Sunday, September 11, 2011

It's Always on a Tuesday


Walking the Plank
World Trade Center Memorial
Hackensack River, DeKorte Park, The Meadowlands


If I had known what I would be missing, I would have taken pictures.

There is a special insouciance in taking things for granted. The past is behind you; the future is ahead; and there is always something free and brilliant and expansive in living in the moment. Anything can happen. And anything did.

It was on such a day when I caught an earlier train than usual to do some pre-workday sundry shopping at Century 21, the department store directly across the street from the World Trade Center. The store is quiet during those wee hours when the rest of rat race goes directly to their offices. I had it all planned out: I'd take the eleven-minute rumbling PATH ride into the WTC, arriving around 8:30 a.m., then zip across the street, make my purchases, then zip again to my windowed office perch a short block away at 222 Broadway. I had always had it all planned out. My commute was a clockwork of blissful rote. Even after years of the same-old same-old, the thrill of boarding the Hoboken-WTC train never faded. I was never dour nor jaded. I'd strap hang near the door, then wait for the conductor's unexpected (yet familiar) English accent over the PA system: “World Trade Center train. Watch the closing doors.”

We flooded onto the platform and up the first bank of escalators, then a steep staircase where we marched out of the subway pit proper. The soaring expanses of glass and steel amplified the echoed din as an even more massive bank of escalators lifted us to street level, those who rode yielding right to stair climbers who passed on the left, their stomp in a rhythmic cadence as strong as a battalion. Upon landing, I would scoot across the ceramic concourse and through the gleaming lobby of the North Tower. I knew the silken, seconds-long elevator rides, too, when I was working on the 72nd floor of the South Tower in 2000. I was a contractor then, and I also worked on the 32nd floor of the Deutsche Bank Building. I was offered permanent positions at each, but declined both because the fit wasn't right. I look on those career decisions with belated gratitude. I do believe they helped save my life.

A scream in an empty store can pierce your eardrum. This was the banshee screech from a woman who ran up the stairs at Century 21. “A plane hit the World Trade Center,” I was told by a clerk who just shrugged. I left immediately, looking up just once from St. Paul's cemetery as I made quick passage to my office building.

No painter's pigment could ever replicate the pitch of that black smoke.

It was hard to get a dial tone as I stood at my office window staring up a quarter mile. The view was one of the finest in the city, clear and formidable. I always worked with the towers watching me over my shoulder. When I put in late nights, the lights would incrementally twinkle on as if the buildings were two giant Christmas trees.

When I finally got a call through to my mother, I told her what I thought happened, that a Cessna hit one of the buildings. I assured her I was fine and not to worry. As I continued to transfix my gaze, I witnessed the incomprehensible. I told her that the second tower just exploded. The visual impact was so violent and bizarre that I didn't even hear it. The phones went dead. I picked up my things and headed for the door. “Why are you leaving?” one of my colleagues asked.

“If you'd seen what I just did, you'd leave, too,” I said flatly.

Many others had the same instinct. We left the building in an orderly way, none of us quite realizing what we'd just seen. I looked up just one more time and headed towards the East River. People were riveted on the street, some screaming about jumpers and fallers. A woman was keening in the middle of Fulton Street that her son was on the 87th floor of the South Tower. I would not be getting home that day. I did not get home for three days. I met a colleague on the street, and we walked our way slowly uptown. From 6th Avenue at 16th Street, we looked south at a sputtering gray cloud that devoured the buildings. My colleague put me up on his sofa that night; we smoked a lot and drank even more vodka. I could not get drunk. I felt nothing.

Two weeks later, we were allowed to return to work. My happy-go-lucky commute was now a three-hour refugee ordeal each way. The trains were dead, the towers were dead, and I was dead inside. My Christmas trees were now tilted like clawed cathedral walls held within a smoldering, heaving crater. My office still had one of the greatest views of the WTC, except it wasn't there anymore. The towers weren't looking over my shoulder as I worked; but for weeks into months, I heard the last layers of subterranean metal and concrete being pounded daily into a gravel which engineers could rebuild from. The wrecking balls worked from dawn to dusk. I watched them and I felt them without escape. My heart broke a second time with the necessary leveling of WTC 5, where Borders hugged the heel of the North Tower. It was another place I would sometimes go before work, when the store was quiet, and I'd poke around the aisles. I loved having the place to myself, the books to the rafters, and the visual fun in September, when the glossy, fine-art calendars arrived for sale.

