Taking some days off from the bitching. Osama Bin laden is finally dead, so I want to share something that's never been published before. I wrote this on September 12th, 2001. I never wanted to forget that day. I never wanted to forget how I felt. I was 29 years old.
God Bless all those here and overseas in our military. Nicely done.
THE DAY OF
"Dude! Fuckin' wake up!" John was in my bedroom screaming on Tuesday morning. First off, there are fewer things more unsettling than being woken up by hollering. John is also six-foot-two, 280 pounds of tattooed badass. Not a man you want waking you up screaming.
"What! What?" I yelled back, in a sudden panic of my own.
"Fuckin' Trade center! Gone! It's fuckin' gone! Plane! They took out the Pentagon too!" He wasn't making a lot of sense, but I could feel his panic was real.
Suddenly my skin felt very tight on my bones.
And cold. I felt very, very cold.
I leapt off of my bed and ran into our living room. He had CNN on. The World Trade Center was burning like a birthday candle. Note my use of the singular. I had no words and no questions. Any questions I had were moot. It was gone. Did my Uncle Frank still work there? Did I know anyone who did? I had to. I had to. Who?
Then the top of the remaining tower began to mushroom a cloud of fire and dust.
"Holy fucking shit!" was all I could say as the last tower plummeted down to the streets. It would be my most repeated phrase throughout the day. I looked at the channel. It was really CNN. I had a moment of doubt. My cable has thirty movie channels. Maybe he's put on some terrorist movie by accident. Nope.
The roof. Scrambling, I shoved my bookcase out of the way and opened the gate over my window. Still wearing nothing but a pair of boxers, I squeezed myself onto the fire escape. No mean feat. Amazingly, John made it out as well. We're not the limberest sorts and the window gives no sympathy. Up one flight of fire escape to my roof.
"Oh no. Oh my God, no." The words came out of me in a strange choked voice that I hadn't heard before. I wasn't even off of my fire escape and I could see the cloud. It was unreal. It was the most real thing I've ever seen in my life. On TV there was the quality of special effect. TV had special effects and the Towers couldn't be gone. Could they?
"It looks like Armageddon," John said. I don't know if he was referring to the Bible or that shitty movie, but he was right on both accounts.
I live in Jackson Heights, Queens. A good six miles from my door to midtown Manhattan. An easy seven or eight as the crow flies to downtown and Wall Street. On a clear day, maybe I'd be able to see the Empire State building. Not the Towers. That day, I knew exactly where they were. It looked like a nuclear missile had struck. A monstrous cloud was moving, growing out of the south end of the city like something alive. John and I both stood there, dumbstruck. Muttering like the crazy bums in the park. I indirectly talked to God a lot that day. For two guys who figured that they we're as desensitized as could be, we learned sharply that we still had some nerves that could be shaken to our cores.
"Dude...I feel like cryin'," John said. I've known John for ten years. I've been through some shit with him that would make most men's hair go white. I've heard him talk about his divorce. Never knowing his father. Shit, just the day before his dog had been killed in a hit and run. I've never seen him like he was that day.
I knew how he felt. I thought I was going to throw up. I thought I would break into tears myself. Somebody had really fucked up the place I lived and worked. Not necessarily loved, but there was a good chance that somebody I did care about was stuck in that mess. It felt gut-shot.
It was the helplessness. John and I both suffer from what we call our 'super-hero' complexes. We wanted to save people. We wanted to strap on our capes and fly into the city. We wanted to travel back in time and STOP IT FROM HAPPENING!!!! There was nothing. Nothing we could do.
My family. I knew they'd be in a panic back in Massachusetts. I ran down back into my apartment and grabbed the phone, dialing. Busy signal. I tried again. Busy signal. Shit.
Then my phone rang. I picked it up. It was John's fiancee, Noelle. I guess that incoming was working, I just couldn't call out. I knew that my parents were at work. I called my mothers office and finally got through. Reynette answered the phone. I don't know if I've ever met her before, but I knew her name. She sounded truly concerned about me and had a million questions. She told me that my mother was still at my sister's in Connecticut.
