Remembering 9/11 in New York 15 years later
By MARY REINHOLZ
The September morning sunlight was so bright that all seemed well with the world.
It was 9/ll. My computer had just crashed and I needed to get out of my apartment to email resumes to prospective employers. There had been a recent downsizing and elimination of my writing job at a trade magazine conglomerate in lower Manhattan. My socialist lawyer, who worked nearby, had gotten me a decent severance and I was in a good mood.
And so I walked jauntily past Union Square en route to a trendy East Village Internet cafe on University Place called The News Bar. Approaching an intersection, I wondered vaguely why the hell there was a ring of fire around one of the twin towers at the World Trade Center.
The towers, each 110 stories high, were still intact and I could see them clearly around 8:50 in the morning. I had no fear, telling myself that the blaze on the upper floors of the North Tower had to be the result of some kind of accident or electrical malfunction within that famous New York City skyscraper. I knew a terrorist truck bomb had exploded in a basement garage of the building in 1993, killing six, but that incident was now a distant memory.
“Excuse me,” I said to a kid with binoculars who stood outside The News Bar. “Why is there a fire in the North Tower?”
“A plane hit the tower,” the kid said quietly, lowering his binoculars. He couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old.
“A plane? You mean a small aircraft like a Cessna?” I inquired in disbelief.
“No, a passenger jet,” he said.
“A passenger jet,” I mused, still with no sense of shock or alarm. I entered the News Bar. There was only one other person, a British guy in his 40s, working at a computer.
“A kid outside says a passenger jet crashed into the World Trade Center,” I told him. “That couldn’t be an accident.”
“Not bloody likely,” the Brit said grimly, not looking up. We worked the keyboards for a minute in silence, two slaves of New York.
The two television sets overhead were on but there was no immediate information about how the North Tower had been slammed by one of two hijacked airliners coming out of Boston and diverted from Los Angeles to New York by a cadre of al-Qaeda inspired religious fanatics armed with box cutters.
Then, suddenly, I heard a newscaster shouting about a terror attack against the U.S. and saw images flashing on the TV screens of smoke billowing in lobbies and people running out of buildings in the Financial District. I rushed outside to the street.
“A second plane hit the other tower,” the kid with binoculars said.
Trying to morph back into an enterprising investigative journo, albeit unemployed, I started running down University Place and soon passed Washington Square Park, scene of many a leftist anti-war protest bordering the New York University campus. It wasn’t long before I crossed Canal Street on the edge of Chinatown.
From there, still looming far away, I could see the windows on the South Tower glitter in the sunlight like the scales of a snake. The building itself struck me as a snake being devoured by some larger and more monstrous predator as I raced towards it.
Then, close to 10 am, I stopped at a vacant construction site encircled with a link fence and saw the tower shimmer and shake in a death spiral. Its middle section bulged and blackened. Then it pancaked down in seconds. A massive cloud of debris billowed up and shot into the streets, coming in my direction.
At first those images seemed surreal, not to be believed, and again I had no fear. It was like watching a disaster movie outdoors in the blazing sunshine, a spectacle meant to be an entertainment. I recalled the disaster hit, “The Towering Inferno,” a 1974 award winning flick about a fire that went out of control in a fictional 134-story glass tower in San Francisco.
Standing there next to the chain link fence, frozen with fascination, I had a dim awareness of sudden death for hundreds of real people trapped inside that New York tower. I didn’t see those plummeting from windows and ledges, driven by the blinding steel-melting heat of raging fires caused by thousands of gallons of jet fuel exploding when the airliner hit their workplace in the heart of America’s center of capitalist culture.
Young working folks walked past me, heading uptown, some crying. I cast a cold dry eye
on them, irritated by the displays of mawkish sentimentality by young weeping women who at least had jobs: “What’s the matter with these people? Why don’t they buck up?” I thought to myself, clearly in denial. Or maybe just plain crazy.
Then I looked down. I was wearing sandals with no socks. My cautious side reared up and said: Better get away from here or your feet will get sliced into bloody stumps with flying glass.
