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The Luck of Geography


from NY Chronicles 2001

September 11

Tuesday morning was sunny and fresh, a lovely autumn day that made me happy to be alive as I walked to work at the Island School a few blocks away. I’d been given a new classroom that had a huge walk-in closet to hang up coats, but it was full of broken things that had been set aside to fix, never to be touched again, useless old books, and boxes of dusty forgotten stuff. I was going to throw it all out, wanting my room to be an amiable place of order and calm, where my students would feel at peace and be able to learn.

My colleague, Nancy, interrupted my cleaning to tell me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I said and she agreed, “It must be a small plane with a couple of seats. The pilot had a heart attack and crashed, killing a few people and breaking a lot of glass,” and that sadly was that, I thought returning to my own mess. When Nancy stopped at my door again to tell me another plane hit the World Trade Center, I thought of terrorists, and walked to the principal’s office. I could have gone out on the street to see the smoking towers, but I could imagine them well enough, and besides I was at work, and it seemed duty came first. When the principal urged us to go back to our rooms, I did and having no one to keep calm but myself, I started to clean again until I heard Nancy sobbing in the hall, with her face in her hands. Out of them she looked and said, “The buildings fell.” It seemed like the floor gave way under me and I was falling too as I imagined all those people.

At the office, the staff gathering, Sharon, the secretary, was saying the buildings imploded. As a young woman, working for the Transit Authority, she assisted the architect who designed the World Trade Center and remembered the specs. “The buildings did not fall on any other buildings. They went straight down,” she insisted smiling. Sharon was a born again Christian and for her happily this was one step closer to the Apocalypse. Everyone else looked worried. A teacher was crying on the phone. One of the teachers had a daughter who worked at the World Trade Center and she was on the verge of hysteria. Another teacher had turned her radio on and was upsetting the class. “Tell her to turn the damned radio off,” Barbara, the principal, commanded, her mane of gray hair flying. “Everybody get back to your classes. Let’s keep things calm.”

I had no class to get back to and when a mother appeared, desperate for her daughter, Sharon suggested, “Why don’t you go get her.” As soon as I returned and handed over the little girl, another mother appeared as desperate for her daughter. The next hours blur, the Pentagon bombed, the plane going down in Pennsylvania, interspersed with mothers and fathers coming to get their children. One mother told me she worked at the World Trade Center, but was on a week’s vacation. She really hugged her son. Every parent was concerned that terrorists were going to come and blow up the Lower East Side. What people love is what they fear to lose, no matter how inconsequential it may seem to the rest of the world. Going to get children made me feel like I was doing something and I was grateful for the job. Later, back in my classroom, I looked out the window down at the playground where even now some little girls were jumping rope. The wind was blowing through the lindens, the leaves upturned, and birds were flying like nothing had happened or these human affairs mattered.

When I left school I noticed the smoke—the Towers were gone—billowing over the horizon going south toward Staten Island. There was hardly any traffic on Avenue D, which is a boisterous Hispanic street. People were walking around without making a sound as if God had turned the volume off. I had a beautiful view of the World Trade Center from my apartment windows. Back home I saw the smoke and knew that it was really gone. The night before I had gotten up to pee around four and looked at the Towers for a moment when I got back in bed. They were enchanting sentinels, ghostly, with red and white lights twinkling off of their great immensity, dominating and defining the nighttime sky.

I checked my answering machine. I heard my friend and neighbor Don Trammel screaming: “Don, get out of bed! Look out your window at the World Trade Center! Look at the World Trade Center!” Next was Neddi. She wanted me to call her at Gene and Brigid’s. I did. Neddi was sure there was going to be another explosion, perhaps nuclear. To make matters worse, she couldn’t call her mother in New Jersey; there was no long distance from Fifth Avenue where she was. From Ninth and C, I reached Neddi’s mother, but couldn’t get through to my sister Cathy in Pennsylvania, so I called Neddi’s mom back to ask her to call my sister, but now I couldn’t get through to New Jersey either. Then I dialed Pennsylvania and the phone was ringing. I told Cathy to tell everybody I was all right, but the phone might go dead at any moment. She was glad to hear my voice and I was glad to hear hers. Although many miles and a state away she seemed to be in the same state I was, shocked but involved. “All those firemen,” she said.

