September 11, 2008

On Today's Anniversary, or Where Were You When...

As much as I resent the politicization and virtual trademarking of 9/11 (see Keith Olberman's recent editorial), I can't deny the significance of the events of that day. I, presumably like many others, divide my adult life into Pre-9/11 and Post-9/11. Although I wasn't one of those soot-covered office workers fleeing for their lives, I was in lower Manhattan that morning, and the images, memories, and emotions of that day will never leave me. Even today, it's all too easy for a conversation to slide into "where were you on 9/11." This is our generation's cultural reference point, like JFK's assassination was for our parents and Pearl Harbor for theirs.

So where was I? Uh-oh. Here we go again.

Monday September 10th was such a great day...

It was the end of my first summer in NYC, and I was having a blast. Since I moved to the city that May, I'd seen tons of Broadway plays, a bunch of concerts, met wonderful people, attended the Harold Pinter festival at Lincoln Center where I watched one of my idols perform in one of his own plays (Nic in One For The Road), and seen Ian Holm play the father in his archetypal play The Homecoming (only after it ended did I realize I had been sitting next to Jim Carrey). I was in the midst of rehearsing my NYC directorial debut, albeit in an unused third floor of a skeezy salad and hotbar restaurant near Rockefeller Center. But still.

After my sublet in Park Slope (Brooklyn) ended, I'd just moved in with a friend of a friend in Long Island City (Queens), also an aspiring actress (whose career path is much more steep than mine, here's what she's been up to lately). We both were remarking on that day's successes; she had a great audition in front of one of the most powerful casting people in NYC, and I had gotten into a very competitive acting class (Austin Pendleton's scene study class at HB Studio). We had friends over for dinner, and I was commiserating with a fellow Red Sox fan about how their season was going down the drain due to injuries and mismanagement. I renounced my citizenship in Red Sox Nation until GM Dan Duquette was fired (which happened soon after, leading to a hasty repatriation.)

I apparently was on the waiting list for Austin's class, since the first class was 10am the following morning. I had alerted my temp job that I would be coming in at noon that day. I planned to arrive early the next morning to get to HB Studios, since I hoped to persuade the administrator to get a refund from another scene study class that I'd signed up for (and had already started the week before), after I presumed that I wasn't accepted into Austin's class.

Tuesday morning, a warm, cloudless day. The hyperbole is true: the sky was a crisp and perfect blue. I left at about 8:30. I took the subway from Steinway St, taking the R to 59/Lex, and transferring to a 4 or 5 train, which I remember seemed to take a long time in arriving and seemed to crawl to Union Square, where I took the L to 14th St/8th Ave. I didn't even look up for several blocks, as I walked over to 9th Ave and down toward Bank St. Then eventually I did.

By then both planes had hit and the tops of both towers were engulfed in malevolent pitch black smoke that rose rapidly and almost perfectly straight upwards. Unable to process what I was seeing, the best I could come up with was... "Hmm, must be a grease fire at Windows on the World," the restaurant on the 103rd floor where my mom and stepdad treated me to a 30th birthday dinner some six weeks earlier. Of course, it was a very stupid thing to imagine, with both towers ablaze, but the reality of what was happening hadn't dawned on me yet.

Nor had it when I explained my situation to HB's administrator, who looked at me like I had lobsters coming out of my ears (and would continue to do so for the entire duration of my study there). Of course I asked first about the fires at the WTC, and he said "two planes hit the towers", and of course I imagined a pair of ultralights wandering tragically astray. I look back at that conversation with a great deal of embarrassment. History was changing around us and I was more concerned about a refund on a $120 class than the thousands of people dying a few blocks away. But then, the synapses had yet to connect.

He wasn't exactly sympathetic to my plight, go figure, so I went to hang out on the sidewalk with the other classmates. Some people were checking their cell phones (still functioning; the cellphone tower that connected most of NYC was on top of one of the towers), and announcing reports that were trickling in. Another plane hit the Pentagon. Another had crashed in Pennsylvania. The realization washed across us like the tide. Oh. This was bad. Like really bad. Like epoch-shiftingly bad.