My sister had just given birth to my first niece five days before. I was supposed to see her for the first time that afternoon. I wasn't going anywhere. I finally got through to my sister's and my mother answered. I could hear her relief over the phone. She didn't know if I went into the city to get an early train or not. My sister was out at the store with her husband. My mother didn't know if my uncle still worked in the Trade Center or not. She was afraid to call her my aunt and ask. I could hear the soft cries of my niece, Brynn in the background. I had my mother put the phone by her ear.
"Hi sweetheart," I said. "This is your uncle. I'm not going to get to meet you today, but I promise that I'll get out there as soon as I can." Her cries stopped and I could hear my mother laughing. My eyes felt hot again. Not knowing whether New York was to be attacked further, I didn't know if I was lying to her or not.
"She opened her eyes and looked around," my mother said.
I called my father's house. Busy. I kept calling until I got through. To my surprise, my Aunt Diana answered the phone. Again, I could hear relief and fear in her voice. My father called her from the school he teaches at and asked her to go to the house to check messages. She was going to the school to tell him I was all right.
Then I called my grandmother. That was the worst. My grandmother already lives with the belief that New York is populated by criminals, terrorists and me. I kept reassuring her that I was fine. She was crying by the time we said goodbye.
John and I watched the TV like our lives depended on it. For all we knew, it did. My apartment sits in the flight paths of LaGuardia. We watched the same videos with horror and anger again and again and again. We watched people in the Middle East actually celebrating our pain and losses. I wanted them to pay.
"This is the end of the world," John said at one point. It sure as hell seemed like it.
I was mad in selfish ways that made me ashamed. I was just starting to get my life on a positive track, twenty-nine years later. I was finishing my first novel. If it was the end of the world, I had wasted two years of effort on it. I had just met the first girl in months that I liked enough to ask out. Jesus, I'd just gotten her phone number the night before! Kristine lived in Manhattan. I was reasonably sure that she lived far enough to be out of harms way, but I didn't know. I desperately wanted to call her and make sure she was safe. I wanted to be Superman and her to be Lois Lane. I didn't know her well enough yet to not have her think me a nut by calling like that. I didn't call anybody in the city. I was afraid to.
It took a couple of hours before I was certain that I wasn't dreaming. It was all so..so..surreal. It could have been a dream. There would have been no surprise. It fit into my fears and neuroses of my life going well and having it torn away from me.
Remembering the Gulf War, I thought about the ramifications for my family if the people responsible for the attacks were Middle Eastern. My grandfather is Lebanese. I'm part Lebanese. When the war with Iraq broke out, I was just out of high school. I had been awarded the Kahlil Gibran scholarship for Lebanese-American students. My family received a letter from the FBI warning us to be watchful for racial attacks. We weren't even Iraqi for chrissakes. Didn't matter.
Hours passed. I was exhausted and couldn't nap. I was hungry and couldn't eat. I watched the news. They showed a man falling from the building. People were running from a dust cloud that appeared to be chasing them, coming from all sides. I watched for familiar faces with dread. Thankfully, I saw none. I saw tears. I saw fear. I saw blood.
I hit a mental wall around seven that night. Enough already. We were going into the city.
We both agreed that we wouldn't be going any further downtown than 14th street. Despite truly wanting to help someone, ANYone, we knew that we weren’t of any good use and we both didn't want to see what the eyewitnesses were describing. Body parts, littering the streets. I don't think I could see that and not be irrevocably damaged in my heart and my soul.
On the E train, I had a moment of panic. As the car passed some blue tunnel lights that I hadn't noticed before, my mind reacted in fear. Oh no, I thought. They've blown out the tunnels and the East River was flooding over us. It wasn't. I didn't feel better until we pulled into the Lexington stop.
