9/11/01: 8:54 a.m.
My shift has ended and I’m sitting at my computer, finessing a letter to Swedish musician, Tomas Pettersson. Looking out of an eighteenth-story window off Maiden Lane, I notice what might have passed for falling snow if not for the flashes of sunlight caught by strips of plastic as they flex and shiver in the sky. Their sinuous glitter seems indicative of mischief. Is this confetti dropped from a helicopter, some prank by Howard Stern? The detritus of a bon voyage party on the roof of an adjacent high-rise?
I exit 110 Maiden Lane to find a group of lawyers lingering on the marble steps just under the awning. They’re chatting about their case and staring at something overhead. I glance in the direction of their stare, expecting an aerial anomaly. Instead, I see flames aslant, a tower set afire.
I squint at the scene to focus. The damage seems oddly contained. What appear to have been the sixty to sixty-fourth floors are now rings of glowing metal, their windows, slots that spume fire and curlicues of smoke.
Flashes from the slots merge and descend like searchlight beams filled with coruscating minutiae. The effect seems almost whimsical. This spotlight, this anachronism, might have framed a glittery-tuxedo’d Marlene Dietrich, or a wand-shaking Tinker Bell trailing pixie dust.
The beam flows down to my feet. Its contents are singed paper.
I open my satchel. Remembering the way they glittered, I shove the pages inside.
I hear labored breathing and turn to my left, narrowing my eyes to see through the haze. A heavyset African-American woman emerges and struggles to keep walking. None of the lawyers seem to notice. Sweating and wheezing, she pulls herself up the steps.
“Hey,” I call after her. “You have asthma?” She turns but doesn’t nod.
I pull out my inhaler and tell her to open her mouth. She does and I dispense three pumps of synthetic adrenaline. Then I tell her I’m going to walk her into the building.
Two of the lawyers notice her at last, freed from the spell of shop talk and gossip. They take her upstairs to enjoy their fastidiously circulated air. It makes me feel useful to think I might have saved her a trip to the hospital.
I decide to walk toward whatever had left the lady unable to breathe. Someone else might need a few puffs from my inhaler.
I head up Fulton Street until I come within yards of the burning building. Nearly there, I gaze upward: Someone jumps to her death.
Wave upon wave of jumpers follow the first. The heat’s unendurable for them. The ring of metal turns out to be bordered by fire, which pushes out to the ledge and then the street. Next to me, a middle-aged black woman with a shopping bag is weeping so hard her body jerks. She’s hiding her face and gripping the handle of her bag. It feels like the end of the world.
Yet I don’t weep as the people fall and flatten. This is what happens to us, I think. The Tower looks like the paintings of Kali I’ve seen all my life, only vast and real. She’s coming for us. She’s scorching and slashing us all.
In the course of an hour, I watch a dozen people catch fire.
Others rush down the street sobbing and exhorting everyone else to pray. But for some reason, I don’t break down or turn away from the carnage.
Perhaps the reason I’m able to stay objective is because I’ve lost a lot of people. Perhaps lack of attachment and not wisdom affords me the luxury.
Someone nearby explains that terrorists have attacked the building.
Someone else says that the Pentagon was attacked. I wonder where people are getting their information—how do they know for sure? No one’s cell phone works. No headlines crawl across the LED displays in gadget store windows.
I start walking again. I’m just about to cross Broadway when a plane flies around the Second Tower in a half-circle, slanting down toward the base of the building. Then its thunderous impact: The report of a god-sized gun.
People run frantically, as they do in disaster movies. They look like they’re fleeing Godzilla. I turn, then stop. What am I running from?
Behind me, an oblivious twit compliments the ingenuity of the terrorists. “They knew what they were doing, you gotta hand ’em that.” A middle-aged man in a brown suit gives me a look of exasperation. Then the first man praises the sturdiness of the buildings. “Look how well they’re taking it,” he tells us. “Those things are built for it. They’re never coming down.”
On cue, the Second Tower collapses. I tilt my head and see the entire structure begin to sink, and the tiny figures on the edges of the floors and the roof enter their free-fall. Some hang from the unmoored ledges until the initial shift of the collapse wrenches them free. Others seem to let go voluntarily. As the building crumbles, two figures embrace for the last time before floating apart in midair. You can’t see their faces and the space is like silence around them. I’m with them when it happens. My eyes say goodbye as they disappear into wreckage.
The most heartbreaking artwork from the ancient world depicts lovers who are faceless, whose individuality remains hidden from us, but whom the story destroys. Falling people look that way, too—like doomed Cycladic figurines.
Smoke comes rushing out from the base of the falling structure, overtaking us.
Waves of people rush toward the river—many of them weeping, most of them panicked by the falling monolith and its onslaught of smoke and debris.
White wind chases me down a sloping alley and into a ten-story building, where the air grows so opaque I have to run back into the street. A group of us try to force our way into another building that seems more airtight, but the people on the other side of the glass won’t unlock the doors and we refuse to break the windows. It would be cruel to expose the people who are shunning us to the poison the rest of us are breathing.
