I am trying to remember…

I normally don’t care much for fanfare.  You won’t likely find me rallying around flags or signing up for causes.  So, writing a remembrance of September 11th on the 6th anniversary feels a little out of character for me.  But I do like to introspect.  Most of my writing (besides my experiments) tends to take an analytical glance back at my own life.  I like to see where I have walked and try to remember how I felt in those times.

If you haven’t picked up on this motif yet in my blog, my time in New York City definitely changed me.  I moved there six years ago and moved back out of there five years later.  I both loved and hated the experience.  I gained valuable foraging experience, trotting along at the heels of Wildman Steve Brill.  But I also felt the weight and the grime of life at the heart of civilization.

My wife and I moved to the City in September of 2001.  We signed our lease just a few days before the planes struck the towers.  In fact, we had a flight home to Arkansas that day.  When we woke up in our hotel room that morning, late, unaware of the circumstances, we tried to call to confirm our flight but could not figure out why our cell phones had stopped working.

We decided to go down a few blocks to EasyEverything — the big internet cafe on 42nd Street.  I’ll never forget the strangeness of that walk down Broadway.  For a moment I thought, “This must be what it would feel like to live in Metropolis,” because everyone had flooded out of the buildings to stand in the street and stare up at the sky — as if Superman had just zoomed by.  But then I realized that not the sky, but the jumbotrons, held everyone’s attention.

I saw the image of the smoke billowing out of one of the towers and thought, “Did a trashcan catch on fire?”  When I lost sight of my wife in the crowd, I decided to stop trying to keep up and figure out the situation.  I asked my stupid trashcan question of a random guy on the street, and he explained that a plane had hit one of the towers.

Eventually I got to the internet cafe, found my wife, and sent out some frantic emails to friends and family:

big fucking news:

in case you hadn’t heard yet, the world trade center was hit by a hijacked plane this morning. and another hijacked plane tried to fly into the pentagon. nyc is on “full terrorism alert” right now, so i don’t even know if we’ll be able to fly home today. i just cried standing on broadway watching the jumbotron screens in times square as they showed the smoke billowing out of the wtc tower that was hit. the smoke has like completely covered lower manhattan.  we’re not smelling or seeing it from midtown yet, though.

this is the biggest fucking deal i’ve ever lived through. is this ww3 or something? this is blowing my mind.

damn.

i’m going to send this now and send another email later. i love you. if you can’t reach me on my cell phone, try our home phone in fayetteville. our cells aren’t working today. i guess because of the smoke or something.

okay. well, they’re closing the world’s largest internet cafe. i guess the police are asking all stores to close down. i love you. we’re still okay so far. i’ll email as soon as i get a chance.

After I sent that email, we walked out of EasyEverything onto 42nd Street just in time to see the second tower fall on the CBS jumbotron across the street.

I can’t quite remember the emotions I experienced that day.  Six years ago feels like a long time away.  I remember the confusion — not panic, just confusion.  I remember the crowds on the streets.  We thought we would face fewer people on 8th Avenue, but crowds surged just as thick there.  With all the businesses in Times Square shutting down, the population flooded the streets.

This next email, which I sent on September 15th, from the safe comfort of my apartment in Fayetteville before moving back to the City, expresses the rest of our experience better than I can relate it now.  I wrote these words to some NYC friends who had gone on vacation to Italy that September.

joe and susan & i are fine. we were staying at the edison hotel when the tragedy happened. we heard nothing from where we were and didn’t even know that something had happened until we were walking down broadway toward 42nd to the internet cafe.

the crowds in time square weren’t moving, and everybody was watching the big screens. since the crowds were so thick, i didn’t want to lose sight of susan ahead of me, but i kept looking to the screens from time to time to see if i could figure out what was going on. i saw the image of one of the towers billowing black smoke from the top. then i noticed that one of the other giant screens had closed captioning, and i read that the tower had been hit by a hijacked plane.

by that time, i had lost sight of susan in the crowd. i tried to call her, but our cell phones were not working. so i pushed on to easyeverything. i found her and explained what was going on. we were both in the middle of our first email when they announced over the loudspeakers that the police had asked them to evacuate the building–not due to any threat of terrorism in the area, simply in order for people to get to their homes. so we quickly finished our emails and left with joe (who had been right behind me.)

on 42nd street, we could see on the cbs screen across the street that both towers had been hit, and one of them had collapsed. the second tower collapsed before our eyes on the screen. we rushed back to the edison and bought a phone card so as to be able to call our families from the hotel. of course, everyone was relieved to hear from us, and we assured them that we were in no danger where we were in manhattan.

though the edison had been booked solid, obviously people were no longer able to fly into the city. so we were able to stay another night in our same room. we tried to donate blood at st. luke’s roosevelt hospital earlier that day (around 5,) but we were turned away. by evening, the streets were almost empty. very few people and almost no traffic moved through times square. some of the lights and the giant, curved sony screen were out as well. it was a very erie, deserted feeling. fortunately, mcdonalds had not closed, so we were able to eat.

from our room, we called amtrack and every car rental place we could find. amtrack had been halted, and every car rental had either suspended operation or was sold out. i had my dad checking the internet for us from his home in arkansas, calling him periodically to see if he had found any way for us to get out of the city.

by this time, joe’s dad had decided to drive up to NY to pick us up. we were certain that he would not be able to drive into manhattan, so it became our objective to get off the island any way we could. we hoped to catch a train to baltimore, philadelphia, or even just jersey. but we were determined that if nothing could be arranged that way that we would walk over the hudson on one of the pedestrian bridges that had been opened up.

