Just Another Effin' Observer

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Location: Huntsville, Texas, United States

Monday, January 17, 2005

Where I'm Coming From

Okay, I think it's necessary that you should all know exactly what my 'take' is on the topics I'll be discussing in this blog. So I'm going to post an essay I wrote a little over a year ago, by way of explanation.

When I wrote this, it was never really intended for public consumption; it was meant as more of a palliative, a self-therapy, if you will. It described a day in my life that started so great, and ended so badly. I call it:


It was a breathtakingly beautiful Indian summer morning. Not a cloud in the sky, and just the merest hint of the approaching autumn: a crispness in the air, not quite summer anymore, but not quite fall yet, either.

The bus trip into Manhattan was swift and uneventful. We breezed through the Lincoln Tunnel, and arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal well ahead of schedule. From there, the stroll down the concourse to the Times Square subway station was, well, if I had to choose a word for it, ordinary. The subway musicians were at their usual posts. There was the little old Korean guy, playing an absolutely horrendous rendition of Beethoven's Ninth, on a traditional Korean instrument perched on his knee, its single catgut string sounding like it was still attached to the cat. I speculated (not for the first time) that that rumbling I felt under my feet was not the uptown A train rolling up to the platform under the Port Authority; it was Beethoven spinning in his grave. The black spiritual singer was belting them out as enthusiastically as ever, accompanying himself on an electronic keyboard, whose power source I had never been able to locate. This morning was no exception; where that thing got its juice from remained an impenetrable mystery. There was the harmonica player, who only knew how to play one note; the violin player had learned a new one, bringing his total to four. The accordionist was, mercifully, absent that morning. I swear, if I have to hear Lady of Spain one more time.... The bums were cadging change on the subway platforms, as always.

I watched two young women on the R train as it rumbled downtown, drama majors at NYU, I suspected; they had a certain 'never been to Bergdorf's, never will' look about them. New York is probably home to the highest concentration of mortified parents in the Northern Hemisphere; here was proof. What grabbed my attention about these two was the fact that one of them had red hair. Not naturally red hair, or even any shade of deliberately-dyed red hair; this was painted hair, almost fuscia in color. That, plus the fact that they sat beside each other on the train, literally grooming each other, exactly like you would see in the Primate House at the Bronx Zoo. I couldn't help myself. I laughed out loud. The man standing next to me asked what was so funny. I pointed to the two girls, and said, "Everyone told me that this city is a zoo, but I always thought that was just a figure of speech!" He started laughing, too. We were still laughing when I got off the train at Prince Street.

Coming out of the subway station, and crossing Broadway, I entered Dean & Deluca's espresso bar. The guy behind the counter knew me, and he knew what I wanted: large coffee, black, and two croissants. It's good to be predictable. I walked down the block to Spring Street, crossed at the light, and stopped in front of my building. I set my bag of croissants on a narrow ledge in the masonry, fired up a Dunhill, and leaned against the wall of the building, sipping my coffee and bracing myself for a very busy day. It was just after 8:45 in the morning.

What the hell was that? A loud boom, reverberating through the streets of lower Manhattan, with no discernable source. I didn't think much of it; sudden, loud noises in the City were not at all unusual, even though this one was louder than any I had ever heard before.

Then I spotted The Suit. He crossed Spring Street, heading down Broadway, outfitted in typical Suit regalia: attaché case in one hand, cell phone pasted to his ear in the other. Getting the deal closed before he got to the office; time is money, and there was never as much of the one as he needed, never as much of the other as he wanted. Then he stopped, almost directly in front of me, looked up and said, "Holy shit!" Not into the phone, not to anyone in particular. Just an observation, and a reaction. I couldn't see what the Suit was staring at. A large banner, advertising the trendy Soho boutique next door, hung from a standard that extended over the sidewalk, blocking my view of the downtown skyline. I pinched out the butt, gathered up my pastries, and went into the building, up to my office on the eighth floor.

To call it an office was, perhaps, overly generous; it was an alcove in a hundred-year-old building, with two cubicles shoehorned into it. But it had one feature that most cubicles do not have; it had a window. The window faced south, overlooking an alley, and it offered a magnificent view of the Twin Towers. Every day, gazing out that window into the alley below, I always halfway expected to see Lucy and Ethel gossiping on the fire escape. On this day, however, when I arrived at my desk, I saw through the window a plume of thick black smoke streaming from the North Tower and over the East River, billowing from a blackened gash in the side of the building. Paper, thousands of sheets of paper, fluttered in the air above the Financial District, reminiscent of a ticker-tape parade down Broadway. Well, this was definitely Broadway, but this sure as hell weren't no ticker-tape parade. What the hell was going on?

I pointed the Web browser to CNN. 'Plane hits World Trade Center' was the headline. That was pretty much all I was going to get from CNN that day; all subsequent re-queries of the page -- of any page -- returned a 404 error: 'The requested page could not be found.' The 'Net was down.

Other people who worked on my floor had started to gather in my cubicle. Naturally; I had the view. There was rampant speculation, but no one actually knew anything.

