I’m in the shower when I’m startled by something that sounds exactly like a lawnmower. Except it’s much louder than a lawnmower, even if it were right outside my bathroom window, which in any case fronts a cement courtyard. Unable to come up with any plausible explanation, I stop thinking about it as soon as my heart rate subsides.
I dress quickly; I’m late to work. By now G and I de facto live together, but a few nights a month she’ll stay at her place, typically when she’s completely out of clean clothes, and last night was one of those. She has to be at work earlier than I, and without her alarm I invariably oversleep.
On the way out I scoop up my cell phone. Eleven missed calls. Most from Nick, a close friend and the fiancé of G’s sister. I try to check voicemail as I lock the door behind me but I get a busy signal.
The day is perfect. Conspicuously so. Even though I’m late I do something I don’t ever remember doing before. I pause and breathe in and smile, like someone in a commercial. I actually say “ahhh” in concert with the hydraulic sigh of the my building’s front door. Then I turn east and head down 12th Street.
There’s a clump of people standing at the corner of Sixth Ave. No one’s talking and their posture reminds of people watching snow fall for the first time of the year. I follow their gaze south and of course there are the towers. Many – I’d say most – New Yorkers actively dislike them; they’re widely regarded as a blight foisted on the city by indifferent corporate interests. But I’ve always found them reassuring, the way they tether the city at its base like a ship’s anchor. There’s comfort in how even very late at night there’ll still be a checkerboard smattering of lights on, people in there, working, looking out over it all. And then there’s the simple gee-whiz factor: they are so tall! Many of the buildings in the financial district are huge, but next to the towers they look like models built to a different scale.
And they look as solid and reassuring as ever, the towers. The only thing is there’s now a hole in each, quite small and from this distance at least, almost surgically neat, with just a wisp of smoke wafting out. It looks like a magic trick, a David Blaine illusion, maybe even some PR stunt. The symmetry of the wounds seems whimsical in a way.
So I don’t worry about G. Or if I do, that worry immediately flickers out in a gentle breeze of rationality. Her office is on 33. The towers are 110 stories, and those punctures look to be about two-thirds up. She’s a solid city block vertically removed from whatever mishap has apparently bashed in a bunch of windows. I try to call her at work. Busy.
I don’t break the strange silence on the street corner, but when I get to Murray’s Bagels I ask the guy if he knows what happened.
“Cessna,” he says over the AM radio blaring news in the background. “Pilot lost control.”
“Huh. It’s both towers though.”
He shrugs. “Maybe two Cessnas?”
An armada of ambulances sail by as I approach University. The odd thing is no other vehicles close ranks behind them. When the sirens’ dopplered peals fade the street’s silent and oddly empty except for a line of people at a payphone. Some are crying, but except for the woman actually using the phone, no one’s talking.
As soon as I get to the office I try G on my landline. Busy. I try Nick. Busy. I try Natasha, an ex who lives in the Woolworth Building not far from the towers. Busy. I try my brother, who lives and works near midtown. Busy. His girlfriend. Busy. I’m eventually able to get my Mom back in Boston, who says she’ll try G. She calls back to report the line was busy.
Internet’s sporadic but my partner Doug is able to IM with one of our developers in Sweden.
“Terrorism,” Doug says. It’s the first time that day I’ve heard that word, even in my internal monologue. “They also hit the Pentagon. Maybe the White House too.”
And then Tom bursts into my office.
“It fucking fell! It just fucking fell!”
“What fell?” I genuinely have no idea what he might be referring to.
“The tower! The fucking tower! I just saw it fall. It was there, and now it’s not there.”
“Which tower?” I hear myself say. G is the South Tower. I’m not worried. I’m not anything, other than profoundly puzzled: how could a tiny flesh wound possibly take down that Goliath? But my body suddenly feels very light.
Before Tom can answer, my phone rings. It’s G, crying. She’s at a payphone on Mercer, making her way to my office.
I go downstairs to meet her. The streets belong to pedestrians now, and University is thronged. Many are crying, and many more comfort them. People hold people who you can tell they don’t know, given disparities of race, age and (based on attire) class that even in this most diverse of cities are rarely bridged, and by the touching formality of many of the embraces. The day is still perfect and the tower, the one tower now, still winks back at us all, sheathed in brightness except for the hole, and the hole seems somehow smaller now, insignificant in and of itself, merely the first mitosis of an incipient tumor. But the smoke spiraling out is so heavy and black is seems solid.
And then the smoke is everywhere. In the space of a second it cloaks the whole tower head to foot, a column of soot, a black tower, a negative afterimage of that rectangle of light.
And then just as quickly the cloak falls.
And behind it: nothing. Just that impossibly blue sky.
Everyone starts screaming, screams like I’ve never heard, of actual terror, like they’re in imminent danger. That lasts for maybe five seconds. And then there’s only the sounds of sobbing.
And then there’s G, running towards me up University. I catch her in my arms and she’s sobbing too. And as I kiss away her tears I feel safe, perhaps safer than I ever have before or since.
Later there would be losses. At my urging, G eventually enrolled in a government program offering free psychotherapy for people traumatized by the attacks. That therapy led to certain things that led to the end of our relationship a couple of years later (though these things probably would have transpired eventually anyway). Her therapist also referred me to a colleague for my debilitating insomnia. If you’ve seen my show The Mushroom Cure, that colleague was Dr. Wilson (G is Annie by the way – both slight pseudonyms). Many years later, when all pretenses of professional distancing had melted away and he was just my friend Chris, Wilson told me about his own 9/11 experience. On September 12th, Cantor Fitzgerald hired him to counsel family of their employees. How he happened by that job and why Cantor didn’t retain a more experienced practitioner is a long story, but Wilson, barely 30 years old and with no experience in grief counseling, spent 16-plus hours a day for the next several weeks absorbing first the hope, then the terror, rage, and shattering grief of husbands, wives, parents, and, most devastatingly, children. It was the trauma of that experience to which Wilson attributed his subsequent substance abuse, which may have led to his death (“may” because there was no autopsy performed when he recently died at age 42). So in a sense I may have lost Wilson that day too, though I wouldn’t meet him until more than a year later. And in the broadest scope, I mourn the unprecedented possibility for human compassion and unity that was squandered by the invasion of Iraq and all the dominos that have fallen since. I think the world is a darker place now, and I don’t think anyone who spent the weeks following 9/11 in NYC can doubt that the potential was there for it be a much, much brighter one.
But that was all later. As I held G, I felt safe and, above all, lucky. Lucky G was OK, that in that moment, really, everything was OK. Lucky that I’d been here when the towers still stood, that I’d winked back at them a thousand times. Lucky that the day was so perfect, the sky so blue.