It’s a slow morning like so many, in that I am running slow. I get into the bathtub, and turn on WCBS Newsradio. Downstairs I can hear my wife assuring our fifteenth month old that breakfast is fast approaching. And then I hear the unfamiliar sound of a plane about to fly into my house on Sullivan Street and Houston. Instinctively, I put my head down. When I realize that said plane appears to be heading for someone else’s house I jump out of the tub and yell downstairs to my wife, “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” she answers between my son Jack’s cries.
“There was a fucking plane about to crash into our house!” Incredulously, I ask again. “You didn’t hear that?”
She explains patiently and politely that, between Jack’s screaming and our two dachshunds barking she could scarcely hear the end of the world. Anyway, she adds, I am an idiot. I decide I am insane, get back into the tub, and turn the radio back on, thinking ‘boy, it must suck to live by JFK’. The guy on the radio says something about a fire at the World Trade Center. I jump back out of the bath, and run downstairs yelling, “A plane hit the World Trade Center!” We turn on the television, and there it is; it is now on TV, so it must be true. “I told you!” I announce triumphantly.
My son throws his bottle at me.
I am now as clean as I’m going to get, and my wife Melanie has brought our son, completely covered in food, upstairs to try and attempt the same feat with him. I see a crowd of our neighbors has gathered outside watching the fire and I am struck by the fact that while I had to see it on TV to know it was real, it never occurred to me just look out the window. So…I look out the window. Jack is having an important conversation with his Elmo phone. Melanie joins me at the window in time to see a huge ball of flame envelope the second tower. “Jesus Fucking Christ!” she screams.
“Fugginchrist” Jack tells Elmo.
Melanie asks me what we are going to do. Maybe she means in the grand scheme of things, but at that moment as head of the household I can think of only one way to meet this horror head on.
“I’m going to work”.
The world may be crumbling around us, but commerce marches on. My wife shakes her head in disgust. Jack is equally appalled, and throws his phone to the floor with such force it makes us all jump.
We pick our way through our stunned neighbors downstairs, and, with Churchill-like calm, Jack waves to the people. Before leaving he addresses the faithful: “Bub-bye, bub-bye.”
From the corner we see that the towers are both pouring smoke. Everyone is looking up, yet strangely everyone is either standing still, or walking downtown, towards the World Trade Center. It is like we are swimming across a current. We get to the Houston Street train station and are told there are no local trains, go to 14th Street. Back upstairs my wife asks me again why we are going all the way uptown to our bookstore to work. I press on with stupid determination. Melanie looks behind her, smiles weakly, and says, “Well, at least it’s a hundred blocks away from here.”
As we go up 7th Avenue, people huddle around vans that have parked on the street blasting their radios. Two Italian girls walking downtown ask us where the Empire State Building is. I ask why. They say they wanted to go the World Trade Center, but…They shrug their shoulders. So, apparantly, any big building will suffice. Melanie suggests they try a museum instead. Sirens drown out the conversation, and the girls drift away. No one knows what is going on or what will happen next. Someone says they’ve bombed the White House and the Pentagon. As we pass Two Boots Pizzeria I expect it to just explode at any moment. The first ambulances are arriving at St. Vincent’s Hospital as we try to make our way through the throng. As we go back down into the subway someone says a plane has hit Camp David. Jack is screaming “Peep Peep,” in anticipation of seeing Thomas the Tank engine, or a subway train very much like him. I hope he is right.
We are on the express train. Jack is demanding I read him his Thomas the Tank engine wordbook, but I am too interested in the conversation between two guys in suits and matching ‘get-me-the-hell-back-to-Long-Island’ faces. They say eight planes have been hijacked. “Hey, little guy, whattya say?” they ask, suddenly aware of my son. Jack shakes his head emphatically, “No,no,no! Stow-ree!” Which is toddler speak for’ you are messing with my thing here, now let’s get back to the story.’ And boy is he right.
We get to the store. Our friend Jay, the owner, is there, standing in the middle of the room with all but one of the lights out. He says the first tower has collapsed…and everything stops. Something that has seemed so unreal, something my brain has tried so hard to keep out comes crashing in. So many people are dead. I feel tears well up in my eyes. And just then I get hit in the back of the head with a ball. “Ball!” Jack says proudly. “Ssssh”, I say, straining to hear the news broadcast. “BALL!” demands Jack, which I take to mean, ‘national disaster, yeah, whatever, but could you please throw me the damn ball, Dad.’ And I do, bouncing it to him, and he laughs, and I look at Melanie and for a second I smile.
The second tower is down now. We try to open the store. The first person comes into the bookstore, and wants to discuss current events. I do not want to discuss current events with this guy.
“We’re closed”, I tell him.
The next guy comes in asking me to recommend some good mystery books. I do not want to do that either. “We’re closed,” I say.
“I came all the way from South Africa”, he protests.
“Why?,”he wants to know. “National Security,” I tell him, locking the door. I don’t know where to go, but we can’t stay here. Melanie’s relatives somehow get through on the phones. They tell us to leave NYC and come South. Well, I may not know where to go, but I ain’t going there.
Jack is racing around the store, chasing Jay’s dog, brandishing a roll of wrapping paper like a light saber, and yelling “Go. Dog Go!”
While we are packing up, an old woman starts banging on the window. “I need help!” she says. I run to the door and fling it open. “Where’s your dollar cart?”, she says accusingly, referring to the cart we usually keep outside the store with sale books. Jack falls and hits his head. “We’re closed”, I say.
We start the long journey home, this time on foot. Again we are moving against the current; everyone is walking uptown as Melanie tries to negotiate the stroller down Broadway. The only cars are emergency vehicles. Everyone speaks in hushed tones. These are the only things we hear, sirens and whispers, punctuated by the odd roar of an Air Force jet that’s gone by the time you look up. Melanie and I don’t talk much, but Jack stands forward in his stroller and waves to the people. Occasionally, someone waves back.
When we get to 14th street and 5th Avenue you can really smell the fires, and I look up. And you there it is. The smoke, heading off towards Brooklyn, and behind it, nothing. I am old enough to remember when those two hulking eyesores did not fill up the downtown skyline, but now they are gone. I went to the observation deck the first year they were open when I was 10, but Jack will not.
As we walk past the arch of Washington Square Park, just a few blocks from home, Jack throws his now empty bottle on the ground.
“Bub-bye! Bub-bye!” he says.