Sunday, September 11, 2011

Memorials Everywhere

American flag stickers appeared in cab windows. I remember a friend
pointing out that it was a way for the mostly immigrant cabbies to
display or, from a more cynical perspective, feign patriotism.

On September 12th, it seemed like we awoke to winter. It felt as if some cosmic warmth switch had been flicked off.

When I returned to work, I began to receive notes and letters of condolence from other locations. The international headquarters even set up an intranet site for electronic versions of these greetings. In one of the most surreal moments of my life, I opened a message from the Beirut office, expressing their sorrow and horror that such a thing had happened to New York.

Soon, memorials sprung up everywhere, a constant reminder we were living on the front lines of a war we didn't sign up for or entirely understand.

The Empire State Building from my bedroom window

First, American flags appeared everywhere. The Empire State Building was lit in red, white and blue for what felt like forever. Then, the I Love New York More Than Ever posters. Even in Times Square, American flags were hung on every surface.

Flags on building under construction, Times Square, fall-winter 2001

Street vendor's table in Times Square, fall-winter 2001

Hardest of all, were the countless tiny photos on huge posters outside firehouses throughout the city. You'd turn a corner and unexpectedly be faced with all those faces.

I think they were meant to be twin towers of sunflowers

There was a project that planted pairs of sunflowers up Seventh Avenue. In the Village, it intersected with a tile memorial on Greenwich and Seventh Avenues, near what was then Our Name is Mud. I began to paint tiles and mugs there, trying to reopen creative doors within myself. I'd try to get my neighbor Kay to come when she could.

Kay was a nurse at NYU Downtown, where the first victims were taken on September 11th. She'd tell me about patients missing huge portions of their bodies or covered in burns. She described some who were fighting to recover, others understandably overwhelmed by despair; everyone healing and grieving at their own pace.

Tiles on the Greenwich Avenue side. The Seventh Avenue
side of the memorial is visible in the background.

The face was my favorite

The tiles were sent from pottery studios all over the country

During the holidays, the trees along the avenues were decorated with red, white and blue lights, as was the massive Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. NY1 had reported that the tree was on its way from Wayne, NJ. If you know me at all, you know my favorite band, Dramarama is from Wayne. I left for work early that morning so I could stop to see the tree.

I turned the corner and was greeted by countless American flags. It was breathtaking.

Rockefeller Center, November 2001. Normally, the flags represented
every state. During the holidays, they were silver and gold.

I must have cried everyday for months, out of grief, survivor's guilt and the memorials everywhere I turned serving as constant reminders of the losses that, while miraculously not impacting me directly, touched my New Yorker's soul deeply.

Beautiful Tuesday

September 12, 2001

It was a beautiful Tuesday. I woke up at 6 every morning to write. I’d moved from Brooklyn into Manhattan the week before for the shorter commute. After moving all my boxes into my new room, I went up to the rooftop terrace to take in the view. Normally, I would have faced north, toward the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. For some reason, that Labor Day, I faced south and took photos of the World Trade Center.

I thought of how the Let's Go guide I'd bought for my first visit to New York four years earlier described the Twin Towers as so nondescript in design that the local Channel 11 used the buildings for the "11" in its logo. Other than the view from the observation deck and the rooftop platform, I don't remember myself or anyone else giving the WTC much thought.

Two weeks before the attacks, I'd turned 30. A few days before that, I'd exited the WTC for the last time. I wanted to find an outfit to wear on my birthday. I always got lost downtown. The only way I knew how to find Century 21, a discount outlet, was by cutting through the WTC near the Borders bookstore. When I'd lived in Brooklyn, I'd taken the A train, which stopped underneath the WTC.

That beautiful Tuesday, I took the bus from my place in the West Village. I loved this perk of living in Manhattan. I could stare at the big blue sky all the way up Sixth Avenue, daydreaming between chapters of the book I was reading. I arrived near work around 7 and sat for a spell, as I did every morning, in Columbus Circle. The construction of the Time Warner Center had only just begun. I thought it strange that the city would soon have a second set of twin towers.

I walked up Central Park West, past Trump Plaza and entered the doors of Non-Prophet. It was the most money I’d earned in my life, but the worst job. I arrived before 8 every morning, stayed until 8 on good days, no lunch break. When I dared use the bathroom, inevitably someone complained that I didn't answer the phone. That day, I needed to finish the monthly Board book. It was going to be a long day.

“Sorry I’m late, but did you guys hear?” Lisa, the graphic designer, walked by my desk on the way to her office. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

“Like a Cessna?” I asked.

“No, an jumbo jet.”

We looked for news and photographs, but news sites weren’t refreshing. We heard rumors of a dozen other planes that were unaccounted for. Someone said 50,000 people worked in the Twin Towers. Boss Man came out of the Finance Committee meeting to use the bathroom.

“Two planes just crashed into the World Trade Center,” I said.

“That’s all the way downtown, it doesn’t affect us here,” Boss Man said.

But Boss Man was wrong. It was all about Non-Prophet! The building’s hotel would house rescue workers for months that fall. September 11th would become a major selling point in Non-Prophet's Capital Campaign.

“Don’t you think we should tell them?” I nodded toward his office doorway, through which I could see one CEO sitting, one leg crossed over the other.

“You just work on that Board book!” Boss Man said, shutting the door to his office behind him.

We had no radio or TV inside. Non-Prophet was like a bunker. I thought my friends calling from California, London and Sydney were overreacting. “Aren’t you going home?” they asked. I worked until 8:30 that night.

It was only after work, watching the news at my friend James’ apartment around the corner, that I learned the towers had collapsed completely. Only then did I see the people jumping. It struck me that many of them were like me – harried assistants, working long hours for low pay. I had to make a change. That day, I decided I didn’t want to spend my last day on earth as I had that morning – making copies, typing documents and answering the phone for someone else.

Bus shelter near St. Vincent's hospital

I took the 1/9 home from Lincoln Center. When I surfaced in the Village, every wall, every bus shelter, everywhere I looked, there were posters of the missing. The Village itself had become a shrine.

The next day, I called Boss Man and told him I couldn't come in.

"If you want to have an emotional reaction," he said, "that's your choice."

My city had a giant, still burning, gaping hole in it and countless people were dead. I'd be worried for my humanity if I didn't have an emotional reaction. The funny thing was, even my friends on the West Coast were told not to come in once the planes hit and most didn't work the rest of the week. Ditto my friends in NYC. From the time my friend Rob surfaced prematurely when the subway stopped running an Herald Square and found a single Twin Tower, the company where we had met, and for which he still worked, was closed. For the most part, only vital services operated that week.

I went downstairs to have lunch, having slept at Rob's the night before and missed breakfast. It seemed absurd and a little obscene that everything worked as normal. The soda machine in the cafeteria dispensed orange soda into my plastic cup. After some outages the day before, my cell phone worked again. The subway was running. The train to New Jersey, where Rob had friends with a big house to take us in, was running.

When we returned to Manhattan that Thursday or Friday, the smell of death and destruction had reached the Upper West Side, where I worked and where Rob lived. We took the train again, to White Plains, where Rob always rented cars. He drove us up to his mom's house in Vermont.

We watched the footage over and over again for hours, days. After a while, we congregated in the kitchen, the disaster porn having numbed and stunned us. I think we'd watched it 1,000 times too many. I felt guilty, but glad at the simple joy the dogs and cats brought, when they tried to get our attention away from the TV and our thoughts.