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My Small Story

 

I am almost embarrassed to write this. It is almost dramatic, almost a narrow escape, almost important. But, it is all I have, and is, will be in time, part of the fabric that will weave the cloth of September 11, 2001.

 

The day was glorious, fine cool weather clear skies. I had over slept, having talked to a friend until almost 1 am. I rushed to leave my apartment, grumbling to myself about not having enough time to fix my lunch, peeved that I would have to pay too much at a deli. But, I reminded myself, as I speed-walked to the 59th Street stop, that it really wasn’t that big of a deal, and that I had something good to read, and several symphonies on CD I was going to listen to at work, to brighten my otherwise drab routine.

          Waiting for the N train, I discovered I had already read this issue of Global City Review that was in my hands to keep me company on my subway ride. This irked me. I mean, how could I have mixed this up? I’m more organized than this, have all my books to read lined up in order so I can anticipate reading them. Just stupid. At Dekalb Avenue we were told there was smoke at the Courtland World Trade Center stop, and that the train would be skipping that station. What ever—I get off two stops before that, and I continued to flip trough my magazine to find something I had not read yet, thinking, if I had only known, I would have grabbed “War and Peace,” which I had put down several months earlier for being just too much right then.

          I left the train at Whitehall, and on the platform passed the usual stream of office workers heading south as I walked north, glancing at the clock. It was just about 9, so I would only be a few minutes late. Nothing to worry about. But, it still annoyed me that I had over slept. No lunch. And a magazine I had already read. And, I needed cat food. I can’t forget that. They deserve Hill’s Science Diet, not just Alley Cat or Friskies.

          I topped the stairs, and looked up.

          This was the Canyon of Heroes, all tall buildings and narrow streets, where we celebrate great things, our victorious troops from Europe and Asia, Neil Armstrong, the Yankees. The narrow slice of sky I saw was not the clear perfect blue of Brooklyn, but was filled with a column of smoke that glinted like pieces of broken glass on a beach.

          People around just stood and stared.

          This vexed me—I was going to be late for work—and after all, hadn’t all these rubberneckers ever seen a fire before? With an annoyed face I pushed my way through, passed the incense, fruit, coffee, and belt and tie vendors.

          Then I heard: “It was a plane…”

          Excuse me.

          “…two…”

          What?

          “…terrorists…”

          I walked around Bowling Green park, unsure what to think, feeling a growing sickness deep in my gut.

          I run into Rance, a co-worker at the door of my building, 11 Broadway, just south of the famous Bronze sculpture of the Wall Street Bull.

          “You couldn’t believe it. When the plane hit you could feel the heat. It was more spectacular than any movie....”

          Still, I was not sure what had happened. Terrorist? An accident? One plane? Two? All I was sure of was the smoke and fear surrounding me. I rode the elevator up the 11th floor in silence, listening to two men talk about the two planes. How it had to be terrorists. Had to be. Had to be.

          Walking into my office, everyone is scurrying around. Randi is visibly shaking. “I know people who work there. Oh, my god.”

          Yael, followed quickly by Eran, my CEO, tells everyone to leave.

          Having just sat down, I grab my bags and head out to the hall.

          The elevators no longer work.

          I walk down the 11 flights of stairs.

          Out front, there are people walking around, uncertain, worried, harried.

          “…the pentagon got hit…”

          “…he’s promised this is just the beginning…”

          “…Chicago…”

          “…LA…”

          I’m dubious. It seemed too big. Too unreal. I ask Yael, our office manager, if the day was over for us, and after being told it was. I took off walking. The subways were closed, so I knew I had to find a way home. Walk over the Brooklyn Bridge? Grab the Brooklyn Ferry, which stops only a few blocks from my new home there? I decide that I will go to Strand Books, and see if I can find that copy of “Time and Freewill” by Henri Bergen I’ve been looking for the last three weeks. I cross in front of the Bull, and have made it almost to the other side of Broadway at Beaver Street when I stop. For some reason, I refuse to listen to myself. I knew I had to leave, but instead I turned back. Why? Some sense that this was all just absurd? That I was here to do work, and this wasn’t going to stop me? A need to be around someone, anyone, I knew? Just not to be completely alone with my thoughts?