Eventually, the group shifted into the basement classroom and we sat in silence. A crusty middle-aged guy of Irish descent punctured the silence when he announced, "Well, we all know who it was. It was those guys." If it's possible to italicize something vocally, he did it. I replied, perhaps more antagonistically than I intended, "We all 'knew' it was 'those guys' in Oklahoma City, but it turned out to be us." He conceded the point. Another person asked, perhaps rhetorically, "I wonder if this would've happened if Al Gore was president." A couple audible tsks were her only reply.

The news trickled in... one of the towers came down. Up to the street and over to the end of the block we went where sure enough, a mile down the road we saw a giant white cloud of dust surrounding a solitary burning tower. That image was perhaps more of an emotional sock to the gut than anything. Castor without Pollux. Romulus without Remus. Fred Weasley without George. One only ever though of the towers as a pair. Few of us had cameras, so we couldn't exactly snap pictures. Eventually we wandered back downstairs. Austin arrived, and obviously we couldn't focus on the task at hand, so we were assigned scene partners (I was paired with a sternly intense middle-aged woman named Zelda on a scene from Odets' The Country Girl) and sat in otherwise solemn silence. Lines formed at the payphone at the foot of the basement stairs.

Another news flash; the other tower was down. We went out to look, and yup. Gone. The universal reference point for New Yorkers, the omnipresent feature of the skyline from practically everywhere in the city, was no more. Before long the news came that everything below 14th St was being evacuated. After a quick run to the bathroom, I had to head back to Queens, and with the subways closed there was no other option but walking. I wish I had better shoes; both soles had split across the balls of my feet.

I paid a rather large sum for a large bottle of water that I later realized was most likely had been re-filled with tapwater. A bus sped down 14th St with smoke pouring out the back. I had no idea what to make of that, but it seemed to be an ominous sign that anything could happen and I'd better be ready.

I knew I had to venture northward and eventually eastward, toward the Queensboro Bridge, which I hoped was still open. But then I had to mentally note which landmarks to avoid, thinking that there may be more planes to come, so I had to plot my course well clear of the Empire State, Chrysler, and UN Buildings. Every payphone had a line of at least a dozen people; my cellphone was non-functional. I caught scraps of news programs from restaurants with open patio doors. A Taliban spokesman denied any involvement, etc.

Eventually I reached the Queensboro Bridge, which thankfully was open. I joined a mass exodus of thousands upon thousands of people crossing; all of us refugees in our own city. I recall the solemn, if tension-laden, silence. Two asshole teenagers walking along the tops of the barriers between lanes were cracking jokes, apparently their only means to comprehend the insanity of the day, "Dude, what's goin on? I was taking a shit, what's happening?" Nobody told them to shut up, but I suspect if someone had pushed them off the bridge, no one would bat an eye. To our right the entire tip of lower Manhattan was shrouded in white dust. Crossing the bridge was the only time I was actually nervous. The thought occured to me that an enterprising terrorist could have placed an explosive device in the middle of the bridge, and that prospect was like a stone in the pit of my stomach which only disappeared when I was safely across onto the solid ground of Queens.

Where in Manhattan I encountered shameless hucksters who were already selling gasmasks and five dollar bottled water on the sidewalk, the first people I met in Queens were handing out cups of water in front of a storefront church. Some subway service had been restored, as I saw some packed #7 trains along the overhead elevated rails. Around 2:30 or so I made it back to the apartment, having walked some five miles from the studio. I made sure the windows were locked, fearing looters. Our land line still worked, and I immediately logged onto AOL to send a quick "I'm alive, hope you are too" email to everyone in my address book. I then called my grandparents; Grampa's first words were "Thank God." I got thru to Mom and Dad, let them know I was alive, etc., and then turned on the TV.

I still reflect on the irony that I had been there, more or less in the thick of it, but I didn't actually see any of it until that afternoon, in the safety of the apartment on TV: the second plane hitting. The doomed people gathering along the gaping hole in the tower. The people falling. The first tower, then the second, crumbling. Reporters standing in the rubble. Over and over again. Becki arrived later that afternoon, her boyfriend a few hours after; her first words to me were "So does this mean it's World War Three?"