I went up to the roof to take some photos of the smoke. Don Trammel was there. I told him by the time he called I’d already gone. He told me he was riding his bike to work when he heard a plane go overhead down Broadway so low that he looked up to read American Airlines on its side. Two blocks later at Washington Square, he saw the gash in the tower. Don thought he was looking at a movie set until he saw the flames. Ted, our neighbor, a journalist who had risked life and limb in Kosovo, was on the roof with his camera too. Ted had been up that morning and was annoyed that when the first tower fell the anarchists at See Squat on Avenue C had cheered on their rooftop like “their favorite team had just won.” It was hard to believe Americans would find something to celebrate in the deaths of fellow citizens whose only sin was getting up and going to work. These East Village anarchists, if they were with Osama bin Laden for a minute, he’d kick the beer bottles out of their hands and string them up stinking faster than they hiss and spit at anyone who disagrees with them. The billowing smoke was a crematorium that left us quiet on our rooftop. The roof on See Squat was empty; I figured once they’d realized everyone had seen them cheering, they went cowardly into hiding. I looked at all the people on the surrounding roofs and thought, “Let us live well and let evil know we’ll not be cowed. But what we think is evil thinks we’re evil. What’s evil? That’s the question at hand, the problem we have to solve.”

Don, Ted and Neddi came to my apartment. None of us wanted to be alone. We sat together drinking vodka watching again and again on television the second plane hit the second tower. Neddi was determined to leave. She was sure there were going to be more attacks and was very anxious, as if every second was Russian roulette aimed at her head. I told her not to worry, that when you run from death, what you often do is run into it. But Neddi was adamant. We told her that everything was closed and jammed. How was she going to get out? But early next morning Neddi found a ferry going to Weehawken. With no planes in the sky and not much traffic on the Hudson it was beautiful and quiet. On the train from Newark she talked to a woman who had run out of the first building and in all the smoke got lost and wound up back where she had started, then she had to really run and luckily made it through all of the confusion. “She was our age,” Neddi said calling from her mother’s.

When the Towers collapsed, the pressure at impact heated to a thousand degrees, starting a fire beneath, that has to be hosed down constantly or it will burst into flames. Everybody’s boots keep melting and have to be replaced. Wednesday morning the rest of the World Trade Center collapsed, sending smoke billowing north over NYU. When I left my apartment in search of a newspaper there was the smell of fire in the air, and burning plastic, which was unpleasant, but not overpowering. The streets were very quiet with hardly any but official traffic. Every now and then you heard a siren. Some people were walking around with dust masks or handkerchiefs over their faces. It was impossible to find a newspaper. Almost all newsstands are Muslim run and I smiled to let them know I wasn’t angry with them. One fellow, his wife and I chatted. He didn’t have any papers, but said the front page of the Post had the photo of two people jumping hand in hand from the Eighty-eighth floor. Hearing the sounds of a plane, we and everybody else on Fourteenth Street looked up warily to see two military jets streak overhead, feathering an otherwise untraveled sky. The south side of Fourteenth Street was blocked off to general traffic by the police and I had to show them my driver’s license before they let me go home through the barricade.

Through the night the smell of smoke entered my dreams and woke me up. Thursday morning the southern skyline was an oppressive fog that had erased City Hall and all the other buildings south of Canal. It was like nothing was there. I went to see a movie with my friend Gary. Sexy Beast was entertaining and made us forget until we stepped from our air-conditioned reverie to stroll the smoky streets reminding us of death again. Like me Gary wore no mask. We had to laugh when we saw two young gay guys, each wearing white dust masks, stop an older guy on his bike, excited to know where he’d bought the green plastic sci-fi-looking respirator he was wearing. Only in the East Village does disaster turn into fashion.

