The Numbers



1 Liberty plz, New York, NY

Neighborhood: Lower Manhattan, World Trade Center

Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood was started in the year 2000, and we have published many stories about what happened in New York on 9/11/2001 and the months that followed. Today is the 20th anniversary of that day. We are featuring one of those stories this week. This story was first published on March 11, 2002. (JM)

Here was a morning like any other. I got up at 6:40, took a shower and got ready for work. I hadn’t slept well the night before. My eyes burned. Walking to the bathroom required tremendous energy. I blamed my new neighbors. Their surround-sound TV was set up just a few feet from my head. The first two times I ever talked to them was to tell them to turn down their TV or stereo or whatever. Last night, I didn’t have the heart to complain. I just lay in the dark and accepted it.

For several minutes after my clock radio had clicked on to Howard Stern, I contemplated calling in sick. It was a Tuesday. Nothing happens on Tuesdays. Whatever I was working on could wait. What harm could come from my sleeping in a few extra hours and enjoying the rest of the day? I could go out to breakfast, get some writing done, maybe take a walk.

But my boss was in Italy, on her honeymoon, and the more lucid I became, the more I reasoned that it would look bad, like I was trying to take advantage of her absence. I flipped off the covers and got out of bed. As I dressed, I half watched-half listened to Good Day New York, with Dave Price, the wacky weather guy, and Jim Ryan, the straight man. I went to the kitchen, opened the window and leaned out. My apartment was on the third and top floor. Laundry lines crisscrossed the little lawns and patios below. The tip of the Chrysler Building gleamed across the river. The sun was out, the sky was cloudless, the wind blew a little. It was a perfect day.

Outside, I took the B48 bus to Metropolitan Avenue, in Williamsburg, and caught a Manhattan-bound L train. At Union Square, I transferred to the N/R line. The N/R stopped right in the World Trade Center, where I worked as a copywriter in the Morgan Stanley marketing department. On this day, my commute was fast. The bus came right away, and both trains. I was walking along the concourse in the trade center by about 8:15.

Usually, I’d pick up a copy of the Daily News, but not that morning. I was engrossed in a new biography of Kurt Cobain and wanted to finish it before nine. I was right at the suicide part, where the author reconstructs what Cobain might have been thinking before he pulled the trigger, what music he might have been listening to, etc. I did that sometimes. If I was near the end of a book, I’d sit at my desk and keep reading, reaching for random papers in an attempt to look busy whenever I heard footsteps.

I put my I.D. badge on the scanner, pushed through the turnstile, and got in one of the big cattle-car elevators that shuttled back and forth between the forty-fourth floor. A fact of working in Two World Trade that never quite became routine was that it took two elevators to get there. On forty-four were several other elevator banks, the second of which led to the seventieth floor, where I worked.

So much of life there was transport, the perpetual, maddening bling of elevators coming and going, escalators whose silver ridges approximated the façades of the trade towers themselves. Each day was a series of small surrenders to vast hidden systems of cables and electrical wiring and computer chips. Once, last winter, one of the elevators malfunctioned and either dropped a few floors or slammed into the ceiling. I think there were some broken bones. It made the news the next day.

Before heading up to seventy, as was my routine, I went down yet another flight to the cafeteria for a bagel and coffee. On my left as I descended was a new waterfall installation, two planes of thick glass pressed together as water illuminated by colored lights flowed infinitely between them. The whole thing probably cost twice my yearly salary. Above me was a mounted TV constantly tuned to some all-Morgan Stanley channel. The screen was cluttered with graphics, stock tickers and boxes from which the faces of analysts and other market experts telegraphed their daily predictions.

“Well, clearly this has been a rough couple of quarters for technology. But these kinds of shake-ups are all part of the game. We’re in this for the long haul.”

Each day I tried my best to ignore the looming presence of this TV. It reminded me of where I was, that I had gone to college to study creative writing and literature and now spent my days cranking out cheesy copy advertising the need for careful planning in the pursuit of one’s financial dreams. It reminded me that the short stories I labored over on evenings and weekends went unpublished while the brochures and newsletters I wrote enjoyed print runs in the thousands and millions. It reminded me that at an earlier time in my life I had played punk rock music and sometimes went weeks without washing my jeans, but was now outfitted in a corporate casual wardrobe purchased largely at Banana Republic, a wardrobe that rendered me indistinguishable from the thousands of other young men I saw pouring in and out of the trade center every day.