          I stood for a few minutes with my coworkers, with Yael, Vidya, Rance, and Candice in front of my building. Then, we decided to walk around my building right at the end of Broadway and look at the Twin Towers from over top of the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel.

          Against a perfectly clear, light blue sky with a light refreshing breeze in my face, stood the towers. Beautifully white, reaching up to the sky, strongly, symbols of what mankind can achieve if it wills.

          In both buildings black gashes poured out smoke. Behind the skin of the walls, flames leapt and danced as if to “Night on Bald Mountain.” Yet, everything else still seemed normal. The sky, the buildings around us, the trees behind us in Battery Park, the tree I leaned against to watch these two buildings burn like just lit matches standing up from a book-of-matches.

          Papers wafted out, floated above the Manhattan skyline. Occasionally, things fell from the building. It seemed as though this was it. We all just looked up, and watched, not truly believing it, but having, there, in front of us, evidence that it was so.

          “…do you think they’ll collapse?”

          Nah. Hell, a B-17 hit the empire state building back in the forties. Nothing happened. And, these planes, what Cessnas? A leer jet? Nah.

          And, just think, we trained these people to do this.

          The lady in front of me turns, and agrees, her words thick with an eastern European accent.

          I notice that everyone I knew has left me there propped against the tree. And, I keep rolling through my mind how foolish we all are, we humans. All of us. This great folly. Playing king maker in foreign lands... grabbing power...stupidity...stupidity...

          Just then Beethoven entered me. A phrase from his 5th symphony, at the start of the 4th movement, the scherzo.

          Yael walks over to me. It seems to worst is over, and we can now go back. At least to make calls to friends and family, to see what the internet can tell us of this, which rumors are just that rumors, which are truth.

          The elevators are all shut off but one. Yael and I ride up, just shaking our heads. What is to be said?

          There are a few of us in the office. I sit back down in my chair, and turn my computer on.

          Then, I felt it. A deep, strong rumbling. My building shuddered. In my gut, the rumbling continued after it had stopped around me. The lights flickered. Computer shut off before it had finished starting.

          My gut spoke. Leave, it said. Leave now. Go.

          I left. Then. Right then. No words. Just out. To the stairs.

          The emergency alarm blares...buzz...buzz...buzz....

          There had been a break in my building on Sunday night. Stole some computers. A cover up from planting a bomb? How stupid I was not to have left when my gut had told me before. Is this how it ends? Bringing it upon myself? Too stupid to listen to what is most important?

          The sick, sinking feeling in my gut grows strong. I want to vomit. But, can’t. Not now. Not when there is a chance. No, not now. Go. Just go. Go, and go, and go, and go...

          I pass an old man walking down the stairs. Sorry old man. My gut says go. I was too stupid before. I won’t be this time. No. Just go. Go. Go. Go. Go.

          …and the alarms continue…

          …I fight the thoughts—more bombs, bombs planted here Sunday, I’m so stupid, why am I so stupid, why am I not on the Brooklyn Bridge, walking home right now—go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go

          I land in the lobby.

          It looks like a late afternoon in winter outside. A blizzard. At twilight. People stand around in the lobby.

          I ask what happened.

          “…a tower collapsed…”

          “…both towers collapsed…”

          “…they’re gone…”

          “…no one can go into the streets…”

          “…they’re not letting any one out…”

          Bull shit. I must leave. Must. My gut says go. I will go.

          I walk first to the font of the building where the building men are holding the doors shut, then to the back which is cordoned off. I go back and forth twice, three times, trying to decided which way to leave.

