This morning I drew a picture of the twin towers and a sad face above the date on Spike’s lunch note. Is that bad parenting? Is there a book on what and how much to tell your children about the world? Maybe I will write one.
It’s my calling to keep it real for these kids. They already know about cosmetic surgery, pedophiles and factory farm chicken. Peaches has seen a deer eviscerated. Terrorism seems logical company. But maybe I am screwing them up. Maybe! Ha, what a laugh. A parent not screwing a kid up? Still, no nightmares that I’m aware of. No new drain, dark or insect phobias. Peaches and Spike are getting older, more accountable. More engaged in society. They have a right to know.
But really. There’s no need for anyone to be shielded from reality to the point that adulthood becomes one big mind-fuck that cripples you into a drooling fetus of anxiety, where the only place you can semi-function is behind a counter in some fluorescent lit cavern where they make you wear a primary-colored polo shirt and offer every customer a store credit card with a fake smile glued to your pale pimply face. Because that’s what happened to me. Wait a minute. No. That was the other guy.
Anyway. Rewind. 9-16-01. I was hosting my reading series—East Side Oral (the reading series your mother warned you about.) 9-11 was five days old.
The subways were silent. Hostile looks got thrown at anyone who talked, let alone laughed. SNL brought the NYC firefighters out on stage on 9-15. Moments of silence everywhere. My series went on as planned, in the spirit of patriotism and forward motion, but I felt ashamed and ill-equipped to write anything of my own. I read an article from the New York Times instead. I don’t remember what it was.
Then this morning, eleven years later, another Tuesday, September 11th, another sparkling temperate day, the kind that puts a spring in your step and hope in your heart. Then you remember.
Slipping that note into Spike’s insulated lunch tote I realized I never did write my story down.
9-11-01. I leave my apartment in Sunset Park Brooklyn to go to work. I temp in a law firm in midtown. I’m heading toward the subway—toward the N train. Or the D. Whichever comes first. I stop inside a corner bodega for a container of coffee yogurt.
A man has his elbow propped on a white metal shelf stocked with instant noodle soups. He’s watching a tiny black and white television bolted to the wall over the entrance. He says to me in an accent, pointing at the TV, “This happening. Right now.” He seems proud to show me. I look at the television as I pay for my yogurt. A dollar twenty-five. I’m not sure what I’m seeing. Buildings. Skyscrapers. Fire. Smoke.
Malaysia, I think. Isn’t that where the tallest buildings in the world are? But those buildings are rounded, right? And darker glass than these. These buildings look like the—Oh my God. I realize what I’m seeing. I say it out loud. “Oh my God.” Smoke and fire billowing from one of the towers of the World Trade Center. What. How. I don’t—
A plane, says the man. A plane? I think. A small plane, it has to be, the kind of plane owned by a rich guy with something to prove. He fucked up, this billionaire airplane guy.
My pace quickens down 40th Street toward 5th Avenue. Sunset Park is the tallest natural point in Brooklyn (the tallest man-made point is in Green-wood Cemetery), named for the beautiful sunsets visible over New Jersey from the park. Our apartment building is set on the highest bit. We have a view of Manhattan from our second floor kitchen window.
As soon as I turn onto 5th Avenue I see it. Them. The Twin Towers. Smoke unfurls over the skyline, over the river—a black ribbon against an impossibly azure sky. Everyone on the sidewalk stares. What is going on? A plane, right? Two planes. I saw the second one hit, says a man. Big plane.
The second plane? How—
On 4th Avenue and 36th Street a police officer stands at the mouth of the subway stairs. I move to pass him. I’m going to work, I say. Not today, he says.
I stare at the buildings, shake my head, turn back towards home, trudging up the hill. My mind cannot compute. How do two big planes crash into skyscrapers in downtown New York City?
Bryan appears on his bike. I was looking all over for you, he says. Thank God you didn’t go in the subway. I tell him about the police officer. We walk back home together trying to make sense of it. Howard Stern, he says. That’s how he learned about it. He’s been listening to Stern and looking out the kitchen window. Did you see the smoke?
We listen to Howard Stern and look out the window. Two planes. Stern is not joking. Terrorist attack. He’s suddenly a soulful confounded journalist, a newscaster with heart. We cling to his every word. Turn on the news. Listen, watch, look out the window.
We climb the stairs to the roof. Nod at our neighbors who’ve come to watch. The air is filled with the smell of smoke. Acrid and bitter. The smoke thickens and bleeds all over the sky after the first tower collapses. Gray smoke for the North Tower. White smoke for the South Tower. A pile of it. When the second tower falls, we see it happen. It’s there, and then there’s just a mass of smoke. All gray. Everywhere. The saddest sight.
Debris from the towers blows into Brooklyn. I find an inventory sheet, its edge as beautifully charred as if it were a prop on a movie set. Then another, and another. Blackened scraps of paper in the courtyard. On the roof. Blowing in from Hell above. We know by now what it was. Who it was. Why it happened. But it’s still surreal.
We get on our bikes and ride all over Brooklyn looking for somewhere to donate blood, but no one needs blood. We run into friends. We are all shocked, wanting to help, feeling useless, our jaws sore from saying the same three words so many times. Oh my God. We call our families. Our families call us. Friends call to make sure we’re okay. We think of everyone we know who could be hurt or worse. Miraculously, everyone we know is okay.
In the afternoon, we ride our bikes to a friend’s apartment. Now our heads are filled with images of people jumping out of buildings. We pray they died on the way down. We pray they made peace, found something that made it bearable in the end. What choice is there but to fly in your last moment, instead of choke?
A man, dressed in a suit caked in ash, arrives at our friend’s place. His head, his face, his briefcase. Businessman ghost zombie. Walked from Manhattan to Cobble Hill. Someone’s going to be happy to see you, I say. I want to reach out, hug him, but I don’t. It’s as if there’s a wall around him. What he’s seen, what he’s gone through is something I can’t touch. I’ll never be able to truly understand. The light has left his eyes.
9-14-01. Candlelight vigil in the park at dusk. We stand on top of Brooklyn watching the smoke, smelling the smoldering ruins, talking to neighbors. Oh my God. Ay Dios mio.
9-15-01. We ride the silent subway to meet our friends, transplants from Toronto. We take pictures. Tons of pictures. We need to see for ourselves, to capture and make sense of it. To document it. We exit the train at Union Square and begin the journey south.
A woman glares at me, but I don’t stop to explain that this is how I’m grieving and digesting. We all have our ways, but I still feel the guilt. Not enough to put my camera away. A need I can’t explain keeps the viewfinder in front of my eye, presses the shutter over and over.
One of the photographs gets chosen for a gallery exhibit based out of SoHo. They publish a book called Here is New York. The photo, of a 20-year old man from Brooklyn in the National Guard does not make it into the book but my name is printed in the index and I feel a certain closure, a shameful pride, but I will never understand how the people in the buildings suffered, or how a man can believe in virgins and God and evil and infidels to the point where he would steer a jetliner into a skyscraper.
But history repeats itself. Maybe so I can understand. So we can learn to accept the existence of horror in our lifetimes and prepare the next generation for a better way to handle conflict. I want my children to know the world as it is, so they know what to struggle for.
The beauty and the pain. You can’t have one without the other. Counting our blessings. Giving thanks for the freedoms we have, to choose what’s best for our bodies, to choose who to love and who to govern. To live in a country where we are allowed so many choices and privileges, where an attack like 9-11 is so rare it silences the subways for days.