THAT MORNING: I have a job interview at Automotive High School, right on McCarren Park. 7:30am, the earliest interview I’ve ever had. I’m still not sure how I feel about teaching, but I’m positive how I feel about being unemployed, which I’ve been for about 9 months. Having no job, it turns out, is a terrible way to make a living. I also like the idea of walking to work, and Automotive is a mere 10 minute stroll from my apartment in Greenpoint.
The school’s principal—a prototypical harried, no-nonsense type in Sipowicz-style short sleeve shirt and tie—wastes little time with small talk. He wants to know my experience and how I’d deal with certain disciplinary situations. Some of our kids are a bit rough, he says. But he liked the way I handled the security at the main entrance, waiting my turn at the metal detectors with all the kids just arriving for first period. Of course, I say. Are there people who just shove their way in? He shrugs.
A secretary walks into his office without knocking. Something happened, she says. Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center. She says this in the way you could only have said such a thing up until that moment in time, confused and vaguely annoyed, with a typical New Yorker’s undercurrent of Great, now what?
The principal sighs and cuts our interview short. I gotta deal with this, he says, and promises he’ll be in touch.
I walk home on the waterfront. From there I can see dark black smoke billowing from one of the towers. I’d assumed the plane was a Cessna, some small thing piloted by an amateur who got catastrophically lost. Clearly, I was wrong. I get to Calyer Street and the cityscape becomes completely obscured by the rest of Greenpoint. Right around the time the city disappears from my view, the second plane hits.
TWENTY MINUTES LATER: I’m sitting on the couch in my living room, feeling this horrible sensation of my skin trying to run away from itself, of my bones contracting and folding in on themselves, as I watch something horrific happen a few miles from where I sit. I hear people shrieking with horror throughout the building, up and down the block.
My neighbor, a photographer from Germany, knocks on my door and asks if he could watch with us. He doesn’t have a TV. He is normally a very peaceful, positive person. He can’t even sit down, just stands near me on the couch saying nothing. The reception is snowy, because I don’t have cable, and the city’s main TV transmitters have just been destroyed.
90 MINUTES LATER: I walk with my roommate and his friend down to the waterfront. We aren’t sure why, we just feel compelled to do so. We head for the old ferry landing at the end of Grand Street. As we walk down Grand to the water, a kid on a skateboard scoots down the middle of the street. An old man in a huge Pontiac honks at him to get out of the way. The kid does not budge. He turns around and deadpans, “Fuck you, it’s the apocalypse!”
At the ferry landing, you can see the smoke billowing up and out to the West, in the vague shape of what once was there. Nothing else to see, but we just stand there, as do so many others compelled to stand at that spot, because it feels wrong to do anything else.
TWO HOURS LATER: On our way back to the apartment, a car pulls alongside us on Franklin Avenue. The people inside do not speak English all that well and struggle to make themselves understood. Eventually I gather that they can’t get over the Williamsburg Bridge back into Manhattan and want to know the best way into the city. They have no idea what happened. I have to tell them.
12 HOURS LATER: I have a dream about planes crashing into the hill behind the house where I grew up. I will have this dream, and variations on it, for the next 10 years. Sometimes I’ll have Slaughterhouse-Five type dreams, of the planes crashing in reverse, reassembling, returning to the sky and flying back to where they came from. I can’t tell which is worse.
1 DAY LATER: My friend Chris calls and says he’s having folks over at his place in the East Village, just to hang out and play boardgames. I dare to leave the house. The subways are running surprisingly well, or at least the L train is. The East Village is technically part of the Frozen Zone of downtown, but the part where Chris lives is only closed to vehicular traffic. People walk down the middle of Avenue A, not going anywhere exactly, just because they can.
A dozen people cram into his tiny apartment, playing games, drinking beers, and not talking about what had just happened in the least. By being together and doing this, we can allow each other to pretend everything is okay. I play along. People stay until about midnight and start to drift back home. For others, that’s mostly other parts of Manhattan. Me, I have to find a way back to Brooklyn, and I find myself having a full blown panic attack at the thought of taking the subway back home. I am convinced something awful will happen if I do. So I crash at his place and get almost zero sleep on his miniscule couch.
