History rudely intruded on my little corner of the world on September 11th, 2001.
I was very lucky on September 11, 2001. While I was close enough to those events, I was at a safe distance. None of my nearest and dearest, and none my not so near but still dear perished in the attacks or were involved with it directly. I did know a few people who were there up close and saw the people falling out of the building. One of them never again returned to downtown below Canal Street. The trauma of that horrible spectacle was too much. I knew people who lost friends and colleagues in the attacks. The enormous death toll from the attacks affected everyone, putting a pall of sorrow and anger over life in New York that never fully lifted.
In September of 2001, I lived in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan. I’d already lived there for ten years. I taught art history survey and studio art courses as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, their Brentwood campus on Long Island, a very long commute especially in the morning. I made a very small and precarious living doing that and other part time work such as retail jobs and commercial mural painting.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was off work. Mondays I was up at 4AM to commute to Long Island to teach 8AM classes, but that day I was up at the late hour of 7AM. I had just stepped out of the shower when a bulletin announced on the radio that a plane just hit the north tower of the World Trade Center. I thought it was probably some small private plane flown by a drunken amateur pilot. I took the stairs to the roof of my building to see. I saw a gaping hole in the north side of the North Tower with black smoke billowing out with tiny flecks of bright red flame here and there. I also saw debris falling from the gash. I immediately ran down the stairs and called my mother and brother in Dallas to tell them what I saw. They were just up and heard no news about it yet. Shortly after I finished my call, all the long distance phone lines went dead. I returned to the roof where some of my neighbors were already gathered watching what was happening downtown. One of them brought a radio so we could listen to news reports. I brought my camera that still had a little film left. The second plane hit the South Tower as I was taking pictures. We couldn’t see the plane from where we were, so we assumed that something exploded. We all realized immediately that this was no accident. We got fragmentary reports on the radio of more planes being hijacked and about the attacks in Washington DC and over Shanksville, PA. At the time, we had no idea how big this was or if it was over. I was out of film by the time the first tower and then the second came down. I’m not sure I could have photographed them even if I had film. It all happened so suddenly and so fast. People on our roof and on surrounding roofs watching along with us screamed and cried in horror. After the buildings fell, we could hear and see military jets over us. In the hours that followed, subway and bus service stopped.
First Avenue and Avenue A filled with people on foot all headed north away from downtown. A yellow cloud hung over where the World Trade Center used to be. I went down to the Kiev on Second Avenue for a bowl of soup and found the place packed with people and the radio loud and turned to news. Since I didn’t have cable at the time, and wifi was just beginning to be a thing, I had no TV or radio after the North Tower fell. The phone lines were all dead too. I still had a landline in those days.
That night, the city was silent though no one was sleeping. There was no traffic noise and almost no one out on the street. All I could hear was the sound of distant helicopters down at the WTC site (“Ground Zero”). I took a nighttime walk down Avenue A (I couldn’t sleep). The bars were full of people and quiet. No one was talking.
The next day, I awoke to find myself inside the military zone created below 14th Street. No cars could get into or out of that zone, which meant a delightful absence of auto traffic, but also no delivery trucks to service stores and restaurants. Remarkably, most stores and restaurants stayed open even though they were running out of everything and were understaffed since so few employees could get to work with no bus or subway service. I could not get to work either. I was afraid to go beyond 14th Street, afraid I would not be able to get back in across all the military checkpoints. Since there was no phone service out of or into New York City, I couldn’t call the college to tell them that I couldn’t make it to class that day.
The following day the wind shifted, and the neighborhood air filled with smoke and dust. I blame my asthma in part on Osama Bin Laden (plus many years of painting in dusty poorly ventilated places). I vividly remember the smell, like a huge electrical fire that lingered for weeks.
The nuts came out of the woodwork in the days that followed the attack. In the smoke and dust of Avenue A, I saw an old man in a construction helmet walking up the middle of the street waving a huge American flag yelling WAKE UP!! And then some angry jibberish that I couldn’t make out. A crazy woman stood in the middle of Astor Place furiously yelling at passersby hoping a plane would fall on them and that they all deserved to die. Another man stood on Broadway listening to something through earbuds on a tape player and laughing loudly and maniacally.
I remember the blizzard of notices posted everywhere covering entire walls seeking information on legions of people missing in the catastrophe. Most were never found and presumed dead. I remember the rows and rows of empty busses that lined the avenues. I thought at the time they were some kind of barrier, but now I think they were there to evacuate everyone quickly in the event of another attack. I remember seeing a lot of heavily armed soldiers at the Union Square subway station. They carried serious looking weapons and were all so young looking, just kids; and kids who looked very anxious. I would imagine that to them everyone in New York looked suspicious. The fires and the smell lasted for weeks and months. The last fires were not fully extinguished until January 2002. I remember seeing fire department funerals at St. Charles’ Cemetery near Pinelawn for months from the train I took to teach out in Long Island.
Twenty years later, and I remember those days like they were yesterday. I am now what I was then, a withdrawn eccentric, though I no longer live precariously off adjunct teaching and other part time work. I still paint in the same Lower East Side studio I had then. For weeks, I couldn’t get to it after the attacks.
Remembering Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest, chaplain to the FDNY, and an out and proud gay man. Remembering Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a Pakistani immigrant, a Muslim, and an EMT. Remembering them and hundreds of other first responders who died 20 years ago today while trying to indiscriminately save lives, frustrating the designs of evil men who died trying to indiscriminately take lives.