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.