Before and After



655 West 34th Street ny 10001

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

It is 8:30 p.m. on September 10th, the day before the World Trade Center attack. I am at therapy like I am every Monday night. “New York is killing me,” I complain to my therapist. “At every turn, I am filled with a new contempt for New York. A garbage truck passes me and spews out thick exhaust in my face, a mother tells her 4 year old on the subway to, ‘shut the fuck up’ and then shakes him in front of a train full of passengers, a cockroach the size of a tennis ball crawls out of my underwear drawer, 2 mice run across my kitchen counter, someone has smeared shit, yes shit, across the buttons of our elevator, I trip in the same pothole twice scraping my knee which bleeds down the front of my new skirt. I need to get out of here. New York is killing me.”

It is now September 11th. I have overslept. I was supposed to be at my waitressing job downtown at 8 am but I am already almost an hour late. “Shit,” I yell at myself. “I overslept!” I never oversleep. My fucking alarm clock reads 4 a.m. I am literally halfway out of my front door just before nine when the phone rings. I come back inside to answer it. It might be my boss. Instead, it is my friend Olivia. She is watching the planes fly into the towers of the World Trade Center. She is describing it to me.

It is Wednesday, a day after the attack. Too many New Yorkers on a bus is hardly ever where New Yorkers want to be, but for about four to five hours, that’s where hundreds of New Yorkers choose to be. I have wandered downtown to the Javits Center where volunteers are milling around the block and eating an array of gourmet foods. I walk towards the piers and turn the corner. Suddenly, people are running by me. I decide to run with them. We are piling onto an MTA bus. It is full to its rush hour capacity. I am not sure I am in the right place. The bus is filled with men. I spot two other women. There are many union laborers and technical engineers many of whom have brought their specialized equipment with them. Keith Tompkins of Local 40 Ironworkers has a work belt that weighs 40 pounds. Others carry shovels and flashlights, work gloves and eye goggles. There are all kinds of people on the bus, immigrants who only spoke Spanish, Staten Islanders with Italian lineage, corporate employees, Latinos, whites, elderly and a few 15-year-old boys. All seats are occupied and the rest of us stand holding the rails, talking to our neighbors, asking those with walkmen to report to the rest of us any news-breaking news. Some call from the back of the bus to the woman MTA driver to update us with any plans. We open windows to let us breathe easier. Volunteers outside pass food through the windows: Poland Spring water, Chips Ahoy cookies, ham, turkey, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and I think there were some Payday candy bars that I never got my hands on but I did learn I liked mini Ritz crackers with cheese… I do pull-ups on the holding rail. Some lean over each other to see the day’s images in the Post: A deceased’s hand reaches out from rubble, a man mid-air jumps out of his window, a bloody face…Some sit quietly. Most have come alone. A group of about 25 black youth in hardhats mingle outside of the bus. There is not enough room for them inside, so they decide to bring up people’s spirits. As waves of mostly white NYPD and NYC firemen pass by, these black youth erupt in cheers and applause. Yes, black youth applauding white cops. Many people talk on cell phones and receive news that way. We pass sandwiches from the back of the bus up front and vise versa. We wait hours together, become full together, are restless yet uncomplaining together. We stand together as hours pass. We are prepared. We watch the sun set over the Hudson. I disembark at 9:30 p.m. because it looks like the situation downtown is too unstable for volunteers anytime in the night. I say good-bye to my bus and wave as I leave the scene.

Two nights after the attack, I dream our national meteorologist predicts an earthquake that will be of an astronomical size. I am in New York City and in my dream, everyone knows the earthquake will come, although only minutes before it is to occur. We quickly and chaotically prepare with plenty of socks and water. I am at the base of the Empire State Building when I hear there is to be an impending disaster. I am alone when I flee a waitressing job. All I can do is run. I run west down 34th Street from the Empire State Building, but before I run away I look up to the top of the building, as if for the last time. Then I run full speed, as fast as I did when my softball coach would make the outfielders race for our positions. In my dream there are more avenues westward than the 11 we actually have because I am running for over an hour. Then, when the predicted moment comes, I quickly seek refuge at a hospital with many strangers. We wait together. We share space under doorways. But the earthquake never comes. As minutes pass, people begin to sneak out of doorways and safe places and into the street. It has not come, “right?” we ask each other. We pile into the streets, celebrating the false alarm. But, then new speculations come. People begin to speak of a conspiracy by the sock companies and water manufacturers. People accuse them of staging a false prediction to increase sales. I walk back to my job near the Empire States Building. It is still there. I touch the side of it to feel its strength. Then, I go back to work and resume serving plates of tuna sandwiches and double decaf iced cappuccinos. We all resume.

It is Thursday, three days after the attack, and I need a cold drink. I am wandering downtown and enter Starbuck’s to get a Frappuccino. I wait in line and the woman at the cashier (Anisette, I think) looks me in the eye and says, “How are you? Are you okay?” She doesn’t ask me for my order. She is looking at me, waiting for my answer. “I’m okay, are you?” I respond. She assures me she is all right. Then she takes my order.

On Monday night, I was venting my disgust of New York to my therapist, planning my escape, maybe to Nepal or India I had thought. Today is Friday, and I am not going anywhere. Some friends have fled upstate, but I can’t leave. Suddenly, the things I minded so much Monday night, today seem part of the essence of New York and something I would miss if I were anywhere else.

As I was coming home on the subway yesterday, an elderly black man was sitting across from me talking with a friend. He said, “You know, I have never understood why every person in the World Trade Center was not always required to have a parachute. I mean, with buildings so high, even a mere fire would not allow people to survive because they would be so high.” I picture 50,000 workers in suits parachuting out of the World Trade center like rain drops falling from a storm.

But that is not what happened.

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