That TV reminded me of a lot of things, mostly my own sense of failure. One thing it could not detract from, however, was the view.

On a clear day, walking past the cafeteria windows was like witnessing a live slide show. Each frame was magnificent. The Hudson River, the harbor, the Statue of Liberty, Governor’s Island, Ellis Island, the tall ships on the Fourth of July. People spent their live savings and traveled from around the world to see what I saw every morning, five days a week.

Working for a multinational, multibillion-dollar financial institution may not have been my dream job, but being in that building every day sure was cool.

Out of the cafeteria, back up the escalator, into an elevator. I had a whole car to myself, which was rare. I pushed seventy. The doors closed. The car went up.

By 8:30, I was at my desk, reading about Kurt Cobain killing himself.

When I was a senior in high school I wanted to be Kurt Cobain. A long time before that I wanted to be Jim Morrison. Both of these guys died when they were twenty-seven. Sometime during my Jim Morrison phase, I told a teacher at my school named Ms. Schade that I wanted to die when I was twenty-seven.

“Why, because Jim Morrison did?” she said.

I said yeah. I was fifteen when I said that. Later, when Kurt Cobain killed himself, I thought, “Ah, twenty-seven, that’s a good life. He must have been in pain.” I was nineteen when I thought that.

On August 2, a little over a month earlier, I had turned twenty-seven.

I put peanut butter on my bagel. At work, I ate a lot of peanut butter. It was a cost-cutting measure. New York is an expensive town. Sometimes I’d have it for breakfast and lunch. In my cupboard, there were about ten empty peanut butter jars, all Skippy brand. I never threw them away. I always thought that one day I’d take them home and recycle them.

In the book before me, Kurt Cobain got ready to put a gun barrel in his mouth. I looked at the clock on my desk phone display. It said 8:45 exactly. I thought about changing into my work shoes and decided against it. (I wore sneakers to work because of all the walking I do. Kind of girlie, I admit. But New York is not the place to live if you don’t like walking. Comfortable shoes are a necessity. )

A couple minutes later I heard a series of muffled booms. The floor trembled. It sounded like thunder, but closer. From where I sat, it had the odd effect of being both loud and not loud. One thing felt certain. It was very near. In fact, at that instant, I thought something was happening down the hall. I thought it was a bank of file cabinets falling over. Then a man in accounting named Leo Kirby started yelling. He didn’t stop. “Oh my God!” Leo Kirby screamed. “Oh my God! Oh God! Oh dear God!”

He was yelling so loudly that my next thought was, “Someone down by Leo Kirby is hurt. The file cabinets fell over on someone and crushed them.” For the first time that day, I got scared. I stood up. Two guys I work with named Mark Sanfort and Brian Whelan were by John Warner’s office, staring out the window. I sat in a cubicle, gray walls, no window. I walked over. All I saw were thousands of papers flying through the air. Some of the papers were burning. My stomach dropped.

Mark cocked his head like when a dog hears a high pitch. “Hey,” he said. He was looking out at One World Trade. “That building’s on fire.”

Whelan and I went to another window. There was smoke. He and I looked at each other. I could see over the cubicles, across the office, down the hall. I sensed the chemistry of the air changing. It went from stale, recycled, artificially cold office air to something different, something I can’t describe except to say it was alive. It buzzed like a high-tension power line.

Without realizing what I was doing, I went to my desk, got my backpack and walked to the hallway near the elevators, where people had already congregated. I knew a lot of them. Whelan was there, but the only other person I saw from my department was Lauren Wohl. A lot of people from the sales department were there. My friend Leslie was there. She had her arm around her boss, a woman named Zobeida. Zobeida was crying. Not very long ago, she had a baby. I saw another woman named Gail who also just had a baby. A woman from our department named Joanna just had a baby. I looked around and didn’t see her. So there we were, standing around, not knowing what had happened. I thought of Leo Kirby’s screams. We waited for an announcement but none came. The security guy didn’t know anything. He was just standing up from his desk when I saw him.