September calendars don't do much for me anymore. I understand why the dates and days shift every six years, with that quirky leap year throwing even more of a loop. I'm all right with birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays never being on the same day of the week, but I think there should be a special dispensation for 9/11. In my head, even after a decade, it's always on a Tuesday.

28 comments:

  1. Amazing story, Susan! I hesitate to add my feelings as I wasn't there to experience the horror. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. This is an amazing post, thanks for sharing.

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  3. love you....Ricki & Dan

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  4. Susan, I told you if you wrote it, I would walk with you and I just did. I was in tears by the end of it. I can not even imagine what you went through and how you penned these beautiful words after a decade. Thank you for sharing. Hugs and more hugs.

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  5. Beautiful writing of an unfortunate happening. I saw this just on TV and I still cannot forget it. I have no clue how long it took you to sleep peacefully after witnessing this disaster.

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  6. Oh, Susan. You've captured so eloquently the shock and disbelief that so many felt that day. I was nowhere near NYC that day, and yet the fact that it was a Tuesday sticks with me the same way for some bizarre reason. I am so glad you took neither of those jobs and so heartbroken for all of the victims of that awful day. Sending you hugs and sharing tears today.

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  7. No one who hasn't been through it can really understand anything like this but your essay took me pretty close.
    I remember watching it all on TV, and the horror and sadness of it all. I can never understand how the people can claim they do this, anywhere in the world, in the name of God, religion or whatever. :(

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  8. What a n incredible story. I am glad you never accepted those jobs...

    Cheers,

    Rosa

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  9. What a beautiful, heart-wrenching post, Susan! So glad you didn't take those jobs up there, and so sorry for all the victims of the tragedy. In India, we see this often, though, of course, on a smaller scale, and I wonder if we are inured to it somehow. Maybe we will never know until it happens to us, and may we never know!

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  10. Unfortunately, beautifully written story can reveal horror and leave us empty and drained. I was not on the streets of Manhattan that Tuesday, but you managed to transport me there with your powerful words.
    I don't know what to say so I'll just send you a big hug. You are a brave woman.

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  11. Nothing to add, nothing to say. You wrote an amazing piece of text, and I thank you for it.

    a warm virtual hug for you

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  12. I am sorry Susan not only for the mindless loss of human life but also the agony it causes to the witnesses.

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  13. What a touching post Susan, thanks for sharing your experience with us, i am sure it wasn't easy to pen doen those tragic moments. And yes, i too , am really glad that you were not one of those 'up there'.

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  14. Its a heart-wrenching story! I was to come to downtown NYC on that very same day for GRE tutorial at Kaplan. But I didn't as news of the terrorist attack reached me moments prior. If i had started early, I probably wouldn't have gone home the night and I didn't have a colleague..

    My heart goes out to all the families who lost their beloved ones on 9/11.

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  15. I have goose-bumps all over reading the post Susan. I can't even comprehend what must have gone through you, for being a spectator of such an incomprehensible disaster caused by a bunch of demented ppl.

    Thanks for sharing this with all of us, am sure it must not have been easy for you re-living those horrifying moments.

    take care,
    Siri

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  16. Susan, I was not in NY a decade ago but have been to lower Manhattan numerous times since I moved to NY and am familiar with the area. I also took the PATH train a few times to visit friends on the other side of the Hudson. You penned your thoughts so well that I felt I was walking with you on that dreadful morning reading the post. I am glad you did not take either of those jobs...

    I was on the west coast that day and did not watch the planes crash into the towers. However, I did watch the live coverage as the towers burned and collapsed to rubles. I still get goose bumps seeing the footage on TV even after so many years.

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  17. Most everyone in the world probably remembers where they were, what they were doing on that Tuesday. Your memory of that day is indeed one of the most horrific and I cannot imagine what seeing it happen could do to you. I hope writing it helps Susan. Hugs.

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  18. Thank you for sharing your story.

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  19. Hi, Lynne. You didn't have to be there to share your own experience of that day. It impacted everyone to one degree or other wherever they were.

    Thank you, Rinku.

    Love you, too, R & D. : )

    Thank you, dear Jaya. That I succeeded in conveying the scenes and moods to transport some readers quite humbles me. My only regret is that I inflicted some pain through my storytelling. But I do remind myself that the world is not always pretty.

