One night in my beloved writer’s group, one of the younger members brought a piece that used a reference to the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a kind of time marker. I’ve noticed this in younger adults, particularly ones not based in New York City. It’s a reference point. Do you remember it? Where were you when it happened? I was in my sixth grade class and the teacher came and announced it. I was asleep and I woke up and my mother was crying. Or, most recently, among my community college students: I don’t remember it. I was a baby. I was a fetus. I was not yet even an idea.
Some of these younger adults have been through some stuff. Some are war veterans. Some are barely surviving depression and addiction. They have lost friends and family members. They understand trauma. Just not this trauma.
I spoke up in my writer’s group and suggested that some readers might have personal associations with 9/11 that make it more than just a time marker. Then I found myself saying words I had never spoken before: “Like me. I’m a 9/11 survivor.” My intent was to speak briefly; my point was to consider the distraction this might introduce to otherwise cohesive prose. But the words, once out of my mouth, startled me.
I don’t consider myself a survivor. Maybe more of a witness. The next day I mentioned it to my husband. “Last night I said something I never said before. I called myself a 9/11 survivor.” He laughed.
“What else would you call yourself?”
Then I made the same confession to my dear friend Lisa on the phone. She, too, laughed.
Both of these individuals spent the morning of 9/11 worried sick about me, in parts of New York City that were not in the middle of the mess.
I spent the morning of 9/11 losing my innocence. And trying not to look at something awful that was happening all around me. And trying to reach my poor husband at home in Brooklyn. And walking home to him, the long way.
At my recent finance job in Portland, Maine, we had regular fire drills. Unlike all the corporate jobs I had had in New York, there was no posted schedule or warning for these drills. The siren jolted me out of my chair and made my heart race. The specially-appointed marshals donned bright-colored vests and carried clipboards. We all walked down the fire stairs and into the parking lot.
I was the only one panting and clutching my purse. Everyone else had left their stuff upstairs. Even their coats—and this is Maine. What could it be but a drill?
And then we took measures that did not exist at my job in 2001. We all found our managers and were checked on a clipboard. There was protocol for contacting the ones who did not check in. Every single person was accounted for, on a cold New England morning, then we filed back inside. The first time, it took a good hour for me to stop shaking in my desk chair.
Marina, one of my old New York colleagues, recently confessed to me that she has not been to see the memorial at Ground Zero. She’s not ready to do that. And my dear friend Lisa just went for the first time. She called me from the site, weeping. I have been several times. I find it calming, looking down into the flowing black abyss. The white noise of the water, the opposite of that chaotic day. Lisa said she sat and meditated there. She felt what the people must have felt who were trapped. Fear, yes, but also love. That was the message the people trapped above the flames consistently sent out to their families, recorded on countless voicemails. In case I didn’t say it today, I love you. I’m sorry if I don’t see you again. I love you. That’s all. I love you.
When I told Lisa about my surprise writer’s group confession, she didn’t just laugh. That’s not her style. She probed too. “So you’re just figuring that out?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Do you think you’ve ever processed it?”
But maybe I have been. I just haven’t been talking about it. I haven’t been writing essays about it, not until now. But there it has been, in so much of my fiction. My characters, like me, are full of nervous laughter and cling to teddy bears for comfort. Their focus is on the surreality, not the sadness.
“Did you ever grieve?” Lisa asked me.
Not exactly. But process, yes. With fiction. Obliquely. With liberal comedy. Perhaps, to some of the real survivors, my “processing” is rude too.
Once a prospective literary agent objected to my stories about 9/11. She thought it was a cheap symbol I was drumming up. Perhaps it was. She wanted me to cut those stories from my collection. Like Marina, I wasn’t ready to do that. She did not become my agent.
Survivor. The word alone seems like a cheap symbol. Like going through something bigger than a long, dusty walk home and a month without an office. So it’s not a word I tend to use. “I was there.” Those are words I tend to use.
Writer. There’s another one. I have an urge to describe what I see, to peek inside the hearts of people who are both me and not-me. But when people ask me what I do, I tell them I work with databases. I work in finance. Or I teach. The real writers are the ones over there, the ones with big projects or big experiences, the ones with all of the authority. Yeah, maybe that’s what’s at the heart of it. Authority.
