Primary day for the Mayoral election in New York City. I walk from my house the block to PS 84 to cast my vote.
Rather than wait for the bus, I walk the 8 blocks from PS 84 to Ditmars Station, because it is such a stunning day. I grab a coffee before climbing the stairs up to the station and getting on the N train.
I had taken to crossing the platform at Queensboro Plaza from the N train to the 7 train, allowing me to avoid the crowds at Times Square. After leaving Court House Square the train makes the bend around 5Pointz and before going under the East River I’d catch a view of the Towers.
I get off the train at 5th Avenue in Manhattan and come above ground at Bryant Park. As I cross 5th Avenue making my way to my office on Madison Avenue, looking left I could see the Towers again. I probably didn’t that morning, no reason to; besides I was busy looking right to make my way across the street.
When I get to my office the longest part of my commute begins, the interminable wait for the damn elevator. It always took forever. Most days a collection of co-workers formed and the morning ritual of complaining about the elevator commenced. This day however, the conversation was about the weather. It was glorious! The most amazing blue sky, I remember talking to people about it, even strangers on the train were talking to each other about it, it was truly remarkable. One of the very few perfect New York City days between our horrifically muggy summers and windswept winters. I was already thinking about lunch at Bryant Park and the best time to get there to get a chair on the lawn.
The elevator eventually brought me to my office on the 8th floor. Sitting at my desk I must have been checking my email or something. At some point I called a co-worker downstairs. She couldn’t talk, a plane had crashed at the World Trade Center and she was trying to get in touch with a friend downtown.
A plane crash? Today? How? Must’ve been some small plane with an inexperienced pilot, mechanical problem, maybe the pilot had a heart attack or something.
I pulled up CNN on my computer, ever so slowly the page loaded. A photo on the home page of a hole in the side of the World Trade Center.
I called out to my boss, his office was across from my desk. “A plane hit the World Trade Center.” Across the room my co-worker’s head swings toward me, “what?” “Yes, it’s on CNN.”
No one can get the internet to load, people come out of their offices over to my desk, where I still have CNN’s homepage loaded, others are trying to make phone calls, already the lines are getting tied up.
I call my mother’s house, I get the machine. “You’re going to hear some crazy news about a plane hitting a building in New York, I’m like 90 blocks away and fine.”
With the photographic evidence confronting us, the World Trade Center with a giant smoking hole in it, the reality of what is happening still does not grab us. It must be an accident, how could someone crash..? The skies are stupendously clear. Someone recalls that plane that hit the Empire State Building in the ’40s. But that was a foggy day, not today, not this impossibly blue sky day.
My boss is the President of the company, so as we try to make sense of what is happening, my internal line is ringing off the hook, and executives are making their way up to our office. HR is moving into crisis mode, at least those of them that have started to grasp that this might be a crisis situation.
Someone comes out of her office, “another plane crashed.”
“It isn’t an accident.”
It is all still too unbelievable.
We find out the subways are shut down, “what if they close the city, what if we can’t leave?” It is decided that we need to be prepared to stay the night in the city. Someone heads out for supplies, someone tells him to buy a TV.
Fuck this, I need a cigarette, or ten.
I use the stairs, make my way to the street, light a cigarette and walk the block from Madison to 5th Avenue. I look downtown, thousands of people are on the sidewalks, in the road, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, all up and down the Avenue all looking downtown, to the Towers, burning.
Impossible amounts of smoke billowing toward the east, blotting out the impossibly blue sky.
I head back into the building, back up to my office. The TV is here.
The person who got it tells us what it is like outside, pandemonium. He was making his way down 42nd Street, a crowd of people, panicked, ran toward him, then like a flock of birds they all turned and ran the other way. He grabs someone and asks why they are running, “I don’t know! Everyone else is!”
We don’t have cable, the only station we can tune in with the rabbit ears is Telemundo. One of the housekeepers is pressed into translation duty.
I stand watching the TV, no translation is needed really. I mutter, “they’re gonna have to tear them down.” Then the first tower falls. “Well I guess they don’t need to tear them down.” So flip, so callous, but how am I supposed to react, what is happening?
I head back to my desk, call my sister. As we’re talking, the fire alarm goes off, someone comes over the PA telling us to head to the basement. There is a bomb threat at Grand Central, a block away. “Shit, I have to go!” click.
