“On 9/11 I Lost New York” 2008 Edition

(Photo: Different bridge, same exodus: my experience on 9/11. Credit: Joseph Rodruguez.)

An annotated version of the following entry is cross-posted on my Huffington Post Chicago byline.

Today, with the world again awash in retrospect, I usually prefer to be blogging about about courtesy, or kittens, or one of any number of safer, happier, topics. Seven years on and I had originally thought not to mark the occasion again.  At some point, we just have to emotionally let go inside, or we destroy ourselves. In the end, while I feel no need to make a pilgrimage to a dusty construction site in Lower Manhattan, I still feel a need for words.  I wrote these particular words in 2006, to mark my experience of the fifth anniversary of 9/11.  Here’s my story from that day…

The headline a quote from my old New York friend, Sarah Massey, and one that speaks to my experience, as well. I rarely dote on that day. It’s been years since I stood on the Brooklyn Heights Esplanade at dusk, candle in hand, surrounded by thousands of my neighbors, mourning. I felt no need to watch the cable documentaries, nor for that matter Nicolas Cage crawling out from under a slab of concrete on the big screen. I was in Manhattan that morning–once was enough, thanks.

A native New Yorker’s devotion to their hometown is a fierce, almost irrational thing, rivaled only by a Chicagoan’s devotion to this great city. We don’t leave Gotham lightly. But it’s been five years since my hometown died for me, and almost four since I left it behind, perhaps for good. I’ll always feel the loss, but I don’t want to forget the day that caused it. I rarely tell my 9/11 story. I was only on the fringes of the hell that happened downtown. But I was in Manhattan. And I was part of the exodus.

I was halfway to work before I knew what was happening. Already, my inbound Q train wasn’t very crowded. Had I turned on the TV that morning I’d have known why. But I woke up late and wasted no time stumbling out the door. As we crossed the Manhattan Bridge, I thought it was odd that a group of people were pointing and staring out the windows on the south side of the train. I figured they were tourists. I didn’t looked up from my iPod.

That changed when we made our first stop in Manhattan. A woman boarded and spontaneously started talking about an airplane having crashed into the World Trade Center. I put away my headphones. I had a sinking feeling, which was rewarded one stop later when another new passenger joined the discussion and announced the second impact. Hers would be the first of many uses of the word “terrorism” that I would hear that day. She said we were under attack. At least we were underground.

I changed trains and headed up to my office above Grand Central Terminal. On the way, my train was delayed in the tunnel for several minutes, and I had the impression that every single person in my car was holding their breath. At my job, there was no work to be done. Everyone was crowded around the TV, watching the breaking news from Washington D.C., seeing smoke rise in split-screen above the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I had colleagues in the north tower. Judging by the impact hole I could see, I was sure they were dead. But I didn’t dote on that possibility, because our office sat directly in the shadow of the 60-story Met Life Building and I wasn’t waiting around.

Back outside, Midtown was surreal. People leaned on buildings, talking, or sat on the curb, crying. There was nowhere to go–the subways had stopped running. Instead, like elsewhere, people gathered around the nearest television monitor and watched the news. It was in a deli on Third Avenue where I saw the first tower fall. I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming, it didn’t fully register until they replayed the tape. And still it didn’t make sense. It was incomprehensible, an icon of the capital of the world, erasing itself from existence in a matter of seconds. I had the momentary feeling that I was observing myself from without, and wondered if I was in shock.

That’s when the exodus began. With the primary means of moving about New York City–the subway–shut down, there was little else to do but walk, and the non-residential population of Manhattan began doing just that. Unfortunately, I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and the direct path to get there from Midtown follows straight through lower Manhattan. So I knew I wasn’t going home. I decided to head for the home of my Portuguese friend, Jose. He lived in Elmhurst, Queens, six-and-a-half miles away. I started walking.

People with radios were talking about reports of transit buses being mobilized at the foot of the 59th Street Bridge to bring evacuees into Queens. I made my way to the bridge in an increasingly huge column of walkers. It seemed we all had the same idea. A mile later at the bridge, we found dozens of willing riders waiting, but no buses. Spontaneously, groups of people began wading into traffic, walking next to cars up the onramps to the bridge. A lone police officer tried in vain to stem the tide of pedestrians, but within a few minutes, several lanes of the bridge were taken over by thousands of walking evacuees, myself included.

We walked in traffic, next to cars and vans and delivery trucks overflowing with disparate strangers being ferried over the bridge by hundreds of Good Samaritan drivers. Walking next to the huge wheels of buses and trucks was the trickiest part. Halfway across the mile-long bridge, I looked south towards where the World Trade Center should have been. All that was left was smoke. A rumor went along the bridge that there were other hijacked planes and other targets in New York. We walked as quickly as we could to firmer ground.

