Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Repost: From A Clear Blue Sky

Autumn in New York is a time of perfect days. Once the end-of-summer hurricanes have whipped their tails through, they leave the city with a fresh, clean, newly-scrubbed feel. The hot, stinking, humid air mass that has oppressed the city for two long months is brushed aside by fast-moving air. The streets are washed of the accumulated piss, vomit, rotting garbage, and grime of the last few weeks of heat. The air smells sweet, the breezes are transporting. The brisk feel in the air is invigorating, and the pace of the city matches it, picking up again after seemingly struggling to slog through the soupy summertime. And the sky. My god, the sky. A blue so vast, so high, you swear you can see the curve where outer atmosphere meets outer space in that deep, deep blue. An unlimited ceiling, as they call it, and it sure feels that way, making a soul soar with possibility. You could bust out singing like you’re on a Broadway stage when really? You’re just on 3rd Ave. I used to love those days.

Tuesday was predicted to be one of those days five years ago. I had things on at work, of course, so I wasn’t going to get to just walk the city as that weather begs you to do, and I woke up counting off my obligations. It is my habit to turn on the weather before I commit to clothes for the day, just in case the forecast has changed, and today was no exception. My sister was staying with us at the time, and I met her sleepy face in the living room, where I turned on the TV.

It would be appropriately dramatic to say that that’s when my world turned on its head, that everything screeched to a halt, that the needle slid off the record. But honestly, that’s not what happened. I was, indeed, greeted not by Katie and Matt and Ann, but by a shot of one burning tower. Misterpie stumbled out too, when I called him, and said he had heard that plane, had woken slightly with his heart racing, thinking it was too close and too low and sounded set to land on our house. My thoughts? I hope they don’t sound insensitive given what actually turned out to be true, but I would like to be honest about what I thought at that very moment in time. Something along the lines of: Wow. Horrible accident. Not the first time, the Empire State Building had been hit by a plane, after all. Definitely there would be a death toll, but all in all, once the horror died down, it would likely not be too much worse than other plane crashes. They can fix a building. They had fixed the trade centre after that bombing, too. Horrible, though, very sad, of course. And I dressed and went to work. Once there, I turned on the radio and told the others, who hadn’t heard at all. And then.

And then. We heard the rest. Another plane. Another building. I felt my mind groping around for an explanation of how a second terrible accident could happen. Was the pilot distracted by the fire? Was the gorgeous sunny day just too bright to see ahead? No, after a few seconds, I couldn’t avoid the inevitable conclusion any further. This was intentional. And that is when things turned over. When my mood went from somewhat marred by the thought of the awful tragedy just to the south of us to a feeling of being hunkered down, waiting. Waiting for news, waiting to hear what we should do, waiting for a third shoe to drop. Noticing that outside, all we heard was sirens. Never-ending sirens racing by us and into the distance, southward, southward, towards what everyone else was watching, paralyzed.

Well before ten, the city was in a state of lockdown. By the time someone called us and told us what to do, the subways, bridges, and tunnels were closed. Buses weren’t running. The streets and airwaves were clogged with people trying to reach home, reach their loved ones, reach someone, somewhere. I was in charge at the branch, and the only member of the staff who lived in Manhattan. As we locked up the library, one librarian went to her boyfriend’s, just around the corner, while another decided she had to get home to her young boy, far out in Queens, even if it meant walking. It did. She walked nearly four hours to get to him. I called home, where my sister told me that Misterpie had gone out, didn't know where he was. I knew. I was certain he had grabbed his camera and run out the door. Damn fool. I uttered words I never thought would issue from my mouth: “Keep listening to the news. If anything else is coming, there’s a bomb shelter in the telephone building across the street.” (How we had found that sign an amusing anachronism until just then.) The rest of us stuck together, walking to the large branch that served our district where we congregated with others.

On the way, we met others wandering or rushing through dusty, oddly quiet streets. It struck me over and over as we walked that this was just like a movie, exactly how they portray New York and its inhabitants under attack when Hollywood does it. How do they know? How do they get it so right? It was so surreal. Hordes of people walking, staring blankly, walking north, away from the burning and the rubble and the sirens. People gathered around cars and vans stopped in the middle of avenues, doors opened wide, listening together to the radio for updates. A couple covered in white dust but for their red eyes had stopped, were talking to anyone who would listen. They had driven their car out of the World Trade Centre’s underground garage mere seconds before the towers collapsed into the space where they had been parked. Had heard the rumble behind them and been enveloped in the billowing clouds of crushed concrete. Were telling us to go home to our loved ones and give them a hug.

Closer to downtown at the turreted Jefferson Market library, we could see from the staff room a clear view of the column of dust that had been raised like a ghost in the place of the newly fallen towers of steel. My reactions to the tumbling of that monumental, monolithic symbol of commerce were foolish, incredulous. How could a building just fall down, for goodness’ sake?! Just disappear in a heap of rubble? Especially after standing there and taking it for a good 45 minutes or so? Impossible. Buildings are solid, well-constructed, engineered, much to-be-trusted. People take pride and care in their design and construction. Those things do not just fall apart like so much cheap dollar-store junk. They can not just go away in a puff of smoke. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Truth be told, I still can’t. The gap in the skyline seems like an illusion, a trick of the mind, evidence that clearly I was just imagining the existence of that edifice in the first place.

