The story unfolded quickly, but with the usual peculiar sense that we are always on the verge of being at the end of the event. We always think that what we can fathom is all there is to fathom. Like during a blackout, when our first thought is always, “Oh! My lights are off.” For all of us yesterday, following the unfolding events, never has the notion that “all we know is all there is” proved so false.
There was a noise, but there’s always noise in my apartment, and this sounded like a too heavy truck rumbling over hollow asphalt. The second noise shook the building. And was followed seconds later by the phone ringing. I couldn’t hear who it was, but I could hear that call waiting was beeping while the message recorded. It occurred to me that I probably didn’t want to be in the shower anymore. After all, if there was a “second” noise, some causal chain had been activated in my mind, and simultaneous phone calls at nine in the morning added links to that uneasy chain. But I thought maybe something had exploded in New Jersey.
The calls were from my mother and my ex-boyfriend, the former an avid radio fan, the latter with an unobstructed view of the World Trade Center. He had heard the first noise and seen the smoke. For him there was no second noise because he saw the next plane bank directly into Tower 2.
“Paper,” he said. “It looks like glitter and it’s falling on my windowsill.”
He said, “I’m holding a memo from 1998.”
On the TV I had turned on, an anchor on channel 2 was speculating on an air traffic snafu, but she lacked the conviction of my ex-boyfriend. “The plane went right for the building,” he said.
A friend called then. “Hey,” she said. It was the last time I would talk to anyone who hadn’t heard what had happened.
But I got her up to speed. One plane would be a horrible accident, but no one was naïve enough to believe that two represented an exponential accident, so we agreed to meet on the Promenade, several blocks away, knowing already that we would be viewing the aftermath of a suicide mission. But the mind fills in the details the way it wants to and so I know we headed there thinking we’d see the work of two small planes flown by two suicide bombers. Not that we had a context for what that would look like, but that was the story we were going to see.
I walked down Montague Street to the Promenade. Brooklyn Heights is proud of its proximity to Manhattan and for its arguably best views of the Manhattan skyline. The star among that skyline, The World Trade Center, could catch the morning or evening light in all sorts of incredible ways. If you were on the Promenade, you were invariably feeling good about being in New York, and the view only increased that occasional feeling that you were, as mayors liked to tell you, living in the best city on Earth. On July 4th, if the fireworks are set off from the Seaport, there is no better or more crowded place to be than the Promenade.
It took a while to get there. The restaurants and stores on Montague Street were all getting their morning deliveries and small groups of people were huddled around the trucks listening to the radios. A block from the Promenade I stopped to hear the news that at least one of the planes was a hijacked 767. That meant people. People who had boarded a plane with only their usual amount of aviational apprehension. People who had known something had gone horribly wrong, but who, in the manner of all us on the ground, were probably just making up their story along comprehensible lines. Ok, they probably thought, this is bad. This is really bad. Where are they taking us? And of course, only the ones of us left still retained the answer.
“My God,” a man said, crying. “Those poor people.”
I found Marian on the Promenade. She was holding her free Bloomberg radio that had seemingly been sent last year to every resident of New York City. “It finally came in handy,” she said. “The Pentagon’s on fire.”
“Is it a coincidence?” I said, but I already knew.
“It’s not usual for the Pentagon to be on fire,” she said, as if I were about five. And in that split second before I asked the question I was that young. “Innocence lost” is a phrase about as overused as the 23rd Psalm, and New Yorkers often seem to have little innocence to lose, but if innocence is the inability or the unwillingness to expand at the same rate as evil, then we all lost more innocence than we knew we had.
The towers were on fire. And it was bad. It was really bad. But I was surprised that the fire seemed – not contained, since it was clearly raging out of control – but limited somehow; there was still a lot of building that was clearly identifiable, most of it, in fact, in contrast to the smoke and flames that poured out of some upper floors like a particularly bad wound or abscess. And that is important because everyone, I’m sure, believed that as horrible as everything had become, there was an end in sight, a fire to be controlled, stories to be written, people to be grieved, repairs to be made.
When it went down it seemed to have the texture of sand you can hold in fragments in your hand before crumbling it like powdered sugar. Even as it happened, only a mile or so across the harbor, like some distorted mirage, like some bad video feed, there was the feeling that somehow it would stop, that somehow our belief in structural integrity, in our lack of premonition, we could will it back to form, like some wacky trick film. In the screams and cries and oh-my-God’s that filled the Promenade in that moment, in our almost kinetic pull towards the bedrock of Manhattan, there was the wish, the breath, the somatic strain to make it stop.
But it stopped at the bottom. And then it was beyond bad. It was beyond really bad. It was beyond anything we could imagine. And then we knew that there was no end to the story. We’re designed for closure, perhaps a result of being born, living, and dying, perhaps a result of the twenty-two minute sitcom. It doesn’t matter. When you stop being able to guess at any possible outcome, something shifts. And it shifts in particular ways.
One man, having just watched thousands of people die in front of him, strode down the Promenade, shouting, “Get out your uniforms, boys and men.” A plane flew overhead.
“Why is there a plane?” someone asked. “There shouldn’t be a plane.”
But mostly it shifted into silence and simply waiting for what unfathomable thing came next. The woman who had screamed loudest left the Promenade quickly. I thought about the people who must have been evacuating at that moment, probably telling themselves in the stairwells, Ok, this is bad. This is really bad, but I’ll keep going. I didn’t know then about those who knew exactly how bad it was and jumped. Marian and I sat down on a bench together. We watched thousands of living people, moving like one entity, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.
It was one of the only beautiful sights on a hideously ugly day. There they all came, Marian’s husband among them, their backs literally to death and destruction, as they headed away. Of course, Marian’s husband reported, it was no Sound of Music exodus, that they were sure the bridge was coming down when the tower came down, that there was a surge of panic and pushing from the back of the bridge. Still, he said, every car, every van, every bus going over the bridge, stopped at the pedestrian walkway and loaded up to capacity with passengers.
We didn’t know that then. So we just watched the bridge from a distance until the smoke and ash and dust from the tower blotted out everything. And we left the Promenade then, to close windows, to try to get phone calls through, to wait for the smoke to clear so that we could see and try to believe that there was nothing where there had once been something and know that even then there would be no end to the story.