Everyone has their “where I was on the morning of 9/11/2001” story. Those stories are told with the same American remembrance and reverence as the “where I was when JFK was assassinated” story, if they happened to be alive at that time.
I have my 9/11 story and then I have another 9/11 story; a story from the first week of October just three weeks after the towers fell.
A group of about eight friends out here on the west coast flew to New Jersey for a wedding. We debated whether or not to go because of the obvious concern for air travel so close to 9/11. In the end, we figured we should opt for a joyous occasion and not let fear get the best of us. The flight was relatively empty and I do believe we all had copious amounts of alcohol to ease us into take-off.
After the wedding celebration in New Jersey, a group of us decided to head to Ground Zero to pay our respects. We took the train into the city and then walked for blocks and blocks down to Tribeca. We passed firehouses with flowers and gifts and cards left out in front. We passed vendors selling FDNY t-shirts for $10. I bought one. We passed window after window displaying the American flag.
As we got closer to the site, people got quieter and more subdued. There was a slight breeze and on that breeze was an indescribable smell. We passed a building reduced to stone rubble and stopped to look at it. We noticed a grayish-brown slime on the streets and sidewalks that looked like water mixed with ash mixed with what? Who knows. We stood in front of walls of plywood completely covered with faces and names and phone numbers and messages of love to lost ones. Hundreds of them. Missing. Disappeared in the dust. We stopped talking all together.
I got separated from the group and found myself standing on a corner looking down a street towards a terrorist’s sculpture of twisted steel. Smoke was still rising. The crowd was silent. My knees started knocking, a sensation I had never experienced before or since. It always sounded like a purely literary description of fear, but here it was. Knocking knees, an involuntary physical response to witnessing terror, a response to the smell and sights and feel of the horror that humans can unleash upon one another. I hope I never have to feel that again.
A breeze blew up the street bringing with it that smell and rustling the millions (yes, millions) of post- it notes like so many fall leaves, square, yellow evidence of the offices that used to rise high. With that breeze came the sound and the feel that made me start to cry; the sounds of people screaming in their last moments, the feel of their absolute fright in witnessing a nightmare and suffering as a result. You could hear it and feel it echoing down the architectural canyons. Well at least I could. I couldn’t move. I stood there with the crowd listening and feeling the thousands of ghosts run by us and through us. It was absolutely horrifying in that moment. I can only imagine and, honestly, try not to imagine what it was like in the actual moment.
When I was standing there silently crying with a hundred other people, I remember thinking that EVERYONE should see this and that if everyone could experience that particular aftermath then no one would ever want to have a war or hurt a human being ever again. A naive thought, but it’s the one I had. I also thought, “This is as close to a war zone as I ever want to get”. It felt like a war zone. At least to me.
One of my friends eventually found me standing on the corner, hugged me tight and led me back to the group. When we reconvened with the others, the general consensus was we needed a stiff drink and fast. At sunset we wandered into a bar called Nassau about three blocks away from Ground Zero. We were the only ones there. We sat in the welcoming low-light and silence with our medicinal liquid of choice trying to regroup from what we had just seen and felt.
The bartender lady spoke softly and kindly to us, an incongruity to her pleather outfit pieced together with safety pins and her obvious native New Yorker accent. She told us that this bar was a hang-out for the Firefighters in the neighborhood. She said two thirds of her regulars were gone. Forever.
Finally, my friend “M” went over to the jukebox glowing in the corner and put in a chunk of change that bought us the soothing sounds of Frank Sinatra’s, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered. I slow danced with him by the light of the jukebox, a slow, sad, loving dance for the people who had been taken away so roughly and wrongly. The rest of the crew sat silent with their own thoughts.
The bartender thanked us for bringing music and life back into the bar.
Right as we were leaving, a group of firemen dressed in their slick yellow gear came in the door. They were covered in dust and weary in a way that goes beyond physical and deep down into the soul. They did not smile or even focus on us, but we shook their hands and patted them on the back before we walked out into the night.
The dust is gone from Ground Zero now. And so is the smell. But visit it anyway if only to honor the people who were lost that day. They deserve it.
Now go hug your loved ones or slow-dance with meaning.