episodes & recollections
#54 9 1 1
My part of New York City is not burning.
An hour has passed since the Twin Towers evaporated with 20,000 souls inside them. Up here, a few miles north of the hit, a surreal calm prevails.
My part of New York City is unhurt, but changed. The Mayor moves fast. Third Avenue has been blockaded. On Lexington, teenagers with machine guns guard the 25th Street Armory.
On 27th Street, a couple is passionately kissing. Behind them, the sky is filled with white smoke.
Everyone has left work. It’s like the Fourth of July. And then again it’s nothing like the Fourth of July.
At 33rd & Lex, a woman in an electric green dress squats down to take a snapshot of the Chrysler Building, standing tall and unaffected to the north. I catch myself thinking they haven’t bombed that one yet.
It takes twice as long as it should to reach my destination. In my hand is an envelope filled with cash for a friend. It is one small, achievable mission on a day of fear and uncertainty. I leave the envelope with the doorman. Then I hug him. Then I go.
Multiply my story by nine million. All over New York, people are fulfilling small tasks, then returning home — if they have homes to go to. Battery Park has been evacuated. The entire downtown area is being blockaded.
As I pass a bodega, a radio perched among the fruits and flowers announces that 200 firemen are dead.
By the time I get home, I feel as if I have swum a great distance.
I can’t reach my brother or my father to tell them I’m alive. All long distance circuits are busy. All cell phones are dead.
Among other things, the air attack has taken out the antennae used by area broadcasters. The local TV news is only available on cable.
The news is running loops of the impact, loops of the implosions. Like everyone else, I watch, hoping to see or hear something that makes sense. But all I learn is that thousands of New Yorkers can die in an instant.
In the late afternoon, a third building collapses, taking out part of the power grid. My ISP stops authenticating. I lose Internet access.
At night we venture out again.
Third Avenue by Cabrini Hospital is still heavily guarded. We wait for permission to cross the street.
At the hospital, where we intended to donate blood, we are turned away. They’ve run out of blood bags.
We wander up to my partner’s apartment. She asks about my trip to San Francisco. I find I have little to say. Last week was last week. Last week we lived in an entirely different world.
The night sky is filled with smoke as fire continues to consume the financial capital of the world. There’s a hole in the cityscape. There’s a hole in the earth where the twin towers stood. There are living people trapped in the hole, beneath 110 floors worth of rubble and metal.
I lie awake all night.
The streets of lower Midtown are movie-set empty. I still can’t call London or Pittsburgh. I still have no Internet access.
They’re not letting anyone below 14th Street who isn’t supposed to be there.
I’m supposed to be a mile below 14th Street tonight to get a lease approved. I’ve been waiting for this meeting for four weeks.
I’m told to bring my lease and passport if I hope to make it past security – and to allow two hours for the short trip downtown.
I wonder if this is what life will be like now. Not only in New York, but all over America.
The TV news says the cloud that’s been floating over the city for 30 hours is filled with asbestos. The TV news says stay home and shut your windows.
I feel sick after crossing the street with a bag of laundry. The laundry man covers his mouth with his hand. The laundry man tells me go home, go home.
I cancel the lease approval meeting. I feel wrung out. I wonder if the source of my exhaustion is asbestos or grief.
Around 8 p.m., my building and dozens of others are evacuated in response to a bomb threat at the Empire State Building. The bomb threat proves false. Someone's idea of a joke.
Strong winds are expected to push the asbestos cloud north over the entire East Side this afternoon, causing ocular and respiratory problems in much of Manhattan.
For the third day straight, when I try to reach my father in Pittsburgh I get a busy signal.
No one is permitted below 14th Street without picture I.D. and proof of residency. People cannot return to their homes.
Businesses below 14th Street have been shut down, including my ISP. Dial-up access is down because no one can get in to turn on the servers. DSL is down because two Verizon facilities were destroyed in the fire.
My damage is infinitesimal compared to the horrors of this week, but I find myself calculating it anyway: I can’t work, I can’t contact my people, and I can’t move.
I can’t just sit here, either, so I head out for a long walk through my city before the big winds kick up and make breathing hazardous.
We’ve all seen children on playgrounds glance up to reassure themselves that Mommy or Daddy is still close by. If you asked, I’d tell you I’m running errands and meeting with my business partner. But inside I’m really doing what any three-year-old would do. I’m reassuring myself that New York City is still here.