Monday, September 11, 2006

373. Five years

It took two years for me to be able walk to the end of my block and not feel a visceral shock each time I looked down University Place and saw that the World Trade Center towers weren't there. Eventually, I got used to the fact that I wasn't going to see them, though from time to time I'd look south down University, as if it had all been a mistake or a dream--and the buildings might have come back.

Even now, I think about the towers, but in a more abstract way. 9/11 happened. They used to be there; now they're not. But I no longer feel that lurch of pure panic you get when you see a gap where something is missing--a lost tooth, a car that's been towed.

--Places of the Heart, Francine Prose, The New York Times, 9/10/06


I shivered when I read this, because I feel exactly the same. Although I witnessed every second of 9/11, for quite awhile I didn't believe it--because it was impossible. I kept expecting to wake up and discover it was just a nightmare.

The towers and I had a history. For reasons I never understood, my mother, not an architecture buff by any means, was very excited when they were built. Like tourists, we took trips downtown to see them, and even managed to sneak upstairs on July 4, 1976 (before New York City had any security) to watch the Tall Ships sail into the harbor for the Bicentennial. From a mile above they looked like Really Tiny Ships. But it was still cool to be there with the VIPs and my favorite radio DJ, who was not the suave gentleman I had conjured up from his silken voice, but just a short guy with a big nose.

Over the years I would sing Christmas carols with choirs at the Wintergarden in the World Financial Center, the towers peering down at us through the leaves of indoor palm trees; make out with my high school boyfriend on the 103rd floor Observation Deck; and work at a temp job on the 77th floor, where you could feel the building sway back and forth in the wind. Five years ago in August, I took the Circle Line with friends visiting from Florida and, for the first time ever, saw the WTC from the waters of the Hudson. I was astonished at their size, enormous polar bears lumbering at the very end of the island.

Exactly one month later, I woke up early to email a potential employer. The sky that morning was bluer than ever before, so I was sure I'd get the job. I went for a run in Riverside Park, and then to the gym.

In the middle of lifting weights, I noticed the disco music had stopped blaring and someone was talking who sounded just like Bush. But the aerobics teacher was still shouting instructions, and I caught only random snatches of words. What a horrible accident, I thought when I finally heard what happened. Poor, confused pilot must have had a heart attack and lost control. Then, suddenly, the gym began to empty. "We were attacked. Terrorists." I had no idea what was going on. I grabbed my stuff and went out into the street, where people pointed at the sky and walked in circles like they were lost. A crowd huddled around a TV in a barber shop just like in old movies. My heart began to pound. I ran down the block to my apartment, locked the door securely behind me as if to ward off evil, and crawled onto the couch with my two cats. For a few moments I was paralyzed. This was a wholly unfamiliar kind of fear--for everyone, for all life as I knew it. I fully expected the world to end. I thought that maybe if I didn't move, didn't blink an eye, everything would be OK. But if I took a breath, we could all be gone.

Then I gathered my wits and turned on CNN, which also made no sense, but snapped me back to reality.

I remember the rest of the day in fuzzy snapshots. A friend came by, walking two miles from midtown because she had nowhere else to go. We went to the supermarket, just in case Manhattan never re-opened and we needed enough food to last forever, and stood on line at the checkout behind a guy with a cart filled with fifty bottles of Diet Coke. (It was the first time all morning that I laughed.) At some point I logged on to my online community, and joined a conversation that continued for days and kept me sane. I always re-read it on this anniversary and cry. One of our members, a writer for New York Magazine, got our permission this year to publish the discussion; I'm glad to be able to share it with the rest of the world.

Later that day I learned my synagogue was delivering food to the firefighters at Ground Zero, so I decided to make peanut-butter sandwiches. I must have slathered jelly on a hundred pieces of bread, which also helped me stay calm. That evening I went to an interfaith service; I remember thinking all the prayers were nonsense. (As I would for many more weeks.) The smoke began to reach us that night, eight miles uptown. By the next morning I could barely stand to go outside for more than a few minutes.

At services the following Shabbat, the music seemed too beautiful to bear. Each note was like a dagger; such perfect sounds didn't belong in a world this ugly. We got to my favorite part, Psalm 150, all about joyful noises, and I thought: if we're asked to sing this, I'll scream. But the rabbi just chanted the last line--Let every breath of life praise the Lord, Hallelujah--and said, "One day, in the future, we'll be able to sing praises again with all our breath." For the first time that week I felt some hope. My family and friends were alive, and at least one person believed in a future. So maybe I did, as well.


~Jan said...

Thank you for writing this; I needed to read it today.

Regina said...

My husband grew up in South Orange, NJ and lived on a high hill, and from his bedroom window, he could see the Towers... he loved looking at them at night. He went to Ground Zero not too long after and wept because his childhood memories, like the Towers, were destroyed. Those weren't just buildings that went down- but memories also...