I stumbled bleary-eyed out of my building still hours before the sun would rise over the East River. Allen Street was black and still. The bars were closed and the morning rush hadn’t yet begun. The homeless slept soundly in the street-median park.
Waiting in her car in front of my building was Maggie, 40ish with a bowl cut and oversized glasses. She and I were friends from our jobs at the New York City Public Advocate’s office, where she was Liaison to the Asian Community.
I slipped into the passenger seat.
“What’s a fancy white boy like you living in a dump like this for?” She smiled.
“It’s not that bad.” That was a lie. It was bad. Upstairs was 350-square-feet of misery I called home along with four of my bros from California. Though I shared a mattress with a raging alcoholic, I still had it better than Ben who slept on the padded bench and Chris who paid $75 a month to sleep on a yoga mat on the linoleum floor.
“It’s pretty bad,” Maggie said. “I grew up in Chinatown, and I wouldn’t live here.”
We drove to our first stop, a public elementary school near the Manhattan Bridge that was functioning as a polling place that day. Maggie stayed in the car while I got out, carrying a stack of posters, tape and a stapler. Apparently, we were the last campaign to arrive. Every post on the sidewalk was covered top to bottom with posters from various campaigns. Candidates for city council, judgeships and mayor were all represented on these political totem poles.
For the past year and a half I’d been working for Mark Green’s campaign for mayor. I’d started out as an intern in his government office while still in college and worked my way up to press secretary. That morning Green was the undisputed front runner, due in large part to his adversarial relationship with Rudy Giuliani, whose approval ratings had plummeted in his second term. The winner of that day’s primary was expected to be the next mayor after going through the motions of beating the unknown and un-feared Republican candidate, Michael Bloomberg.
I tacked a Mark Green poster to the one sliver of empty space right above a Fernando Ferrer poster. I took a step back to admire my handiwork in all its glory: forest green and white; bold, persuasive lettering. Nothing but a few inches of blue remained visible from Ferrer’s sign.
I continued on like this for three hours, covering every bare surface we came across, with no help from Maggie.
“I have to watch the car,” she explained. “These Giuliani cops would love to ticket me while I’m hanging Mark Green posters.”
With ten posters left and less than an hour before I was supposed to be at campaign headquarters, I found a telephone pole set back in an alley that I designated the Mark Green post. I taped six vertically and the remaining four flapping off horizontally, like a scarecrow.
At 8:45 my 6 train screeched to a stop at Grand Central and I hustled through the train station to the Graybar Building where I rode the elevator to campaign headquarters. As I approached the door, I braced myself for the election-morning mayhem of staffers and volunteers rushing about with campaign paraphernalia. I yanked the door open a crack and jumped out of the way. Nothing. I opened the door farther and looked in. Nobody. I stepped inside. Everyone was around the corner, back toward the press department. They were just standing there, quiet, huddled around one of the TVs.
I approached to see what they were watching. Smoke billowed out from a top floor of one of the World Trade Center buildings. A small fire that looked containable.
“What’s going on?” I asked the man next to me, a volunteer I’d never seen before.
“A plane crashed into the Trade Center.”
I’d seen this happen before. Two days before Christmas one year when I was a kid, a twin-engine plane crashed into the Macy’s near my home. The plane burst through the wall and sprayed burning fuel on a hundred holiday shoppers.
I poked my head into our opposition research office to say hello to my two friends who spent their days looking through the other candidates’ garbage.
“How’s it looking?”
“Not so good,” Stu said. “It’s gonna be tight.”
“He’s just being pessimistic,” Justin said. “It’ll be tight for sure, but we’ll pull it out.”
A chorus of screams rang out from the group watching TV. I turned around and saw the second tower now on fire. People were shouting.
“Another plane hit!”
“This is terrorism!”
We stared at the screen in silence. Then someone yelled, “Everyone, we need you to come up front to get your assignments. The election is still on as far as we know and we need to act like it.”
I peeled off, but the others who saw the crash stayed behind.
My job that morning was to hustle for votes at the 77th and Lexington subway station and then knock on doors in Lower East Side housing projects in the afternoon. Heading back down to the subway, I realized I’d left my government-issued pager at home, and since I didn’t own a cell phone I was going to need it. I decided to jam downtown, grab it, then rush back to the Upper East Side.
Back at my apartment building, I bounded up the stairs, eager to tell my roommates about the Trade Center. The apartment door was cracked open but no one was home. I climbed the flight of stairs to the roof and pushed the door open, stepping into the sun’s glare. Chris was there with his back to me. There were other people I’d never seen before. Then I noticed there were people on all the surrounding roofs, everyone facing south, staring at an immense cloud of smoke.
“What’s up?” I said.
Chris turned. His face looked blank, as if he were scared to move. “The building just collapsed.”
“What do you mean?” I looked at the buildings again. I could see only one and figured the other was shrouded in the smoke.
“It collapsed,” Chris said again, his voice cold and monotone.
His words hit my forehead and crumbled to the ground. What Chris was saying was impossible. Those buildings were permanent. He may as well have told me the sun burned out.
Chris had quit his job in the collapsed building three days earlier. He was supposed to travel to Italy later that day with his sister Hannah, who I then realized was standing next to him.
“Bombs went off at the bottom and brought the whole thing down” he said.
Bombs. For some reason that made his story believable. I’d seen bombs take down buildings before – on TV at least. My body went cold with fear. Adrenaline took hold. My skin felt electric. I got a rush of energy, but couldn’t move.
“I’m going to turn on the news,” I said. Chris and Hannah followed me downstairs. The image on the TV was a ball of smoke and dust covering everything. The announcer’s voice was frantic.
“The north tower has just collapsed!” she cried. “Both towers have now collapsed!”