In the late nights following the attacks, stooped over my computer in the kitchen, I penned two letters to family and friends. People were worried, and they craved information that wasn’t filtered through politicians or news cameras. They had seen the image of the ball of flame over and over. But what was on TV looked too much like movie special effects. What was it really like?
I still read the letters sometimes, for their immediacy. They are full of raw, ugly, writing and reflect my sleep-deprivation. They are not “processed.” Perhaps that is what I like about them. Here is the first:
Dear family and friends:
I just thought I’d tell you what has happened for us in case you are wondering. Feel free to forward this note as we do not have addresses handy for everybody.
Both Jim and I are fine and we have heard from most friends and co-workers that they are fine also. Phone service has been bad. Since we were not able to dial out on Sept 11 and 12, you may not have heard from us directly. We figure that the lines were better used by people in worse states than us, so please do not feel like we are ignoring you. The worst of our injuries is I had a terrible headache from the smoke.
I went to work normally on 9/11 and arrived at the World Trade Center at about 8:05 AM. I went to the farmer’s market in WTC plaza to buy some produce. Then I walked through the WTC concourse and stopped in a clothing store to try on a jacket. My dawdling got me to the World Financial Center at about 8:40. I chatted with colleagues and logged into my computer and uploaded our data for the morning. Then my colleague told me he got a call from London about the first WTC tower being hit. I was laughing—I thought it was a hoax, then saw it on the newswire. We ran to the windows and saw emergency vehicles downstairs, but could not see the WTC. I work (worked?) in the Merrill Lynch north tower of the World Financial Center (WFC), which is the one with the stepped pyramid (like a Mayan pyramid) on top, between the American Express tower (dome on top) and the Mercantile Exchange. You may see this on the news, it is right next to the big glass atrium, very close to the Hudson river. As these buildings are designed to handle a “normal” fire, we did not panic. An office nearby had a TV, and there we saw the second plane hit WTC 2. At that point we decided to leave. I notified whoever was around and grabbed my purse. I was glad I did that because I had a cell phone and a blackberry and was able to contact people (eventually) and let them know I was safe, also find out who else was OK. We walked 20 floors down the fire stairs and out the turnstiles to the street. Everyone was very calm and I never dreamed I would have reason to see those fire stairs.
Outside we were instructed to move toward the Hudson River. I did not have to be told twice. I had lost most of my group at that point but stuck with two men who work next to me. I heard later that the head of Merrill global research, who is a Vietnam War vet, was running around the whole floor, shouting for us to evacuate. I presume that he was the last person on our floor to leave, and I saw him on the street. I have no reason to believe that anyone in my immediate area was gravely injured. We tried to call people on cell phones and found that only the blackberry pager worked. I lent my blackberry to those around me who needed to contact people.
The scene outside was the stuff of nightmares. My building is about a block from the WTC but we made a bigger distance before stopping to figure out what to do. We stopped just south of Stuyvesant High and looked at the WTC. We had a very good view of the north WTC tower and the gaping hole. People were crying and praying and staring at it in disbelief, and looking around for specific workmates. I wondered if we were supposed to check in with someone, but finally realized that there was too much chaos, and my job was to remain safe, contact loved ones and help others to do so, and get out of the way of the many emergency vehicles racing toward the WTC. We could see the fire inside very clearly, and people leaning out of the windows, which were apparently broken. Anyone who works in a tall building knows not to break the windows in a fire. Especially the WTC, where people have been through a big fire before. Seeing the broken windows, I knew that these people either had no choice, or they had broken in the impact. About the time people were jumping from the top of the north tower, I realized I could not look any more or I would pass out. The last thing they needed was another casualty!