There was little solace to be found when we reached Queens Plaza. Still with no subways and a trickle of buses, most of us just kept walking. I continued up Queens Boulevard, befriending for the moment a group of office workers from Midtown who were attempting to walk home to Long Island. They had a radio. We heard about the plane in Pennsylvania. Four miles later, before I finally turned off of Queens Boulevard at Jose’s house, I paused to consider the line of evacuees. Consuming the sidewalks on each side of the street, it stretched, in both directions, as far as the eye could see.

Cell service having long since evaporated, I arrived with no notice. Jose’s sister had just returned from retrieving her daughter from school in Brooklyn. She blew her car past emergency barricades on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and shadowed emergency vehicles to get there and back. The students had watched the towers fall from the roof of the school. I sat down for the first time in three hours and witnessed the TV images that the rest of the world had been watching since that morning (though to this day I refuse to watch footage of the jumpers). Jose was stuck safely at a work meeting in New Jersey and wouldn’t make it back to Queens for 24 hours.

The subway returned in the late afternoon, and I was able to travel to my friend Alan’s house on the other side of Park Slope, where he and his boyfriend, Esteban, were waiting. But it was slow going and lower Manhattan was off limits–a restriction assailed by one hysterical woman, obviously in shock, who complained to the conductor that she was going to miss her appointment on Chambers Street, a thoroughfare at that moment covered in ash fall.

When I emerged from the subway in Brooklyn, the cloud from Ground Zero hung directly overhead, as if a comet had passed by a just little too low. I collapsed into Alan and Esteban, and we all collapsed on the couch. We avoided the view from Alan’s living room window. Until that morning, it had framed a panorama of lower Manhattan gathered around the Twin Towers. We turned on the TV and started to write one of a million lists begun in New York that day to attempt to determine the whereabouts of our friends and colleagues who had worked in lower Manhattan.

Our task was made slightly easier when I saw two of my colleagues from the north tower in a news broadcast, walking slowly away from Ground Zero, covered in soot. It was the first moment in a very long day that I felt joy. Before I finally left for home, we also watched 7 World Trade Center burn and fall into itself.

I walked the 13 blocks between Alan’s apartment and my own with my shirt held over my mouth, a pose matching everyone else walking through Park Slope that night. The wind had changed. The acrid cloud from Ground Zero, intensified by the fall of the final building, was now hugging the ground through Brownstone Brooklyn. It was a sickening smell that would become familiar to all New Yorkers in the weeks ahead. A combination of burnt concrete and death, the odor would permeate the subway system well into 2002, every train through lower Manhattan carrying the stench to the farthest corners of the city.

Also in the weeks ahead would come the candlelight processions, the spontaneous vigils, and the walls of the missing–everywhere, the walls of the missing. That was the most overwhelming part. Not the masses of anonymous photos posted on the gate at St. Paul’s Chapel, but the single fliers you’d find taped to lamposts in your neighborhood bearing the familiar faces of casual strangers you’d smile at in the grocery store but would never see again. I didn’t let it in, at first. It would be five days before I would watch the St. Patrick’s Cathedral memorial ceremony, lie down on the floor of my apartment, and uncontrollably sob.

After 9/11, for a time, New Yorkers became less contentious and more united amongst themselves than usual. That didn’t last, but other changes were more enduring. Gotham became and stayed a city of fear, and swat teams, and bomb scares, and checkpoints, and pat-downs, and magnetic wands, and machine guns. I waited two years, but the machine guns never left. So I did.

Once, Devyn and I had a heated discussion regarding the experience of 9/11 in the world beyond New York–most specifically, in Chicago. Since I’ve been here, whenever the subject of 9/11 has come up, I’ve always been amazed at the lengths to which Chicagoans go to try, seemingly, to make that day theirs. Every one (including Devyn, when he lived here), remembers the shock, the fear, the evacuation of the Loop, the tense weeks and months immediately after. I’ve been unfair for a long time in my estimation of the local experience of that day. Truly, we all were changed by 9/11, and we all still carry the emotional scars from it, no matter where on the planet we were when we turned on the TV.

Seven years later the scars have, at least, begun to heal. But I can’t shake the nagging feeling that, for a minority of us, the wounds will never fully disappear. So I beg your forgiveness, but try as I might, there’s one thought I just can’t let go: the world may feel a tragic ownership of 9/11, but that day can never fully belong to those who watched it on TV or were evacuated from their own downtowns, terrified but safely afar.

In my mind and in my heart, September 11, 2001, will belong forever to the New Yorkers and Washingtonians who ran for their lives that day.

And to those who weren’t given the chance.

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