Hannah sobbed. She was seated on the padded bench, hugging her knees against her chest. It was her first trip to New York, her first time outside of California.
The phone rang. It was Dave, a friend who had recently moved out of our apartment to live in a residential hotel. “How is everything over there?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“How’s the building. Is it okay? Does it feel safe there?”
“Yeah, the building’s fine. We’re safe.”
“Okay, I think I’m gonna come over. I need to leave midtown. I don’t feel safe here.” He hung up.
It was true that our building was still standing, but for how long I didn’t know. They, whoever they were, had placed bombs in the Trade Center. It was possible there were bombs elsewhere in the city. The TV cut to shots of people streaming out of downtown, out of all of Manhattan. They were heading for the bridges – the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg.
That’s the terrorists’ plan, I thought. They were flushing people out of downtown, out of Manhattan, and then, when the bridges were filled, they’d detonate the bombs, bring down the bridges, killing thousands more. They were going to blow up every place that people were likely to be. Hospitals. That’s where my girlfriend was. She had an appointment at a hospital on First Avenue, near the U.N. building. The U.N. Another target. I called her cell phone. Her voice mail picked up immediately.
“I gotta go get Catherine,” I said to Chris. “She’s at the hospital.”
“Dude, I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go anywhere right now,” Chris said. Hannah was in a fetal position on the bench, crying through a phone call to her mom back home.
“I gotta go.” I was in a trance as I bounded down the stairs against my better judgment. Outside, people shoved past my building, shoulder to shoulder, in a lava flow of fear and anxiety stretching all the way from my sidewalk, across two traffic lanes, the wide median, two more traffic lanes, to the sidewalk opposite.
I trudged the half-block north to Delancey Street. It was the same; people covered every inch. I looked east and saw that everyone was headed to the Williamsburg Bridge.
The crush of bodies overwhelmed me. It felt like there was just a matter of time before a fight broke out, then a stampede. Hundreds would be trampled to death. Right then laughter erupted from a group of teenage boys, which sent me over the edge.
I forced my way back to my building and tried to unlock the door. My shaky hands fumbled with the keys. I got the door open, dashed inside, slammed it behind me.
“Dude, I told you,” Chris said as I entered the apartment.
I slumped back into the chair in front of the TV.
Dave walked in a little while later, his face ashen, expressionless. “Hey,” he said, dropping his bag and sitting down next to Hannah on the bench.
“Hey,” we responded then turned back to the news.
A reporter from a local station interviewed a man near City Hall about the extent of the deaths and injuries. “Right now we don’t know,” the man said. “It’s possible that the planes were filled with deadly chemical or biological weapons. If that’s the case, the death total could exceed 100,000.”
“Shut up!” Dave shouted at the TV. “Who the hell is this guy? Why are they letting him talk? He doesn’t know anything. He’s just gonna scare the hell out of everyone.”
He slumped back against the wall, and we continued watching, our hearts beating a little harder.
Hannah finally hung up the phone, and it rang. I grabbed it. “Hello!”
“Why haven’t you called me?” she yelled. “I can’t believe you’re at home. I’ve been calling you over and over! Why didn’t you call me? I thought you might be campaigning near the Trade Center when it fell. Why didn’t you call me?”
She never made it to her doctor’s appointment. Running late, she was still showering when the first plane hit. The brownstone shook. She rushed over to the Brooklyn Heights promenade for its view of downtown Manhattan across the river. As she watched the buildings burn, she noticed the row of women with their kids watching the horror unfold. Catherine walked back to her apartment and spent the next three hours calling me.
We decided on the phone that I would go to her place where it was safer. I waited another couple of hours until the mob had thinned and the police finished their search for bombs on the bridges. There were still no cars on the streets, just a few stragglers in the middle of the road like last-place finishers in a marathon.
The subway car was crowded but no one spoke or made a sound. When the train pulled up to its first stop in Brooklyn, I dashed out of the station and exhaled.
Catherine waited for me on her stoop behind a line of 10 people, some covered in white dust, waiting to use the pay phone outside of her garden apartment.
Not knowing what to do we went for a walk. We passed brownstone after brownstone shaded by elms until we reached Montague Street, the main drag in Brooklyn Heights. It was late afternoon and neither of us had eaten since breakfast. We stepped into an Indian restaurant and took a table next to the front window. The place was empty. We watched paper after paper from the Trade Center float down onto the street outside. It reminded me of jogging through the neighborhood in late October as leaves rained down.
Afterward, we walked a couple of blocks to the video-rental store. It was the most crowded I’d ever seen it and most of the new releases were picked over. We agreed we needed comedy, so I stopped searching when I came to “The Jerk.”
At the checkout counter, I watched the TV that hung from the ceiling just inside the entrance. It usually showed movies chosen by the kids who manned the store, but now it was showing the news. I wondered why the camera was trained on some innocuous office building but then noticed the building swaying back and forth. And then it crumbled. Catherine and I watched as this 47-floor mass of concrete, steel, and glass was reduced to dust in a manner of seconds.
“Is this live or did that happen earlier?” I asked the cashier.
“It’s live. That was World Trade Center 7. That’ll be $3.75.”
Twenty-four hours earlier, the collapse of a major office building in downtown Manhattan would have dominated the news. As it happened, it was the least interesting thing to occur that day. It was hard to believe that the lead story in all the newspapers that morning was the city’s primary election. The event that consumed most of my life for over a year was something I hadn’t thought about since I was on the roof of my apartment building earlier that morning.
Catherine and I never watched “The Jerk” that night. Instead, we flipped back and forth between CNN and Comedy Central, alternating the news with comic relief.
As we headed to bed, my pager vibrated on the kitchen table. I dialed the number. It was my boss. He told me to show up at headquarters in the morning for a staff meeting. The campaign continued.