Then, as I watched, a huge fireball erupted from the South Tower. I never heard the explosion that must have accompanied it; there is a limit to what our senses can absorb, and the sound could not get past the image. But I vividly recall watching that ball of fire expand, in slow motion, frame by frame, like a stop-action video. And then, from a radio on the ninth floor, we heard what was actually happening, what we all, by then, knew.

For some inexplicable reason, mine was the only phone that was working on that floor, so I gave up my cube as the de facto communication center. A friend called me from Austin. She just needed to hear my voice, she said. I assured her that I was fine, that we were miles away from the scene. (It was actually less than one mile, but she didn't need to know that.)

A woman who worked on my floor, whose father worked in the South Tower, tried repeatedly to get in touch with him, to no avail. Then, at a little before ten o'clock, she stood beside me as we watched the top of the South Tower heel to the left, slide sideways, and then the entire building crumbled in a cloud of dust. She gripped my arm, tight; it was three weeks before the bruises finally faded. I never learned her name, but I did learn, several days later, that her father had escaped.

A few minutes later, we were ordered to evacuate the building.

On the street below, the building authorities realized that the only thing they had done was to put several hundred people in the way of the rescue efforts, so the evacuation order was rescinded. Most of us complied, if only to get out of the way of the fire trucks, police cars and ambulances racing down Broadway, and the masses of people streaming in the opposite direction. While we were trudging up the stairs to our offices, the North Tower collapsed. The word went out again: not an evacuation this time, business operations were suspended until further notice. New York City was closed.

There were about a dozen of us in my work-group, and all but one -- me -- lived in Brooklyn. They decided to set off as a group, across the Brooklyn Bridge to their respective homes. They raided the vending machines in the break room, pooling their change and stashing provisions into knapsacks; screw the Cokes and Skittles, they were after bottled water and Power Bars. They pleaded with me to come with them; they didn't think it was a good idea for me to be on my own in the chaos of a city under attack. I assured them that I would be okay; it was only about five miles to the Port Authority, I told them, and if there was any way across the river to Jersey, that was where I would find it. They accepted my decision, reluctantly and not without argument, but we parted company on the street outside the building. We kept each other in sight for as long as possible, looking over our shoulders, until we lost each other in the crowds.

Subway operations were suspended, and buses and taxis had been commandeered to transport the injured to area hospitals. So I walked. Up Broadway, through Union Square, past Madison Square Park, Macy's, the Garden, Penn Station, to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, with every step repeating a single mantra to myself: Don't look back. I knew what I would see if I did, and more painfully, what I wouldn't see, what I would never see again. But what I did see were the Faces. Some numb with shock, others contorted by grief, still others burning with anger and rage. Keep moving, keep walking, the voice in my head kept repeating. And don't look back. I kept walking. I didn't look back.

The Bus Terminal was closed; so were the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, and all of the major bridges. There was a six-hour wait for the ferries crossing the Hudson River. No place to go, and no way to get there, but still I kept walking. An advertisement, on the side of a building on 8th Avenue, across from the Bus Terminal, promoted Target Stores; it was a twist on the 'I-Heart-NY' graphic, with the heart replaced by Target's bulls-eye logo. 'I target New York.' The whimsical had turned macabre. I felt sick to my stomach; I turned away, and kept walking. Night fell, and I kept walking. A local news broadcast flickered on a marquee on 42nd Street, across from a movie theater, playing the images of the morning over and over. Hundreds of people stood on the sidewalks, watching. I couldn't bring myself to see it again -- once was quite enough for me -- so I kept walking. Finally, a Port Authority Police officer directed me to Penn Station; New Jersey Transit had resumed train service, outbound only, to Newark. I started walking again; only this time, I had a destination.

Track Three, the ticket agent at Penn Station told me. Where do I get a ticket? All the ticket windows were closed. He shook his head; Track Three, he repeated. I boarded the train, found a seat. The doors closed, the train started moving, and for the first time in what seemed an eternity, I no longer needed to.

I arrived at Newark's Penn Station at a little after ten o'clock that night. From there, I spent over an hour in a taxi, circumnavigating the road closures, to get me to the only place I wanted to be at that moment: my neighborhood hangout, a place called Harold's, in Lyndhurst. Since eleven o'clock that morning, I had been alone, utterly alone, in a city of eight million people. I didn't want to be alone anymore. At Harold's, I knew I wouldn't be.

By the time I got there, it was nearly closing time. But they were waiting for me. I had been coming to this place for years, and they knew me well; the bartender had a Martini in front of me before I sat down. I downed it in less than five minutes, a drink that I normally would nurse for the better part of an hour. I asked for another; it was already in the shaker, waiting for me. By now, it was approaching midnight, time to get home. I tried to settle my tab. Not tonight, the bartender said. Go home, get some rest; you look beat. I took a cab back to my hotel.

I was finally home. I was finally safe. (Well, as safe as anyone could pretend to be that day.)

I finally had time to cry.


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