets of conversations surfaced above the dull roar of voices:
“This is because of all our aid to Israel.”
“No one on the upper floors is getting out of there.”
“I’ve got to find my daughter!”
Just as I pushed on the revolving door of the Holiday Inn, the dull roar turn switched into a sudden crescendo of thousands screaming in unison – it was deafening and terrifying. I pushed through the door and ran for the elevator. As the doors closed, a man behind the reception desk said the elevators were off limits. I never considered obeying this, and pushed repeated on the Close Door button. When the doors opened on the 21st floor, a white mist hung in the hallway. I heard voices around me but couldn’t see anyone through the haze. I found my way to my room, pushed the magnetic key card into its slot and stumbled through the doorway, now hyperventilating. Without knowing that WTC 1 had just fallen, I began to have the bewildering sensation that I was living my last moments.
My room wasn’t nearly as misty as the hallway, must have had separate ventilation ducts. The maid had already been in and the bed was made with a chocolate on the pillow. I dropped my BCBG handbag and rushed to the bed, plopped down and unwrapped the chocolate. For an instant, everything was okay. It was some type of exquisite, milky, truffle-style chocolate from Europe, not what you’d expect at the Holiday Inn on Gold Street. Unfortunately, the salt of my now steady tears mixed with it and foreshadowed my next discovery. The mass screaming had stopped, actually it was dead silent, and I noticed the room had become brighter. I looked out the window and saw the building right across narrow Gold Street wasn’t there; the entire window looked like a photographer’s light board, but without any slides. Blinding white – what could be causing that? It can’t be Heaven, because I’m all alone.
A knock at my door came and I answered. A frantic woman said I had to get out of my room and come down to the restaurant immediately.
“Didn’t you hear that?? That was the tower falling down! And the other one’s probably right behind it!” While I knew something was very wrong, the idea of the towers coming down was still not a possibility. Another insane person.
“I –” the word caught in my throat, and she winced in recognition. “I just want to stay here.” She shook her head and walked off; there are only so many people one can save in a single day and she’d surely done her share. I walked back to the bed and sat down, craving a brief respite from the bad dream, when a blaring loudspeaker went off directly over my head, saying all guest rooms must be evacuated and all guests must gather in the restaurant off the main lobby. I don’t know how long I sat there, but somehow knowing that this would be my final exit from the room, I struggled with the decision of what to wear, what to bring, where to go. I was now fairly certain that my lunch meeting was off, so no need to wear the suit. My other choices were running clothes, or a full-length, formal evening dress I’d planned to wear to a friend’s wedding upstate the following weekend. I opted for the running clothes and filled my backpack with toothbrush, socks and underwear, pajamas and New York magazine. The world may be ending but I still needed to know where to find live music.
The hallway air had completely filled with dust. I realized this too late as I took a deep, stinging breath of fine particles – which would remain in my lungs for months. Now I had to find the elevator by touch alone, since the air was completely opaque. I closed my dust-filled eyes and groped along for the elevator call button. The vinyl wallpaper felt like skin and my hands trembled as they rubbed along it, with all sorts of images of bodies going through my mind.
As the door opened into the lobby, I saw through the less dusty air the receptionist snap his head my way, surprised and angry that I’d been up there for so long against orders. I walked into the restaurant and froze when my eyes met the screen of a wall-mounted television. It was playing an impossible image: the south tower collapsing into itself. I instinctively crouched down as though it were falling on me, and squeezed my eyes closed tightly, trying to erase it, reverse it. But the passage of time was acutely perceptible and I felt myself aging, weakening – permanently. I groaned the way one does during an inadequately anesthetized surgical procedure. They played it over and over. And over. That can’t happen, their foundations are drilled into the bedrock. They are built to survive a nuclear holocaust. There are thousands of people inside and we are watching them being crushed. Why is the network being permitted to show this? Not that it’s real, but if it were, it would be offensive and exploitative! The thousands of people inside the tower, they’re dying, every bone in every body is being crushed. My mind hopscotched from fear to disbelief, and back again. The restaurant was crowded with small groups of people hugging each other, crying, punching cellphone keypads to no avail. Watching everyone crying and hugging each other made me intensely aware of how alone and scared I was. I tried to work up the nerve to ask a stranger to please hug me but couldn’t do it.
A loud banging began at the window. I looked over and noticed it was no longer a white-out, but that the mist had cleared just enough to see ghostly, dust-covered figures wandering around on Gold Street. I moved closer and saw that every inch of the man banging on the window was covered in white dust except for the paths of tears that ran down his cheeks, revealing his dark brown skin. Just as someone said we needed to let him in, the deafening noise began again, and this time I knew it to be the sounds of a tower falling. Thousands screaming in unison, the roar of several hundred thousand tons of steel smashing down at terminal velocity, miles of glass shattering violently. The man at the window was now looking to his right and then was enveloped in a white burst, gone. I kept staring at the window which had returned to its blinding, light board state, wondering if he was still there through the haze or if the dust cloud had blown him away.
