On September 11, a New Yorker Far From Home
On September 11, 2001, roughly 8:45 a.m., two New York guys, white, early 20s, of the type that might preface each instance of ironic yet brotherly teasing with “dude,” were walking on lower Fifth Avenue toward Washington Square Park.
Where they were going on what was shaping up as a beautiful day, weather-wise; what they were talking about if conversing at all, I don’t know; the story was told to me second-hand. But I do know that when a roaring plane soared overhead at an unthinkably low altitude, one of them was moved to note, worriedly, “damn, that plane is flying really low.”
To which his friend replied, for the last time, I’d imagine, that day, “yo, don’t worry ‘bout it.”
I have told this story maybe a hundred times. It’s my September 11th vignette-of-choice. The alternatives — conflagration and panic blooming into mass terror – I have studiously avoided for 10 years. Unlike the CGI-worthy footage of this year’s Japan tsunami (“disaster porn” a colleague dubbed it), images from September 11 hold for me no prurient appeal. In a variation on the old Mel Brooks quotation, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die,” can’t-miss viral video is when disaster strikes on the other side of the world, excruciatingly painful video is when a seemingly impervious landmark you grew up three miles and four subway stops away from has become a holocaust of twisted wreckage, not to mention a worldwide symbol of applied evil.
When I first heard the news, living some 3,000 miles away from the streets I knew as my childhood neighborhood but which now teemed with panicked residents, I did the same thing as many who found themselves home that day: I plopped myself on the couch and turned on the news.
I’m not sure exactly when it dawned on me that events had escalated into something so horrific that a mere mention of the date would years later trigger a mini-cascade of stress-induced physical effects, but at some point I tried, to no avail, to call home. My mother lived and worked in Greenwich Village, not far enough uptown to preclude worry; my father did as well. My step-father actually worked a few blocks from the towers. Later, I heard his story of escape — covering his face with a wet towel as he ran through thick, choking smoke.
Eventually came the hair-raising tales from friends and acquaintances; the mother of a childhood pal who lived so close that she saw, out of her window, the first plane hit, her first thought being of her son who’d been scheduled to work a construction shift at the site. (He’d called in sick, it turned out.) A friend who’d been working at the New York Stock Exchange had run for her life to a neighborhood gym, only to be engulfed in smoke and debris dust when the towers came down. Then there were the people who lost people they knew, people they loved.
I can barely remember anything of the approximately 10 hours of news coverage I watched that day. I absolutely can’t remember the buildings coming down. I think I actually disassociated a little. At the time, my girlfriend, now my wife, was covering the event as an online journalist, a job I had recently given up. Listening to her adrenaline-fueled recounting of what occurred as a news story, I was both furious and jealous. This wasn’t a news story. This was my home.
But not really. Having left 10 years before, I could no longer really wear that badge. A decade of Californication had left me walking slower, talking softer (or at least less loud), and participating in far fewer conflicts with absolute strangers than I’d engaged in Manhattan-side. And now, in the city’s hour of need, I could no nothing but watch it all, impotently, on television, just like someone from, I don’t know… like, Idaho.
But those two guys I mentioned at the beginning….
“Damn, that plane is flying really low.”
“Yo, don’t’ worry ’bout it.”
I love those guys. Together, they embody the practical anxiety and last-minute defiance – a kind of “yo, we’ve seen it all in this town, and we can handle it,” that has always co-existed in the make-up of many New Yorkers. The latter took a brutal beating that day, but it wasn’t killed.
Even now, when I talk about what happened for longer than a minute, I inevitably blurt out, “I still can’t believe it.” And I can’t. Thinking of those giant two front-teeth being punched out like that, it’s just, well, incredible. That it happened in my childhood backyard seems more incredible, still.
Come Sunday, I will be watching football.