A day like no other
A memory of a time that feels so far away, yet so present in our lives
I’ll be back to continue the series on fandom soon, but wanted to take a moment to talk about 9/11 through the lens of my experience living in New York City on that day, twenty years ago.
It was a beautiful Tuesday -
I think almost anyone who was in the city will remember just how notable the weather was that morning. It was a perfect blend of the sunniness of the summer, tempered by the coolness of the fall. Much like where I sit today, in fact - twenty years later.
The previous Friday, I had just finished a consulting job for a bank on Wall Street, about half a mile away from where the World Trade Center buildings stood. I had been working there for almost two years and came to know the area well. I would make weekly trips to Century 21, the discount department store literally across the street from the Towers, where I found past season and quality factory defects from fancy brands I was obsessed with at the time, like Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela.
The plaza between the two skyscrapers hosted summer concerts, including a debut of Glenn Branca’s Symphony No. 13 for 100 guitars in June of that year. I walked over to watch some of my friends play, the sound of all those guitars being swallowed by the endless column of air rising between the two buildings.
Being between assignments, I was making the most of New York City’s nightlife - the night before, I had gone to Dan Selzer’s Transmissions party at Plant Bar looking for my friend Michael. He hosted a show on WFMU and had been talking to me about stopping by, because he thought the station might be interested in me becoming a volunteer DJ there. At the time, his show was Tuesdays from 9-11am.
This is significant for many reasons - the station was in downtown Jersey City, just across the river from the part of Lower Manhattan where the towers stood - one stop away from the WTC station on the PATH train. Had I found Michael that night, I probably would have been underneath the towers sometime during the time when the first airplane collided into the North Tower.
In terms of near misses, it doesn’t come close to stories related to Cantor Fitzgerald - the firm whose workforce was most devastated from the attack: a guy who got held up from his 9AM interview there doing last minute shopping at the Brooks Brothers 500 feet away from the South Tower; the CEO who was taking his kid to kindergarten that day; or Rich - a later on colleague who worked there, but was late to work because his partner burnt his breakfast that morning. It’s still something I think about - sometimes, overdone eggs or a forgotten tie can be a matter of life or death.
But back to that morning -
I lived about six miles north of Ground Zero, so had no inkling anything was wrong (although I feel like I heard Flight 11 fly by - my apartment was near its flight path). I should mention that news travelled slowly compared to now - consumer smartphones weren’t a thing and the Sidekick hadn’t been released, let alone the iPhone. Mark Zuckerberg was in high school. Some of us had cell phones, but most Americans didn’t really understand texting and SMS was usually a costly add on (if I remember my plan, it was ten cents per text unless you paid an extra $10 monthly for an unlimited plan).
I got off to a late start (on account of going to Plant Bar and not having any work responsibilities) and have never been the type to turn on the radio or TV in the morning. I think it was about 11AM before my sister-in-law broke through the busy signals caused by call congestion.
She was relieved to get through, but I couldn’t understand why - then she told me to turn on the TV. Seconds later, I knew what had happened. Much of the rest of the day is a blur - I probably watched the same traumatizing images on TV over and over like everyone else, searching for some kind of meaning or context in the moment - but I remember that hour before she called with precision, like it was a photograph.
I recall calling my partner, who had just gone to Belgium for a year for research. I remember checking in on some work colleagues from the Wall Street gig - they were all ok but exhausted from having walked home and the weight of it all. I knew a colleague’s partner worked at the Trade Center, and he confirmed she was safely evacuated. “Thank you for calling,” he said wearily, having probably been fielding calls like mine all day and trying to support someone who had probably seen and heard things that nobody should, really.
The city was eerily quiet, at least my part of it it’s all I knew because the subways were shut down and there wasn’t really any place to go. There was basically a barrier erected at 14th Street, so you couldn’t go south of there without a demonstrable reason. I couldn’t think of anything to do that made any sense other than to call a friend in the neighborhood to see if we could find a restaurant that was open. We did - a place called Citrus that had scraped enough staff to have dinner service, and while we waited for our table at the bar, President Bush gave his speech. I couldn’t hear him above the woman talking near me, so I uncharacteristically channeled the Upper West Sider in me and asked a complete stranger to please be quiet.
It would be a couple weeks until my next work assignment, so I did my best to keep busy - mostly by poring over the reporting, some of which I’ve kept. I’m not sure why exactly, but I think it has something to do with recognizing the import of the moment and wanting to hold onto what it was like to try and process what happened at the time. I like the jaggedness of something that plays out for so many at the same time, before memory and history smooth things into something that’s easier to get a handle around - when everyone’s stories becomes one story.
When I did return to work,
it was in Atlanta - I flew down every week and started to experience how others would see the events of that day. I remember one guy learning I was from the city. “Oh, you’re from New York City? You guys really got hit hard,” he said with a kind of half-smirk that led me to believe he thought it was at least partially deserved. I was taken aback, because I truly believed the country had rallied around us. My reaction may feel naive now, but it was honestly a different time back then.
Over time, I got over the shock of how the landscape of Lower Manhattan had been rewritten. The first time I went back to Century 21, I realized I had never experienced it without the shadow of the towers. And when the World Trade Center PATH station was finally reopened as a partly open air station, I could close my eyes on the long escalator ride down and picture its predecessor, the escalator leading down into a concourse surrounded by an underground mall. Although I never got back to seeing the Brooks Brothers store at 1 Liberty Plaza as a store for men, rather than a makeshift morgue. This powerful image (not graphic, but upsetting) is one that’s stayed with me to this day.
I felt those changes so keenly at the time, but over time I’ve come to understand that none of it was guaranteed to last, anyway. Century 21 declared bankruptcy and closed that famous flagship store (its liquidation started on September 11th of last year, adding insult to injury). That Brooks Brothers closed in 2018 when its landlord decided to renovate, after 45 years in business . Citrus shut its doors after its owner decided to retire. There is an entire generation for whom the current World Trade Center is the only one they’ve known, much as there’s an entire generation that remembers a time before the World Trade Center existed at all.
As I’ve written about, this is the story of New York City. And maybe America. After the hyper partisanship of the past years, I’ve heard people talking about how the time after 9/11 was perhaps the last time the country really united. And maybe that’s true, but I see the events of that day casting a long shadow - as long as the ones the Towers cast over Lower Manhattan, until they clouded a perfect day with dust and ash and disappeared forever. I see it in conspiracies and misinformation, a climate of fear and bogeymen, seemingly endless wars, the loss of American standing in the world. Above all, I see it in the divisions that seem to be cleaving our country into two - blue and red, haves and have-nots.
Even though the World Trade Center was always more than two towers, we remember those the most. We love the symmetry of the Twin Towers, echoed in that phrase’s alliteration. But when they fell, they fell alone - their internal structure weakened until they collapsed into themselves.
While the date of September 11th, 2001 is twenty years in the past, it feels like its events are still living with us today. May one day that long shadow be lifted, so that light may return.