Author and playwright Delia Ephron famously said, “New Yorkers are born all over the world, and then they come to New York City. And it hits them: Oh, that’s who I am.”
On Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I was that kind of New Yorker who was then living just across the Hudson in the Journal Square area of Jersey City, New Jersey, a 25-minute PATH train ride into the 33rd Street Herald Square stop in midtown Manhattan.
Like so many of my fellow struggling artist types I lived where I could afford to live. My survival job was as a regular ad hoc temp at a law firm on the east side of 42nd St., between Lexington and Third Avenues, about a 20-minute crosstown walk. So, while my bed, earthly possessions, and 19-year-old cat were in Jersey City, the rest of my life – friends, theater work and playground – were all in Manhattan, as it had been since 1980. I was still very much the proud New Yorker.
Even though I wasn’t due into the office until around noon, I had been up for hours that morning, back and forth between email correspondence and, ironically, packing to leave. My much-anticipated writer’s sabbatical away from the city was autumn through Memorial Day out in Sag Harbor on the south fork of Long Island. I was to leave on Thursday, only two days away. And I was really behind. No television. no radio, not even music was on to distract me. Then the phone rang, a frantic call from my mother in Farmington, Arkansas, one hour behind in Central Time Zone. She told me to turn on the TV.
That’s how I learned what happened at 8:46 a.m. – just a few minutes ago – hardly five miles from where I was standing. I had been up well before dawn, and when I was aware of the sunrise, it was a sparkling, beautiful, pre-autumn morning. But my attention had been elsewhere. Now I looked out the window and suddenly noticed how dark and threatening the skies were, as if a terrible storm were coming.
My Jersey City flat was on the first floor of a small, modest apartment building at the corner of Britton Street at Montgomery Avenue which intersected JFK Blvd. Every day that I went out I would go to that corner and in every kind of weather get a full view of Lower Manhattan, The World Trade Center twin towers, Wall Street, the Financial District, gleaming in glory. It always seemed so close you could reach out and touch it.
But now I didn’t have that view. I would never see that beautiful view again. As I reached the corner all I saw was the smoke. A number of neighborhood people had already gathered, some still in robe and pajamas. We were all strangers. Nobody spoke. We just exchanged glances and went back to watching this ugly, gray swirling mass.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a man with a cooler come out of a house across the street. He sat down on the steps, opened it and loudly announced he had water, soda, and beer for sale. Then he opened a can of Budweiser and started slugging it down. I wanted to wring his neck. Everyone ignored him, and our group was silent again, for a long time it seemed, as if time itself had stopped.
The scene in front of us had not changed. My mind began to wander. Did I close the door behind me properly so the cat wouldn’t get out? Did I remember to bring my keys? What about that important email from the U.K. I was still expecting that needed my reply? Did I leave my poor, worried mother hanging on the phone line when I rushed out to the corner? I started to go back, but then felt the rumble under me rather than heard it. The smoke was so dense nothing behind it could clearly be seen.
Except that long, tall shuddering shadow which suddenly collapsed and disappeared down into even thicker smoke. Choked, horrified gasps all around from the crowd. Still nobody spoke, but a woman started sobbing. I was paralyzed. My heart and stomach had dropped far beyond my feet into the sidewalk pavement.
I don’t remember getting home, just news on the still running TV about World Trade Center Tower Two having collapsed moments earlier at 9:59 a.m. Yet I was amazingly calm. I don’t remember feeling much of anything except urgency.
My friend Janice worked in the Wall Street area. Was she still alive? What about all the people I worked with at the law firm? The office itself was substantially farther uptown in a high rise across from the Chrysler Building. But it was still early enough in the morning to be commuting into the city. What about those who came across the river from Brooklyn, or New Jersey or Staten Island on the ferries?
Those answers came soon enough, and I was pretty lucky all around. I couldn’t get through by phone to the law firm and had to settle for sending an email. No, I hadn’t left my mother hanging on the line, but I quickly called back to assure her I was okay. Two emails from the U.K. had come in while I was out on the sidewalk corner. A short play of mine was being featured in an international play festival in London by Horla Theatre Company. Joanna, the festival’s producer, had gotten back to me with the performance dates in November and to confirm I would attend. Joanna’s second email, which arrived just after 10 a.m., was a plea to let her know that I was safe. The U.K. had learned the news of the attack before much of the United States.
An email came back from the law firm. The office was up high enough in the Pfizer building that they had watched the planes fly into the towers. Everyone there was safe, but some people were going to have a hard time getting home to their families because of citywide transit disruption.
No one could get in or out of Manhattan. All subways and buses were stalled. Cars were stuck in the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. Thousands of people would be trapped for hours in the train lines running under the rivers. I realized with no little gratitude how close that came to being me had it occurred on a day I went in at the regular time.
My friend Janice was the closest person in my life to being a victim of the 9/11 attack. The financial building she worked in suffered no damage, but the building next to it was now rubble. I carried on through that day with my defense mechanism fully kicked in. I was numb and on autopilot and making myself get as much done by Thursday as possible.
But Wednesday was a very different story. As I woke up the reality set in. As productive as I had been the day before in the crisis, I could not now even get out of bed. I was trembling all over, desperate to cry but unable to. I stayed in bed all day listening to a Harry Potter audiobook to keep calm.
But on Thursday somehow I did make it to Sag Harbor with my cat Petunia, and we settled into our new life somewhat sheltered from the news coming out of New York City. Two weeks later I went back to Manhattan on the bus for the first time since 9/11. The New York City skyline finally came into view on a bright, clear morning. The twin towers were starkly missing.
Finally, I started to cry.