The television said the north tower had come down too. I assume they’d attempt to show the same fake footage of the south tower falling, but no, they showed the south tower already down, with the north tower melting into itself, its lovely antenna still attached and falling gracefully.
* * *
I first appreciated the scale of the antenna on WTC 2 from the observation deck atop the south tower. It must have been 15 stories high itself; its red lights appeared to hover mid-air above the building. When my brother Dan came to visit in the fall of 1990, we went up there – my first and last visit to the observation deck. It was dusk when we finally made it through the long line in the lobby, rode the express elevator to the top, ears popping, and strode out onto the deck. We faced north, uptown. As the sea of buildings turned from hues of gold to pink to purple, each light flickered on in Morse code. I was so happy to be up there with Dan, on top of my buildings.
* * *
Seeing the north tower go down on TV, the image of the view from Windows on the World, the view seen by my industry colleagues who’d made the logical decision of attending the conference, came into my mind. But it’s all imagination, of course. One tower falling, two towers falling, what’s the difference once you start fabricating news coverage? One false premise renders the entire argument a fallacy, thus I don’t have to believe any of this. As a matter of fact, I’m leaving this charade. Disjointed phrases about terrorist attacks came from the direction of the television, which I’d decided to ignore after its tasteless jokes.
When I walked out of the hotel and waded into several inches of dust, it reminded me of a sandbox. But instead of a scattering of Tonka trucks and toy shovels, there were sweaters, twisted pieces of metal, unmatched shoes, Post-It notes, shards of glass and Pendaflex hanging file folders.
With the first step, as my foot sank a few inches, I could feel the fine dust seep through the mesh fabric of my running shoes. The memory of some sitcom scene involving an urn began to take shape, then dissipated. My second step landed on a sweater, a women’s aubergine-colored cashmere cardigan with gold coin buttons. I remember looking up into the grey haze, furious at God and yelling up the f-word in His general direction.
I had an experience of smelling and hearing through time. When I stepped into the dust I could feel the presence of the attackers, that horrible smell was the scent of their hatred. So the television was right, at least about the attack, because I could feel them. InRosemary’s Baby, didn’t Mia Farrow smell the devil at some point? Brimstone does have a bad odor, so they say. I could also hear the trail of their voices, but didn’t understand the language. They had tried to kill me.
I couldn’t decide which way to head. The debate swirled in my mind as dueling fragments from the newscast in the hotel shouted at me:
“Mayor Giuliani urges anyone south of Canal Street to head north or over the Brooklyn Bridge as quickly as possible!! There is believed to be major gas leaks coming from the World Trade Center!”
“Officials are urging anyone downtown to stay indoors since inhaling the dust from the towers can present serious health hazards!”
Their urgency was comical – how could anything worse possibly happen? And who cared if it did anyway? It was like telling someone who’d just been shot between the eyes, “Put on a coat or you might catch a cold!!”
I flipped an imaginary coin and headed south into the deeper dust. The Korean deli on the corner was of course open, and the overpriced flowers soaking in rows of buckets in their cellophane wrapping were coated in the grey dust, looking like flocked Christmas trees. Just inside, I saw a display of yellow Kodak disposable cameras and was tempted to buy one and get a snapshot of the coated flowers. How else could I explain what I’d seen, who would believe it?
Turning the corner onto William Street, I saw a crowd of medical workers, standing in front of the hospital among rows of empty gurneys turning brown in the raining dirt. I felt sorry for them, they wanted patients so badly. I was also envious of their surgical masks, as my windpipe was beginning to narrow with the airborne remains of the towers. My throat felt like it was lined with sweaters and shoes.
* * *
It couldn’t have been an accident that I survived, I knew, because I had come so very close. My complimentary ticket to the conference that no one escaped from. Months afterwards, I’d call on a client and hear that he or she had been at that conference. Then I would check the website – Merrill Lynch, Cantor Fitzgerald – and find their names on the list of lost ones. Sometimes I would think I saw my name, and then blink several times until it vanished. Maybe I was dead without knowing it.
God really threw me for a loop by sparing me, and it took several conversations with stumped priests to get a satisfactory answer. Finally I went with the explanation that I was in fact spared for a reason, but that since I’ll live an eternal life, if all goes well, then I have the rest of eternity to figure out what that reason might be. I was relieved; it was like getting a very long extension on a term paper.
If I’d been at home in Berkeley, or at work in my San Francisco office, then I wouldn’t have had to keep asking why not me? But I was right there, and I shouldn’t be here anymore. As subsequent anniversaries of that Tuesday come and go, I shed decreasing volumes of tears. The first few months, they were unstoppable – to the point when I’d wonder about the capacity of the human tear duct, thinking surely they will run dry soon. They still come, but the haunting question of why not me has turned into the joyful realization I’m still here! Every moment, every memory since that morning has been created with borrowed time.