“What?” he said when he heard the news. “Something happened to the other building?”

I looked at everyone but didn’t register more than a blur of scared faces. A few minutes passed. Someone said, “Shit, the fire warden’s not here. Where’s the fire warden?”

But what difference did that make? The fire warden was just some cubicle worker. It’s an arbitrary title they give out during fire drills. I could have been the fire warden for our floor and at that moment probably couldn’t have recited my address.

More people rounded the corners and fell in with the group. I don’t remember any one person suggesting that we get in the stairwell. I know I didn’t say it. Probably it was a collective decision. All I know is that the door opened and we filed in. It was packed, two lanes, shoulder-to-shoulder, workers from the higher floors already making their way down. I looked at the sign by the door that said seventy and took my first step. For a few minutes I was next to Julie Lin, from sales.

“Are you scared, Bryan?” she said, like she was asking if I were hungry.

I said yes and wondered if she was scared. She didn’t seem like it. She said, “I’ve never seen you like this. Usually you always have something to say.”

It’s true. I was always joking, always goofing on having a big corporate job. But right then I couldn’t speak. My legs were crazy. My breath came in quick little gasps.

Then Julie disappeared and Whelan was on my right. Whelan was my best work buddy. He sat in the cubicle next to me and we talked and made jokes all day long. We talked so much that we expected someone to drop by our side of the office one day and fire us both. We quoted from our favorite movies. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, A Few Good Men, Just One of the Guys, vintage Chevy Chase like Fletch and Vacation. We even quoted from Kramer vs. Kramer. We’d hung out outside of work, gone to some Yankees games, gone to get drinks. He and I had a running joke about spending our days at a place that was ground zero for a terrorist attack. But that had already happened. The building had been bombed before. I was a freshman in college then. My mom picked me up one day and was driving me home to do laundry when it came on the radio.

What goes on in the World Trade Center? I wondered. Who works there?

I glanced up and saw Leslie walking with Zobeida. Zobeida was still crying. She clung to Leslie. I started hearing rumors. People were saying that a plane had hit the side of the other tower. A plane? Wait a minute. I pictured a tiny ten-seat propeller plane with a guy who’d just had a heart attack at the controls flying into One World Trade. A freak accident. A woman behind me was crying hard. Her red eyes radiated shock, sadness and terror. She talked to herself, and what she said was that she’d seen people jumping from the broken windows of the other building.

Around the fifty-ninth floor, there was an announcement. The whole line of people up and down stopped to listen. From behind the stairwell door we heard a voice on a loudspeaker. “There is a problem in building one,” the voice said. “Building two is secure. I repeat, building two is secure. Please go back to your desks and wait for further instruction.” The voice repeated this message.

Hearing that kind of comforted me, but not a lot. It comforted other people, I guess, because some of them turned around. I heard one guy say, “Well, fuck it, I’m walking all the way back up,” like the whole thing was a big drag and he was annoyed.

You can’t reenter every floor from inside the stairwell, so Whelan and I got out at fifty-five, I think it was. Lauren was there, in a big crowd. It was a weird floor, just white walls, no offices. It looked like a maintenance area, or some kind of telecommunications hub. People everywhere, roaming the halls. Tension and dread flowed through every look, every verbal exchange. A black guy came walking over, shaking his head, looking sad and tired. He said he’d just seen bodies, dozens of bodies, falling from the other building, workers in the other tower leaping.

“What?” someone said. “No.”

A bunch of guys ran to look. By then I was almost as confused as I was scared. These people appeared to be telling the truth, but I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that anyone had jumped. It was too horrible to think about. Over the year and a half that I’d been working in the trade center, nearly everyone in my department had made at least one joke about jumping or falling out of the window on the seventieth floor. It wasn’t possible to get through a work day without achieving at least a moment of consciousness about being that high up. And again, there was the view, always the view. From the corner boardroom where we had our status meetings you could see straight into midtown: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the MetLife building on one side; on the other was the Brooklyn Bridge, the East River, all of Brooklyn, on into the haze forever.