Also I found greatly ironic that I didn't lose any friends or colleagues that day, but people back home did. One of the pilots hailed from Dover NH, and my mom knew him vaguely or sold him a house or something.

As night fell, I fielded phone calls from close friends back home, and tried to figure out what dawn would bring. George W Bush's speech wasn't particularly encouraging, as the heretofore simpering national embarrassment suddenly turned war-hawk. We will not separate the actions of the perpetrators from the countries that harbored them. Or something. This meant blowing shit up. Lovely.

I figured there was no reason not to behave normally. I was temping in downtown Brooklyn and the G-train I took there didn't pass through Manhattan, so I resolved that I'd go to work the next day. I woke early, and listened to the radio, the DJ fielded phone calls from inspired people looking to volunteer for the rescue effort, etc. Eventually I got up, got dressed, and went to work. Several people were reading the NY Post, with the giant headline, "WAR!" Thru the window, lower Manhattan was still shrouded in white smoke.

I was one of two admins, the other was a 30-something African-American woman. That day she was constantly on the phone with relatives and friends, passing along all the ludicrous gossip that was floating around; OMG! Whitney Houston died! OMG! Riots in the streets! The building's cafeteria was giving food away, and despite the posted signs "Please be considerate, we are facing a crisis," people were walking away with ludicrous amounts of food, three or four whole pizzas, etc.

I left early, lying on the couch for the better part of the afternoon into the evening, in a daze. My love affair with the city had taken a spectacular nosedive, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to stay. Ultimately I did, though I resolved that if another major disaster came, I'd throw in the towel and go back home.

The following weeks were a blur of anthrax scares, water quality scares, erratic cellphone signals, bad air quality, etc. Turban-wearing cabbies out of fear for their lives had bumper stickers reading "Proud to be American and Sikh." On the day the airstrikes began in Afghanistan, someone poured blood-red liquid over the metrocard slot at the Steinway station. One of my actors called to ask "World War III started today, are we still rehearsing?" (Answer: Yes)

I never visited Ground Zero in the ensuing weeks, apart from one excursion into the general vicinity. The eerie sensation of taking the R train through the then-closed Courtlandt St station, just on the edge of the the area, was enough; with the big red signs reminding the train conductors "DO NOT STOP HERE." Once they rebuilt the #1 train line thru the 'bathtub', I rode it, and through the occasional gap in the wall, seeing the bathtub all around me was unsettling. And then years later I took a trip on the PATH train and got on at the temporary station, which also was built inside the bathtub with no attempt at concealing the area.

I watched a few documentaries in the ensuing months, watched the ceremony on the 1-year anniversary, and put it out of my mind, or at least to a deep recess. I haven't watched the various fictionalized movies about 9/11. Dunno why. Not interested.

People were a bit more civil to one another, but soon faded back to the default of indifference at best and hostility at worst. We stopped being self-obsessed for a while, and eventually resumed. Irony died for a bit, and then revived.

I avoided Manhattan for several days before meeting up with Zelda at the dingy Harlequin Studios (now demolished) to rehearse our scene from Country Girl. Emerging from the subway to see Broadway lit up again and looking, well, normal, was greatly therapeutic. So was rehearsing.

Becki did a cabaret show at the Duplex on Christopher Street the next month, and sang "Try To Remember" from The Fantasticks. I thought it was a lovely and very appropriate paean to the relatively worry-free days that were now a memory.

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow...
(Lyrics by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt)


Scoopernicus said...

Would things have been different if Gore had been president?

The Republicans probably would have crucified him for all the reasons they praised Bush.

All that aside though a very moving post John.

ellsbells said...

Thank you, John. Until I opened Facebook this morning I didn't realize just how much I wanted to read these stories with the POV of people I know or have known.
I watched it unfold on tv as I was getting ready for work that morning.
It was surreal.

TheMotherofBug said...


TheMotherofBug said...


TheMotherofBug said...

More than anything, I mourn the missed opportunity to bring the world together over this.