Friday the blockade on Fourteenth Street was lifted. Now everyone can come and go as they please down to Houston. School would be open. It was raining, pouring, which made me glad. While I was still in bed drinking coffee, my cat Cachito ignored the cleansing weather and curled up by my thigh, with his paws over his eyes. I don’t think he’s noticed the change on the horizon, but then do we humans notice the anguish of animals, say the cries of an anthill stirred up and torn asunder by the sticks of little boys? I often feel, as a human, big and small at the same time, meaningless and yet the most important thing of all. Knowing one day I shall be dust and smoke, I got up and walked to work with a rolled up poster, a painting by Rousseau, The Snake Charmer, to hang up in the back of my classroom next to a map of the world.

There was some good news. The first grade teacher’s daughter who worked at the World Trade Center had caught a cold and didn’t go to work. Unfortunately a colleague had a friend who was a chef at Windows of the World, a young married man with a ten-month-old son. He hasn’t come home. Later I took the bus—it was still raining—across Avenue D to C and then up Fourteenth Street to Union Square to get money from my bank where, out front, a little Asian lady was selling little American flags. At the south side of the Square before the dark statue of George Washington sitting stiffly on his horse, people were putting candles in a widening circle of photos and flowers and pieces of cardboard with written expressions of sympathy on them.

A few people moved among the candles extinguished by the rain, dumped out the water and lit them again, the perfumed damp wax crackling and sputtering to flame as the ever changing crowd gathered around, stood and walked on. Here and there people played guitars and a circle of others holding hands prayed for peace in every country of the world, one guy calling out the names: “Let there be peace in Madagascar.” “Let there be peace in Madagascar.” People had also constructed a wall of hope that curved along the lawn toward the east with hundreds of photos of people who haven’t been found, most of them young, a father holding his newborn baby, a woman cutting her birthday cake, smiling at a party or the beach, some were old, a dignified man in a suit, lady executives and immigrants who cleaned the halls and bussed the tables at Windows of the World, in fact everyone in New York was on the wall.

I remembered 1990 in Guatemala when I stood in front of the post office in Santiago Atitlan where people from the countryside had hung up the photos of missing loved ones, hundreds of disappeared men and women, just after the Army had opened fire in the town killing and maiming dozens of civilians. We Americans have supported a Guatemalan government that since 1954, Eisenhower and the Cold War, has murdered a hundred thousand indigenous Guatemalans in the name of stamping out Communism. The wall in Union Square was like the wall in Guatemala, full of the faces of common people that no one will ever see again, done in by stern oppression. In that wall then and this wall now I could see no difference.

I stopped at Dick’s Bar for a drink and talked to my friend Clio who heard the first plane go over as he was arranging flowers. He walked down Fifth Avenue and could see people hanging from the shattered towers, falling and jumping. He kept walking as the second plane hit. When the towers fell he stopped. David, who works at CBS, said the most difficult footage he ever edited was of his fellow New Yorkers jumping and letting go. He noticed that as the women fell, those wearing skirts held them down modestly to the very last second. It was this holding down of the dresses, David realized, that made us human. Curtis who has AIDS and lives at a hospice on Rivington Street was having a morning cigarette down in the garden when he heard a “Boom! Boom! Boom!” that he thought was thunder although the morning was sunny and brisk. When he went up to the roof, he saw what he thought had been an accident. It looked like a burning matchstick, just a little bit of flame shooting out. Loretta and Grant saw the first smoking tower on an elevated train coming into Manhattan. No one on the train reacted and for a moment they thought they were looking at special effects: “It takes awhile to wrap your brain around something like that.” Curtis had a perfect view of the burning tower from the dining room. When the second plane hit, he was watching it on television and turned to look out the window at the detonation of plane and building. At one with the explosion between heaven and earth, Curtis could not understand why he was alive while thousands of perfectly healthy people had just gone up in smoke. Danny had worked at the World Trade Center for a marketing firm, a psychiatrist who figures out the coming teenage trends. They’d done many fire drills before, evacuating the Towers, but nobody had ever told him what to do once he got outside, because he always went back in. Consequently hundreds of people were standing around, only moving further back until the rumbling started and everyone began to run trampling many, crushed and fallen, left behind. Danny never ran so fast in his life. Beyond thought, pure terror propelled him on to J & R Music World, where he stopped and looked around. Needing someone to talk to when the Towers fell, Curtis called Richard who lives on the Bowery and has a great view himself. Richard had seen the collapse and could hardly talk, while he and Curtis looked at the smoke, but then Richard said, as if out of breath, “Oh well, I never did like the architecture.” We have to laugh. “They were too big,” Curtis remarks: “Like two big dicks. Oh dynamic when you were standing right up next to them, but too much for such a small space. I hope the FBI isn’t listening,” Curtis whispers half in jest. I mention that on Fourteenth Street I saw American flag t-shirts for sale. Curtis bristles at the thought of wearing Old Glory. “I like flags in general, but let’s face it, wearing the American flag is, is, is tacky! It’s gaudy!” Curtis finally blurts out, making us chuckle, but then I’m somber: “You know, I was expecting a terrorist attack for a long time, but I always thought it would be germs in the subway or a suicide bomber in the Holland Tunnel or Radio City—” “In the middle of a performance of Cats,” Curtis says and again we have to laugh.

