Thursday, September 11, 2008

After Sept. 11

Two days after the terrorist attacks in 2001, I wrote this column about what life in New York was like at that moment. I wrote it for the newspapers I work for, but none of them used it, being deluged with more urgent and less reflective stories. In retrospect, I probably tried to be a little too optimistic -- it sounds a bit forced -- but let's face it, I was still in shock. At any rate, here it is, never before published.

The wind shifted Wednesday, finally bringing the black, burned-rubber smell of disaster to the upper reaches of Manhattan.

Until then, many like me – living on the Upper East or Upper West sides, working in the concrete canyons of Midtown – had little direct exposure to the unspeakable destruction in the city’s financial district. Some could see the World Trade Center from their office windows, but I work on a lower floor and can’t see that far downtown. Like the rest of America, I watched everything on television.

I learned what happened when I emerged from the subway in Times Square on Tuesday morning, into a standstill crowd gazing up at a massive TV screen. Both planes had already struck. I walked the block to my office, past unknowing pedestrians who seemed perplexed at my tears.

By Tuesday night, a plume of smoke was clearly visible down the broad avenues of the Upper East Side, set off by an eerie urban glow as it drifted south over New York Harbor.

But the tangle of metal, the ash and crushed concrete, were all out of sight, miles away from the tony apartment houses of Park Avenue and the tree-lined terraces of Fifth Avenue, or the more humble apartments of Yorkville.

In upper Manhattan, life is resuming a semblance of dampened, shell-shocked routine. Many people are going to work again, even as they protest that there’s no way they can concentrate. Subways are running, at least partially, and some bridges and tunnels have reopened to New Jersey and Queens.

Of course, that’s not to say we’re removed from the carnage.

On the door of my gym, for example, relatives of one young man – a 26-year-old broker who worked on the 86th floor of one of the World Trade towers – posted a sign seeking information about him. I don’t recognize him, but I wonder who else is missing. How many other people I saw every week, there or at Gristede’s grocery or in the hall of my apartment building, will I never see again? How many windows in the apartment houses around me will remain dark?

When I see a familiar face I’m thankful, even if I only know the person by sight – the blond woman on the treadmill who works out every Thursday, for example. She was there this morning, one element of a fractured daily routine in its proper place. I felt like hugging her, and I don’t even know her name.

Aside from the burned-out smell, we see other reminders. A woman on the subway read The New Yorker, her arm bandaged after a blood donation. A man sat holding an orange safety vest and a surgeon’s mask, headed south to the disaster zone. Supermarket shelves are devoid of bread, and bogus bomb threats continually empty buildings.

A prolific street artist chalked “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” on the sidewalks along Lexington Avenue. Someone scratched that out and wrote beneath it, “No tolerance for terrorism.” It’s anyone’s guess what will happen next.

I wonder whether we will ever again build on such a scale. Will we still erect monumental testaments to engineering, freestanding vertical cities in themselves that make such easy targets?

Yet the green peppers are piled high in the grocery, and the man who sells toy cars from a card table at the corner of 87th Street and Lexington was back at his post Thursday. I watched a woman stop on Columbus Avenue to examine a display of Calphalon cookware in a store window.

We are all balanced precariously between shock and daily life, uncertain how to proceed with what seems so trivial. Today I am less likely to burst into spontaneous tears, as I did repeatedly Tuesday and Wednesday. I slept six hours on Wednesday night, after two the night before. I’m unbelievably lucky, because all my friends seem accounted for – even those who worked in the fallen twins.

As has often been said, none of us will ever be the same. The world is a different place, and I feel older, less naïve, more able to believe in evil on a colossal scale.

But I also think the door to this dark room I inhabit will open. The smoke will clear – as it did Thursday in upper Manhattan when the wind shifted again – and while I and my neighbors are forever changed and uncertainty rules the moment, I think we’ll see light again. Even here.

(Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001)

(Photo: 9/11 mural in the East Village, c. 2003, now painted over.)


