Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Sun Fled

Another Remembrance of September 11

I'm not sure you've heard, but the tenth anniversary of September 11th is today.

Well, of course, you've heard. Every magazine has cover stories on it. Sporting events from the U.S. Open to our local rec soccer league are honoring the day. Radio stations are going DJ-free for the weekend. And of course, the politicians will wrap themselves in flags and blow long-winded speeches and get misty-eyed all day.

I feel a little guilty about this, but I find it a bit maudlin at best and exploitative at worst. The maudlin exploitation will reach its heights tonight when two of my least favorite football teams, the Cowboys and Jets, play the first New York football game of the season. The NFL, masters of patriotic flair, will make the event seem more American than the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

So I was reluctant to add my voice to the rivers of rhetoric flowing this weekend. But I actually was in Manhattan that day, as I've been in Manhattan most of my working days for 23 years. And I thought, before I forget, I should record my memories of that day, and the weeks after.

In September of 2011, I was working at a publishing company on 21st Street, near the Flatiron Building. But Tuesday the 11th found me farther uptown, on Park in the 30's, at an offsite meeting.

As I walked into an unfamiliar office building on Park Avenue, my first contact with the news came like many others. The front desk guys had just heard reports that a plane hit one of the Twin Towers. We assumed it was a small plane, assumed it was an accident, and went up to our meeting.

But by mid-morning our mobile phones were buzzing and we knew it was bigger. My friends from work and I found a conference room with a television and started watching. Like everyone else, we watched the towers fall...over and over and over. The repetition should have been numbing, but it wasn't - each time it had the same shock value.

After an hour we left for a pub, Rosie O'Grady's, on 46th Street and 7th Avenue. Why a pub? Partly because my bro-in-law the Rock Star was there and partly because we felt trapped and isolated in this unfamiliar office building and wanted to be among other people.

As we came out into the street on Park Avenue the scene stunned us. The city was effectively shut down - no cars were moving, police were everywhere. Pedestrians roamed the street. I looked left - downtown - and was further stunned by the volume of smoke rising from lower Manhattan. I was a good 3 miles North of the Trade Center but the vast haze of smoke seemed much closer.

At this point, we go into a bit of an information void. The bar was packed and loud and it was impossible to hear the television. Plus, mobile service in the city was sketchy at this point, further cutting off communication with the outside world. We were so close to Ground Zero we could see it but knew less of what was happening than someone watching Tom Brokaw on their couch in Tacoma.

I had two close friends working downtown in those days. One, Gombo*, we found quickly - he never made it past the Lincoln Tunnel on his way to work. The other took much longer to find - he was among the crowds who walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge.

* Gombo had a lot of associates who worked in the Towers and made an observation few have made since then. The NFL season opened the night before, with a Monday night game between the Broncos and the defending NFC champs Giants. The game was close late - it was tied mid-way through the 3rd quarter - which meant that many Giants fans were up much later the night before than they normally would be on a Monday night. Which meant they got a later train the next day. Which meant when the planes hit the towers at 8:46am and 9:03am, a lot of guys who normally have been at their desks at the time were still making their way to work.

Rumors were that the bridges and tunnels were shut down but we decided to hop in the Rock Star's car and head home. There was surprisingly little traffic on the West Side highway, but many of the cars were covered with soot. We got up to the George Washington Bridge and - this part's a little strange - we crossed right over. Strange because everyone we've talked to since said the bridges and tunnels were closed all day.

The most spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline are from New Jersey. As we headed South on the eastern spur of the New Jersey Turnpike, lower Manhattan was on our left. I've lived in the New York area my entire life and know the skyline well. But here was lower Manhattan, denuded of its most familiar landmarks, and in their place a vast cyclone of smoke rising up and drifting right out the island tip and over the Statue of Liberty. Our car was silent.

Eventually I got home to my wife and family. My kids were 4 and 1 and had no idea what happened. My wife and I hugged for a long while, and watched TV till the early morning hours.