2 DAYS LATER: I wander the city for a while with Chris’s roommate, Miss. We figure we have to do something, anything, but we have no idea what. Give blood? Move boxes? Make sandwiches? The air is hazy and stung with this horrible smell, metallic and organic all at once. Sometimes I can still taste it at the back of my throat.
We buy facemasks at a hardware store, but they do nothing improve our breathing. Shamefully, we ditch them at a corner garbage can. Our efforts to find any meaningful way to help are fruitless. We stand at the corner of Broadway and West 4th, and look downtown at the speckled haze, the color of plow-fouled snow. We can go no further. I manage to get myself on a subway again and go home, and sleep for the first time in days.
3 DAYS LATER: I get an “are you okay?” email from an ex who’d dumped me for Jesus. I briefly consider not writing back just to be a dick. I feel the implied insult: it took three days for her to reach my name in her “are you okay?” list. I take the high road and respond with a terse “Yes, I’m fine,” then punch a door jamb until my knuckles ache.
4 DAYS LATER: I’m walking up Manhattan Avenue and spot a car parked off a sidestreet that looks a lot like my VW Passat, an angry little car I call Maggie (short for Magdalena, a good, stout name for a German car, I thought). I’d dropped it off with a mechanic on September 10 for an inspection and some other routine maintenance. I hadn’t been back to retrieve it since. I have no idea why it’s sitting in this particular spot, a good 10 blocks away from the garage. My mind immediately assumes it had been stolen and was about to be used in some hideous terrorist plot. That I entertained such an idea even for a moment demonstrates just how insane the world has become. I have an extra set of keys on me, so I drive it home.
I stop by the mechanic’s shop later. He is relieved when I tell him what happened; when he couldn’t find it, he assumed the car had been stolen. Why was it so far from the shop? He’d been driving it around to test something, he says. Though he’d always been a pretty square and reliable guy, as mechanics go, something about the whole affair rubs me the wrong way. I settle my bill and never take my car to him again. Not that I have much chance. With insurance premiums killing my unemployed wallet, I give Maggie to my dad, who treats cars like Kleenex. He drives her into the ground in record time.
5 DAYS LATER: I’m woken up by a dull thud. It feels like someone dropping a safe on the pavement. Fearing the worst, I run out to the stoop, as do all my neighbors. Soon we get the word that it was a very mild earthquake. There is a barely active fault line under Brooklyn/Queens, and it has picked the absolute worst time to give us all a jolt. Barely reassured, everyone goes back inside, angry at the earth over having some brand new thing to worry about.
7 DAYS LATER: I’m upstate for the weekend, in the town where I grew up, where everyone’s dad was a cop or fireman, or so it seemed when I was little. I go to pick up dinner at the pizza place I’d eaten at my whole life. A furious red-faced man in an FDNY t-shirt fumes by the counter. There’d been clashes at Ground Zero earlier that day between firemen who wanted to keep searching for their lost comrades and cops who were tasked with preventing them from doing so. In this man’s words, “they found the gold”—unnamed wealth or treasure from some corporation or another buried in the rubble—”and they don’t wanna look for nothing else.” He’d been pulling double shifts or worse all week. He looks like he can barely stand, from every form of exhaustion.
My mom drives a school bus in this town. In the weeks to come, it will be impossible for her to drive that bus to its destinations. There’s another memorial service at St. Mary’s every day, tying up traffic with one funeral procession after another to accommodate all the dead.
10 DAYS LATER: My brother asks if I want to go to Shea. The Mets are playing their first game in New York since That Day. It was the first game of any kind in New York since then. He had the tickets for weeks and can not find people to go. I accept the invitation. The stadium is maybe three-quarters full, the cavernous upper deck lightly populated. Too many rumors are swirling about what could happen next, what Those People have planned as a follow up, and none can be dismissed outright.
Liza Minelli sings “New York, New York” with a kickline of policemen. Mike Piazza clubs a two-run homer to straight away center that gives the Mets the lead in the bottom of the eighth, as Howie Rose screams THIS ONE’S GOT A CHANCE! They hold on for a 3-2 win over the Braves, on a field that days earlier was used as a campsite and supply center for the recovery effort, with various Mets chipping in some manpower. As Piazza’s homer sails into the night, I know nothing is better and nothing has changed and nothing will be good for a very long time. And yet, in this moment, brief as it is, I can simply be happy that someone is hitting a baseball high and far and gone.
