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Being There

Written on the 10th anniversary

I

After the second tower fell, I joined a dozen strangers on an East River pier to collectively stare at the plumes spewing over Wall Street. There was no smell in the air, yet. That would emerge in the days that followed, a stench of charred metal and bodies that would permeate our senses for months.

This pier extended off a housing project in a part of Queens that had remained free of the tech workers and media babies endemic to the more affluent East River neighborhoods (and who were probably taking in the morning’s events from the rooftops of their overpriced walkups). But soon our small gang of gawkers drew the ire of those residents. A woman hissed, “Oh, it’s okay for you to come into our neighborhood, but if we dare show up in yours…” She then pointed to the south and added, “That shit has nothing to do with me.”

Anger dominated everyone’s words that morning. Only, we didn’t know where or to whom it should be directed. We could hear the sirens across the river and overhead a pair of F-15s were making a show of force. This sensory chaos was reinforced by the bits of news being reported by a girl on roller skates via an in-ear radio. “The Pentagon…”, “A plane crash in Pennsylvania…”. Across the water, the smoke grew darker.

We listened and shook our heads. Later the two of us sat on a bench and talked, never taking our eyes off the horizon. She studied political theory at NYU. I learned the word, “Tal-ee-ban.” I never learned her name. 

I continued walking along the river, watching the sky, watching the neighborhoods watch the sky. I got a sunburn. The sun was so bright that day.

I wouldn’t learn of my wife’s car accident in Chicago until late in the day, the news of which was triangulated via my mother in Texas once cell service resumed.

I spent every waking moment in the days that followed glued to television. And waiting for her to return, which she finally did via Amtrak with Spike Lee in the seat nearby.

 

II

The Twin Towers once cast giant shadows across the narrow streets of the financial district, which is to say, those streets became much brighter post-9/11. Apart from the epic destruction, the change in light was the first thing I noticed.

Six months later that wreckage still smoldered, long after the military blockades had been lifted, after the news returned to its regularly scheduled programming. But in New York the conversation continued. You heard it in every restaurant, on the subway, on the street. And of course, it turned political, bifurcating along party lines with one camp promoting cartoonish revenge and the other asking for peace. 

 

III

Earlier that year I arrived for a 7am consulting assignment in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  I encountered a lobby humming with activity. Shoppers. Suits. It took three elevators to reach the 85th floor. Inside the windows were narrow slits. It felt like a prison.

I would later learn that the employees from that office all made it out alive. Something about the ventilation system in their office differing from others down the hall. The jet fuel never reached their lungs.

A friend who took later worked in that same office happened to oversleep that day. He described watching the towers burn and collapse from the comfort of his SOHO terrace while getting shit-faced on gin cocktails. 

 

IV

343 New York City Firefighters and EMTs died on September 11th: 343 really awesome men and women, heroes and fathers, mothers, sons and daughters. Mayor Giuliani attended funerals for 200 of them. [What happened to that guy??]

Less than 10% of the nearly 2800 people who died there were actually found in tact. The rest were among the more than 19,000 body parts recovered.

It cost over eight billion dollars to clean up the debris of the World Trade Center including the extensive repairs to the subways below. They removed 1.5 million tons of debris.

3051 children lost a parent.

They say never forget but really, how could you?

Rest in Power

 

 

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