The worrying wasn't over, though. My father, at the time a 61 year-old volunteer firefighter, joined the armies of volunteers headed downtown to help. He spent the evening at Shea Stadium, mobilized with so many others hoping to help. But of course, he never made it to Ground Zero. There was nobody left to save.

After 9/11
I stayed home on the 12th and returned to the city on Thursday the 13th. My office was on 21st and 5th and the smoke was still clearly seen from our corner, and would be for weeks to come. The presiding mood in the city was paranoia. That day I had a box with a poster in it, and walking the streets I felt people looking at the box, wondering what kind of weapon I had in there.

I was fortunate to not lose anyone close in the attacks, but in the coming months it was astonishing how many deaths we heard about. The owner of our local pizzeria lost his wife. A buddy from our pick-up hoops game's aunt was killed. My cousin Kevin, FDNY, lost many friends, including his closest. Another firefighter, Danny Marshall*, who went to elementary school with my wife, died along with 11 others from his firehouse.

* The story of that house, Engine 40, Ladder 5, is told in David Halberstam's book, Firehouse. My wife still has the ornament Danny gave her for Secret Santa 35 years ago, and it goes on our tree every year.

Amazingly, the ripples continue. We've only recently learned that one of my daughter's classmates lost his father that day. His mother was pregnant at the time, and the baby girl born months later is on the cover of People this week.

In the weeks after 9/11 everything was different. I've been an avid reader my whole life, but couldn't read fiction. I read nothing but histories of the Middle East and newspapers and magazines. I couldn't listen to music for weeks, maybe months.

One day in late September I tried to venture downtown with a couple of work friends. We couldn't get close enough to Ground Zero to see much, but instead spent an extraordinarily poignant hour in Union Square Park. USP is on 14th Street, and in the aftermath of 9-11 14th Street was a barrier to downtown - you couldn't go South. Therefore, the park became an impromptu gathering place.

There is an equestrian statue of George Washington in the park, his sword seemingly pointing towards the Trade Center. It was covered in flowers and peaceful graffiti. All around the park signs for Missing People were posted, but what had started as signs had become memorials, with flowers, tributes, and street art. We walked through like it was a large communal wake, reading every tribute, knowing by now these people weren't missing and mourning their deaths.

Things returned to normal, eventually. For me, the symbolic end of the mourning period came with my return to music and fiction. I was in the library looking at novels when I saw a book called A Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin*. I picked it up and read in the front flap that it took place in a mystical version of New York City, near the turn of the 20th Century. Hmm, I thought, that might work for me. New York, but not New York. In the table of contents I saw a chapter titled "White Dog of Afghanistan". That seemed fitting. Finally, I read in the author bio that the author's next book would be called Giuliani: A Soldier of the Great War. That cinched it - I took the book out of the library and lost myself in its pages.

* I became a big fan of Helprin's and consider him the most underated American novelist of my lifetime. The critical acclaim of his earlier works is over-the-top and well-deserved. True fame has eluded him so far, but maybe one day his genius will be recognized.

Finally, there was music. I was driving in my car listening to a CD my friend Jimmy Shin made for me when a Greg Brown song came on called Funky Day. The opening verses suddenly had new meaning for me:

Well the coffee boiled and the sun fled
Ah there's grime on the windows, and the streets are dead
It been Tuesday all week and it's Tuesday again
Today is a Parisian, I am an American.

And I know it ain't, I know I ain't, I hope you ain't
Gonna go away
Ah will ya help me help me help me help me help me help me make it through this funky day
Ah will ya help me help me help me help me baby will ya help me
Ya gotta help me make it through this funky day.

We'd all lived through months of Tuesdays, reliving the moment when the sun fled and the streets were dead. Life returned to normal for those of us lucky enough not to have lost loved ones.

Yes, the commemoration of today may be a bit maudlin and exploitive, but you know, sometimes the bumper stickers are right: We shall never forget.

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