It’s nine in the morning on September 11, 2001. I’ve gotten up early to take my girlfriend to a job interview on 67th Street in New York. I’m not happy about this. Rush hour in Manhattan’s always a bitch so, as Allie is in the bathroom putting the finishing touches on her makeup, I turn on the television to get the traffic report. Maybe I’ll get lucky and the going in the Lincoln Tunnel will be free and easy.
But when I turn on the news I see a picture of one of the Twin Towers smoking. The newscaster says a plane crashed into it. Must be a small plane, I think to myself. The hole in the building doesn’t look that big. My first reaction is that some dolt flying a Piper Cub out of Teterboro Airport fucked up royally.
“Well,” I call out to Allie. “You can forget your job interview.”
“Why?” she says, coming out of the bathroom.
“A plane hit one of the Twin Towers.”
“What? Are you serious?”
“That’s going to make traffic in New York one giant clusterfuck. There’s no way I’m driving into that.”
“Is the fire bad?” Allie says.
“I don’t know. But I feel sorry for the firemen. They’re going have to lug a ton of equipment up a lot of stairs.”
Allie and I stand in the living room and watch the news reports. The anchor is saying it must have been a small plane that hit the building. Everyone is calm. It’s just an accident. A plane once hit the Empire State building, they say. They’ll fix the damage.
Then another plane comes out of nowhere and smashes into the other tower. Off camera a woman screams. As I watch the fireball and debris explode out of the other side of the building I’m dumbstruck. What are the odds of two accidents like this happening at the same time? Then a tremendous sense of fear hollows out my stomach. This is no accident.
“We’re under attack!” I shout. “Holy shit! We’re under attack!”
“What are you talking about?” Allie says.
“No way this is two accidents!” I say. Then it hits me. “Oh my God! All those people! There are tens of thousands of people in there!” As I watch the horror on television, I realize that countless people are dying.
“Lets go!” I say, grabbing my keys. “Let’s go!”
“Where!” Allie shouts. “Where are we going!”
“To the river,” I say. “We have to see this.”
“This is like Pearl Harbor. We have to see this. This is history.” The moment I say those words, I know the world has been forever changed.
We get into my car and race toward the river. I live over the hill from Edgewater, NJ so the Hudson isn’t far away. As we go over the hill into Cliffside Park, the Twin Towers rise into view. They look like two giant cigarettes burning. I gave up smoking a month ago. Now I really, really want one.
Cars have stopped into the middle of the road. The drivers are standing on the street, staring in disbelief at the disaster unfolding before their eyes. A cop is watching too. He’s so out of it, he doesn’t notice when a distracted driver hits one of the stopped cars.
I weave my car through the onlookers and head into Edgewater. There’s a boardwalk by the river that runs alongside a shopping complex. When we pull into the lot, for some inexplicable reason, I want coffee. So Allie and I walk into Starbucks and get some. As I’m paying, I don’t notice the person who swipes my Ray-Ban sunglasses, which I left on the counter. They cost 200 bucks, but I don’t care. Coffee in hand, Allie and I walk to the river.
To my surprise, the boardwalk is almost empty. The few people that are there are peering at the disaster though those telescopic viewfinders that cost a quarter. Usually people use them to marvel at the Manhattan skyline. Today, they’re being used to watch that skyline being destroyed.
‘Look up there!’ a man shouts. “It’s another plane!” A woman screams.
I look up and see a fighter plane streak towards the burning towers. The dispassionate part of my mind registers the make of the aircraft, an F-15 Eagle. That’s an air superiority fighter, designed to intercept and destroy enemy planes. They’re bringing in air support, I think to myself. There might be other planes out there.
“They hit Washington too!” a man with a transistor radio says. “They hit Washington!”
“What did they hit?” another person says. “The White House?”
The man presses his ear to the radio. “I think the Pentagon got it. They’re saying its terrorists.”
I feel like throwing up and put down my coffee. We’re at war. Someone’s trying to kill us. What if another plane comes? The fighter will shoot it down. Maybe falling debris will kill us. It’s a simple calculation really. The fighter will shoot a plane down over us instead of risking it hit the more densely populated city.
At this point Allie is sobbing. I put my arm around her and watch the Towers burn. I can only see one tower clearly. Smoke partially hides the other one. Then, after a few minutes, I suddenly notice I can’t see that tower at all.
“It fell!” the man with the radio shouts. “The whole goddamn building collapsed!
