The Day After: A Love Letter to New York

| September 11, 2012 | 8 Comments

“Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.” — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

In the hinterlands of central Burma, in the pitch of night, a man threw open the clapboard shutters of his shop, cranked up his generator, turned on the television, and yelled for his neighbors to come see what was happening. They came scurrying down the dirt streets and stood, mouths agape, their faces illuminated by the flickering images of a faraway land of modernity crumbling to a smoldering heap. “Many people not see these buildings before this time and we can’t believe,” Mr. Nynt told me in 2005. “And we cry for America. Everybody cry.”
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The whole world owns September 11th, 2001. No matter where you go, everyone has a story and they love to tell it. And we, as New Yorkers, listen — sometimes humbled, sometimes annoyed — but we get it: They own it, too.
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But only New Yorkers own September 12th. Trying to explain to someone what it was like in the days that followed is like teaching someone how to jump rope in a tar pit.
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The idea of concentrating on a book while riding the subway was unfathomable on the day after, and it would be like that for months. On that first morning, heading into work with a bundle of newspapers clutched to my chest, I sat on the farthest end of the subway. If they chose to bomb us today, I thought, they’d enter from the middle of the car; I might have a fighting chance to escape through the connecting door.
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The only sounds on the A train that day, and for some time thereafter, were the rustlings of newspapers and gentle murmurs of “excuse me”s and “I’m sorry”s. And in between the turning of a page, you’d lock eyes with a stranger, force a half-smile, and nod in silence as if to say, “I know — me, too.”
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On 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue I passed policemen in bomb gear strapped with machine guns standing sentry by Port Authority, and outside the subway entrances, and on the corners down the block. Already the fliers looking for lost husbands, girlfriends, daughters, sons were plastered everywhere: “Have you seen…?” And, as if it were our duty as New Yorkers; as hopeless as we knew it was, we’d stop and read them, just in case.
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And you could smell it sixty-plus blocks away. You could actually smell it — them — burning.
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The new security at the ground floor of the Hilton Times Square inspected my bag as I ascended to Above, the north-facing restaurant on the twenty-first floor, where I was an assistant manager.
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I’d barely slept the night prior because I wanted to arrive early for my shift. I’d already seen the televised coverage from my apartment in northern Manhattan, but now I needed to know it. I put my handbag under the podium and began checking the lunch reservations. Then I heard the janitor cleaning the marble floors in the back of the dining room. I’d seen him before, but we’d only exchanged one-line pleasantries. I went over, he turned off the spinning polisher, and we looked at each other; smiled that half-smile, shrugged and patted backs. I asked if he’d lost anyone but he couldn’t get the words out: his tears answered my question.
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I took the elevator up a couple of floors to the ballrooms that faced south toward downtown. And there in the empty spaces were hundreds of employees weeping at our gaping skyline. And the smoke rising. And the people pointing. And the sniffs. And the arms around each other. And the what-happens-next?
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That lunch-into-dinner shift was filled with remembrances from the staff and some from stranded guests who were unable to leave the city since flights wouldn’t resume for another twenty-four hours. “Did you know anyone?” became the common addendum to any greeting. One of my waitresses, Gabby, had known some of the firemen, and she was particularly fragile.
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A party of six in the corner was celebrating a birthday as most people do, drinking and laughing: business people stuck with us for another day. They’d go back to their safe communities that terrorists don’t even know existed and worry that Al Qaeda was going to blow up their bank at the strip mall. Gabby was their waitress and it just didn’t seem right to have fun. Not like that and certainly not yet.
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I went to the table and whispered to the shrieking woman that while we were grateful that they’d chosen to dine and celebrate with us, her waitress had lost friends at World Trade Center, and if she could please try to be respectful of that. In her defense she gasped and apologized because, well, she remembered the day that she owned this tragedy, too: Yesterday. For her it was over. For us it had just begun.
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I’d held it together quite well throughout until I met an elderly couple from Georgia. They were telling me how they’d watched the whole thing unfold from their hotel window and how they’ll never forget it. But then the lady touched my hand and sweetly asked, “Honey, how are you doing?” And the tears finally came, shaking to a sob. And the tiny woman hugged me.
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Later that night, security detail swarmed the upper lobby but no one would tell us who was coming. Our bar was packed that night with many first responders, stranded tourists and locals from the neighborhood. And then the elevators opened, and I saw him: a man I once despised, a man whom, years earlier, I’d yelled at from my taxi on 54th Street. But now he was our Churchill, our FDR, the only public official who actually said what we needed to hear at the time, and this time I was the first to applaud Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Instantly, the lobby exploded in cacophonous adulation.
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The simplest things made us pause if only for a second: even two empty slots on a bookshelf. It was a time when if more than one person coughed in a room we thought it was biological warfare. If sirens went off then surely another building was coming down. The subway stalled? They got us again. In a silent moment during a play on Broadway, a garbage truck was heard outside shaking a dumpster and the entire audience froze thinking we were under attack. I didn’t wear heels to the theater, “in case I have to run.” Even hearing from a friend that he was going to a ballgame the following week elicited a bit of warning until he sang, “…buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks. I don’t care if I ever get back.” We needed that.
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But after work on silent cab rides home for months I’d look out at the nighttime skyline of the city I love the best — my home — and wonder how much longer I’d get to love it.
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Thirteen years on I still live in the best city in the world and in the same apartment. My friend who banged on my door and pushed past me to show me that World Trade One had been hit, Teddy Tan, has since passed on. Both of my cats have died. The sofa went curbside. My roommate at the time moved back to Indiana. When New York City’s economy screeched to a halt the following month, I, like many of my co-workers, lost my job. I would remain jobless until the spring. Rudy Giuliani’s political divisiveness would quickly waft back and cloud over his one brief shining moment, and ten years after our darkest day a new president would give the command that would take out the man who did this to our country, our home.
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Today, in an area tourists still call “ground zero,”  a new Word Trade Center has risen  — yet its presence is but a glimmering bandage on a skyline that will forever be peeled back when we recall what it was like during that days and the months that followed the attacks.
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Back then I was asked if I would ever leave New York City. My answer then is my answer now: No. I cannot imagine ever leaving this city. We know an attack will happen again; the astonishing thing is that it hasn’t happened yet. But for as long as it is inhabitable I will be here. Never having truly lived is far worse than dying in your country. Your city. Your home.
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Like the t-shirts that filled shop windows only days after the fall of the towers:  ” I NY now more than ever.”

