I was born in Manhattan, have lived there most of my life, but my last look at the twin towers of the World Trade Center was from the front deck of a Staten Island ferry moving through the dark waters after a Staten Island Yankees night game, July, 2001. I’d boarded the boat alone, was somehow all alone on the bow, and it was a good, long look I had, all to myself: in my memory, in my mind’s eye now, the scene is magical, gorgeously moonlit, the gargantuan buildings beautiful in a way I’d rarely found them before. I suppose that’s what made me unexpectedly focus on, really take in, the familiar view all the way back to the city; I could not have known that I would not see those giants against the skyline again, much less that I would come to cherish this private image as an unlooked for gift of fate.
After September 11, I never wrote about that last approach toward an intact Lower Manhattan; in fact, I never wrote about the terrifying events of that day itself, or about the infinitely wretched aftermath, except in random journal jottings and desk calendar entries. There was, of course, no shortage of writerly response: first hand testimony, political editorializing, expressions of grief and rage and all of it, all of it. I found myself unwilling, unable, to join the chorus, or the cacophony. I felt stunned, silenced, stopped, and rather than struggle against that, I accepted it as my most authentic response to the devastation around me.
It was more than a month before I dared venture downtown to survey the ghastly, gaping pit I never called Ground Zero: one morning, I got on my bicycle and rode south along the West Side Highway as far as I could until disaster teams detoured me east, where I dismounted, walked as much of the pit’s perimeter as I was permitted, then slowly rode the bike back up to West 66th Street again. I didn’t write, or even speak much, about that little trip at the time. And I didn’t return, not for quite awhile.
Over the past several years, though, my working life has come to include leading city tours for groups as a licensed New York guide. Uptown/Westside woman that I am, I like nothing better than introducing newcomers to the neighborhoods above 59th Street they usually bypass. But I have spent a great deal more time way downtown, serving as a guide to the one site no tourist in this city can miss, the one site that is like no other—not least in terms of the sense of connection nearly every visitor feels with it, which informs my own sense that you can’t show and tell its history in the same way you highlight landmarks like City Hall or the Woolworth Building or Trinity Church. A canned WTC “presentation,” with September 11 as the centerpiece, has always seemed out of the question.
My style, such as it is, was certainly influenced by my tagging along, early on, with a tour group led by an experienced, if lugubrious, guide who insisted on narrating the entire timeline of the attacks, the building collapses, the early optimism, the crushing of hope, the mounting body count, as if willing each of us to relive the trauma moment by melodramatic moment. And indeed, the small crowd, speechless, seemed properly, painfully overwhelmed. He lectured, they listened; the few factual questions raised were promptly dispatched by this “expert,” no time or room for real interaction. But I resisted the idea of using my “expertise” regarding the past and future of the WTC as a defense against its deeply individual meaning, its emotional associations, for me, for others. Nor was I interested in denying my own longtime diffidence about dealing with September 11 in so many words.
I don’t think my tour of the WTC site has ever been the same twice. I’m perpetually reworking it, while learning to be prepared for reactions ranging from awkward comments to streaming tears. It’s not my job to overawe, or to merely inform. Returning again and again, accompanying people who have most likely never stood in the shadow of this lack of towers before, I’ve wanted to acknowledge what was originally experienced as a collective loss; I’ve tried for more give and take, more conversation than scripted monologue. It has seemed important for me to discover—especially with students—something of what these visitors do remember, what they’ve kept in their heads and hearts, what they’re thinking, feeling, right now, years later. And I am nearly always asked, in turn, Where were you? As a guide, you personalize sparingly, if at all. But I’m their representative real New Yorker, as well as their trusty New York escort; I was there (or somewhere here in town) when the towers fell. What was it like for you? they want to know. So I share the small, unremarkable story of my September 11.
I overslept, only hearing about the first plane when I turned on the radio to get a 1010 WINS weather report. (Blue skies, yes; bluer than blue, we would all later recall.) I tell them that I ran into the living room, turning on the TV just in time to witness the second plane hit, then sat there, disbelieving, watching countless replays along with continuing coverage of the burning towers, the entire area, being evacuated. I tell them that I phoned a girlfriend in the other wing of my building, that we hurried to meet on the roof, where from more than five miles upriver, we could see dense, dark smoke filling the downtown sky. And that we went back to her apartment, where she anxiously awaited word from two daughters who lived and worked in the immediate vicinity of the WTC. (My own young daughter was safe at school just a few blocks uptown from home.) Both her girls escaped to safer ground, one turning up at Mom’s door a few hours later, clothes and skin completely powdered in ash. If there’s time, I tell them that when we greeted her with hugs in the front hall, it was more matter of factly than I can entirely fathom, in retrospect: what’s clear is that we ourselves didn’t yet fully comprehend the horror she had outrun. I’m not sure, I sometimes say, that what was happening seemed less surreal to us in New York City than to everyone else watching it on television around the nation and the world.
And at this point, I usually take out a tiny, treasured September 11 artifact, a panoramic photograph that, rolled up, fits into the palm of my hand. Shot from the 70th Street Hudson River pier (by a friend who, fortuitously, began working digitally just that morning), it captures, in the distance, the ominously mushrooming cloud of smoke we’d watched from our rooftop.
The image perfectly represents how near, and how far, I was from the inferno itself: Near enough that the fire station on my UWS corner lost twelve of thirteen men all those miles down island. Far enough that I still can’t quite explain why I suddenly began locking my enclosed terrace’s steel door (five miles and eleven floors up) every night, against I don’t know what terror. Though it’s true, there were armed men on the roof of the unmarked power facility across the street. I don’t tell my people any of these things, though. I don’t have to say that I was much luckier than many. The photo is more eloquent than I. I love it because it speaks somberly without shrieking, because it is concretely sharable—connecting my inconsequential story to the larger cataclysm—and because it was a gift from the photographer, Ben Stern, himself gone too soon, just a few years later.
What I’ve never shared, until today, in this, my first writing about September 11, 2001—what I hold dearer still, is my own final image of the towers as seen from the Staten Island ferry that long-ago July night. I only wish I could do it justice, give you this glorious yet all too often taken-for-granted view of skyscrapers- so much a part of the urban landscape, you could never imagine them being—gone. I wonder if I would’ve even bothered getting it on film if I’d had a camera with me, which I didn’t. I can only be grateful that I looked and looked and looked some more; I may never be able to completely convey it to anyone else, in mere words, but I’ve got it, it’s mine, here, glowing inside me, forever.
SUSAN VOLCHOK is a New York writer (mainly of fiction) who has published widely in journals and anthologies ranging from Kenyon, Confrontation and VQR to Best American Erotica, as well as in mainstream magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, and online, most recently @ n+1, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and The Other Room. This essay was written for a public reading on September 11, 2011 at The National Lighthouse Museum, Staten Island, as part of Beacon: Artists Respond to September 11, a week-long 10th anniversary commemoration bringing together both visual and literary artists.