We got off at Times Square. The silence was unnerving for nine o'clock at night. This was New York Frickin' City! Times-goddamn-Square! I've seen busier and noisier funerals. No cabs honking. Hardly any people. Those who were still out, milled around aimless as zombies, unsure of where to go to or what to do next. I noticed that most of the people in Times Square had accents. Tourists. New Yorkers were nowhere in sight. I kept thinking of the movie The Night Of The Comet, where a comet passing over the earth turned everyone not sheltered into dust. The survivors had the cities to themselves. All I could do was reference my thoughts into cinematic terms. Reality had never been as disturbing on a scale like that before.
Me and John had little money, but made up for it in credit and chutzpah. If we were going to die, we were doing so with a bellyful of barbecue and drunk as hell. I just hoped that Virgil's Barbecue was open. Most every restaurant had their doors locked and lights off. Unheard off. We ran into a little luck and found that Virgil's was still open. And it was PACKED. With New Yorkers. Everyone was huddling around tables and the TV's on the bar, still watching the news with anger and disbelief. Virgil's had the air of a bunker during an air raid. There was an unusual sense of...I don't know...unity. I've never felt anything quite like it in my five years in New York. Hell, I've never seen anything like it before anywhere. It was as if everyone there was simply glad to be alive and glad to see that others had survived as well.
John and I ate like fiends. Beer. Bourbon. Hush puppies. Popcorn shrimp. Crab cakes. Beans. Mashed potatoes. Chili fries. Ribs. Chicken. We stuffed ourselves to capacity and couldn't even finish what we ordered. We assaulted our senses with overload, glad to still be able to. At one point, I noticed that the restaurant, which had been raucous up until that point, had gone quiet. I could hear one voice. It was the President. Everyone had stopped and wanted to hear his words. Words of comfort. Of hope. Of revenge. I ignored it. He just wasn't a man I wanted to hear from. Strangely, I longed for Reagan. Or John Wayne. Not that moron.
After leaving the restaurant, it took us almost twenty minutes to hail a cab. When we asked him to take us to 14th street., he pointed behind us. 42nd was barricaded. We would have to take the train.
14th Street was just as empty as Times Square, but it didn't bother me as much. We went to The Village Idiot on the corner of 14th and 9th Avenue. On the board outside was written "God Bless The USA". The day didn't seem to affect it that much on the inside. The jukebox was playing loud country music and the televisions were showing old Loony Toons instead of destruction. The mood bounced from drunken solemnity to drunken over-cheer. Lily, one of the bartenders, even flashed her boobs to loosen up the joint. Instead, it felt lifeless and forced. Nicole, the other bartender (whom I hadn't met before) was a great deal more sober than Lily and more in tune with individual moods. Bless Lily, she wanted everyone to have a good time. Bless Nicole, she saw everyone one at a time.
"Did you know anyone down there?" were Nicole's first words to me.
"My uncle works down there. Still don't know yet," I said.
"I have two cousins who are firefighters. They both made it," she said. The news was reporting that over 300 NYC firefighters were still unaccounted for.
"I'm glad to hear that," I was, even though I didn't know the girl or her family.
We drank. A lot. John probably out drank me three to one. He was lit. I was pleasantly drunk. I went to the deli to get more money. In the deli were a half dozen EMT workers getting sandwiches. Their mood was lighter than my own. I wanted to thank them. I wanted to buy each of them drinks for the rest of their lives. They had been doing what I wanted to do and couldn't.
I went back to the pay phone and called my family again. I talked to my Dad, who was still nervous. I lied to him and said I hadn't left Queens. I called my mother again. My uncle was safe. He didn't work in the Trade Center buildings anymore, but close freakin' enough. He was exiting the subway when the first plane hit. I can only imagine what he saw. A huge weight that I had been shouldering had suddenly lifted.
I took Kristine's number from my wallet and called her. I got her answering machine. I wasn't sure if the voice was hers or her roommates. Whichever one left the message was upset. It said that they were both safe and were going to stay in Connecticut until things were safer in New York. When the hell would that be, I wondered.
I felt a little better. I still don't know about some people. I hope they're safe. I guess I'll find out soon enough.