6 WEEKS LATER: I’m returning from visiting my family upstate on the train. By the time I get to Hoboken, I find out there are no PATH trains to the city. A plane crashed in the Rockaways. No one’s sure it’s terrorism, but no one’s sure it isn’t, either. The ferries to Manhattan are still running, so I hop on one while scanning the skies, wondering what was going to fall out of them next. It lands in Battery Park City, way too close to Ground Zero, where that smell still hangs in the air. I make my way to the A train before I can vomit.
2 MONTHS LATER: I meet a girl. She tells me That Morning, she was going to meet up with a friend to get textbooks at the World Trade Center, but she stayed out too late the night before and slept in. One day she will become my wife and we will have a baby, and I will try not to think about what might have happened—or not happened—if she’d gone downtown That Morning, or about all the people who had the misfortune to be on time for their appointments.
3 MONTHS LATER: Automotive High School never gets back to me. My interview is lost in the mess of That Day. I have a job again, working as a roving teacher in a junior high in the Bronx. I take the job because it was offered to me and I’m in no position to turn down employment. It is a nightmare. Every morning, I walk over the Pulaski Bridge into Queens so I can take the 7 train to the 5. As I do, I see helicopters and small plans pass over the East River, sometimes getting lost behind certain buildings in the foreground of Long Island City, and I have to pause because I want to make sure they come out the other side in one piece.
The kids at this school are almost uniformly assholes. The same can be said of any junior high student body. But I am not equipped in any way to deal with them, after a year of complete and total failure. It’s bad enough to be beaten down by life, but to be also shit on by 13-year-olds is too much. I know these kids came from rough backgrounds that I can barely comprehend, but in my current state of extreme despair and self-pity, I can’t understand why I have to suffer for that. I begin to break down my days into tiny slices, just to get through them intact. Okay, made it through that minute. Now let’s take on this next minute.
One day, the rumor swirls around the junior high that the water supply was poisoned. It was one of many terror fears that bubbled up in since That Day. I try to tell the kids that it was virtually impossible to do this, that there was almost no way taking sips from the water fountain could kill them. I don’t think they’re even scared, really; it was just something else to distract them from school, to fuck with me and every other teacher. So when a kid takes a sip from a water fountain and feigns choking, I respond with staged unconcern. “Alright, you’re dead. Who’s next?” Some laugh, most don’t.
A week later, two kids get into an argument over something idiotic, and one hurls a chair at the other. I want to smack their two heads together, knock them out cold. Immediately after thinking this, I realize how insane and dangerous such a thought is. I leave the school that afternoon and never return. They call me at home for weeks. I let the phone ring.
1 YEAR LATER: I’m back in school, getting an MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College. On the anniversary, we drop the pretense of trying to talk about anything but what had happened. And yet, no one can say much. We all know we’re nowhere near the end of it. As aspiring writers, we try to talk about how someone could write about That Day. Is it too soon? Then we hear a fighter jet flyover pierce the air, and we all have to stop.
Later, we repair to a bar not far from Atlantic Avenue. Not long after we arrive, a few fireman enter desperately looking for a coworker. He ain’t been here, has he? one asks angrily. No, the bartender assures him, We know we’re not supposed to serve him. The fireman sighs and leaves, slump shouldered, to look for his friend, who has been driven over the edge by This Day.
2 YEARS LATER: I’m working at a different job, one where I make programs for pro and college sports teams. I’m sent to a printer’s conference at a plant 100 miles north of Minneapolis. I drive a rental car from the airport and realize how little of America I’ve seen.
I’m the only person there from my company, staying at a nice little resort in the middle of vast Minnesotan prairies, where road signs caution motorists to watch out for horse and buggies driven by the local Amish. At dinner at the hotel, I am forced to sit with the other attendees. Some from the Midwest find out that there are New Yorkers present. They breathlessly ask what it was like. I say nothing, but a trio from another company play it up for all it’s worth, sharing their tales of narrow escape. I can’t decide who I hate more, the non-New Yorkers with terror envy or the New Yorkers who are talking about it like a Big Fish story. I repair to my room and drain a six pack while watching The Civil War on my laptop.