“Are you sure?’ I say, my mind refusing to accept what happened. “There’s a lot of smoke. It’s hard to see.”
“The guy on the radio says it fell!”
A cloud of dust spills out of Manhattan and moves over the Hudson’s waters like a pyroclastic flow. Now I’m really frightened. What if the terrorists had chemical or biological agents on the plane?
“Lets get the hell out of here,” I say to Allie. But she’s gone catatonic so I have to drag her to the car. When we get near home, I realize I’m hungry. So I pull into a diner and Allie and I order breakfast. As I’m eating my bacon and eggs, one of the waitresses starts crying hysterically.
“The other tower fell!” she wails. “My niece is in there!”
I don’t know what to do. So I pay the bill and we walk outside. There’s a supermarket across the street so I suggest we go and buy some supplies. “Things might get crazy,” I say to Allie. “We should get some food.” She reluctantly agrees.
The supermarket, far from being a mob scene of Armageddon fearing shoppers, is calm. After we pick up a few items we go to the cashier to pay for them. Four cops walk into the store. “We need all the water you have,” one of them says. “We’re taking it.” No one argues with them.
Allie and I manage to get home. By this time she’s almost uncommunicative. When I turn the news back on I hear the newscaster urging people to donate blood. I’m edgy and angry. I need to do something. Then my phone rings. It’s Marc, one of the waiters at The Bistro.
“What’s happening?” I say.
“I want to go home,” Marc says. ‘I can’t be here.”
“I have no problem with that,” I say. “Just tell Fluvio. I don’t think he’ll argue about it. There won’t be many customers tonight.”
“There are people here eating lunch,” Marc says. “A couple of ladies laughing like nothing’s happening. I want to slap them.”
“Everyone handles stress in their own way, Marc. Just hang in there.”
After I hang up I grab Allie and get back in the car. I want to donate blood. We fight though an hour of traffic to get to the donation point in Paramus, only to be turned away. They have enough blood they say. Go home.
When we get home I put Allie into bed and she falls into a deep sleep. Part of me feels guilty. I should have never taken her to the river. I should have never dragged her around with me. As she sleeps, I’m glued to the television, watching footage of the planes striking the Towers over and over and over. On some level I know this isn’t good for me, that I’m getting traumatized. But I can’t look away.
Around nine at night, Allie emerges from the bedroom. “I’m really hungry,” she says. “Let’s go out and get something to eat. I don’t want to cook.”
As we walk to my car, I see my neighbor walking up the street. He’s covered in soot. Then I remember he worked in the Towers. He’s alive. Good. My Dad is working at a school nearby. When I managed to call him, he said he was staying with the children.
Many of their parents couldn’t pick them up because of all the craziness. Some of them might be dead. But he was happy to hear that I was all right.
We go back to Edgewater, back to the shopping complex where we watched the first tower fall, and walk into a restaurant whose name that I can’t remember. Looking out the window I can see what’s left of the Towers burning. Helicopters are all over the place. By now we know that thousands of people have died.
As Allie and I wait for our food in the almost empty restaurant., we hear a couple in the booth behind us arguing. “You have to talk about it,” the woman says. “You have to talk about what happened. It’s not good to keep it inside.”
“I don’t want to,” the man says.
Allie turns around and says to the man, “She’s right. You have to talk about it.”
To my surprise, the woman comes over and sits at our table. After a minute the man does too. They’re both young – younger than my thirty-three. The man doesn’t want to talk, but after a few drinks he starts spilling. He worked in the Towers. He talks about bodies, fear, carnage and people jumping to their deaths. He’s seriously in need of help. But so are millions of people. There’s nothing really to say to him. But I tell him, “Talk about it whenever you want to. Don’t hold it in. That’s what will screw you up.”
Allie and I eat with the couple we know we’ll never see again and even order dessert. As I sip my umpteenth cup of coffee for the day, a chorus of waiters singing “Happy Birthday” rings out. Technically, you can’t sing that song in a restaurant – something about royalties and copyright. But the waiters don’t give a shit and sing it anyway.
“Stop that singing,” a patron yells. “No one’s happy today.”
“Cut that out!” Allie snaps. “It’s not her fault her birthday was today!” The patron shuts up. Allie can be fearsome when she’s angry.
When all is said and done, we pay up, say goodbye to the couple and go home. Exhausted, Allie and I fall into bed. As I’m drifting off, I realize that I didn’t cry once all day.
But I know the tears will come eventually.