          I look at Yael and Candice who have both just found me. Their faces are of...pain...I know of no other word. The pain not of loss, not of hurt, but of fear.

          I say I will leave. That I don’t feel right here.

          “Don’t go. It’s safer inside.”

          My gut says go. It jumps up and down, turns over on itself to get my attention—GO.

          I look out onto Broadway through the glass doors.

          Nothing but a lone man in a dark suit scurrying through the blizzard of dust and soot.

          I hesitate—should I convince them, Candice and Yael to leave with me?

          My CEO bursts in. He wears a thick layer of white-gray dust over his whole body, shoes, pants, shirt, hands, face, hair. The only thing you can see of his natural color is the area around his eyes in the shape of sun glasses. He storms across the floor.

          I grab his shoulder, ask him what happened.

          “The tower collapsed.” He has no more time to speak to me and bolts up the stairway in back.

          I walk to the door, open it, and look back at Yael and Candice. I see only pain.

          A woman snaps “Stay or go. Just close the door.”

          I go.

          And, out into the alien white landscape full of debris and footprints like those on the soft dust of the moon.

          Towards the South Street Seaport. I really don’t know where I’m going. I had been meaning to find out how to use the ferry, but had just never gotten around to doing it.

          How stupid of me.

          I walk south and east, away. I find people, streams of them going that way. I follow them, feeling all the while as if I could and would be struck from behind, from above. I keep my mouth shut against the dust. It covers me. Covers my glasses, gets trapped between the lenses and sunglass-clip-ons I really no longer need. It’s a morning twilight on a beautiful September day without a cloud.

          Most people are walking towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Many have masks on, those surgical masks from Duane Reed or Rite Aide. Others have bandanas across their nose and mouth. Some are bleeding. Some have bandages. There is blood on the side walk, making a pinkish pudding in trails of drops and globs.      

          Sirens. More Sirens. Flashing lights. People covered in white. All walking, just walking to the same place, to safety, to anywhere but here.

          Occasionally, people swallowed a mouthful of water from a bottle and spit it out, others used the small spigots sticking out of buildings’ foundations.

          The pall felt like a new kind of air, like a new way of being, of walking, almost as if underwater. It stank of concrete and burn.

          I could smell the Fulton Fish Market now. And, somehow the sun started breaking through, down, at the end of the street. I could see parts of the bridge, the FDR. People crowding across them, a stream, an exodus.

          I just kept walking. There was nothing else to do. Just keep going. Just go. GO.

          Cop cars, lights flashing, crept through the streets crowed with people walking. Still those sirens. Still twilight. But I could see the sun now. I wondered if I could find the ferry.

          I found a sign to South Ferry and the South Street Seaport, and turned down towards what I imagined was closer to the ferry, right through the heart of the Fulton Fish Market.      

          On the street, we walked, the survivors. Along side us were the workers of the fish market, in boots, jeans, t-shirts, aprons.

          “…we have water, ice, paper towels. What ever you need. Water, ice, paper towels…”

          In teams along the whole market, a first man would give out paper towels, a second would wet it with a hose, a third handed out ice from a large plastic bag on a chair.

          When I got my towel wetted to wipe my face, clear my eyes, I asked where the ferry was.

          “Back in hell. Just turn around, and hang a left in the center of hell.”

          I kept walking towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Just kept going.

          I then noticed the tightness in my cheeks, in my jaw, that hard, grinding tightness of hate and anger and frustration, like giant balls in my face. Even my teeth ached.

          I could see the bridge above me now, and rehearsed what I would do if they should blow this up while I crossed—lose the bags, lose the shoes, the jacket, and swim—just go.

          I was too far east, directly under the bridge. There were several ramps. Some, the furthest away, those back towards what had been the twin towers were the obvious ramps, but there were several more closer and people were taking them all. Confused, I took the one that seemed to be going where I had to, and walked.

          It was the wrong one I think, going to the FDR. I turn around and ask a man who has just asked a police officer if this was the Brooklyn Bridge.

