This picture of my sister was taken in August, just a few weeks before the 9/11 tragedy in 2001. I wrote this post on the ten-year anniversary in 2011. Until then, I had not written anything about 9/11, barely talked about it, and refused to watch any of the awful footage.
I remember that morning very plainly, that crisp, clear September morning. Who knew I the numbers 9/11 would be cemented in my brain for the rest of my life? I was living in Jersey City and would take the PATH train into the city for work. Our street was clean and tidy, but the walk along the main street was cluttered and trashy.
We didn’t live in a bad neighborhood; it was simply urban living. Sadly, somehow I have always constantly, somewhat obsessively, wondered about the socio-economics of garbage. It used to drive me absolutely mad, how much sheer waste people used to carelessly throw on the ground.
So, I walked that 9/11 morning, not looking at the cotton-white clouds strewn across the brilliant cerulean blue sky, but at the litter on the sidewalk, the empty, dented cans and bottles, the plastic bags whirling in the wind across the cement, the crumpled, greasy sacks of fast food, and the oily, iridescent psychedelic rainbows in the jagged potholes at every corner and crosswalk.
I remember walking mad. Can you imagine? Walking mad? Letting filth, garbage, and other people’s refuse distress me so? Why do I remember this? It turns out that my disgust and irritation actually saved me from watching the first plane hit the first tower.
I know this.
I walked this walk every day — most often amazed, looking skyward at those tall twin towers across the river directly in my sight. They were a compass point. The papers, the news, and the sources on the internet proclaimed the timing second by second, minute by minute of the deadly attack in the days and weeks to come.
I know that I was walking exactly at that exact time. 8:46 am. I didn’t see one of the most horrific things in history because I was looking down at garbage.
Often I would take the PATH from Jersey City to the WTC and then change on the subway to go uptown, but even though I was running late, I waited for the train to take me to 33rd street so I’d only have to make one change.
I’ve thought about that quite a bit in these past years, not taking the train to the WTC.
I could have been right in the middle of it.
By the time I changed to the subway and exited the station on 40th Street, the streets were buzzing with rumors, that a plane had hit the tower. I assumed it was a small plane, maybe a private jet.
Once in the office, it was clear something else was going on. Cell phones weren’t working and internet access was spotty. Someone said the mall was under attack in DC, then it was declared the Pentagon was hit, then the White House.
I called my now-frantic family to let them know I was okay.
But, I was in Times Square which actually didn’t feel very okay at all. If the US was under attack, Times Square might likely be dead center next. So, we walked down 25 floors of the winding darkened stairwell, it wasn’t far and it wasn’t because we were in imminent danger. It somehow seemed like the sensible thing to do. I had no desire to be caught in an elevator.
The bridges and tunnels were closed. The subway wasn’t running. I had called a friend and she said to meet her at her apartment on the Lower East Side. Manhattan was under lockdown.
I knew I couldn’t get home.
So, I started walking southeast from Midtown. People were huddled at cars with doors and windows open at street corners listening to the radio. The sound of sirens and the gnawing pull of fear were omnipresent. I saw one act of vandalism, someone breaking into a pay phone. It gave me chills. The concept of being in a lawless New York City was terrifying in and of itself.
At one point I could see the towers smoldering and smoking against the blue sky, and then at the next corner, when they would have been in sight again, they were gone.
Walking in NYC on 9/11
As I walked South, soon I saw people walking covered in grey dust and soot. I kept walking further south, then east. I finally arrived at my friend’s apartment on 5th Street on the Lower East Side. She wasn’t home, yet, so I took my shoes off and waited on the stoop. Seems like I remember now that my shoes were new and my feet were blistered. At the time it seemed unimportant and now, I am not certain.
My cell couldn’t call out, it was silent, but somehow my friend and colleague Faye was able to call me. She was my mouthpiece. She called my Mama to tell her I was okay. She called home. She called, she called, she called. She called home for me.
My friend finally arrived home. We quietly walked up the stairs. We then watched the news, silently weeping, watching the horror, the live images, the flying shreds of paper, the grey dust, the people — the absence of survivors, of people — trying, all the while, to keep the children occupied in the other room.
We were in shock and disbelief.
Finally, at the end of the very long day, the news reported the PATH was reopened at 14th. I didn’t care about what might happen to me. I wanted to go home, I wanted to feel safe. My friend didn’t want me to leave.
I wanted to go home.
We kissed, we cried, and with my cell phone dead, I started walking. I walked alone. The lack of sound was astonishing. It was like a movie set. New York City, but without the people. No more sirens. No more noise. No radios. No one driving. No one honking. No one on the streets. No people. The avenues were empty and desolate. The occasional car would pass armed with a bullhorn encouraging people to go give blood.
It was dreamlike and surreal.
I walked North through Union Square where literally only two candles flickered, the beginning of the massive combination of shrine and wall of missing person posters that eventually established itself on that spot.
The 14th station was closed, so I walked further to 23rd, which was also closed, so onward I walked to 33rd. Finally, success. The cavernous station was packed. People were elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, but you could have heard a pin drop.
Everyone was muted and paralyzed in fear and shock.
We crossed under the river to Hoboken because my regular station was destroyed and closed. Standing on the platform as we pulled into the station, I saw evacuees from lower Manhattan, covered in soot and ash, now clothed in garbage bags.
Tell your loved ones that you love them.
Peace be with you.