Whelan and I trudged past a cluster of people waiting to take elevators either up or down. I saw Lauren, but we got separated. Back into the stairwell.

A few floors later, maybe ten, maybe less, came another explosion. This one was loud. It was a sonic boom. The tower shook. I slipped down the stairs. People screamed and gripped the railing to keep from falling. The building, this enormous skyscraper, this national landmark, moved back and forth like a child’s toy, like a ride at the fair. A slow violent unreal rocking. This is it, I thought. Get ready to go down with the ship. My body and mind went numb. I didn’t start praying, I didn’t have visions of childhood, I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. I went into this white arctic zone of either acceptance or resignation or preparedness. I don’t know what it was. I was blank. I was nothing. People screamed, they prayed. The screams and prayers merged into one.

“What the fuck is happening, Whelan?” I said. “Are we being bombed?”

“No,” he said, “that was just the fuel tank exploding from the plane that hit the other building.”

The building must not have moved like that for very long, maybe fifteen or twenty seconds, but it felt like forever.

There was a heavyset black lady about three people ahead of us, babbling an endless prayer. “Oh, please God,” was all it consisted of. “Please Lord.” She moved slowly, heaving her body from side to side, and I saw that she wasn’t wearing shoes.

Whelan’s face was tight and pale. Had he felt what I had a moment earlier, that we were experiencing our last seconds of life? I reached over with my right hand and squeezed his shoulder. The woman behind me sobbed. I turned around and touched her shoulder. I ran my hand down her back, over her sweat-soaked shirt. She didn’t acknowledge me.

Sometimes the line stopped cold. Congestion on the lower floors. We’d be standing in the stairwell, not moving forward, with voices above us screaming, “No! Don’t stop! Go down! Keep moving!” A moment or two of waiting, of agony, of wondering whether or not the people below were crushing each other in their efforts to get out of the building, and then we’d go again.

Every few minutes I called out the words, “It’s gonna be okay.” I didn’t believe myself, but kept saying it anyway. One time when the line was stalled, I turned to the guy behind me. We smiled weakly at each other and shook hands. The line started again. It was very hot, either from the fire above or body heat or both, and you could smell smoke.

After the explosion, life became a matter of watching the numbers on the signs in the stairwell get smaller. It was a long, slow process. Forty. Thirty-nine. Thirty-eight. Thirty-seven. Thirty-six. And so on. I couldn’t tell how long we’d been in there. Time had vanished. There was no time. There was only descent. There was only counting and waiting and counting, circling around again and again. There was only concrete walls painted a grimy flesh color. Then we wound down the last ten floors. We came out on the plaza level. I looked through the big windows. Everyone did.

It was then that I realized something had happened that was far more terrifying than any of us had thought being blind and dumb in the stairwell. It was then that I realized the whole world was probably watching this on television.

The plaza with the fountain and the big gold sculpture and stage for summer concerts still set up was filled with large chunks of jagged burning metal and smoke and ash and debris. That was all you could see. It covered every inch of the ground and was still raining down. Car-sized hunks of the building, that famous sleek silver, lay burning twenty feet away. There were police and rescue workers there, guiding us. We circled around by the TKTS booth, past posters for famous Broadway shows. I saw Leo Kirby, the guy I’d heard screaming on the seventieth floor. I said, “Did you see that?” He nodded but didn’t say anything.

There was a long line for the inoperable escalator but we finally made it down into the mall area, with stores like Banana Republic, the Gap, J. Crew, Ben and Jerry’s, Sbarro’s and Borders. Everything was dark. There were no people except rescue workers and police and fireman. We filed past a jewelry store called the Golden Nugget. The girls who worked at the Golden Nugget wore tight clothes, a lot of make up and had bleach-blond hair. Where were they right now?

Whelan and I shook hands by the PATH train escalators. He gripped my shoulder and said, “You’re pretty cool under pressure, there, Bry.” I wondered what he meant. Had I been cool? Did I seem panicked? Should I have stayed behind and tried to help women, old people and the disabled? Could I have done more?

