I've told this story at least once a year. There have been moments when repeating it became rote, or possibly my story was beginning to blend in with all the others. Even as I'm typing it now, for the first time, I realize that by doing so I'm no longer making it uniquely mine. Every time it is shared, a little part of it slips away. Time is beginning to wear on me. My eyes. My back. My memory. These days, I often think to myself that soon I will be approaching the age where I have slightly more yesterdays than tomorrows. This story I have may no longer be so clear when that balance becomes heavily tilted in the only direction it can go. Maybe I wont be able to recall it in the old African oral tradition because of some illness or dementia. So, for my sake, possibly for all our sakes, a brief memory of September 11, 2001.
I had ordered eggs, bacon and cheese on a roll from my favorite deli at that time on the corner of Canal and Hudson. As always, there was a television playing some news channel in the background, but I paid it no mind. I never did. There was a New York Times under my arm, folded in the meticulous way New Yorkers fold the broadsheet Grey Lady when riding a cramped subway car. I remember how proud I was that morning that my creases and folds aligned perfectly with the columns. It was a good start to a good morning. The sun was very bright and clear. There was a pleasant breeze, which had come as welcome relief to the late summer heat. I don't recall a single cloud. When I walked out of my building, I tried to get a sense of the mood of the city. That morning, it was decidedly bouncy and upbeat. Or maybe it was just me. I had a good job, a few ladies in the book, a Ducati, and all the self-absorbed impulses young bachelors have. I was 27 and good looking. There I was following my ritual, as usual, sitting on a bar stool looking out of a large diner window that faced Hudson street. I scanned the Times. I sipped coffee. I reminded myself to get matches for my Newports. I had to go to work in less than an hour.
This scene became surreal in short order. As I ate, I began to notice a large group of people moving northward outside. I didn't understand this sudden change. People, one after the other, moving in the opposite direction of the business areas of TriBeCa, including people I recognized from my job in the Travelers Building nearby. Every second, more people looking back, then turning and walking forward with haste. I began to think maybe I should be moving away as well. But first, I wanted to make sure this wasn't just another New York thing. By thing, I mean a freak event that, over time, a New Yorker will witness perhaps hundreds or thousands of times. The sort of thing that makes living here notable. I remember getting up and walking outside, leaving my food, my briefcase, and my Times. I took the coffee, however. I saw people standing in the street. The traffic had become noticeably thin. Then I saw him.
A Latino deli delivery boy. He had on the customary white paper hat and apron. He was walking his bike from across the street. Tears were flowing down his face. I remember the tears so vividly because the droplets were landing on his white shirt, staining it. His face was stoic, but the tears flowed. He walked his bike towards me, the delivery still hanging from the handlebars. "Papi, que paso?" I said to him. He looked at me and said nothing. Then, he parked his bike, grabbed me by the arm and pulled me into the street. I remember being taken aback by his strength, considering I'm a large guy possibly twice his size. He pointed upward and southward. All that could fill my mind, heart, and mouth were those three familiar words of pleading to the Almighty.
The fire was something otherworldly. It isn't something you ever expect to see. Not there. Not that high. I didn't know where it came from or how. I tried to make sense of it all. Because, in any situation, barring immediate danger, that is the modern way: after the initial shock and retreat into the primal and spiritual, the quick effort to regain rationality and self-control. Then, an explosion. I heard screams almost as a chorus to the sound of the explosion itself. I ran to my briefcase and decided the best thing for me to do is go to work. Because that's what we do. We try to pull ourselves together and press on. I trashed my food and left my Times for the next person, as I always do. I walked out of the deli and turned down a side street to walk the walk. But there it was, high above my head, a lantern of death and destruction, making itself present and no longer surreal. The cluster of six-story buildings I was walking through could not hide it. A black workman leaned against a shovel at the corner of Washington Street. He was looking up at the fiery towers and said to me as I stopped to gaze with him: "This is intentional."