I walked around the park around Stuy High and then down the Hudson toward my building looking for three of my colleagues. I went as far as the Hoboken Ferry Terminal, outside the Winter Garden, but then realized I was too close for comfort. I figured my missing colleagues had probably gone to a specific apartment in Tribeca, and I decided to get as far away from the area as I could on foot. I was afraid that the bridges to Brooklyn might be targets so I just walked north. When the towers fell I was in Tribeca near the Travelers building. Seven WTC was between me and the big cloud, so I did not have to run, nor did I so much as get dust on my shoes. People were looking at the buildings fall, many praying out loud. A Muslim man came out of a grocery store and fell to his knees crying, then put his head to the dusty sidewalk to pray. I was feeling faint so I did not turn to look or stop walking. I kept thinking of Lot’s wife, and kept trying to find shade to walk in. As I walked I continued to email people on the blackberry whose addresses I knew, and kept trying to use the cell phone. I did not want to go crazy on the cell phone because I knew others probably needed the lines worse than me at that point. When I got to Houston I went east, and decided to go to the Lotus Club, a bar on the lower east side belonging to some friends of ours. There I was able to call Jimmy on the cell phone and he was beside himself with relief. I sat in the bar and watched it unfold on the television, same as everybody else. I heard that people were walking over the Williamsburg bridge but I was afraid of encountering a mob scene. People panicking on a bridge is not my idea of fun. So I sat tight there for several hours, leaving only to try to find an ATM that was working, as I realized the $3 in my purse was probably not enough for the various needs I might have later. I eventually found cash in a gas station.
At about 2:30 I walked across the Williamsburg bridge into Brooklyn. I was upwind of the smoke and it was no longer crowded. It felt like a refugee scene from a movie. There were a few Manhattan-bound cars on the bridge, I presume doctors and such. People were looking back at the cloud of smoke in disbelief. At the other side there was a big crowd of Hasidim passing out water to those coming off the bridge. I don’t know why, but seeing them made me want to cry. I guess it made me realize I was back in Brooklyn finally and that much closer to home. I walked another 30 minutes or so into Bushwick Brooklyn and caught the G train home. (The G is the only train that does not go into Manhattan at all.)
When I got to my neighborhood at about 5:00, the smoke and dust was pretty bad. There was a layer of ash all over the cars. For those of you who remember Mt. St. Helens erupting, the dust looked a lot like that. I took as many pills as I could for my headache and hugged Jim and the animals and then tried as best I could to get news from my immediate colleagues. Unfortunately I did not have their phone numbers and I had to improvise. I was especially worried about Inna and Tanya who had not yet made it to work. By about 10:00 PM I had heard that everybody got out OK. Lesson learned: get everybody’s emergency info, then DON’T leave it in my desk! At that point I started attempting to send blackberry messages to colleagues in Sales and Trading, but by that time the server had gone down.
So the gist is I was very close, but the only difference between me and the average American is that I saw some of it in person rather than on TV. I am very glad to note that the media seems to have chosen to keep some of the more frightening images from broadcast. I imagine a lot of children have been watching the coverage. I saw people jumping, and had a particularly clear view of a man in a blue business suit. This hit me hard for some reason because from where I was standing in the park, he looked exactly like just about every guy I work with. From our vantage point it was overwhelmingly clear that people just like us were trapped up there. And at that point, I was convinced that some of my colleagues might be among them.
The next day I was nothing but numb. I spoke to friends and family as much as I could but I was not able to make much sense of it. We saw fighter planes overhead, and Jim saw some reconnaissance aircraft make a sharp left turn right over our house. Of course we watched the news. I went out to buy groceries, and my blackberry went off, reminding me to attend a conference in the WTC scheduled for noon Wednesday. This was one of many chilling reminders that I had been ‘walking between the raindrops’ and was very lucky to be home with my husband in Brooklyn.