3 YEARS LATER: My grandfather, the greatest man I’ve known and will probably ever know, has died. I grew up next door to him, and I spend most of the night trying to pick out photos to put on the little corkboard thing that will sit in the funeral home. I see a picture of me as a child, sitting in his lap as he drives a lawnmower through his backyard, and I have to run back nextdoor to my house. I hadn’t cried yet and this image makes me erupt in angry, endless tears.
It also happens to be election night. At 2 in the morning, the man who swore to get Osama bin Laden dead or alive, then said he wasn’t “too concerned about him,” has just taken Ohio. He will be president again. Bin Laden will remain uncaptured. I will attempt to drink myself to sleep, to no avail.
4 YEARS LATER: My father falls terminally ill, in Nepal of all places. Since I was in junior high, he’s traveled the globe doing “consulting,” in countries that experience some sort of political turmoil immediately before and after he arrived. I always suspected he was a spook. The main reason was, he’d once worked for an insurance company, spent a good portion of the 1980s trying to drink himself into oblivion, then suddenly dried up and was working for Nasdaq somehow. None of it made sense, unless you sniffed conspiracy.
Whenever asked, he would laugh and change the subject, which was odd, since he usually had no problem lying straight to your face. My pet theory was that whatever he truly did with his life, this was the only thing he felt guilty about. I’d always wanted to ask him what he’d done, what he knew. He was at the World Trade Center for the first bombing in 1993. He was in the vast former Yugoslavia when NATO accidentally bombed a Chinese embassy. He’d been to Pakistan several times.
Was it impossible to think he knew something about 9/11, or bin Laden, or both? No, but now it was impossible to ask him, about that and a million other things.
9 YEARS LATER: I’m working downtown, literally next door to Ground Zero. Every step reminds me of my father, who I used to meet down here for lunch when I was in college. The weight of it presses on me, to the point where I have to rush to the office to get away from it.
Every morning I see people with tables on street corners selling 9/11 crap to tourists. Postcards. Framed pictures. Coloring books. I’m amazed at how time can transform anything into a tourist trap. In a hundred years, this will all be as distant as the Civil War, or the Battle of Hastings, or Thermopylae, a point on the map and a plaque. Maybe it will be a mere blip on history’s radar, a prelude to something else even more momentous or horrifying. What’s worse to contemplate, a 9/11 coloring book or the certainty that every lifetime will one day be condensed into a sentence?
9 YEARS, 231 DAYS LATER: Twitter tells me Obama will address the nation at 10:30pm. My immediate thought: either we’re about to be flattened by an ICBM or Bin Laden is dead. Thankfully, it is the latter.
Twitter knows the news before the networks do, or will dare to say. While my feed celebrates the not-yet-official announcement, David Gregory can only allude to it. 10:30 quickly becomes 11. People begin to complain about the delay, but when you think about it, the delay of this eventuality even one minute after 9/11 is a travesty.
In my neighborhood, police and fire truck sirens blare. I think they are celebrating. I find out later they are rushing to a five-alarm fire. Their work never ends.
I always wondered how I would feel at this moment, and I still do. Bin Laden being killed, finally, does not erase anything he did, does not bring anyone back—either from the dead or being stationed overseas—and does not alleviate the pain caused both by him and the administration that used him to further its agenda. I don’t know what to do, so after the president’s speech I turn the Mets game back on, which is winding its way into sluggish extra innings. Earlier, the crowd erupted into a bipartisan chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Not the most nuanced reaction, but it seems uncouth to criticize such an organic display at such a moment. Especially when it just happens to have the same cadence of “Let’s go Mets!”
And I know this means even less than what’s happened to Bin Laden, by an astronomical amount, but I want the Mets to win. I need them to win. So when Ronny Paulino knocks in the the go-ahead run in the top of the 14th, and they hold on for the victory, I finally feel a strange sense of closure. From Piazza to Paulino, one Met catcher to another, bookending this horrible era with their game-winning hits. Something makes sense to me. There is symmetry after a decade of chaos.
9 YEARS, 232 DAYS LATER: I drop my daughter off at day care, and then leave for the city. On my way into the office, I pass by a plaque in the lobby of my building, dedicated to carpenter’s union members who lost their lives on 9/11. The same number of names are there as when I left on Friday. I head upstairs to work.