During July 2001, my wife and I were searching for a new apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey. After 14 years of living in New York City: Manhattan in Morningside Heights near Columbia University and Saint John the Divine; Alphabet City; the Bronx’s Co-Op City, we decided it was time for a change. We wanted more room for less money. We found a great real estate Broker named Gertrude who, in turn, found us a beautiful new place to live.
After we signed the contracts, Gertrude dropped us off at the Exchange Place PATH station (PATH = “Port Authority Trans-Hudson” and it is a train that shuttles commuters between New York and New Jersey) on the Jersey City waterfront. As Gertrude thanked us and we thanked her, we all couldn’t help but notice the glorious and gleaming World Trade Center looming before us a stone’s throw across the Hudson river. The sun was setting and all the shimmering colors of the world were washing pale and vibrant across the Twin Tower’s façade.
Gertrude commented that many days on her way home she would park in that same spot and watch the daily miracle of a reverse sunset as the golden orb set behind her in the West via her rearview mirror while simultaneously setting before her eyes through the windshield in the Easterly reflection of the World Trade Center.
When we moved into our new place on August 1, 2001, the World Trade Center dominated our new Jersey City skyline. When we walked to the store and tried to remember which street to take to get there, the World Trade Center stood as signposts that we were going in the right direction. When we went to the park, the Towers stood like sentinels of admiration and accomplishment while we frolicked. During the long walk to the Journal Square PATH station, the Trade Center was an aesthetic salve that proved a greater purpose could be found in the drudgery of everyday living.
Then, on September 11, the World came tumbling down.
The virgin wonderment of free economy accomplishment built into the shimmering, golden, icons of American culture and policy were crushed forever for all Americans who had foolishly believed we, and the Towers, were safe and untouchable.
It has taken me a year to write about 9/11 in public. The idea of having to frame and give reference to the event was an overwhelming task that had to be met. With the advent of the anniversary I felt now was the time to step away from myself and take a grander view of what has become a lynchpin historical event.
Over 2,800 people died that day according to the September 1, 2002 issue of The New York Times. I believe we, as a nation, got off lucky. I do not mean to dishonor or disparage the dead and the mourning.
We must celebrate the dead and mourn the living.
You only lose your innocence once and we, as Americans, lost our lofty homeland virginity that day along with the concept that we were untouchable, invincible and above the problems of the rest of the world and the price paid for that hardcore worldly education was the blood and bones of regular folks and workers from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the Port Authority Police Department (PAPD).
How Much Worse?
It could have, and should have, been worse because you only get one sucker punch and that one sucker punch was electric and dramatic and it made for good television, but it was not, on the whole, as terrible as it should have been.
Some have suggested a small, “dirty,” nuclear device could have killed hundreds of thousands and wounded many more than that in and around Manhattan. A recent newspaper report urged us to imagine a crew of 100 terrorists on bicycles in the middle of a Manhattan morning at 4 am spraying military grade Anthrax into the air. We wouldn’t have known what hit us until a week or two later when the sores sprouted and it was too late for us to swallow Cipro to the rescue. The terrorists went for spectacle and a thrill over substance while colder hearts would have planned a quieter and more deadly attack on our virgin sensibility.
A sneak attack of this small magnitude can ultimately be dealt with and undermined. There will never be a next time that will carry the same emotional punch of 9/11.
The World Trade Center is now a giant hole that nothing can fill.
We celebrate those we lost and we mourn those who live because we know that, with a bit more preparation and paranoia, it might not have happened.
We will be struck again.
More of us will suffer.
We will not, however, be caught off-guard again.
Unlike Pearl Harbor, civilians were the target of the foreign terrorists this time. We now understand none of us are safe and can never be safe and that newfound dissolution of the bubble of our personal well-being makes us stronger and luckier: No longer can our founding freedoms be taken for granted because they will now be forever tested by our government and by our neighbors. Now we have to fight to regain and retain what we once had but took for granted.
When the World Trade Center burned you could view it all live from the Jersey City shoreline and many of us flowed from our houses and into the streets to shield our eyes while we dared to look up at our common touchstone burning black against an azure sky.
As our eyes moved from each other and then to the scene across the river, the smoke and the fire became a live horror show that bound each of us together with the terrible epiphany of the human condition we had never known existed: Life is cheap.
We knew, without having to speak, we had each found the unfortunate dark pit of unimaginable sorrow. That sorrow burned the unblinking eye and seared the spirit across one city block and across 3,000 miles via the blank stare of television pixels.
When the Towers fell a cloud of smoke became an umbrella over the site. There was nothing to see. The only sound was the whimpering of muffled cries of those who stood shoulder to shoulder on the Jersey City shore. No one looked at each other anymore. We turned away. Heads lowered. We moved off to be alone. Everything had changed in two brilliant flashes of fuel. Some stood and stared unable to move. Most of turned our backs and went back home and tried to figure out a way to help.
Half the people who perished in the World Trade Center lived in New Jersey. When the rescue began, the ferries set sail from Manhattan and landed at Jersey City’s Liberty State Park where a makeshift triage center was set up. Ice, blood and other perishable items were rushed from Jersey City hospitals, merchants, schools and homes to help to the wounded masses washing up on our shore.
My wife and I tried to go about our normal routine. The radio and television told us Manhattan and New Jersey were in a state of panic and no more volunteers were needed and the message was clear: Stay out of our way… Stay home! Let us do our job!
