Friday, September 10, 2004


I’ve never really written the whole thing out. I’d even forgotten, almost, that the anniversary was coming up. It took a beautiful sculpture surrounded by the most profane of situations in Staten Island to remind me today.

The morning of 9/11 I was on the subway when I first noticed something might be amiss. We were delayed after Union Square, I don’t really recall where. The only odd thing about this – the trains are delayed if someone sneezes on the tracks – was that there was no announcement saying some shitforbrains had sneezed on the tracks. I thought nothing of it.

I emerged from the cocoon of the New York subway system somewhat sleepy from my long commute and had trouble adjusting my eyes to Actual Daylighttm. I walked the block to the little deli where I always bought my two eggs scrambled light with cheese on a roll and large café au lait without even noticing that one of the Towers was aflame.

Stereotypical New York reaction, I know; but, really, you have no idea how big those towers were, how far to the top it was, unless you lived here for a while. I recall driving back from visiting my family down South and knowing when I saw the tops of those towers miles out on Route 80 that I was almost, relatively speaking, home.

However, the deli was alight with chatter enough to make the even the NSA anxious – did you see it? It was a small plane, a Piper, I’m sure….No, it was a small jet…Hell no, I saw the thing, and it was a big jet, like a 747 or something….

New Yorkers, contrary to popular belief, are an inquisitive bunch who will not hesitate to pounce upon someone who appears to know something they don’t. Between keeping half an eye on the flat, greasy grill to make sure Paco wasn’t overcooking my eggs, I politely asked: “What the fuck are you all talking about?” Almost in chorus girl unison, the banker types and the software types and the construction types said,” A plane crashed into the WTC. It’s on fire.”

Well, that was odd. Still, as I left the shop with what I was sure was an overcooked egg and cheese sandwich (it was), I thought to myself, “Well, those things are fucking huge; it was really only a matter of time before some flyboy bumpkin passed out from a massive coronary and did a kamikaze into them.”

Then I saw the explosion from the second tower. The plane, I’m told, hit from it from the South. I only saw the flames suddenly shoot around the building. Still, incredibly naive as it may seem, I supposed it was some kind of secondary explosion from the initial fuck up. It’s gonna be a bitch to be NYFD today. I called my friend Dennis on his cell. He said he’d seen the plane, a small one, probably a four seater. Still, he was concerned and told me to remember that if that tower went down, it was most likely headed my way. He may be an architect, but he’s as prone to dramatics as I am, and I promised him I’d call when I got to my office to let him know everything was ok.

I walked quickly to my office a block away, at the corner of Houston and Hudson, about 10 Midtown blocks (about ¾ of a mile) away from the World Trade Center. It was then that I first began to suspect that something was really wrong. By really wrong, I mean something more than just the standard plane crashing into a building type accident. As horrible as it sounds, that’s just not the kind of thing to keep folks away from their jobs here, yet the building was empty. I walked into the swank, too swank, offices of the software company for whom I was extraordinarily gainfully employed and found the front desk abandoned, no one in Development (well, those cats didn’t show up until after 10:00 anyway)…but no one in Sales!? I headed to the Big Conference Room, the one we used when we had a really big sale coming up or were entertaining analysts, and watched with about 10 others as the television informed me that two jetliners had hit the WTC.

What the Fuck?

A single accident, well that’s certainly unusual and definitely tragic, but not really entirely unexpected. But TWO planes? This was truly extraordinary and called for immediate action. So I went to the roof to eat my egg and cheese on a roll and smoke a cigarette. The Towers on fire. Damn, that’s not something you see everyday. What on earth could have gone wrong? Traffic control at JFK or EWK gone haywire? One screw up Jacking up the entire system? One thing was for sure; not a lot of work was getting done today.

I finished my sandwich and walked back to the Big Conference Room. Now there were about 35 people there, and the Television was showing the Pentagon…or I thought it was the Pentagon. Something about another plane and a truck bomb at the Senate…the Mall was on fire… I looked around and, finally, it dawned on this stupid fuck that this was not business as unusual, not some New York moment to be discussed over cocktails at that New Bar in SoHo next week. Everyone in that room had a look on their faces, one is tempted to say the French have a word for it, but my French isn’t that good. We just all looked at each other like, this can’t be happening. Has David Lynch suddenly been put in production of our lives, severally and jointly?

Just so you know, Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” is playing right now. When I go, that’s the tune I want in my head. But back to the more different “S.”

Most of the Marketing Department was there, are jobs being the most superfluous and thus the most subject to the fallacy of Workers Who Put in Longer Hours are Valuable. I walked outside with three or four other colleagues and watched the Towers burn, a straight shot down the street from me. We smoked and wondered aloud what to do. There were few managers at the office. Should we leave? Surely they’ll tell is if we should leave. After about a quarter of an hour of Damn, Can you Believe this Shit’s and Fuck, What Should We Do’s, we all doefully marched back to the empty battery of elevators and went back to the office, although not all to our desks.

