It was a beautiful morning. The first day in weeks with a bright blue sky and a drop in humidity. I stepped out of the building where we had lived for a month and two days, and sighed with relief at the change in weather.
Then my thoughts turned heavy. I hated going to my office. Things were very high pressure right then. The company had gone through a reorganization and people I had worked with for years, that I had considered friends, were giving me a hard time because roles were shifting and they wanted to come out on top and seemed to feel that the only way to do that was to step on the rest of us. So, although the skies were blue, I carried my own black cloud over my head. With every step I took towards the office where I dreaded going that day, the cloud great bigger and darker, pressing its weight down on me.
I disappeared into my own black thoughts and so it took me a while to recognize that something was different. Warning signs were around me. Self-absorbed, I hadn’t noticed the first plane that must have flown low over my head, straight down the island. I did notice the people who had stopped in the streets, gathered around a livery cab that had pulled over to the side of the road, all doors open and radio turned up, people huddled around it, listening with the absorption of a September Yankees game, 10th inning, 2 out.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Plane hit a building.”
I kept walking, cut through the park where I escaped at lunch to cry where (I hoped) colleagues couldn’t see me, still completely focused on myself. Imagining now the plane having hit my office so I wouldn’t have to go back there. I turned out of the park onto Fifth Avenue. I could see my building now and was disappointed to see that it was fine. Then relived because, much as I was struggling with the nastiness of some colleagues, I liked others and really didn’t want the company I usually liked to suffer.
I was still so self-absorbed that I didn’t even notice the billowing smoke directly in front of me.
I did feel that something was different. Traffic had stopped, cars had pulled over or just stopped in the middle of the road, doors open, people standing, one foot in, one out. People were standing in huddles in the street and on the sidewalks, all looking the same direction, all silent, strangers grabbing each other, needing something to hold onto. I kept plodding forward, lost in my own thoughts.
I didn’t even notice the first tower fall.
As I reached the building, people were streaming out, a woman I knew pushed past me.
“You’re going the wrong way,” I joked.
“The tower fell!” She shouted as she passed full-speed. It didn’t make sense.
It occurred to me that something unusual was going on.
I climbed the stairs to the second floor and key-carded myself into the hallway. The usual hum of office work was paused. Someone had grabbed the TV/VCR combo that we used to screen training videos from the trainer’s office, and was pushing it down the hall on a rolling chair to the break room. I unlocked my office, hung up my bag, grabbed some change to buy a cola, still following routine, and pushed through a crowd of sobbing people to the break room where the water cooler was located.
I think there were two TVs set up. They were replaying the first tower falling. Then the second plane hit. Everyone gasped. I stood and stared, change dangling in my hand, forgotten. Oh shit.
I bought my cola, walked silently back to my office, and stared at my desk. I knew my husband was up in Harlem that day, well removed from the financial area. His parents in Florida, upon hearing the news, would immediately panic and assume the worst. The phone lines were going to go crazy with everyone in New York calling each other, calling their families, their families calling them. I picked up the phone and called my husband’s sister – or maybe I sent her an email?
“Something is happening in New York,” I said (or something like this). “Something big. I don’t understand it yet but your brother is safe and I’m ok. It might be hard to reach us. Please call your parents and your sister and let them know that, even if they can’t get ahold of us, we’re okay, we’re not in danger.” Then I think I emailed my sister. My mom was living in Egypt that year. And she wouldn’t worry anyway. [As it turned out later, she couldn’t have cared less.]
And then the second tower fell and the phones went out. So did the TV. Everyone sat silently, in shock.
At first they wouldn’t let us leave the building. Somehow we had learned that the governor had asked that we shelter in place until they knew it was safe to travel home. I tried to think: there was going to be a lot to do. The computers were all down, I think, and the phones. What could I do? What could I do? There had to be something to do.
And then, all at once, we could leave. We started walking. Not a big deal for me, I always walked to work and home. But it was a big deal for a lot of people. The streets were full of people walking, some covered in a fine white powder. It was so quiet. Just the sound of walking feet and, in the distance, sirens. Cars? There must have been cars but I don’t remember them. Just walking people, shoulder to shoulder.
When I got home, I found my husband and our friend drinking blue martinis. They were talking about how they had found out. Repeating the story to each other, over and over, excitedly. They had been together that morning, and still they told each other the story, as if they had been apart and hadn’t seen each other in years.
“I got word out to your folks before the lines went down,” I told him and he thanked me and put a martini in my hand.
For weeks afterwards, the streets were so quiet. In sidewalk cafes, people sat together, dining silently. Horns didn’t honk. People didn’t snipe at each other. Everyone was still in shock.
Every time an ambulance went by, sirens blaring, people followed it with their gaze. Had they found someone alive? The answer was always No.
Posters sprang up overnight – photos of kitchen workers from the penthouse restaurant and the financial firm that had lost so many people asked Have You Seen Me? Every flat vertical surface, bus shelters, phone booths, construction hoardings, the side of the Armory, covered with overlapping photocopies. Have you seen me?
The answer was always No.
The skyline seemed wrong. My eyes kept going to the gap on the horizon, like tongue to missing tooth, searching out what was missing. I learned new routes to walk, started walking down 1st or 2nd Avenue and turning right at the last minute so I didn’t have to look down 5th and see the gap; so I could avoid the Armory.
For a while, they closed the air space over Manhattan and planes flew way around. When they started flying overhead again, the planes seemed so low and our worried eyes followed them. I thought about my mom’s cat, Joey, that she had in college. Every time she flew back and forth from Miami to Denver, he flew with her. She said that every time a plane flew overhead, Joey flattened himself against the ground. I knew how he felt.
Even now, almost 20 years later, I find myself a little overwhelmed by the memory. The shock.
And probably also a little angry about what is happening now. Instead of pulling together, we pull apart. Now, every night, we call my husband’s parents and, every night, they urge us to stay safe.
And there isn’t a vertical surface big enough for all the photos of the dead.