          “Yes.”

          But then in moments, people are walking back, saying it was the wrong one.

          I ignore all directions now, and just walk to where I can see is a ramp. The sign reads “to the Brooklyn Bridge” and I wait for the traffic to pass in front of me to cross and finally get to the bridge, even as I walked back towards the plume of smoke.

          Sirens. Hot bright sun. White dusted people. Mostly silent people. Some walked with friends, telling them, and themselves, where they had been when it all came down. I still couldn’t really think. My face hurt. The sun was hot. I was hot. The plume of smoke billowed out over the East River and Brooklyn as far as I could see, past everything.

          Then Beethoven appeared to me again. Those triumphant strains of the 5th, of having made it through suffering through sheer force of will and determination. This filled my mind. In my imagination I saw the bows fly across those strings to make something so beautiful. I filled myself with them, pushed away all other thoughts. No, Beethoven shall walk beside me. Everything else was far, far too heavy, and threatened to drop me to my knees, make me sick, vomit down myself and over this bridge. I had to know that some how, beauty can still exist. That this, at least, had not been stolen from me. It was mine, and only I could give it away. And, that I refused to do.

          As I walked across the bridge, I could not bring myself to turn around and look back at what had been the twin towers. I would be seeing that every day for the rest of my life, but now, I couldn’t bear to look.

          Just GO.

          And so I kept going.

          The sun glared down, hot and bright. I took off my jacket, and wondered if I looked the same as those around me—covered in white dust, and dumbfounded, vacant, or pensive.

          Nausea would hit in a wave whenever I thought of what had just happened, when I thought of what might happen next, hoping that the Supreme Court had chosen the right man 8 months ago. At those moments, I would bring the 5th symphony back—I would not let anyone steal this from me.

          As I neared the end of the bridge, I saw a group of people looking back towards Manhattan, some taking photos. I gave in. Stopped. Turned. Looked.

          A plume of smoke. Nothing else.

          What did I expect? How does one see absence?

          I walked and kept walking, through downtown Brooklyn. Just kept going, sun hot in my face, cheeks knotted, eyes caked with dust, stomach sick, not thinking. Can’t do that. Can’t. It’s too big. Enormous. Just hum Beethoven. And keep going, keep going.

          Some people wait for buses. Others walk. And the sirens. And the plume of smoke overhead.

          Rumors of other bombings, none confirmed, scurry around me. I don’t want to know. It will swallow me if I think about it. Eat me alive. Go.

Just keep going.      

          Simply walking, under the hot sun, air full with the smell of concrete and burn, a thick plume still arching over Brooklyn, I eventually turned left to make it to a street that looked like it went all the way through downtown to Parkslope and beyond. I had only ever taken the subway this far, so I was guessing. It looked right. And, as long as I kept going, I knew I would eventually find my way home.

          Thoughts of my mother, my friends began creeping in as I walked through Cobble Hill.

          A car was playing a radio, volume up, all its doors open. I stopped to listen along with about a dozen or so others. Just the facts. We have a new skyline. Thousands feared dead. 4 planes. Pentagon. Pennsylvania. No word on a response.

          Then “in an attempt to return to some normalcy the traffic report.” Bridges and tunnels closed inbound. Trains suspended, but for some in the outer boroughs, and that only perhaps because of power outages. Busses suspended. But, perhaps only in Manhattan. Manhattan closed south of Canal. All airports closed.

          I started walking again.

          Then I noticed I was thirsty and needed to let people know I had survived. Physically.

          I stopped in a deli and bought a Gatoraide, and saw a dark skinned, dark haired man behind the counter. In spite of myself, it flashed I should do something...it could be...I pushed this too heavy thought away. He looked slightly frightened as he gave me my change. With the change I called Sofi. Told her I was alive, and asked her to call my mother, giving her the number. I then kept going.

