It was a beautiful day. The heat and humidity had finally broken and, although it hadn’t cooled off to a comfortable level yet, the oppressive humidity had lifted to the point that, when I stepped outside the front door of my building, I sighed in relief.
The sky was clear and blue, a high sky like we rarely see here but is so common in the West where I grew up.
These things did not make me happy because I knew I was on my way to work. A black dog was sitting on my shoulder. My own personal black cloud followed me, occasionally pierced with lightening as I thought of the situation at work. Gosh I hated the thought of going to the office. My peers and I weren’t getting along. They were so clearly better than me and took every opportunity to let me know it, condescending to drop by my office and tell me that my employees spoke too loudly on the phone (a peril of cubicles), that I didn’t know what I was doing (me, always a beginner), that I wasn’t I don’t even remember what. I just know I hated being around their poisonous atmosphere, and it was dragging me down. The half-hour walk to work felt like a million years.
About 10 minutes away from the office, I noticed a car pulled over to the side of the road, the driver’s door was open and he was hanging on the side of the car, listening to the radio, which was tuned up loud. Several other people stood nearby also listening to his car. For a moment, I wondered “baseball?” but then dismissed it – even the Yankees didn’t play at 8 am. I heard one ask another, “What happened?” “A plane hit a building.”
I kept walking, wrapped up in my own misery. My sleepy brain chewed on that image. Probably a commuter plane, off-course. I pictured it hitting a vacant building – newly renovated – with a small tower on top not far from my office, close enough that maybe they’d send everyone home for the day and I wouldn’t have to go to work.
I crossed through the park, not really noticing the calm before the storm, and then turned onto Fifth Avenue. Cars were stopped, doors open, people standing beside them, like in a Godzilla movie. People rushed out of buildings, stood in the middle of the Avenue, gazing south. Still wrapped in my own personal misery, I plodded around them, grumbling about rubber-neckers under my breath, not even noticing what was happening right in front of me.
As I entered my building, a crowd of people rushed out and I slithered through them. I ascended the stairs, pushed aside by a woman I knew from the 9th floor who had apparently run the entire way down, “Sorry,” she called as she rushed by.
On my floor, no one was working. Everyone stood around talking to each other. I unlocked the door to my office, sat in my chair, turned on my computer and, while it warmed up, went to the break room to get a glass of water, or maybe a diet coke. A TV was plugged in (yes, kids, in those days, you just could plug in a TV most places and get reception without cable or Wi-Fi) and people gathered around.
“Oh my god,” someone whispered. I turned and watched as a tower collapsed, again and again, as an older local newscaster quietly had a panic attack on the air (I didn’t see him again after this). I watched in silence for a few minutes more, then returned to my office, picked up the phone, and called my sister in law. “The lines are about to go down,” I told my sister in law without any other explanation. “You need to know that your brother and I are safe. Call the rest of your family and tell them we’re ok and not to worry if they can’t get us on the phone.” Somehow I got word to my sister. Then the lines did go down.
I worked a little longer – sheltering in place they call it now – and then the governor decided we could all go home and the streets filled with silent crowds of people heading north. I wove my way home and found my husband and his coworker drinking blue martinis and telling each other over and over again where they had been when it had happened, exactly where they were, what they had said, what others had said. How it made them feel. They had been together that morning.
“I called your family before the lines went down,” I told him, still numb. He thanked me, gave me a hug and a martini.
The shock came later. The frantic emails from family and friends, all wanting to know if I was ok, all telling me where they had been what had happened to them. My cousin had been on business in Seattle and had to share a rental car to get home to his pregnant wife who, if I remember correctly, had just gone into labor or was about to.
The next weeks were unreal, the whole city in shock. The streets were silent, no honking horns, no people talking. When you walked by sidewalk cafes, there was no murmur. No hoots as you walked past construction sites. Just the wail of sirens as ambulances rushed by, all cars pulled neatly over to the side, pedestrians standing at attention, heads swiveling towards the sound. Had they found someone alive? No. They never did. Rumors of entire emergency room staffs who had rushed to standby for a rush of patients that never came, and then had to have grief counseling because the emergency had been too great for them to help.
People stood in line to give blood for hours, queues stretching around blocks. Every vertical surface was covered in homemade posters. Have you seen me? They asked, over and over again. A busboy. A secretary. Office workers. Eventually they weathered away. No one had seen them. They were gone.
As was the landmark that you oriented yourself to when you ascended the subway stairs. Which way was south – oh, yes, that way. A fine dust settled over the city. I developed asthma.
The nightmare had started with a single thought: it’s a beautiful day. Every time I exit my building now, if I reflect on the positive nature of the weather, I am reminded of another beautiful day.