When I got the email from Sir Beller about revisiting 9/11, my thought was to delete it. After double-checking, I can say I’m proud of the piece I wrote, “October 2001,” only because I just reported what I saw and didn’t try to make sense of it. Had I gone the “this is how I experienced it,” route like so many did, I would feel like a colossal horse’s ass. Not to pat myself on the back, but just being in New York City led to too many navel-gazing pieces that hold up about as well as Rudy Guliaini’s well-earned role–for two weeks anyway–as the guy we want in charge when the shit is going down.
I only seriously contemplated writing anything for two reasons:
1.) The weeks following the attack ultimately morphed into never-ending wars, and as someone who didn’t lose anyone close, 9/11 became shorthand for something much uglier. Right, “Mayor of 9/11?”
2.) I didn’t want to fake it by coming up with some tangential tie to the attacks just because I could. Anyone who was here, or countless other places, has a claim on 9/11, but not like those who lost loved ones or like the kids who got sent to far off shitholes in the name of freedom. I am neither of those people. I’m simply a guy who lived, and lives, in the place where the terrible dudes nailed the bulls-eye. Ultimately, it’s a colossal coincidence. To pretend otherwise is narcissism at its best, unchecked hubris at its worst.
So why write anything, smart guy?
Well, there’s one day that I have never been able to shake and if you’ll indulge me, I think it’s story worth telling. I make no claims on what it means, but I will say, and say what you will, it haunts me.
October 7, 2001. I was meeting up with my younger brother Daniel to watch out beloved Philadelphia Eagles at Reservoir, a fine Union Square sports bar with a lot of TVs and an excellent chili dog special.
It was early in the game and Dan hadn’t showed up yet. I called him and said something like, “Hurry up, it’s on.”
“What’s the score? “
“No, I mean it’s on. Afghanistan. We just started bombing.”
Dan showed up soon after and we watched the Eagles on a split-screen that showed the Birds lose to the Arizona Cardinals on one side and Operation Enduring Freedom on the other. I’d be lying if I said the barflies, us included, were more interested in rooting for their respective NFL squads than our tax dollars kicking off the military-industrial-complex payback on Al-Qaeda.
Everyone in the bar was locked in. And the beer was flowing. USA! USA!
At some point, Kim–my then girlfriend, now wife–showed up and grabbed a glass. Dan left and we stayed for the late game.
We staggered out in the early evening and a massive cold front had set in. I’m sure if I did enough web research, I could give you an exact temperature, but I’m lazy, so trust me. I’m confident enough to say it was motherhumping cold.
Kim had already started a crockpot of chili in our 25th St apartment, so we were set. But as we walked up University, she noticed a couple huddled together in a doorway, barely keeping an eye on the pathetic change cup they’d set out.
It was a young couple, neither wearing clothes for the elements. He had a thin jean jacket; She wore an even thinner sweater. Unlike the typical pierced-tattooed-me-and-my-dog-want-your-spare-change-and-are-in-desperate-need-of-a-bath corner beggars, this couple was shivering together and didn’t seem to have an agenda outside of keeping one another warm.
“I think those two need help. They look like they need a place to stay. I think they’re in real trouble.”
I asked if she was serious. Thanks to the mix of liquid courage and the collective pall that hung over the city, she said yes.
We went over to see what they needed. Not being flush with cash, we offered what we had- a hot bowl of chili and a warm place to sleep.
I don’t remember their names. There’s a good chance I never learned them that night. What I do remember is that they were young. And very much in love.
He worked off-the-books at the Fulton Fish Market, but it was still shut down, so they had to give up the room at the pay-by-the-week hotel. Her folks lived on Staten Island. She’d called and told them she was alive, but they hated him, so she stayed with the freelance fishmonger. Love won out over shelter. The only thing he was carrying was the Kurt Cobain Journals.
I engaged him a bit on Nirvana, but he was a man of few words. She told us everything. We set them up with a bowl of chili–Kim’s award-winning recipe with all the fixins’ I should add –and they ate a ton. We tried to make them feel comfortable, but all we could offer in that apartment was a two-person loveseat, one so close to the fridge that it provided the benefit of being able to grab a beer without even getting up.
After a couple of beers, he opened up about how Cobain’s music affected him. If memory serves, he’d been on his own for years. Shitty family, little education, crappy job, the whole nine, but his best girl had given him hope for the first time since a skinny junkie from the Seattle area laid down tracks. He showed me his copy of Cobain’s diary with notes in the margin, but he didn’t really want to share his inner-thoughts. And to be honest, I had nothing to offer anyway. Collectively, we’d lived through 9/11, but he’d lost everything, and I was a simply a guy with a story. The only thing we had in common was the love of a good woman, and terrorist attacks or not, my situation never involved a family’s wholesale rejection.
Kim talked to his girlfriend for a bit. She was incredibly sweet, and overly effusive, but severely worn out in the way that sleeping on the streets taxes the human body. After a couple of hours, the beer ran its course and we called it a night. Not to be insensitive, but we had to get up for work.
We laid out a sleeping bag, but they said they were fine with blankets on the loveseat. This “couch,” a street grab Dan and I carried home from 21st St. the first night I slept in our apartment, was enough for them. They wrapped themselves in each other’s arms and passed out before Kim and I finished brushing our teeth.
Early the next morning, logic kicked the booze out of Kim’s brain, and she asked me to make sure that opening a hotel to urchins hadn’t been a horrible idea. I reassured her, saying we had little worth looting to begin with, but I would offer them coffee and politely ask them to get the on their way so we could meet the day.
They were gone. They left a simple note of thanks.
We never heard another thing from them.
I hadn’t thought about the couple for a long time, but it all came flooding back the night Obama announced we took out Bin Laden.
Why? I have no idea. That night hit me in ways I never could have anticipated. I guess it’s because, in some facile way, it felt like we’d finally had catharsis. Ten long years of fear, anger, paranoia, bloodshed and sadness had come full circle. But not really . Afghanistan rages on, an arbitrary anniversary is reached, and we continue to go on living.
Like I said, I have nothing of value to say about 9/11. But the night Bin Laden went into the big drink, I got a warm feeling, imagining that somewhere in this city, or in parts unknown, a loving couple sat down on a big-ass couch and played the now twenty-year-old classic Nevermind. Maybe Dad even hugged his kids and told about how one time, on the day America went to war, two friendly half-drunk fellow-citizens gave them a hot bowl of chili and an uncomfortable loveseat.
Cobain may have been right that all alone is all we are….but not being alone sure helped in those few months afterward.
Patrick J. Sauer is a freelance writer for Fast Company, ESPN, Popular Science, Smith, AOL and Huffington Post Humor. He is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the American Presidents and is featured in Mr. Beller’s anthology Lost and Found. Originally from Billings, Montana, he now lives in Brooklyn where he spends his days following his baby daughter’s orders. For more, check out patrickjsauer.com or follow him on Twitter @pjsauer.