          After crossing a canal separating Red Hook from Park Slope, I rounded a corner, and there were several men with a forklift, and a pallet of water.

          “Here,” one man said, “here’s some more water.”

          I accepted with thanks, and kept going.

          Finding third avenue, I started south to 61st. In front of me, behind me were the remnants of the exodus, a sporadic stream of men and women trudging along, all silent. But for the sirens. Still everywhere. The sun was so hot. I felt it burning my face, my eyes itching from the dust, and the ball of tightness in my cheeks ached.

          But, as I walked, I kept Beethoven there. Reminding myself there is still beauty, and as long as I remember that, it can never be taken from me. I won’t let them win. They will not beat me. I will not permit that. It can not happen. Then an offhand comment that Jemila, my friend from last night, made, quoting Booker T. Washington: “I will let no man bring me so low as to make me hate him.” She used it—I can’t even remember in reference to what, but as nothing compared with now. And, I will take that mind—I won’t, I can’t let them steal from me what is best. I will never allow that. For I would be worse than they, as I know better, and yet would have turned away from that.

          No. They cannot win.

          And, so I kept going, passing cop cars blocking streets and police watching, bearing shotguns around a federal prison, the lines of traffic waiting to head onto the BQE, trying to get anywhere but here.

          A young hip-hop kid walks towards me, someone I would never have spoken to, nor would he have ever spoken to me on a normal day.

          Manhattan?”

          Yes.

          “Man, it’s fucked up. Hits in LA. A plane in Chicago with bombs at the airport.”

          I just shake my head. I mean, really, what in the hell can I say? What words can convey this. I feel impotent.

          “Man.” He just shakes his head. Holds his hand up.

          We high five. Walk away. It’s just different now.

          Snippets of conversations I passed by:

          “They finally brought it over here…”

          “…fuckers…”

          “…blow the fuck out of them…”

          “…bomb them back to the stone age…”

          This is still too enormous for me to think about. I simply can’t think about it. Not now. I wish not ever, but know, eventually, I must. I use those magnificent phrases from the 4th movement of the fifth to keep me going, 20 more blocks, 10, 5, 1. I’m home. I go into my building, and, out of habit, thoughtlessly, I check for my mail, what bills I might get, advertisements. Nothing. Of course, the post office would have shut down.

          To my apartment where my two cats were. They purred and meowed greeting me.

          I envy them right then. But, I must keep going. If I slow down, my thoughts might catch up with me.

          I have seen no footage, no image yet, though my shoes, my shirt, hair, fingers are dusted with what was, until three hours before, the twin-towers.

          Phone calls. I can’t reach my mother, but leave a message. My sister calls, no, nothing in Chicago. Nothing in LA. A flurry of emails. My friends from Mexico offering me a place to stay if I wish to leave. More messages saying “I’ve been trying to reach you. All the circuits are busy.”

          I call Sofi for the latest news. Only New York and The Pentagon were hit. One plane went down in Pennsylvania. No word yet otherwise. Bush to address the nation at 9. I want to see it, and having no television, I invite myself over.

          “Sure, whenever....”

          But, first, I answer more emails. I scour the net for news. And those damned sirens. Still those damned sirens. Is this some new disaster? or still the one I escaped? I can’t tell. I have no way of telling. The plume still arches over Brooklyn. It smells of soot, of burn and concrete. I read all I can, still trying not to think, not really, not deeply, just trying to...I don’t even know...read and not think, fill myself, staunch the flow of thoughts too heavy for me. I cannot even think of the kindness of strangers, for I weep when I do, more than for the dead, for that is simply too big an emotion for this one small body, this one lone mind.

          I still have to keep going. I am hungry. Tired. Sun burnt. And, straining under the weight of the thoughts that fill the air around me.