I couldn’t get back through for hours to let her know I was alright.
We all huddle in the basement, mostly quiet. Not knowing what to say, what is real, why the hell we’re in the basement.
Later we head back upstairs, then back to the basement again. Someone mentions the Met Life building. It sits atop Grand Central, could a bomb at Grand Central bring it down, and if so, would it land on us? Next time we’re ordered to the basement, most of us head for the sidewalk instead. We don’t want to be in the basement if the Met Life building comes down.
At some point the second tower falls. We hear rumors, catch snippets of information off of Telemundo or the radio or someone gets the internet to load a page. Someone says there was a car bomb outside the White House, someone else hears a plane hit the Pentagon, one’s heading toward Chicago. No one is allowed below Canal Street, someone else chimes in, “1010WINS says it’s 14th Street.” “The Mayor is saying that people who can leave Manhattan should.”
We start talking about who lives where and how people will get home without the trains running. The bridges are all open, outbound only.
A co-worker’s husband is making his way uptown to our office then they are going to walk to Queens. “Over the Queensboro Bridge?” “Yes.” “I’ll walk with you.”
Someone is in charge of accounting for everyone and where they are going and how they are getting there. Someone else says some of the subways are running, outbound only.
My co-worker and I decide we’d feel safer walking, we’ll see if we can get a train once we get to Queensboro Plaza.
As we make our way uptown from 44th Street to 59th Street we actually just start chatting, we’d never really interacted much in the office and I’d never met her husband. We talk about where we live, where we grew, how they met…
The sidewalks are jammed and pedestrians are spilling over into the street, everyone heading uptown. Women who hadn’t planned on evacuating Manhattan on foot remove their shoes.
Heading uptown, the sky is still wondrous. That brilliant September sky is as blue as it was that morning. We’d all forgotten about it.
We get to 59th Street and make our way across town to the bridge. The lanes heading to Queens are jammed with cars, the lanes coming from Queens are jammed with people, walking out of Manhattan, as are the pedestrian paths and the upper deck.
Someone in a box truck stops and loads a bunch of people who are having trouble walking into the truck to drive them over the bridge. In the weeks and months to come box trucks will become a symbol of threat, all stopped and searched before being allowed into Manhattan, today though, the box truck is a godsend for those people struggling to make their way home.
As we make our way onto the bridge and out over the river, we look back downtown. The brilliant blue sky becomes a distant memory again, clouds of black and grey smoke are billowing up from downtown and blowing across Brooklyn. No one says anything, we just look and continue walking, look again, and continue walking.
Over a mile later we’re over the bridge and in Queensboro Plaza. On any other day the Plaza would be jammed with traffic, people on the sidewalks making their way up to Queensboro Plaza Station or heading underground to Queens Plaza Station. Today the Plaza is wall to wall people. The bodegas and fast food restaurants have pulled cases of bottled water out of their storage rooms and are handing them out to weary walkers.
My co-worker and her husband decide to try to get on a train, they live way out in Eastern Queens. I look at the lines to get on the subway; I can’t see the end. I decide I’ve walked this far, I’ll just keep walking.
I struggle through the crowds in the Plaza and over to 31st Street. A train goes by overhead. Heading towards Ditmars I take some of the back blocks through the more residential areas. I walk by a house, a woman in her yard talking to another woman standing on the sidewalk on the other side of the fence. They are talking about remodeling the first woman’s kitchen. Really?
I make my way to my street. I stop at the bodega on the corner and buy a ham and cheese sandwich and a Coke.
I fall on the futon in my apartment, turn on the TV. I don’t have cable and many stations had their transmitters on the World Trade Center towers, those transmitters aren’t there anymore. I can get a grainy Tom Brokaw to tune in, and Channel 13, the PBS station. Later, Channel 13 simulcasted CBS and I spent most of Wednesday with Dan Rather.
I have a few bites of the ham and cheese sandwich and try to make some phone calls, mostly I can’t get a dial tone, when I can get a dial tone, I can’t get a call to connect. My internet is dial-up, I don’t even bother trying that.
I stay up most of the night with Tom Brokaw, I’m able to make a few calls connect and tell the people I reach to tell other people I’m fine. Tom tells me Manhattan is closed on Wednesday. I fall in and out of sleep.
