I’ve never written about September 11, 2001, other than in my journal that evening, and then again in more detail about 10 days later. Most years, when this date rolls around, it’s not that big of a deal, other than avoiding imagery of the towers, which still makes me sick to my stomach. But being in Midtown that day was so surreal. Maybe because this is the 20th anniversary and the imagery is more intense than other years — there are now multiple documentaries, I think, though I have no desire to look them up — this year feels different. This morning, I became obsessed with finding that fall’s journal, and tore my basement apart in search of it. When I finally found the entry from that Tuesday, it was brief and anticlimactic — a relatively objective account of the day’s events — and in retrospect I wonder if it was shock.
I had arrived surprisingly early at work despite being out late the night before at a launch party for Lucky Magazine, which is the reason why so many of my coworkers arrived late that morning, unaware of what was happening directly above their subway rides. By my own calculations, my train car must have passed under the Chambers/WTC station around the time the first plane hit. By the time I landed at my cubicle in Times Square, my friend and cube neighbor Emily, who had just hung up her phone, said that someone had called to tell her that a plane hit one of the World Trade Center buildings. “So weird,” we thought aloud, and racked our brains to remember a similar incident years prior: a low-flying plane gone off course. Moments later, my boss came in, didn’t say a word, went straight to his office and turned on the TV. By then, the second plane had hit the second tower. Coworkers filed into the office either completely unaware of what was going on, if they’d arrived via train shut off from the news; or completely shocked, because they’d heard the news over the radios in their cabs and town cars.
The morning took on a surreal spin. By 10am or so, the staff had gathered in the conference room and was watching live coverage of the towers as they were collapsing, which was just gross, but we couldn’t look away. The Pentagon was hit at some point, and live coverage flipped back and forth from the burning towers to the burning Pentagon. At some point, news broke of another, possibly related crash somewhere in Pennsylvania. And there we all were, sitting in the tallest skyscraper in Times Square. Shortly thereafter, we were told to evacuate.
The trains were all fucked up, the traffic was totally jammed, so everyone started walking. I remember it was absolutely gorgeous outside — one of those bright, blue-sky days that mark the beginning of fall. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, which made the thick cloud of smoke and ash forming downtown all the more stark. I was with Emily, Brekke, Rumaan, I think Sam, maybe someone else, and we were all walking in silence. There were people everywhere on the streets, but no one was talking. No one was smiling. Some people were just standing still in the middle of the street, looking toward downtown; others were not really looking at anything, just standing there in shock. If there was car traffic, I don’t recall any; I definitely can’t recall hearing anything. I remember seeing people lined up at payphones, 20 or 30 deep; the handful of people that had mobile phones couldn’t get them to work, and most of the landlines were tied up. My parents had managed to get through to me on my office line earlier that morning and my mom was crying hysterically — which I thought was so odd, since I was nowhere near Wall Street. In the days and weeks to follow, people said that from a global point of view, the U.S. was attacked; from the American point of view, New York City was attacked; and from a New Yorker’s point of view, downtown was attacked. I was safe; I was in Midtown. But I had friends who worked downtown. At some point I was able to get through to Jean, who worked at Goldman Sachs just down the street from the towers. I barely remember our conversation other than to confirm that she was OK and was getting out of there as soon as she could.
We walked to someone’s apartment and sat on the floor and watched the local news for a while. I can’t remember who’s apartment, or how long we were there, or when we left, or why. The things I remember most clearly are fragments from that impossibly long walk: the mobs of people in suits and dress clothes dusted or covered in ash, staring blankly, walking northward as we passed them headed south; later, walking past a hospital in lower Manhattan, maybe Gramercy Park or thereabouts, with what looked like a full staff of people just standing silently in front of the receiving area, all of them in scrubs, arms crossed or wringing their wrists, waiting for arrivals. Except there weren’t any. By then, late afternoon, the towers were long collapsed.
I remember making it to an F train station in some bizarre version of rush hour: the station was just jammed with people trying to get home, out of Manhattan, any way they could. Some waited; others turned around and exited the stations to begin walking across the bridges. I remember two grown men in suits arguing aggressively, physically fighting to see who could cram onto the outbound train first. A third tried to pull one of them off the other, but failed; then, the men’s voices were shut off by the closing train door, and they were trapped entangled on top of each other, squished against the windows. I don’t remember my own subway ride home. I do remember being relieved to see that both my roommates made it home, as one of them worked in the Financial District. Shortly thereafter, she said she was headed to the store to stock up on groceries, because “This is war.” I remember we watched a lot of Channel 2 news, with the same harried anchors fixed in their seats from hours prior. They had been there all morning, all day, all evening.
The next morning, September 12, I went to work. I took a virtually empty train, once again passing under Chambers/WTC. I read the New York Times during my morning commute, and remember unfolding it on the train to reveal the cover: a giant photo of one of the towers engulfed in flames, framed by that impossibly blue sky. I can still picture it exactly: grey building, black smoke, orange flames, blue sky. At work, I was the only one there besides my boss. As managing editor of the magazine, my boss was charged with accounting for his staff. As his assistant, I was charged with calling everyone, and telling them that they were expected to return to work the next day. Some people were happy to hear from the office. Some people started crying while saying that they were OK. I remember it being really hard to get through the list. It felt like everyone knew someone who knew someone who was missing.