Feeling guilty for my cowardice, I walked back towards University Place. A gaunt hipster stripped off his shirt and set up a card table, asking for donations to an unknown cause.
“Did you see what they did to our skyline?” he shouted at passersby, his voice indignant and veering towards hysteria . “We look like Milwaukee now!” Manhattan had suddenly lost its exceptionalism for him. His priorities were also askew in the chaos.
Meanwhile, the robotic reporter in me continued asking questions. I turned left on University Place to East 13th Street to get an update on the North Tower at the New York City Health and Racquet Club where I could still afford a membership.
“The North Tower fell,” said a receptionist at the front desk. She was calm but smiled sadly. Hours later, a 47-story building at 7 World Trade Center also fell, damaged by debris striking it from the North Tower. It was another 9/11 tragedy that would lead to conspiracy theories calling that building’s collapse a “controlled demolition” in the Truther movement to come.
That night, after standing for hours trying to give blood without success at two hospitals and answering worried long distance phone calls from friends and family members in California, I attended a vigil at Union Square. It would become, as a Facebook friend noted on Sept. 11, 2016, “grief central,” a place where people from all over the country converged to bring flowers, care packages and lit candles for at least 2,700 souls who had lost their lives in the twin towers. Relatives of missing people who had probably perished put up pictures of their loved ones on all available spaces, with notes asking strangers for help in finding them.
Other people wrote slogans and poems on signs, among them “September 1, 1939” by the great English poet W. H. Auden, a towering figure in 20th century literature and one-time East Village resident. That poem, much quoted after 9/ll, marks the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. It contains lines that suggest the dawning of a new and perilous era as “the unmentionable odor of death/offends the September night.”
Another widely quoted line— “We must love one another or die”– was used in a speech by president Lyndon B. Johnson and also a commercial when LBJ was running for re-election against conservative Republican senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona in 1964. The commercial showed a now famous image of a little girl picking daisies right before a nuclear explosion. Auden, scholars say, had come to loathe the poem. But he was furious it was used for political purposes without his permission, according to an article in Vanity Fair by the late British writer Christopher Hitchens.
For me, the words of the dead poet still resonate on every anniversary of 9/ll just as they did after I first read Auden as an English major my senior year at UCLA decades ago. I had a delayed reaction to the horrific events of 9/ll and now find myself in tears every time the date approaches. I cannot bring myself to visit The National September 11 Memorial and Museum or the new World Trade Center called the Freedom Tower, now considered the fourth highest skyscraper in the world. It’s on the same hallowed grounds where the twin towers came tumbling down.
Black comic Chris Rock won’t go to the Freedom Tower either as he stated adamantly in a riff while hosting “Saturday Night Live” a few days before the building opened on Nov. 3, 2014. Rock called it the “Never-going-in-there-tower,” and asked:”Who is the corporate sponsor? Target?” He added, “I don’t care if Scarlett Johansson is butt naked on the 89th floor in a plate of ribs, I’m not going into that tower.” Some critics accused him of bad taste, but for me Rock was right on target.
Of course, terrorists can strike anywhere these days. When a bomb went off in a garbage bin in my old Chelsea neighborhood on September 17, I experienced fear of terrorism in my adopted city for the first time since 9/ll. Yes, the damage was minor compared to the carnage caused by hijacked jet liners smashing into buildings 15 years ago. This time only 29 people were injured and there were no fatalities even though another bomb had exploded earlier that day at a boardwalk in New Jersey.
Yes, terror of the homegrown variety is now the new normal. I was thrilled when suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami was arrested within 48 hours after a fierce gun battle with police in the streets of Elizabeth, N.J.. Then I felt sorry for this 28-year-old Afghan American, who was shot at least 7 times and is now in critical condition, and for his immigrant father who owns a fried chicken joint in Elizabeth. The father had reported his son’s violent behavior to the FBI two years earlier, and the Feds checked him out. But apparently they dropped the ball.
And so once again America is faced with a non-stop crisis of the human heart and intelligence. There’s no place to hide. #