Reality in Freefall

by

11/01/2001

west side highway and liberty st ny 10280

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

“Spirit is Life. It flows thru the death of me endlessly like a river unafraid of becoming the sea”–Gregory Corso

I ate my breakfast at a leisurely pace, mopping up the last traces of ketchup on the plate with my muffin. Glancing at the clock on the wall, I saw that it was eight forty five. A moment or two later, only a mile away and unbeknown to everybody in the restaurant, American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 carrying ninety-two people, flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. The waiter came over and poured me a refill. “Thanks”, I said, blissfully unaware that reality was about to be in freefall.

*

I settled my check and walked back across the street to my hotel. At reception, the manager asked me to pay for the next few days of my stay. Waiting for my credit card to run through, I began to pick up from the news report on the radio that there had been a plane crash. “Where’s this happening?” I asked him.

“Right here in New York,” the Manager told me.

Stunned, I dived into the hotel room and switched on the television. And as I watched what everybody thought was going to be a long and tricky rescue operation, the South Tower collapsed suddenly. Story after story peeled away as the building imploded, with dark cascades of smoke and wreckage falling slowly and spilling through the surrounding streets in a cinematic sequence of intense, malevolent beauty. Unable to watch this scene anymore on television, I picked up my camera and headed outside quickly.

It was even worse than I expected, stepping back out on the street. The glare strained my eyes and the air had an oppressive, sticky heat about it. As I cut across to Sixth Avenue, I was panting and sweating. A jet plane roared across the sky above me and everyone on the street looked up in terror. Was this another hijacked plane? No, it was an American jet fighter. Palpable relief was written across peoples’ faces along the sidewalk and on the other side of the street. I walked on hurriedly until an elderly man grabbed my arm, stopping me in my tracks. “You know there’s still nine planes in the air unaccounted for,” he said, looking severely into my eyes. “The military ought to shoot them down before they reach the city,” I said, before extricating myself from his grip and continuing on my way down to Greenwich Village and the edge of SoHo at Houston Street.

People on the street looked up in silence, transfixed by the burning tower. Five Thai cooks, still clutching carving knives, stood on the tailgate of a delivery lorry. Nearby, there was a large party of Hasidic Jews, bedecked to the man in black hats with binoculars pointing skyward. Within moments, there was a low rumble and the North Tower imploded before my eyes and fell slowly to the ground as the first had done earlier. All of a sudden a tall black guy stepped forward off the sidewalk, fists clenched in a gesture of rage. “The evil bastards have blown the towers right off the face of the planet. New York will never be the same,” he shouted. “We told them this would happen one day, but they just didn’t listen.”

I stepped into the nearest café and ordered a large iced tea. Sipping it, it tasted like iced gasoline. I put in a few spoonfuls of sugar and sipped it again. It now tasted like sweet iced gasoline.

*

Back in my hotel room, I checked into CNN to remind myself that I had not been watching scenes from a Hollywood movie but a human tragedy of unfathomable proportions. One news report featured Maria, a Latina woman who manned the phones at a fire station that was one of the first to attend the scene. “All our guys are missing,” said Maria, looking plaintively to the camera, “but I know they’’ll be back soon and I’’ll be waiting for them.”

There was a knock at my door, and I was handed a message. It said my stepson Elliot had called earlier, and that he was staying in the SoHo Grand. I had not known he was in the city. I tried calling him, but the phone lines were busy. I decided to make my way over to his hotel on foot. Kate, a work colleague, went with me. It was early afternoon, and the sky seemed sullen and heavy, despite the bright sunshine. We walked into Washington Square, where people had started to gather. A Native American beat out a rhythm on a drum, wailing his lament in some ancient tongue. Some people were making a shrine by attaching flowers, messages, postcards of the towers to a fence, with candles lit on the floor below. The scent of sunflowers, lilies and chrysanthemums filled my nostrils. A Chinese woman looked up to the heavens praying for the dead. Suddenly a jet fighter flew low over us, tearing the sky to shreds. We both cowered in fear.

“These jets are really freaking me out,” Kate said, “It feels like we’re in a War Zone.”

Walking south down Broadway, the wind changed direction and the acrid smoke clouds reached us – a potent mix of sulphur, ash and gypsum. Several people covered their mouths with scarves or wore cardboard masks. The sirens of ambulances and fire trucks blared out as they headed down to Lower Manhattan. At Canal Street we encountered the police cordon. Behind the line, bystanders stood up on their toes straining to look farther down the street. It was as if they were trying to read signals in the smoke clouds that billowed first black, then white from Ground Zero. I noticed a few gaunt figures emerging from behind the cordon, covered from head to foot in white ash and cement. Their faces looked ghostly and expressionless, making me think of how the shell-shocked must have looked when they emerged from trenches in the First World War.

At West Broadway and Canal Street we found Elliot, standing outside his hotel. He seemed spaced out and restless. He had videotaped the collapse of the North Tower, so we watched the playback though the viewfinder. He apologized for the wobbly camerawork, saying that he had felt guilty filming such a horrific event. Looking south again, we saw that another building was on fire and looked vulnerable. We decided to go for a drink. And boy did I need a drink by now. As we turned and walked away towards the bar, World Trade Center Seven building collapsed behind us.

*

As we walked back along Bleecker Street, I noticed that many of the bars and restaurants were open and the tables were crowded with people telling their stories, helping each other to make sense of it all. Outside Radio Shack, a group crowded round a TV that was set up on the sidewalk, eager for news about survivors. We passed a fire station covered with floral tributes. I saw a woman in uniform pacing up and down outside. I recognized her as Maria, from the CNN report. I reflected on all the acts of human kindness that today had seen. The shoe-seller who stood on the corner handing out free sneakers to women fleeing the dust and falling debris. He knew that they could not run away fast enough in heels. I thought of the long lines of people waiting to give blood, at medical centers across the city. The continuous relays of food for rescue workers and police officers, donated by restaurants and supermarkets. The shiny relief fire trucks whose crews came from as far afield as Maryland, Tennessee, Maine and Baltimore. And countless other small good things that will go uncelebrated, but add up to so much. At the corner of Bleecker and Sixth, I caught the smell from a bakery. Freshly baked bread, straight from the oven. From an upper floor window there was the delicate sound of classical music being played on a piano. Across the street, some guys were shooting baskets and playing handball inside a cage. As I passed by I heard laughter for the first time.

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