None of the little shops, which have depended on Wall Street customers to survive for all this time, will open their doors to the rushes of coughing people. Storefronts become fallout shelters guarded by survivalists. The clerks stand at the backs of the stores, safely distanced from the locked glass doors which the crowd could shatter so easily. This is how they’ve always seen us.
Police herd us down Water Street and past the Brooklyn Bridge. I’m coughing the whole way there. Someone actually collapses and I right him until he’s standing again because he doesn’t have time to stop. For a long time, I breathe through my collar and can’t see the sidewalk in front of me. Then some of us move to the street to make room for three people in wheelchairs. A policeman stops and tries to help them embark a parked bus. By the time I reach Bayard Street in Chinatown, the air has cleared. I’m standing outside the school where I used to teach English. Old people smile out of obligation and watch me turn toward the entrance. The door is locked. I walk down to the park, where tourists and business people on breaks used to wait in lines that stretched into the street for a woman in a cart to make tiny pancakes. The cart’s locked and no one is there, not even old men on benches. There’s a space where the street veers downward and the buildings ahead aren’t as tall as the drop. I get there in time to gaze toward the horizon and watch as the First Tower disintegrates. An invisible hand presses down on it, grinding it into powder. Fire swells behind rising smoke trails that arc and thicken. Anything can happen now. Anyone might die.
I keep walking until the smoke clears and I’m close to my neighborhood. The whole way there, I smell the taint of burning chemicals. I arrive at Rivington and Bowery, where a singer I know lives, and try to get buzzed upstairs. Her husband leans out the window and waves. He claims to be having a problem with the door, but the problem with that door is me. I continue walking to Houston Street and buy things to chew and swallow, perhaps to weigh myself down: Lox from Russ & Daughters, an Excedrin from Panjali Deli. The turbaned cashier looks miserable and tells me how sorry he is.
I go to a Polish diner on Second and A and order coffee. The analog TV’s tuned to a news loop on New York 1. I’m the only dusty person in the place—the only person who’s come from the site—but I don’t look bereaved, so the female waiter concentrates on a man in a gabardine sports jacket who trembles and says he “doesn’t want to hear about it.” His reaction doesn’t seem selfish to anyone else, but it’s hard for me to understand why I’m supposed to care how he feels. He and I are both still alive and sitting in a diner, but I’m pretty sure that whatever I inhaled on the way there will impact on my lifespan and he won’t bother grieving for me, let alone, for the ones who jumped.
After I leave, another guy on the street notices my cremains-dusted satchel. “Hey! You’re covered in ashes! Did you just come from the WTC?”
I look at the man, who, like so many others that morning, is in his thirties and dressed formally. In this case, he’s wearing a white summer suit.
“Yeah, I did come from there. I even grabbed some of the papers that floated down from the Tower and stuffed them in here. Not sure why.”
He eyes my satchel hesitantly. “Hey, you wouldn’t let me buy that from you, would you? How much you want for it?”
“Want for what?”
“How much you want for the bag?”
I tell him no and keep walking home. As I reach the front door, I realize I should have blown ashes all over his suit. Now you don’t need the bag.
I turn on the television in time to hear Bush shout, “This is an act of war!” After ten minutes of news, I turn it off. My phone rings twice, but I don’t pick up. An ex who broke up with me the year before leaves a message asking if I’m OK.
I call a co-worker, Roy, to make certain he’s safe. He tells me that, to make it home, he had to walk so close to the Second Tower he was hit by debris. He saw flames shooting out of the windows of Century 21. He saw the people jumping from above. We can’t really talk about it yet.
I look like Mount Vesuvius, I tell him. I’m literally covered with ashes.
That reminds me of my satchel and I open it to peer at the contents. What are they, these glittering dancers from the beam on the marble steps? I pull out a handful and read: scattered pages from a life insurance policy. Life insurance from the ledge: a one-liner. The buildup: thousands of corpses. A joke that would tickle the guy who claimed the Towers were indestructible.
I tell Roy about the sparkles—the spotlight and coruscating swirls—and he understands, echoing my experience.
“That’s what I told him! I was just telling Kieran I saw silver, everywhere silver.”
9/11/02: 12:00 p.m.
I expected political leaders to embrace demagoguery and they have, somehow managing to forfeit the rest of the world’s good will. Perhaps it’s a question of proximity. Perhaps those who haven’t communed with legions of the dying tend to lose perspective. The mistake on both sides is to presume martyrdom, to reduce last moments to a cause. Meanwhile, international businesses have been fleeing the city. Even the little shops have all closed down. Highways are practically empty now, and still the mayor talks about “reclaiming the narrative.” He’s on the radio and TV and he says we have to do this. We have to get our triumphant theme music back.
But the people who leaped or fell to their deaths aren’t part of that. Even the scavengers I passed on the way home for weeks after the attack, collecting bags of detritus from Ground Zero to sell on eBay, even they were never part of it. I tend to believe this because I watched them all intently, as if they were the last human beings I’d ever see. I wanted to absorb whatever I could about them and myself and write it down before the memory imposed coherence retroactively—inventing archetypes, overwriting the petty behavior and awful spontaneity.
I want to remember what happened without being seduced by narrative. If I can do that, maybe I can keep them alive, if only in my head.
–Robert C. Hardin