  1. It is so interesting and touching to read this from a New Yorker who was there and experienced that event and the aftermath so close by. It clearly shows that life goes on, but the scar of that day is evident for all of us. I feel the same way every time I drive by the Pentagon and gaze at that side of the building where the plane entered. The memorial that has been erected will never totally erase that memory of the gaping hole or the smell that hung in the air for weeks after. Thanks for sharing this 7 years later.

  2. What a beautiful piece. Thank you so much for sharing it. I'm sad it wasn't published, but I remember everyone was in shock for awhile.

    Like the day Kennedy or MLK were assassinated, I remember every detail of the day here in DC, as well as the very difficult weeks that followed, the security, the Anthrax, etc.

    Seven years and counting. Amazing, isn't it, how crystal clear it all still is?

  3. Brilliant Steve! We all found comfort in returning to our daily routines as quickly as possible. Perhaps our "they can't keep us down" spirit is an illusion, but it is what keeps us sane.

  4. Your piece brought tears to my eyes as I recall picking up the phone to call you from Florida, wondering if you were okay and hoping that you would answer.

    When you did, I was incredibly relieved. I remember us talking about the shock we were feeling, though mine was perhaps less raw than yours, and your plans to visit the Javitz Center to see how you might help others.

    I gave blood for the first time ever that week just because it was something I could do, and sent money to the Red Cross, turning the radio off in the vain attempt to sleep...

    I am not sure that we will ever regain our footing in this nation as it seems our politicians have mired us in conflict, and now use soundbites about the possibility of terror to get themselves elected...but one can always hope.
    Thanks for sharing your piece.

  5. Thank you for posting this very beautiful and moving piece. There's much more I'd like to say, but I can scarcely see through my tears well enough to type. Thank you.

  6. Man, that is really nice. i got all bleary too, but i'm kind of an easy touch.
    I love the line that 'the Green Peppers are still piled high".... and how in the middle of a tragedy, the mundane can reassure and terrifyus all at the same time.

  7. that is a nice mural, sad that it was painted over.I remember watching the WTC being built. (with great enthusiasm) I got to go inside for a tour before it was completed. and had a view of it from my living room windows --took many photos of it. my gym was in the WTC and I had a breathtaking view while I cycled in the mornings. I really appreciated those towers, and loved lying down to shoot photos of them (a really amazing angle.) I had a hard time that day, that week, that winter...and we lost a wonderful neighbor who escorted many people out of the building, and went back in to help others.

  8. How wonderful, Steve - I mean, I wish you didn't have occasion to write it, but I appreciate you sharing.

    My most distinct memories around 9/11 happened that day (since my cousin used to work in the World Trade Center, and she and her husband now work in buildings fairly adjacent - he in investment banking, and she as Assistant State Attorney General for the State of New York), so it was a safety thing. But, months later, in December of 2001, my partner and I had our commitment ceremony at Trinity Church (designed by Richard Upjohn, who also did St. Pauls here in Buffalo), just steps from the WTC site. Earlier in the day we visited my cousin's office and had a birds eye view of the still smoldering hole where the WTC buildings one stood . . . unforgettable.

  9. I have been thinking most of the day today about 9/11 and I'm glad I came here just before bedtime. Your perspective is awesome and I am appreciative that you brought it out for us. Love you, love your Buddas!

  10. thank you so much for sharing your column and having it finally get out there. it is a beautiful and touching personal account.

    thanks for the photos of the great mural...I can't believe it has been painted over!! what is with that!!!???? it was beautiful - what is there now?

  11. Steve, thank you so much for posting that thoughtful, gentle piece.
    My first visit to NYC was just a few weeks after 9/11. (My friend & I were already booked & didn't want to cancel.)
    In Central Park the leaves were turning. Walking downtown, the smell of burning still hung heavy in the air. On the subway & in the stores, when people heard our accents, they came and spoke to us. They thanked us for coming and not cancelling our trip.
    It was humbling.