We took a right at Sbarro’s. Another line at the escalator leading up to Borders, where I went every day at about three o’clock to read books and magazines for as long as I felt like it. When I looked down I saw Melissa Murphy, from sales, and Lauren Wohl and Julie Lin. I waved and smiled. Lauren waved back. The line kept moving. We went outside. The rescue workers shouted to turn off all cell phones. They shouted, “Don’t look up! Whatever you do, do not look up! Just keep moving! Do not look up!” But I couldn’t help it. I had to see. I turned around and looked up and there were the twin towers of the World Trade Center burning. Fire and smoke poured from enormous black holes in both buildings. Real fire, giant lapping tongues of flame. The sky in the background was very clear and very blue. Crisp. Kodachrome. A postcard of someone’s nightmare. It was the most terrible thing I had ever seen. Not even the movies had prepared me.

“Keep moving,” the rescue people said. “Go up Fulton, to Broadway.”

There was debris everywhere, dust and white ash on the pavement. Fire engines, police cars, sirens coming from all around, a thousand displaced office workers. I saw an enormous puddle of bright red blood splattered in the street but not where it came from. A guy ran up with a little spiral notebook and said, “Hey, buddy, were you in there?” I nodded. He said, “Would you talk to me?” I shook my head and waved him away. The guy behind me started telling his story.

As I walked, I kept looking over my shoulder. It was all still there, still real, still happening. I never thought I’d live to see something that horrific, but there it was. I was talking to myself, saying, “Oh my fucking god, holy fuck, Jesus fucking Christ.”

On Broadway, among the throngs of spectators, I found Lauren and Julie. The three of us went north. When we got to the Staples by Park Row Julie crossed the street and Lauren and I couldn’t because there were fire trucks going by. I put up my finger to say to Julie wait a minute but she kept going. We lost her. Whelan was gone too. It was just Lauren and me.

Up by City Hall, I asked her what she wanted to do. She said all she wanted was to get away from the trade center. Her dad worked in the city, on West End and Sixty-fifth. She said she wanted to go there. I didn’t want to be alone and I didn’t want her to be alone so we kept going together. We stopped a minute later and asked this lady if Lauren could use her cell phone. She said yeah, but good luck because all the circuits were jammed. She was right. The phone didn’t work. The lady was nice and smiled and said good luck as we walked away. I wanted to stop to try and calm down, and also look at the buildings because I still didn’t believe what was happening, but Lauren said no. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.

By then we were at a weird angle and the towers were hidden. All you could see was the smoke.

Soon we were on Canal Street, Chinatown, my least favorite part of town. It’s always so crowded and dirty. We started east on Canal, in a futile effort to avoid the crowds. I saw the little storefronts with I (heart) NY T-shirts and pirated CDs and a bunch of other junk that I don’t know why anyone makes or buys. All the pay phones had long lines. We stopped and waited. There was a woman in front of me speaking Chinese into the receiver. She kept going on and on while I stood there. She didn’t seem panicked or weepy. It sounded more like she was just shooting the shit. So I tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Look, I was just in the World Trade Center and I need to use the phone right now.” She hung up and she and her friend gave me dirty looks and disappeared. Lauren was on the other phone, talking and crying, with her hand on her face. I think she was telling her dad or her mom that she was okay. I tried making a credit card call but the signal went dead. Lauren came over. She helped me dial and this time it worked. I punched in my credit card number.

My mom answered the phone in Galesburg, MI, in the house I grew up in. Her voice was very grave. “Hi, mom,” I said. She started sobbing. I pictured the living room, the kitchen, our dog. I tried to imagine what my parents were seeing on their brand new big-screen TV.

“Honey,” she cried. “Honey, it’s Bryan.”

My stepdad got on the phone and he couldn’t talk because he was so choked up. It was the first time I’d ever heard him like that. I’d only seen him cry once, about seven years ago. We were sitting out on the deck and he said he loved me and that he’d try his best to help me pay off my student loans. My parents were on the other line breaking down, freaking out, and I couldn’t react to it. I was switched off. A part of me was still in that cold place I’d entered when I thought that Two World Trade was going to break in half and plunge into the street. I said, “Hello? Hello?” My stepdad said, “Yeah, I’m here, I love you.”