          Then I realize I’m still covered in dust. My hair is stiff with it, eyes caked. I shower, and this gives me a little too much time to think, and I need to leave, keep going, never stop, never stop, not until I fall asleep, and after I dress, I walk to Bay Ridge, just a few minutes walk away to buy some groceries. My usual, vegetables, tofu. But, somehow, I can’t make up my mind about anything. Which tomatoes? I loose track of where I am. I keep having moments of surprise at finding myself in a corner grocery, shopping. Shopping? What am I doing shopping? Yes, to keep going. Not allow myself too long a time to think. Still, it takes me so much time just to select a few items, and am not even sure if that is what I want or need, but I also know it really doesn’t matter.

          Then, I notice the sounds of a news cast, and then the television up above.

          I see for the first time what it was I had just walked away from. I feel nothing as I watch. The plane striking. The flames I saw only a few hours ago. The dust I had walked through. The absence. I don’t know how long I stared at the TV. But, I couldn’t watch any more. I paid, and then, as I walked down the avenue, remembered I forgot cat food. I had to get cat food. I crisscrossed the street going into first one then another grocery. Friskies, not Hills. But, that matters nothing. Nothing. Less than nothing.

          I passed a street packed with Fire engines. From New Jersey. Connecticut. Long Island. The police station a block away had cars two deep parked around it. I remembered hearing before, I think at the car in Cobble Hill, that all retired officers and firefighters had to report back to duty. I made it back home with the images the rest of the world—those who were not there, the voyeurs—in my head for the first time.

          The plume of smoke still arched across Brooklyn. The smell of concrete and burn. Sirens still wailed. I hate them now, the sirens. Hate them.

           My super, a big strong man from the Dominican Republic, sat on the stair well. His eyes were red, held a ball of tissue in his hands. Just shook his head.     “I laid pipe in there. The columns were thick. Thick. As big as this.” He moves his hands around indicating the whole stairwell, and just shakes his head. The front door slams behind me and we both jump. I hate loud noises now.

          At home, I had to eat. I was nauseated, but knew I had to do something.

          After a quick sandwich, I put in Beethoven, this time the 4th movement of his 9th symphony, what I think is the most magnificent piece of music ever written—I cannot let them win. They will never take this beauty from me. I let the music flow over me. It drowned out the sirens, masked the stench, and covered my eyes to the dust that I somehow cannot, even now, wipe from my shoes.

          Before I left for Sofi and Krassi’s house, I took solace, if that is even the right word, from reading the words of other countries, from Russia, England, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, all countries that were once our enemies. This seemed odd to me at the time—that I felt better about that than anything I had yet heard today, but for the calls and emails from friends and family.

           On my trip to Sofi and Krassi’s, I had to pick a new book to read. The next one in line to read was War and Peace. The irony was too clumsy. Instead, I selected Candide. Ironic, yes, but at least subtly. I read it on the subway to their house, and as I read a description of Voltaire, I smiled. Really smiled for the first time this day as his philosophy of Deistic humanism was sketched out for me and how he wanted to be the one that undid the work of twelve...I had wanted to do this when I was younger.

          I did not feel bad for smiling, for forgetting for a few moments what had just happened, because, I can’t let them win, and I will not give away what I hold within me, no matter how frail or trivial it may seem. Others may give them their minds, their emotions if they choose, but I shall not.

          I watched President Bush’s address, arriving just as it began. No real comfort. Just enough to make it through this night. Nothing stupid has been done. Some loose, aimless fears were calmed. For now. Flipping through channels. More of the same. Dead bodies. Rescues. Cell phones. Repeated images of piloted missiles and buildings crumbling. Death, and more death, and still more

          I had to leave. Still those god damned sirens. And that smell of burn and concrete.

          At home, more emails. Phone calls.

          Eventually, I was too tired to stay awake.

          I slept.

          And today is such a fine, beautiful September day, like yesterday. But, this morning, I smell concrete and burn, and the sound of jet fighters fills the air.

          My friend Maureen wrote me last night: “Feel blessed to be alive!”

          I’m trying. Trying like hell right now.

 

William Lance Hunt