We had lunch at a restaurant to try to find the company of others and we all tried to make sense of the towers falling only hours ago. As we left the restaurant, a man dressed in tattered clothes was complaining to the world that he didn’t get to witness on the greatest event of his life: He missed seeing both towers fall in real time.
After the Fall
For three weeks after the fall, riding on the New York City Subway and the PATH train meant riding in silence. No one looked at each other. No one spoke. No one had the energy to connect outside their grief. One day, three Ground Zero workers, carrying blowtorches and electrical bags, boarded the PATH train from Jersey City into Manhattan. They spoke loudly and bluntly to each other about finding a severed leg with the sock still pulled up and the shoe’s laces still tied in a bow.
One man described picking up pieces of a woman’s face that had been shorn from her skull.
Another told of finding glove prints in the dust of the jewelry store display cases in the lower levels of the World Trade Center where millions of dollars worth of watches, diamonds and other gems had been stolen. “Stolen by rescue workers,” he claimed, “because the only people who had access to the ‘pit’ were emergency workers.” He went on to claim the glove prints found inside the empty jewelry cases were the exact size and shape worn by the FDNY.
I wanted to say something to the workers and remind them some of the people on the train might know some of the people who perished and their graphic descriptions might be tough to hear in such a matter-of-fact, beer tavern, manner of telling.
I decided against saying anything because who am I to judge how these men choose to grieve? They were volunteering to do a clean up and rescue job that I could not do. What must it be like, I wondered, to see the end of life staring back at you from shorn faces peering up from the dust?
One awful, lingering, reminder of the Towers’ demise came in the smallest sense: Smell. For more than six weeks after the event the smell of fire and burning embers surrounded you. You closed your windows. The smell was there. You went to work. The smell was there. You went into the underground PATH station. There was that smell. The stench permeated your waking hours and the small moments of your dreams.
It was an awful smell of burning metal and cooking sinew and scorching guts.
We all were breathing and smelling the fiery ashes of 2,800 corpses as their flesh filled the sky. It is a smell you will never forget. When you cannot escape the evidence of murder as it fills your lungs every day you turn inward to memorialize the reality in a positive manner so the horror of it all won’t eat you alive in the quiet times.
I decided inhaling the ashes of those who died was a way of reanimating each of them by giving them life within me. By drinking in the bits of them blowing in the wind, I became greater than myself, bound by their hopes and sobered by their dreams, and I was making all those strangers a part of me.
I decided to imbed that spirit of fleshy ash into the chain of my DNA so that I would pass along their needs and their wants and their wishes for as long as I lived beyond my body.
Those who perished may have died alone but they live once again within us and they gained what we all seek: A painless and never-ending immortality previously reserved for the Gods.
Everyone in the New York and New Jersey area who involuntarily took ashes into their bodies voluntarily gave birth to those who perished with every exhale.
Celebrate the dead.
Now the skyline is empty. There is a longing for fulfillment for a skyline that can never be satiated. The panorama of the PATH Exchange Place train stop where we shared a World Trade Center sundown with Gertrude is now timid and lifeless.
A walk to the store is no longer punctuated by towering glass and steel across the Hudson, but it is marked by something: An angular F-16 fighter jet knifing figure eights of endless Mobius strips in the sky. I was surprised to learn there are no round corners on an F-16 to soothe the eye and the screeching sound their engines make as the machines dive and roll forces fingers in ears to drown down the sound.
For an instant I was transported across the world and became a poor Afghani beggar peering up at a sky filled with fire and F-16s and I shuddered at the shared helplessness.
In another bending-of-time epiphany I was a young Iraqi child looking across my country seeing the hallmarks of my culture and future burning bright red and black in the desert sky. I was connected to the eternal human longing for quiet and for a home that was safe from flyovers and flame.
As I returned to my body, I never thought I’d live long enough to look up to the sky and see fighter Jets on patrol over Manhattan.
Mourn the living.
Conclusion: A View of Memory
I would like to share one of my favorite photographs of the World Trade Center. It was taken a year before the event. My wife was on the Empire State Building’s observation deck looking South when she froze the moment in time.
I love this image because it shows the World Trade Center was not alone on an island surrounded by water as it so often appears on television from afar. The World Trade Center should never be remembered for the water in front. It should be remembered for the people below. I call this image, “A View of a Memory” and while it once used to bring me joy it now makes me unspeakably sad because it is so horribly final.
The Twin Towers were directly part of a neighborhood called Battery Park near Wall Street but other nearby neighborhoods like Chelsea and the West Village and the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village and Alphabet City and Soho and Union Square and Noho and the East Village and Chinatown and Midtown all claimed the Towers as important neighborhood landmarks as well and you can see each of those neighborhoods in the image below.
Look at the schools and the parks and the apartment buildings stretching out beneath the towers.
Imagine the streets, as they were on September 11, 2001, filled with people craning their necks to watch their community compasses burning.
If you look beyond the Towers in the middle right portion of the photograph you’ll see the Statue of Liberty standing small in the Hudson River.
You can see how dwarfed and alone she is compared the the life throbbing just beyond her reach. She’s only a hostess, remember. She isn’t the main attraction. The people are the main attraction and that we shall no longer ever forget.
The Statue of Liberty blindly welcomes everyone — even those who choose to smash airplanes into the world standing beside her.