I went to my office and closed my door (I was one of the few folks not at VP level to have an actual office, one of the few perks of doing what I did for a living at the time.) I called my wife. We were living in the Outer Boros at the time, and she had recently moved back from Philly to get pregnant and possibly look for work. In the middle of assuring her I was all right, she screamed. She was out on our back deck, looking across the Sound as one of those mammoth, outsized even for New York towers suddenly decided to disappear. At first, I didn’t understand what she was saying, partially because she was screaming and partially because I just couldn't conceptualize the notion that one of the Towers might fall down. It could be on fire, yes. Perhaps even ruined for a long time, but to cease to exist as a structure? That was truly unthinkable.

Until a little while later, outside smoking with two guys from Sales who got out of a hotel across the street from the Towers as the second plane hit, I watched the second tower vaporize in slow motion.

Shortly after the first tower went down, we lost Internet access, and most phones, landline or cell, were useless. We weren’t close enough to be embroiled in the debris cloud, but we could see it making it’s way up the avenues like some dirty glacier on crack. We stood outside as fire engines and ladder companies sped past us, heedless of their velocity or the huge chucks of cement streaming off their vehicles. None of us could call anyone; none of us had any idea what to do. After half an hour or so, we all decided to pack it up and leave, and we trudged once more back up the sixth floor to collect whatever we thought was appropriate.

Two stories played out at this point, one of which I witnessed, the other of which I have no reason to doubt.

The first happened as I walked back into the building after our little consensus building panic outside, and saw the lobby flooded with ninja like men, all in black, all sporting those small H&K automatics across their backs like katanas. They didn’t move, didn’t speak – just stood there far enough from the main lobby as to not be within normal conversational distance, looking around. When I got back to the office, the main security guy was walking around with his walky talky. In my former line of work, I generally made friends very quickly with the local security, seeing them as kindred spirits and potentially valuable in case I needed a Quick Exit. I asked him, should we evacuate? What was going on? He ducked behind an unoccupied cube and informed me that Guillani was on his way downstairs and that once he’d left, we’d know what to do. Well, I couldn’t just let THAT go. It turns out that the Mayor had driven up in his Mayor-mobile (yes, he has a very tricked out Class A motor home mobile command center that no one until that day seemed to know existed. And a squad of ninjas. Who said being mayor of New York was no fun?) He had asked the owners of the building if he could use it as his, for the moment, forward command post. The owners happened to be the NYC Carpenters Union who also happened to tell the Mayor, quite politely, that No, he couldn’t use their building, but here’s a lovely parting gift, a 2x4 with which to Cheney himself. Saatchi & Saatchi across the street took the honors, at least for those few first hours when no one actually knew what was happening.

The latter I learned about three days later when, after three military check points, I finally got to the office to retrieve one of my laptops. Our COO was a former spook, old school NSA who did most his 20 years in the Gulf aboard a sig intercept ship disguised, poorly he claimed, as a fishing boat. Our SVP of Sales and Marketing was a former NFL linebacker. Our COO and his wife were also staying at a hotel across the street form the WTC. Mike, the SVP described to me that Friday how, after the first plane hit, they left the office with a flashlight and hoofed it down to the WTC to get the COO’s wife out. The lights were off at the hotel; they found her locked in the bedroom wrapped in bed sheets, and apparently there is still some kind of secret handshake between the NSA and NYPD, so they got our COO’s wife out and got the hell over to Jersey on a boat. A month later, as the invasion of Afghanistan put paid to our company’s come back plan, I asked our COO what had really happened that day? He smiled, and told me about when he’d been in boot camp. As a final test, they dropped the potential spooks off in the middle of the desert out West in pairs with a small piece of string and a toothpick (or something equally ridiculous). They were supposed to get to some point on a map they had memorized, undetected. Of course, no one actually made it there undetected, and when one was captured, one was interrogated. The whole point of the exercise wasn’t to teach them to bravely make their way through enemy territory after everything went to hell; it was to teach them that they WILL be captured and they WILL be tortured and they WILL break. The moral of the story being: Never, Ever Fuck Up. Well, my COO and his buddy knew that this was the deal, as did every other field work recruit, and said to themselves, fuck this, and hitched a ride all the way to Montana with a passing trucker. They managed to pull a two-day binger in some bumfuck hotel before they were, inevitably, caught. Yes, they were interrogated, and although he never elaborated, he strongly hinted that an impromptu field interrogation was not really worth gaming the system. This, of course, didn’t answer my question, but it did shut me the fuck up.

My assistant (an assistant in name only; in every meaningful way he was my equal or better and everyone at the company knew it) and I joined the millions making their way uptown, wondering when the trains would run again and cringing every time a plane passed overhead, not knowing if they were “ours” or “no longer ours.” An abortive taxi ride, several bloodied victims on the street later, we abandoned our attempt to stay together. I managed to get a call through to both my wife and to Dennis the Architect. My wife told me to be careful and get home as soon as possible. Dennis told me he’d found an open bar about 25 blocks North of me. I love my wife, but sometimes her priorities are in the wrong place.