After confirming with our own eyes that this hole in the city existed, that their TV said the same thing ours did, we were ready to go home, ready to crouch down and huddle together in safety, in fear, in an attempt to distract ourselves for some moments. We had raided the library’s video shelf on the way out the door, and picked up snacks and water on the way to my house. My staff, minus only two, crowded into my small Manhattan living/dining room, the office chair and fronts of other people’s legs pressed into service as seating. We talked, took turns trying to get through on the phone to our worried relatives, watched Shaft to take a break from the news, looked out the windows at the emergency vehicles below and the roaring air force jets patrolling overhead. My sister took a nap, shutting it out for some time.

Misterpie was back by now but had indeed raced into the street, walking southwards to Washington Square Park, where he stood with hundreds of others in amazement, snapping pictures to record this momentous, historic, horrific thing. He captured, as he watched, the first tower falling within the frame of his camera lens, an incredible image born of pure happenstance.

He turned away shortly after this when, looking more carefully at what appeared to be bits of building falling away in black specks, he realized that they were in fact people choosing to jump to their death rather than face what was inside. He did not want, he later told me, to watch people dying before his eyes. He walked a block over, and in the moment when the remaining tower was blocked from his view, he heard a gasp arise from the city around him as it tumbled out of sight. And they were gone.

By mid afternoon, transit was moving again, people had been reached and reassured, the city began to shake off the blankie we’d been hiding under, brush ourselves off, and get moving again. My staff began to disperse homeward, ready to be faced with a long journey, but needing to move on towards their own spaces, their own safe havens and cozy dens.

The next few days passed in a haze. Every roaring jet overhead drew a slight flinch and upwards glance. They were all military - someone to watch over us. A definite message was being written in the air: Keep Out. The presence and posturing and defensive stance were palpable in the airspace and on the streets, bristling with young men wrapped in camouflage, stuffed into army boots, topped with caps pulled low, and studded with assault rifles. They had the wide-legged stance and serious, straight-ahead faces of people who Mean Business. An occupation was in place for the time being.

I remember feeling numb, as though I wandered through a dream, except for the desperate feeling of wanting to do something. How could I help? I registered to volunteer, but didn’t have much to offer that they needed for this time, this emergency. Recording info, sorting, looking after children for other workers or bereaved families, I ventured? I never got a call, wrung my hands and paced with helplessness. As days went by, I noticed that two blocks away, outside the ME’s office, my street had been taken over and set up with refrigerator trucks and klieg lights that would stay for months as fragments were brought from what would be dubbed Ground Zero to the people who would sort and identify remains by DNA analysis alone in most cases.

Around the corner, the makeshift Wall of Prayers outside Bellevue Hospital grew organically, row upon row of posters pleading for information about the missing. Sheets of plastic thrown over them by someone to protect them from the rain that had begun to fall. Rows forming rather than layers, as the panicky families showed respect enough for those that had come earlier not to cover their urgent messages, but to move over a bit and stake a space alongside them. Small tokens, candles, and bunches of flowers nudged each other at the base of the wall, a construction hording now crowded with photos and made sacred. (This has now been moved to the Museum of the City of New York, I discovered, where 80 feeet of it will be displayed this week.) A small river of visitors moved by, looking, hoping, paying their respects, touching the real human tragedy of the too-big-to-comprehend event. This was when I cried, seeing family photos, happy smiling faces, the pleas and intimate details in the descriptions of the lost.

The death toll was, thankfully, miraculously, many times smaller than originally feared. My father, a nurse, had been called in and waited with the other health care professionals all night for injured victims that never came. The numbers shrank daily in the news as people found each other. Small hopes were rekindled, fervent prayers answered. And still, this wall brought it home. I cried, Misterpie cried, we talked little because we didn’t have to. We both understood the shock and sorrow that had hit us on that walk that made the abstract into reality. These people, these faces, were the faces of young, hopeful newlyweds, middle-aged parents with their families, people who had worked hard for an upcoming retirement. We cried for the loss and the pain and the long road ahead for those families and for the understanding of how tenuous our own luck was.

It took me fully four days of varying degrees of sorrow and numbness to smile again, and even that was a small, wry twist of the mouth, not the wide smile I have been so often complimented for, an easy default setting of my face in regular times. It took longer for the soldiers and guardsmen to give the city back over to its regular guardians. Longer for the fires to stop burning and the smoke to clear, for the smudge to gradually drift away from the sky over Manhattan and for that fabulous blue dome to become unmarred. At midnight on 9/11/02, I let out a breath I didn't know I'd been holding, feeling safer with that anniversary's passing without incident. What has not yet been returned to me is the joy I took in those glorious, perfect fall days. I have never yet seen one without being dragged backwards in time, even now in another city where we too have those perfect days. The ceiling may indeed be limitless, but that deep blue has looked more like a shadow than infinity these five years since 9/11.

The pictures in this were taken by Misterpie from Washington Square Park and that vicinity.
The image of the first tower falling shows, when seen at full size, the top of the building tilting and a cloud erupting outwards as the struts just started to buckle and the building to compress downwards. I'm sorry you can't see it any more clearly on blogger, though clicking on it does give you a slightly bigger version.

This was originally posted on Life of 'Pie (the original version) on September 11, 2006, five years after 9/11. It's nice to find that each year, this sits easier, though of course, I am one of those lucky ones who lost no one close to me. I can only hope that for those that did, it is also getting easier and that time is wearing smoother the jagged edges of loss.