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  1. Heidi Ross says:

    I remember that morning as if it were yesterday. An ordinary morning of getting the children ready and rushing around to get the two of them to different schools. When I returned, I grabbed my cup of coffee and headed for the couch to watch GMA. Just as I was settling in, a special report of a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers came across the the screen. I sat tensely on the edge of my seat. Not able to take my eyes off the screen, I watched in horror as the second plane plunged into the other tower. As I watched, before Diane Sawyer could say a word, I new the USA was under a terrorist attack. I was alone and needed someone to reach out to. As I watched, I think I was in shock, it hit me that my niece, I love you,C, was very close to the site in Manhattan. My state of emptiness became a fear like I’ve not experienced before. I was trembling and my fingertips and lips became tingly. I couldn’t get through to your phone as the system couldn’t handle all the influx of calls. I tried all day. I finally called K to see if she had heard from you. After I hung up the phone, I cried tears of joy for your life being spared and tears for your pain and all of NYC. The whole world and I will NEVER forget!

  2. ts elliot says:

    Thank you for this beautiful portrait of those excruciating days. If your specifics are different from mine it matters little, for you express what it felt like, in the crevices of the minutes that creeped by as we waited for what we expected might come next out of the sky. It was such a shock, that moment of learning the news, that to this day i am horrified that in the not-knowing of what it meant…all i could do was keep working…xeroxing. i was truly empty of understanding. and from there the fear and sadness that simultaneously seeped in that would last for weeks…and longer. the sudden burst of tears that might come at making coffee or doing dishes.
    Anyway…i just wanted to say thank you for your piece. it’s a bittersweet gift.

  3. Stephanie Wilkins says:

    So beautiful, girl. I remember IMing with you just after the first plane hit, when we thought it might have been some freak accident. How could we know the horror that was still to come.

  4. Ashley Smith says:

    So beautifully written, Christina. It is obvious how much you love your home and how proud you are of it.

  5. Sue says:

    I was born in NYC, I grew up there. Got my first job and grew up there, professionally. In 1997, I left NY, and didn’t look back. Until 9/11. My friends had to hold onto my arms to prevent me from running back there, on that day. NY is my home, and I am not there. Every time I read of the pain, and the sorrow, I feel I need to apologize, I was not there, I should have been. Thank you for your prose, it was good to share your experience.

  6. Kürt Hängend says:

    I haven’t lived in New York in over 25 years year but I’ve always felt that I was a New Yorker in my heart [I’m Danish by birth] and that day and this memoir brought back my love for your city. God bless you. This broght me to tears.

  7. Stacy Carthany says:

    Beautiful story about the ugliest of times. That’s just how it felt.

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