I joined Dennis and a few folks from his office at some Cajun place in the East 50s. We drank, ordered some calamari, watched the Television, and admired the chutspa of the owners to stay open. It was, perhaps, one of only a handful of places that stayed open. I’m sure their Samaritan routine netted them more in one afternoon than they saw that entire month. True New Yorkers. Eventually we made our way to the 86th street IRT line and, several hours and a multitude of sweaty bodies later, made our way home. We were in another bar in our neighborhood getting take out and drinking beers when the final building went down. I recall standing on my deck and watching the smoke rise, as it did for days afterward and once, two weeks later when I found myself at a nearly abandoned bistro way downtown, I smelt the ruined, smoldering bodies and finally understood what people meant when they said that the smell of burning human flesh could only very inadequately be described as “sweet.”

I remember calling my friends the next day – I’d called my family that night; they were nearly apoplectic as they knew I worked downtown and my father and step mother were across the street from the Pentagon when it was it hit – and I recall wanting blood. Really, anyone’s blood would do. A friend of mine in Seattle said, well that’s that for civil rights. It was then that I, finally, realized the impact this event was going to have: how many good, otherwise liberal folks like me wanted blood and would gladly trade our civil rights for a little Rambo style payback?

Well, here we are three years later. We’ve traded our liberty for blood, and most of us gladly. Our nation’s disastrous path since September 11th, 2001 is a familiar rant. We are neither safer nor do we remain defiantly free. I won’t go into all that. Every day brings a new idiocy scripted by Kafka, every day brings news that only a fool or a Republican could construe as anything other than Rome in the fourth century.

But what good is it to live in the decline of a great empire if you can’t enjoy the decadence? Surely I’d be ok in the end. At first, I had a little PTS, like many folks, but not as bad as the guy across the street who lost his firefighter brother. A few sleepless nights, some general, undifferentiated ailments were all I thought at the time were my due. Three years later, my first child and my first house later, I understand that I lost a lot more that day than I thought.

My career, for one. I was on my way up, baby. Maybe our company wouldn’t have made it anyway, but we had a damn good shot with out new software and it’s stellar reviews and great forward positioning. In any case, I had three firm, standing offers to jump ship anytime I wanted. Anytime before 9/11 it turned out. I’ve since had one job where I made as much money and another where I made even more as a smaller fish in the really, really big pond. But I wasn’t happy with either, and both ended in disaster. I lost my in in the one industry I’ve worked in that I loved, and I’ve come to hate what I used to do for a living – in no small part because the industry I loved collapsed just as I was beginning to make my way into something other than lying for a living. I’ve abandoned that career, vowing to become an honest man for the first time: at least honest as to how I make my money. My clear and shining path out of even this current economic downturn turned into a foreshortened movie set minus Dorothy and her band of merry midgets. Maybe that would have happened without 9/11. Perhaps, but I know that my company tanked – as so many did – as a direct result of the attack and our response to it.

Emotionally, an odd type of fatalism has enveloped me. I no longer see inevitable progress in the human condition, a way up and out for everyone if only they’ll reach out and grab it. I realize that the events of 9/11 were indeed neither without precedent nor unanticipated. My parents (well, not mine, but a lot of folks’) parents may have worried about The Bomb, but now we know that the world doesn’t have to end with Slim Pickens astride an H Bomb – one or two guys with symtex strapped to their waists could end all I consider good in the country tomorrow by just walking into a shopping mall in Des Moines or Boise and pressing a button. Perhaps before I felt that politics didn’t really matter, that it didn’t really affect the average guy in any meaningful way. I now understand that this is true, only not in the way that I thought it to be: the only reason it doesn’t affect the average guy is because he has no control over how his reality is shaped by those in power. We don’t need 1984 or the Matrix. This is 1984 and the Matrix, except without the groovy lingo or hot babes in black leather.

I’m still incensed at the misplaced patriotism surrounding 9/11, the calling of men and women who’s only action was to go their jobs “heroes” instead of victims, the wailing and beating of breasts of rednecks who watched the whole thing on their local FOX affiliate thinking they have one fucking iota of a clue as to how it affected the very real people of this city. This may as well be another episode of whatever reality show du jour to those fucks. My career is in ruins and sooner rather than later I have to decide whether or when to abandon this country for the sake of my son.

So I won’t be watching any faux solemn shit on Television tomorrow, nor will I observe any moment of silence for the fallen. I am the goddamned fallen, and the best I can hope to do is go about my life with as little fear as is feasible. I’ll be scrubbing rust from and painting playground equipment tomorrow in the hope my son gets a chance to fall off it someday. If that’s the least of his tragedies, I’ll be glad - and very surprised.


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