Wednesday is much the same, flipping the channels between Tom and Dan, trying to make phone calls, fruitlessly trying to get the dial-up to work, and equally as fruitlessly trying to eat.
Thursday I get out of bed, in no hurry to head to work in the City. I make my way to the N train and make the cross-platform transfer at Queensboro Plaza to the 7. I hear announcements at Queensboro about stations all across Manhattan being closed. “Police action.” That would become a familiar refrain during the coming months, “oh, more ‘Police Action’.”
The train rounds the bend at 5Pointz and all that is in the sky is smoke. I tense up as we head into the tunnels under the East River. The train is held at the Hunters Point station, on the Queens side of the river. People sit nervously. We move under the river to Grand Central, the first stop in Manhattan. Grand Central whose bomb threats had me rushing to the basement two days earlier.
We pass through Grand Central and over to 5th Avenue where I get off.
As I climb the stairs up to Bryant Park a light haze of dust is falling, glinting in the sun. Dust, smoke, bodies. I make my way to 44th Street, up the elevator, no one discusses it’s slowness.
Soon after sitting at my desk, an announcement to go the basement, thanks a lot Grand Central, I head for the street, and have 3 or 4 cigarettes.
We’re given the all clear and I head back up to the 8th floor. I walk into the HR Director’s office. I tell her I’m going home. “That’s fine,” she says. “To Massachusetts,” I say. “Are you coming back?” “If I’m not going to be here on Monday, I’ll call.”
I leave the office and like Tuesday afternoon, I start walking uptown. I don’t want to go to Penn Station to get Amtrak or to Port Authority to get a bus, they are being closed every 20 minutes for bomb threats just as Grand Central is, and even though we all know intellectually the bomb threats don’t amount to anything, I still think, there could be a bomb.
I decide to make my way to 125th Street and get the MetroNorth to New Haven, I’ll figure out what to do once I get there. Once I get past 59th Street, I hop on a bus to Harlem.
As the MetroNorth comes from Grand Central, and as Grand Central keeps closing due to bomb threats, the trains are not remotely adhering to a schedule. I buy a ticket and wait, smoke cigarettes on the platform, no one stops me.
Eventually I get a train and make my way to New Haven. In New Haven I buy an Amtrak ticket to Boston, the person at the counter tells me trains are delayed all up and down the coast and they don’t know when the next one will be. That’s fine, I buy more cigarettes, make some phone calls (phones work in New Haven!), and stare slack-jawed with everyone else at the video monitors playing CNN.
Sometime after midnight I finally make it to Boston, with only the clothes on my back. I head to the ATM then buy more cigarettes. I spend the night at a friends house.
Friday is cold and rainy, I take a bus to Marshall’s and buy what to this day I call my ‘refugee clothes.’ Some clean socks, a sweater with a hood, pants, underwear.
Eventually I take a bus to the Cape and spend Friday night and Saturday at my parents.
It is different there. People are of course aware of what happened, but – I don’t know. Somehow, it is on CNN. There’s a ‘what are ya gonna do? Let’s make dinner’ attitude. It is comforting but somehow off-putting. I just fled Manhattan twice in one week. Certainly all of your reactions should be more, more, I don’t know, manic, like me.
Sunday I take a bus back to Boston and visit another friend. I feel like I need to see people. I board an Amtrak back to New York. The trains are more or less back on schedule.
As the train switches engines at New Haven, I jump onto the platform for a cigarette.
We make our way into New York after dark and pass over the Hell Gate Bridge. Out the window to the south is Manhattan. Over downtown the wind has slackened. The plume that had been blowing over Brooklyn when I left is now a cloud over the city. It looks like – a mushroom cloud. People on the train weep quietly, others look away, move to the other side of the train. Many are returning home for the first time after being stranded by the planes being grounded.
The train makes it’s way through Queens and under the East River into Penn Station. I come above ground at 34th Street. That dust, the bodies. I move on, there are papers taped up to every flat surface – the missing.
Police are everywhere, with machine guns, I hail a cab and head home.
The next day, Monday, I get on the N train in the morning, make the cross platform transfer to the 7, the loud speaker blares about ‘Police Actions.’ We make the bend at 5Pointz, the view, empty.