A woman touched me as I made my way down Washington Street. She asked me was my cellphone working. No, it wasn't. I walked more. Another woman, probably a model I recall, asked me was my cellphone working. I shook my head no. I began to step livelier. All around me I could hear the sounds of sirens speeding along the West Side Highway. Not the usual sirens one becomes immune to, but a cacophony. I felt the urge to run, so I ran. Not towards work but to the Hudson, to the sirens. I crossed the highway and stood at the bank of the river where I saw the view most horribly burned into my memory: the people jumping from the tower. Falling to certain death. The screams, the tears, the sirens, all began to merge into one thing, one event.
I then felt a compelling need to help. I didn't care who, or how. I had, for at least this brief moment in time, an unselfish impulse. If I could catch one of those people perhaps? Or maybe assist the police in providing order? I knew CPR. I would do anything. I begin walking with speed towards the towers. As I wound my way through the growing disorder, I found myself going in the opposite direction of the crowd. There were some big Irish-looking ConEd workers who were doing the same thing. I heard a cop, finally, telling everyone to "walk uptown" but I ignored him. I was walking downtown. My courage began to grow. My determination to save someone and rise to the occasion exceeded any sense of personal danger or obedience to the law. I was getting so close, I could smell burning fuel.
It never happened. I was never a hero because the towers fell. I remember running as a 12-story high wall of dust and debris came for me. I did a lot of running that day, and there was still more to do. The dust overtook me and I lost sight of where I was. It was dark, as if in there were a sudden solar eclipse. I heard more screams. I felt hands clinging to me from out of nowhere. I heard someone say "I'm dying! Oh God!" Suddenly I was pushed, violently forward, as if I were at the head of a wave. Lifted off my feet, almost, and carried forward with force through the darkness. I was no longer running, but carried by a tide of humanity. As I was moved, the dust began to clear. I used my undershirt and some saliva to wipe my eyes clear. It could have all happened in under a minute. It could have been half an hour. When time and space began to reorient themselves, I plugged in and realized that somehow, I was safe.
From that point on, my time of running was over. I and those around me began to walk, calmly, thankful for our lives. We began to smile at each other, knowing that somehow, together, we made it. I held hands with a middle-aged Orthodox Jewish lady, her wig slightly off-center. She was saying something in Hebrew I didn't understand and then she told me to "please to take me home." Thus began my journey home across the Brooklyn Bridge to a place we both believed was safe. Going home to Brooklyn, covered in dust and debris, we walked, holding hands and saying nothing. I looked back frequently. She never looked back, or at me, once.
The woman released my hand at the end of the bridge with a smile and a thank you. I never saw her again. As I made my way home, it was a very long walk, people offered me rides or water, but I declined. I was alive. I was all right, almost happy. One guy, who seemed like an off-duty cop and was definitely Italian, insisted that he take me to a hospital. It was then that I realized there was blood on the back of my clothes. The man said to me "I'm takin' you to the hospital bro. Don't be a tough guy." A Bensonhurst accent, for sure. But I didn't feel any hurt as I issued instructions to my brain to layoff the adrenaline and locate the pain. He only let me go after we both, with great effort and moderate disrobing, couldn't locate any injury. The blood belonged to someone else. I was no hero, but I had survived.
That evening, after getting clean, watching the news, making contact with family, and taking account of my friends, I ate. I ate a lot. I ate at an Afghan restaurant on the Upper West Side as my country prepared for war against that country. I wasn't the only one. There were plenty of bars and restaurants open and full. It was amazing to me that my city was diligently getting back to its usual routines as the nation begin to experience shock. I thought of the television stories of places like Dallas closing down this or Denver closing down that while we at the scene of the crime ate dinner outdoors. Cabs were available. Delis served. Gum was sold at newsstands. Yet, the eerie smell of burning lingered.
I wanted to go back and see, but when I got to 14th Street the streets south were blocked. I had taken account and knew that friends of mine were still unaccounted. I stopped and looked at the many makeshift murals that sprung up everywhere. The many faces, copies of photos and names of family members and friends that failed to report. The many pictures and all the names. A collage of the missing from around the world, every color and creed. The American flag. Finally, somewhere in the middle, some graffiti: "You can't stop New York City."
That is what I remember. Surviving. Persevering. Pride and unity in the midst of disaster. Providing some reciprocation to the orthodox lady with the crooked wig, who didn't know she did more for me than I did for her. It is my story. Now that it has been written, it is yours as well.