Then my mom got back on and I said I had to go, there were other people waiting to use the phone. Lauren stood next to me, talking to a group of women, telling them about how she’d been in the building. I hung up.

Lauren and I started walking again and I noticed for the first time that it was very sunny and hot. I had on a blue short-sleeve shirt and gray khaki pants and Nike sneakers. I had a backpack. We walked through some dirty, vacant side streets where there was nothing but workers loading restaurant supplies into greasy buildings. We went into a deli and bought water and I contemplated buying a beer.

Outside, there were thousands of people walking north from the financial district. It looked like the city was being evacuated on foot. It looked like a pilgrimage. It looked like a crusade. There were men carrying suit jackets who had sweated entirely through their shirts, ties loosened and fluttering in the breeze.

We came up through Astor Place. People were stunned and crying, wondering what had happened.

On Tenth Street we walked west and paused in the middle of Fifth Avenue, right on the center line. Two women asked Lauren for directions to West Fourth Street. They were like lost tourists who didn’t know the city was burning. We looked south. There was the arc in Washington Square Park with One World Trade rising above it, burning in the distance. I thought that my building, Two World Trade, was behind the smoke.

Everyone stood in the street, numb and staring, and then it happened. One World Trade collapsed. A chorus of screams rose up from the street. I reached for Lauren’s hand and found it. A last glimpse of the antennae coming down and then nothing, no sound, just smoke and dust rising as it fell in on itself. It looked as perfect as if it had been wired with dynamite by a team of demolition experts. What had taken all those years to build was gone in seconds. How many people had just been killed?

Lauren and I thought our building was still there, hidden in the smoke. I turned my head, in shock. A woman took my picture. When she lowered the camera I saw her tears. There was another woman standing next to me. I said, “But the other building’s still there, right?” She shook her head and said, “No, they’re both gone.”

What? When the hell did that happen? And how long had I been out? Again I wanted to stop. I wanted to lie down on the sidewalk. I wanted to rest. I wanted to think. Or maybe I didn’t want to think. I don’t know what I wanted. But at least I wasn’t alone. I was with Lauren. She was beautiful. Everyone I saw was beautiful in their grief and fear, in their just being alive.

We kept walking.


Bryan Charles was a contributing editor of Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and is the author of three books: Grab On to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way: A Novel;  Pavement’s Wowee Zowee (33 1/3); and There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From: A Memoir

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§ 4 Responses to “The Numbers”

  • Bryan – I had no idea. I just read “numbers” for the first time. You edited a story I wrote about the flea market for this site, I don’t know if you remember me – but I’m so happy you are here today.
    All the best to you-

  • Derek says:

    Bryan: even though I saw you at the Ted Leo concert in Kalamazoo maybe a month before this happened, I wasn’t thinking that morning about where you worked until sometime around maybe 10 AM or so. Our network connections at my job were at a crawl but I kept refreshing hoping to hear something about you. Every year today I think about the hand drawn picture of the buildings and the note that just said “Bryan’s OK”. I continue to be glad for that.

  • Bryan
    You brought me back to that horrible sunny, cloudless day, with the towers ablaze. Being a psychiatrist who once ran a psychiatric emergency room at St Vincent’s Medical Center and then in private practice, I was a first responder, crossing Houston Street, which was a eerily deserted, ghost town, crossing barricades down to the pile the next day. I helped panic stricken construction workers, who found no survivors, distraught family members of the victims, who did not find their loved ones, and red eyed fireman that refused to stop searching for their brothers and other survivors. Having no family history of any cancer, I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year and am on the World Health Trade Center insurance as they feel my cancer developed from working down on the pile. I still would have gone down to Ground Zero , even knowing that I would develop breast cancer, because I was able to help some many. Bless you for being able to get out in time.

  • Craig Moore says:

    Amazing narrative. Incredible that your building went down without your being aware of it. Says a lot about just how disorienting and frightening it was from the inside out, literally. Thanks for the insight.

§ Leave a Reply

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