Now, to rebuild. As you all know, the tragedy has left behind a logistical nightmare for the businesses that have been displaced. People are numb with shock and grief, and even if there are perfect disaster plans in place, one has to be very rational to carry them out. Nobody is completely rational. (Think about it: more than 50,000 people looked up and saw bodies falling from the sky. We’re talking post traumatic stress on a very large scale.) There is simply not enough alternate office space in the area to go around. Merrill Lynch has 9000 employees (three still missing) at the World Financial Center, who are now displaced. They shut off the ventilation in the building, which saved it from the toxic dust and fumes, but may have damaged computers and stored data in the heat. Even if our computers are presumably intact, we are not allowed in the area to retrieve them. Nor would it be appropriate for us to ask, since they are still trying to recover missing people in the rubble. So just buy more computers, right? Well, the demand is huge, considering how many were lost. There is no way the manufacturers can build them all quickly. The parts may not be available. And the US government understandably has first dibs on newly manufactured computers, so I am afraid our little research group is way, way down the queue. They have offered us office space in London, but I am not willing to go to London (without my husband) in the middle of a war. So work from home, right? Well, your home has to be wired for it, and the wires have to be working! Not to mention the power...colleagues of mine in lower Manhattan have none. So I work in an industry entirely dependent on phones and computers, none of which are reliable or even available. To top it off, if they do find space for people, it often means going from a twenty minute commute to a three hour commute. Naturally, problems like bad phones and no electricity and long commutes are GOOD problems to have in a situation like this. Meanwhile, our clients from elsewhere are confused and feel powerless and need the data that we provide for them. This is an exercise in patience and managing expectations. The process of going back to work has been surprisingly stressful for me. Tomorrow and Thursday I go to Princeton for department meetings and such. I’m not too crazy about getting on the subway, but at least I’ll feel like I’m doing something. The train ride to Princeton is a pleasant two hours through lovely wetlands. It will give me a chance to think.
I’m a little freaked out by all the flag waving and God-Bless-America-singing going on here. It reminds me of San Diego during the Gulf War. Remember when everybody kept saying, ‘Do you support the troops?’ I always thought that was a weird question. I never had anything against the troops, but information was so sketchy that I wasn’t quite sure what they were being asked to do over there. And the majority of San Diegans were naively trusting of our government to do the right thing. To question our government was downright tasteless, because so many people knew service men and women in the Gulf. This is a similar scenario. Everyone seems so gung-ho about going into a war, while families are still mourning the lost workers. I went through a list on Bloomberg today of the missing. It took me two hours to read a simple list of names. Five thousand people is a lot of people.
I keep thinking about the sign they used to put out in front of the World Trade Center every Christmas. Big 3-D letters as tall as a person: PEACE ON EARTH. I always loved seeing that sign in the snow. Unlike other NYC holiday decorations, this one spoke to everybody, all religions and nationalities. It will be a very difficult winter without it.
It is surreal to me to read this nearly two decades later and feel the feelings come up, as raw and fresh as the night I drank cold vodka in my kitchen while writing it. I don’t write with alcohol anymore. I don’t work on Wall Street anymore. I don’t live in New York anymore. I’m a middle aged lady with different ambitions and obsessions. But the feelings come right back, like no time has elapsed.
And images come back too, things I didn’t write about here. Things I never wrote about, but the images are fresh. The old woman walking very slowly across the Williamsburg bridge—with a walker!—because it was the only way to get over the river—and the young man helping her. The man on the G Train who had sweat right through his entire dress shirt, staining it with running ink from a note in his breast pocket. My colleague Shawn grabbing my head to keep me from looking up at the towers, just as a large group of people held hands and leapt to their deaths. Somehow he knew I shouldn’t see that. I don’t know if he was right or wrong.
But maybe that’s just it. I saw stuff. That’s all. Just seeing. Where do I get off writing about 9/11? Making fiction about it? Funny fiction to boot? When all I did was witness?
Or, is the fiction not as funny as I think it is? Is it nervous laughter, like my own, in the moments just after the towers were hit?
It’s telling that that was my first reaction. This laughter is not about tragedy-plus-time. It didn’t take me a decade to learn to laugh at it. The building next door to me was on fire and a plane was crashing into the other one and I was laughing. I still feel guilty about that. But it was beyond absurd. I was losing my innocence. That is the way my body reacted.
When I write about it now, I’m not laughing. I’m blinking back something else. It’s still in my body, all of it, whatever all of that was.
Thanks for reading this. I will continue this discussion in a future blog post, and include the second letter I sent to my people, which discusses the aftermath, my time in the dust of ground zero, and the audacity of claiming it as subject matter for the short stories in The Artstars.
(Click here for part 2)