    "Speechless." Simona, you could not have described that day with any greater precision. We all felt that kind of shock, and some still do. And I know you are there. : )

    Champa - Thank you. It took a few years to reclaim my sleep, but subsequent losses in my life have me struggling with insomnia to this day. I make the most of the "up" time, though, so I am not a sympathetic figure.

    Thanks, Ricki. You *get* the Tuesday thing the way everyone who was actually there gets that spectacular blue sky. I've never seen a blue like that before nor since, not even when I was briefly worked on 72nd floor of the South Tower. The view is not the same in the clouds. Thanks for your hugs.

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  20. Aparna - Thank you. You've paid my writing skills a supreme compliment. The religious or political justifications of these acts of violence are all lies. Some people are evil and psychotic; they live in their own parallel universe. Those of good character and kindness will never understand them, nor should we.

    Rosa - Thanks. I know that thirteen people from Morgan Stanley, where I would have been in the South Tower, did not make it. One of them could have been me. I can only say that it wasn't my time. The random indifference of fate cannot be explained. I do not believe in predetermination.

    Good to see you, Valli.

    Sra - Thank you. Whether on large or small scale, these acts of violence are all great tragedies. I don't know how many Americans are or will be inured. It's always a jolt for me to see soldiers and specially trained police heavily armed, patrolling strategic areas. Their presence has never made me feel safe, only uneasy, that I am in a strange place.

    Lana - Thank you very much. I believe I was lucky rather than brave, although I am no coward. The first responders and those who picked through the rubble looking for survivors and recovering remains - they were the truly brave.

    Thanks very much, Sally. I will take that hug. : )

    Thank you, Archana. Witnesses often suffer a great deal, but I had the good fortune of seeking help, when that was not an option for thousands of others.

    Sunita - Thank you. It wasn't easy to write the post, but it wasn't terribly painful, either. Perhaps I will always be in a bit in denial. I broke down later when I saw the photos of the families of the fallen at the memorial.

    Cool Lassie - You must have spent a lot of time afterwards wondering "what if?" I know I did, even today when I look at the PATH ticket I bought that morning, if I had caught a later train. I'm very glad you heard the news and were spared what would have been an especially long and horrid day.

    Siri - It's still incomprehensible. As I mentioned to Sunita above, much of my emotion was blunted, almost the same way it was during that day. It still strikes me as a very odd and surreal.

    Usha - Thank you. I never actually saw the planes themselves, only the second fireball. I didn't know what I was witnessing; I thought it was spontaneous combustion from the other tower. I didn't know I was watching thousands of people killed right in front of me. That's what gives me goosebumps. I spent hours into days obsessively studying photographs, trying to piece together that morning, but I never watched the footage. There was no point. I saw it all with my own eyes.

    I'm glad that day does not keep you from visiting Downtown. There is much to recommended the area, despite its history.

    Magpie - I agree. Everyone remembers where they were, just like they do about the Kennedy assassination (for those old enough to recall the 1960s). I'm not sure if writing about it has helped me, but I do not regret doing so. It was an important experience for me.

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  21. Susan,
    No Words. The write was beautiful and did make me speechless. Hugs to you.

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  22. This just brought tears to my eyes. I was in NJ that time. I did not see it happen until i read this, and I am still having goosebumps all over me. and we just saw and read.. I cannot even comprehend how the families who lost their loved ones can ever deal with this.

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  23. Good to see you, Sarah.

    Indosungod - Thank you very much. Hugs all around.

    Soma - Crying is always unpleasant but it does function to release stress hormones and ultimately make us feel, at least, a little better. I don't believe that anyone who lost loved ones will ever have any real peace. I saw the memorial photos; the suffering was just as fresh as way back when.

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  24. You really took me there, to that Tuesday, a decade back.

    I can only imagine the terror and the pain that would have followed, for you and so many people. The fresh rubbing of the wound every time you see the place and remember how it was before all this happened.

    I don't know how one can justify this in the name of man, god or religion

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  25. A touching post dear Susan. Brings tears to my eyes.

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  26. Rajani - I never expected my recall to be so sharp and fresh, especially since I let quite a few anniversaries pass without note. Just shows how significant a decade is. And, no, there is no justification for what happened, ever. We know why it happened, but that is different than justifying it.

    Thanks, Lisa. Not a great week, but it's over now.

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