In Manhattan 9/11

National September 11th Memorial & Museum Archives

A man of our times, after being recently downsized from a dot-com, I watch the destruction of civilization from my rooftop.

At 9:15 on Tuesday morning, neighbor Sara pounds on my door. "You've got to see what's happening outside my window." I stumble over in my boxers to look out her bedroom window, where the World Trade Center towers spurt like smokestacks less than two miles south of the East Village. The image is mirrored on her television, which informs me there's been a terrorist attack.

We rush upstairs. On nearby roofs, Manhattan residents gather, hypnotized, horrified, some with cameras, others binoculars. About a half an hour later, the south tower silently folds in on itself. People cry out in horror, but my rooftop only gasps. There's nothing to say. We've witnessed thousands dying, their screams unheard. It's as surreal as television, stranger because our brains tell our eyes this can't happen.

A woman from the second floor arrives rooftop and informs us the Pentagon has been hit. Other hijacked planes are in the air and we don't know where they are headed.

One tower stands burning where two once did. I am transfixed by the altered landscape. Some of my neighbors stagger downstairs but I can’t pull myself away. Later, I wonder if I was waiting for the north tower to fall. Then it does, crumpling downward, its huge antenna lurching eastward and out of sight. "Oh my God, oh my God." My fourth-floor neighbor is crying. A bizarre cloud of brown smoke rolls slow motion through the buildings downtown, snaking around them, enveloping them. What do we do? Something has happened, something is happening, but we're frozen under a blue sky, our voices replaced with the scream of sirens. Billowing smoke south of us confirms that the world has changed, but how?

There's a loud noise above. An F-16 whirls around Manhattan's tip. I've never seen one before. The military plane doesn't comfort me as it may others. I'm scared by it. Are more coming? 

I have spent a lot of time on my rooftop. Three weeks ago on a beautiful summer night, I had a birthday party with forty people here, the downtown skyline shimmering southward. Since the explosion, I've gotten calls from friends around the country. Phone service has been sporadic, unreliable, but little by little, friends from Wisconsin, Mississippi and elsewhere have gotten through. "I'm looking at a photograph of you on your roof with the towers behind you," says Michael, on the phone from L.A. "This picture's outdated now."

Wednesday, the wind shifts and a rancid burnt rubber smell blows through the Lower East Side. Rumors of asbestos and toxins are in the air. The mayor's assurances to the contrary are less than convincing. I close my windows and turn on the air conditioner.

I get just one television channel since I don't have cable and the antennas for every station but one were atop the towers. Onscreen, it's all disaster all the time. Sometimes the news reporters seem at a loss as to what to talk about, yet it's obvious there's a lot to talk about. One of the "experts" interviewed is a man who appears to be one step out of the loony bin. He's rambling about how everyone (but him) is unprepared for the anthrax that might have been disseminated in the blast. He seems out of his mind, but–who knows?–today the world's a different place than it was yesterday.

For example, I need an i.d. with my address upon it to get to my apartment, which is in the cordoned off area south of 14th Street. There is no traffic in my neighborhood but for ambulances and garbage trucks. (What more do we really need? I ask friends; always an advocate for fewer cars.)

My friend Carl and I walk the streets. It's another beautiful late summer day but for the end of the world. A lot of people roam the car-free streets with us. (Maybe they only get one TV station too.) We seem to be searching for clues to what has changed. Another F-16 shatters the sky above, a partial answer to this collective question. "It's all for show," says Carl. "There's nothing else coming." Still, we hear that an aircraft carrier is approaching New York harbor. Carl, a Palestinian, says, "It's ridiculous. Nothing could make these people happier than seeing this over-reaction."

That night is the quietest I've experienced since moving from Wisconsin fourteen years ago. Again on my roof before I go to bed, a cold wind refreshes. The season is changing. Smoke still blows from the wreckage south. Many buildings have extinguished their lights. The sky is unusually dark. Manhattan's nighttime glow is gone. I can see stars. An occasional helicopter moves through the sky. At 3 a.m., I am awakened in bed by another F-16. If the planes were just being flown just for show it was a strange time to do so. Now wide awake, I listen to the eerie quiet following the plane's racket. In the distance, an ambulance siren calls out, almost comforting.

Thursday, I venture uptown, out of my quarantined neighborhood, to meet a friend and Michelle, another friend from Las Vegas stranded in Manhattan. We have a glass of wine with a few others at an outdoor café in Rockefeller Center. Michelle has just been shopping at Saks, which she claims is her patriotic duty. It seems nearly everyone in the store stopped her and asked where she purchased her fabulous beaded American flag purse. Using apocalyptic sales tactics, a Saks employee had been pressuring her to buy a dress by saying she might never have another chance to buy it. We spotted former publishing colleagues of mine walking by and they joined us, joking it was like a café gathering in wartime Paris. Michelle said that in some ways it might be stranger for people outside of Manhattan. They hear how we're cut off and can't get off or on the island. They see staggering, dust-covered wounded; smashed cars. However, here she was laughing with friends, eating beet salad with goat cheese and drinking Chardonnay. It all seemed perfectly normal until the wind shifted and there was the familiar burnt rubber smell.

Catching a cab downtown with my friend Linda, the traffic snarls. Fifth Avenue is suddenly closed off south of 34th Street. Police cars and ambulances rush past, sirens blaring, red lights lighting anxiety-ridden faces. "Something has happened," says Linda. What could it be? "Do we live in Tel Aviv now?" asks Linda. It's agreed we don't want to live in Tel Aviv.

It may be easier for New Yorkers because our lives are obviously altered. The world has changed and we're adjusting, as anyone would have to. (New Yorkers, I boast as a convert, are good at adjusting, given subways and rents.) However, for most of the country, everything appears the same. There's no hole in the skyline making the change physical yet everyone knows something serious has been altered. It's going to be more than airline travel being (somehow) more annoying. There are at least 5,000 fewer of us now. 

Linda and I have dinner at Pitchoune, a French restaurant on Third Avenue and 19th Street. It opens at its front and there are tables outside, but we prefer eating inside rather than watching the traffic clustered around a nearby police station. A crowd's cheer from down the street rolls towards us in a wave. Crowded on the back of a flatbed truck moving up Third Avenue are hard-hatted, dust-covered volunteers. As they are slowly carried north, the restaurant patrons stand up and cheer, clapping and yelling their approbation. On the truck, apparently exhausted, they wave, gratitude and love being sent their way. And while I worry what tomorrow may bring, that people elsewhere will die for deeds that have nothing to do with their own poverty, I cheer for the fatigued workers being ferried past. Digging for civilization, they are doing more than just getting through the day. In the rubble, they hope to uncover what’s lost; applauding their efforts, we fear it's gone.