On the way home from Dick’s I noticed on every lamp post, wall and available space people had put up flyers with photos of their loved ones asking me to get in touch if I’d seen them, described down to the smallest detail, what clothes and jewelery they were wearing when they left home in the morning. It was so poignant, so stupid, so useless; every face I saw was dead. When I got home I saw Queen Elizabeth, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter standing together at a funeral service on television, and something about the sad looks on their familiar faces made me start to cry, a quick eruption that startled Cachito who stretched up in my lap to look closely at my face, examining it strangely as I sobbed tears and snot. A man on television looking for his wife, held up her photo in case somebody had seen her. “Retaliation isn’t the answer,” he pleaded. “This has got to stop.” A crowd in Jersey City attacked a car of Muslims, but luckily the police intervened. When a reporter asked the little Muslim boy how he felt about his attackers, he replied, “I want to kill them.” The boy was born in Pakistan where they believe Mohammed gets you into heaven. I was born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania where Christ is coming back to raise the dead, as if the luck of geography predestines eternal salvation. On the island of Borneo in February, five hundred men, women and children were chopped apart, little girls sprawled headless in an Indonesian civil war hardly noticed or thought about, brought about, one could easily argue, by decades old Cold War policy now defunct. What makes one death worthier than another? “The Mouth of Hell,” Hillary Clinton called Ground Zero. I see open mangled space, pieces of the skeletal towers still standing, twisted burnt wet, windows broken, knocked out but not down yet. Downtown’s very lit, smoke still rising, but the air is cool and fresh because it rained and washed it clean of human ash, the smell of rotting flesh. There is no moon or stars, the dome of heaven’s endless, black but for two passing planes blinking transitory lights.

Saturday is bright. I ride my bike near but not next to the East River. Because of environmental laws enforced over the last twenty years, life is coming back into the waterways where not only fish, but barnacles and snails are living. After a century’s absence, these creatures have returned and eaten, where they’d left off, into the wooden supports below the waterfront surrounding Manhattan. My favorite promenade is falling apart and now fenced off with no money to fix it up. Until that long awaited day of reparations, I have to go like all the other bikers next to the FDR Drive, which is another kind of river that flows, comes and goes in its currents. Happy I ride, born from the struggling sperm into the yearning egg, conceived around the time Israel and China were born and shortly after Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead. Oh you school children reading this one day on the moon, remember: “We the living think it’s all about us, but it isn’t.” The pigeons come floating down at the very southern end of East River Park, not fenced off. I sit and see beyond the Brooklyn Bridge the State of Liberty, closed off to the public, surrounded by the Navy and the Coast Guard, raising her lamp in the fading sunset engulfed in the color of blood, the reddest of dusks. I asked my grandfather once if he believed in life after death. He was quiet as he thought about it. “There has to be more than this nightmare,” he finally confided and we both had to smile a little bit.


Union Square, Friday, September 14, 2001






Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, December 4, 1990






World Trade Center from my window, 649 East 9th Street, NYC, early 80s


9/11 Memorial Lights from my window, NYC, September 9, 2013

One Comment

  1. Posted 11 Sep ’13 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Donna.

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