Monday, September 11, 2006

Union Square

"He, therefore, betook himself to that true support of greatness in affliction, a bottle; by means of which he was enabled to curse, and swear, and brave his fate." --Henry Fielding, Jonathan Wild.

I wish I had done so. Instead, I mutely and numbly stood, like so many thousands of others, and wondered how I was supposed to react. The contemplation of the reaction overcame the reaction itself, and thus I simply delayed and determined how I would really react.

It was a gorgeous day. Everyone who was there should tell you that first. It was a perfect day. I can seldom recall a more clear blue sky or temperatures more perfect. The morning was crisp, exhilirating, the sort of autumnal day that makes young men dream of play and old men remember walks with lovers, the day too fine for work, and many people played hookey from work and therefore lived through the day. I remember riding the #6 train south from the Bronx, where I lived, and looking out on Manhattan, memorizing every building that appeared on the huge turn on the bridge over the Bronx River. Piece by piece, the architecture appears, breaking itself free from the window frame and displaying like a debutante in a parade as the train takes the turn into the east side of Manhattan past Hunt's Point.

Let's be clear: I was not there there. I was more than two miles away. I was on east 89th Street, teaching computers to behave at an all boy's middle school hard by the Guggenheim Museum. New Yorkers know the place, I'm sure, and they know their own geography. Instead of parks and flowers, New York has buildings, and they are every bit as entertaining and engaging and interesting as flowers, though not as functional sometimes. For those who have not spent years there, though, Manhattan is hilly, sloping generally up to a peak around 96th Street. That means that the area below the grid (the streets south of 1st St. (i.e. Greenwich Village and Alphabet City)) are lower in elevation as well as "lower Manhattan." The avenues run north-south, and the streets run east-west. From 89th Street, I could look straight down Park Avenue.

At 9:30 AM, I was done with a class and had a bunch of repairs to do, so I decided to sneak out and grab a cup of coffee and a bowtie (only not by Dunkin' Donuts...those things are gross; this was the bodega on 89th and Park). I love bowties. I love that coffee. I insisted, every day that I worked at that school, on getting that combination every morning. Five years ago today, I got the combination and stepped out to enjoy the fantastic weather. I looked down Park, and I saw what looked like a candle snuff. It was only one of the world trade towers. I didn't see the other very clearly.

By the next hour, I knew. My colleagues were very worried. Some of them had children working in the WTC. More to the point, our children were from very wealthy families, mostly in the financial sector, and that meant that some of our students were likely orphans now. Therefore, we had to whisper to each other whatever news we had heard, while we kept everything else as secret as we could. As soon as students would leave our rooms, we would turn on radios or televisions, and then turn them off when students were nearby. By lunch, the clever 8th graders, who are all-knowing and possessed of a seering cynicism had figured it out. They told each other that there had been an attack on the Statue of Liberty. We confessed that they were too clever for us.

At the end of the school day, we herded all the students to the gym and held them. No child could go home without a parent picking him up. This would be our only way of knowing who didn't have a parent.

When I left work, it was strange. New York City isn't supposed to be silent, and yet it was. No planes overhead. No cars. No trains rumbling. No buses rolling. No noise at all, except lines of ashen faced people like me wondering how they were supposed to feel, and an endless line of useless cell phones held up to ears. The cell repeaters had been on the towers, of course. The land lines would stay busy and overloaded for a day to come, at best.

Everyone in America knew more about what was happening than we did, really.

The trains began running again, and I got on a different #6 train for home. Everyone was quiet and polite. New Yorkers generally are nice to each other, despite what the rest of the world thinks. We're just nasty to tourists. Well, Manhattanites are polite. The outer boroughs are more thuggish.

The trains took detours, and the loss of the WTC hub had thrown a lot of chaos into the system. A young woman in a dirty t-shirt on the train with me told me that she had been at #7 Liberty. She was small but tough, an artist, a woman too busy and intelligent to worry about being pretty but pretty all the same. She was in a shirt that was dirty before the morning and now filthy and hanging loosely on her trunk. She looked up at me and the other fellow, as we were talking in hushed tones, and said that she had seen something I had not yet heard and didn't initially believe: people were jumping out of the towers. She had seen them. She had seen them land.

The smell of the cloud was difficult. I cannot explain it. It was a salty smelling cloud, not overly morbid or decayed, but not traditionally ashen, either. Every time I smelled it, I knew that I was smelling things that were bad.

For most of the days to come, the wind blew to Brooklyn. On a couple of days, the wind blew up toward work, and one day the wind blew up to the Bronx all day and night, coming in my window air conditioner. The next morning, we were assured by the Bush administration's pin-up girl that the air was safe. I don't think anyone was fooled by that, but what choice did we have? The bridges were closed, and no one could stop breathing. Public health officials told us that everyone in Manhattan on that day was due for some serious depression and difficulty. What choice did we have in that, either? Most of us were kind of numb and wondering why we weren't more disturbed or less.

Today, I talked to three classes of 18 year olds about the moment that defines their generation, one way or another, and I held a moment of silence. I haven't done that before. I also told my story, or as much of it as I've said above. I did not go any deeper, as I don't see what good it would do them.

You see, I'm stuck on the images of those people jumping. It's not the leap, necessarily, or the horror, although both hold my mind fixed agape. After all, I cannot imagine the fear and evil experienced by the passengers on the planes. Their terror had to be unimaginable. The leapers, though, had a deliberate horror, a slow certainty of death and the agony of burning air ripping their lungs from within.

They jumped. They preferred clear air and being able to breathe their last as they plummeted to their deaths to the rending heat of the towers.

What obsesses me is whether I could have been one. Those who died by the crush of the building collapse, those who died by the explosions, they died horribly, but would I have chosen the jump to death? That, though, is just one of those moments of cowardice that I reproach myself with, as I know that I would not have been one. I would have stayed inside, believing that ingenuity or miracle would keep me from the inevitable and had that fail. That is not it, though, for I cannot say even that it was bravery or defiance or freedom or doom that was involved in those who jumped.

The problem is always that they landed, that there were people down there, that some people had to witness the most horrible sight ever. They had to watch a person fully alive and then, less than a second, much less than a second, later, dead and gore. They had to see the split second of impact, the life dashed out, each life individually, and not in an abstract mass. No "2,973 dead," but "that face of that person falling, and that person dead."

If the public health officials were right, if every year that goes by the horror of that day inches closer to the surface of my mind, it's no wonder. I did nothing. I was powerless and helpless and useless. I was another passenger, another passive observer, and whatever goes on now is just another case of really having no option.

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