we made it to penn station by late morning. i don’t know how crowded the place usually is, but the lines stretched on from one section of the building to the next. and since none of us had ever taken a train, much less taken one from penn station, we were very much at a loss. we found out, from a security officer what train we needed, and then found the ticket lines. even though the lines were long, they were not completely at a stand-still. they moved, albeit slowly. finally, we were able to purchase three tickets, but the tickets did not even guarantee us a seat on the train. we knew we had to move fast, but the problem was, we didn’t even know where to board, much less how to get there in a hurry.

fortunately, our train’s arrival was delayed by 25 min. this gave us time to check our bags (so we wouldn’t be burdened by them while trying to push though the crowds to get to our gate.) and we also had time to eat–though there wasn’t much to choose from. finally, we were able to find out where the gate information would be posted and where the gates were. we were standing by gate 9/10 at one end of the boarding area, watching the screen for our train’s gate number. finally, our train was announced as arriving at gate 15. we pushed through the crowds without mercy. gate 15 was at the opposite end of the concourse. finally, all 3 of us made it to the escalator that descended to the train. susan, who was ahead of joe and me, called out to us which way to go when we got off the escalator.

when we reached the bottom, we ran. i saw susan go into one of the doors of the train, and i followed through the same door, but when i got in, i couldn’t tell which way she had gone. joe was right behind me, and we were both able to find seats together in one of the cars. the cell phones were working again, but we were on roam and had to go through operators to make credit card calls. i wasn’t able to reach susan, and i knew that she wasn’t able to reach me. i knew that she had made it onto the train, so i felt certain that she was on board somewhere. i wanted to go looking for her, but i was afraid that if i left my seat i would not be allowed to ride if i came back and my seat had been taken.

eventually, more people crowded onto the train, and we realized that they allowed standing room passengers. but by that time, the aisles were so crowded that i could barely have been able to get from car to car to look for susan.

finally, the train moved a few feet and stopped. it was just enough change for our phones to get a clear signal and not be on roam. susan & i were able to call each other and confirm that we were both on the train. it was a great relief.

after probably an hour of waiting for the train to really take off, we left penn station. when we came above ground in jersey, we could see the empire state building first, then the chrysler building shimmering below it. and off to the side, a great billowing pillar of smoke at the end of manhattan. it was harrowing to finally be able to see the destruction from this perspective. the smoke was so thick, it looked like the pillar was at least 20 street blocks wide.

our over-laden train moved slowly though new jersey and on into philadelphia. by the time we made it to the station, joe’s dad had just arrived (the timing was incredible.) after we got our bags (which had been sent on the second train to leave NYC–we had to wait awhile) we took off on our 2 day road trip home.

we listened to NPR and AM radio all the way back to arkansas. the news of how one of the planes had not reached it’s target because the passengers had overtaken the hijackers caused us to mourn in a whole new way. we heard the words of tony blair proclaiming that “today, we are all americans.” at the changing of the guard at buckingham palace, they played the star spangled banner. we heard senator john mccain declare, “God may have mercy, but we
won’t.”

we listened to how our country was pulling together. how school children in connecticut were bringing lunches to school to be sent to the rescue workers in lower manhattan–each one including a letter that began, “dear hero”. how people were gathering in union square for a candle-light vigil. how blood banks across the country were full. how nato had declared that all of it’s countries would be united in supporting the US in it’s effort to retaliate against the terrorists.

and now, finally, we are home. in our apartment in fayetteville, arkansas. as we walked up the steps to our front door last night, our neighbor had a candle burning in her window.

we are very proud to be americans right now. but we are perhaps even more proud to be new yorkers. the way our new city has pulled together so selflessly astounds us. no looting–only helping.

we are packing our things to move to our new city–to be in the heart of the strongest family we know.

–rix

That first year in NYC felt rough — but in a good way.  The difficulty made everything feel more adventurous.  My wife and I landed jobs working in Midtown at TGI Friday’s next to Rockefeller Plaza (you can see the restaurant in the background of the movie Mr. Deeds in the scene where they stage the mugging of Winona Ryder’s character.)

A year later, I had a job harvesting wildflowers in the fields of New Jersey and lower upstate New York to sell to florists in Manhattan.  (Don’t worry, these NYC jobs will definitely make an appearance in an upcoming Wage Slavery post.)  I didn’t really keep track of the fact that the autumnal air in September meant that we had come to the first anniversary of the terrorist attack.  While driving the wildflower delivery van in the Village, I heard a radio show that replayed snippets from the day the planes struck the towers.  At first I thought that we had fallen under attack again.  Then I thought maybe the radio station had decided to pull a very tasteless War of the Worlds prank.  Then I realized that this represented how they chose to remember — with hype and hysteria.

I shut off the radio in disgust and tried to breathe deeply of the aroma of the cattails, woody clover and loosestrife from the back of the van.  Of course, the friendliness of the plants mingled with the angst of the city air coming through the window — a blending of my worlds.

I realized that one could compare my life to the amaranth that pushes up through the cracks of the sidewalks on Gansevoort street — I was a weed in the City.  Would I break the concrete with my roots, or would the people trample me down?  I think a little of both happened.

 

In case you don’t get the allusion, the title of this posts refers to the lyrics of a song from the musical Parade, composed by Jason Robert Brown. My wife and I got to know Jason and his wife Georgia Stitt (also an amazing and accomplished composer) a little bit while we lived in NYC. We walked their dog and sat their house for them. Don’t mistake this footnote for pure name-dropping, however. I simply wanted to point you to some wonderful musical theatre.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. rix–this is very moving. the only thing i want to read about this day. thank you.

    Reply

  2. […] our resources and pulled up our roots together.  Despite the fact that we found our apartment the same week that the twin towers fell, we decided to stay and make a new life there, proving Burns’ ode to the mouse true yet […]

    Reply

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