I don’t like to think about 9/11, especially not on 9/11. Nothing about my life has been the same since that day. I can see it clearly 14 years later as a demarcation point, where my life ceased to be what I thought it was going to be, what I hoped it might be and slowly became–something else.
I don’t say that it became a bad something else. I have a beautiful family that I might not have had if not for the events of that day and the days immediately after. Everything was going great on 9/11. My band had made a new record that folks seemed to like. We’d been on tour a couple times that year and on 9/12 we were going to head out again to share some dates with Brent Best’s band Slobberbone.
I walked out of the subway that morning looking for my uptown bus, late for work, as usual. There was a woman screaming. I could hear her from the stairwell and when I emerged, she was running south, with a toddler in an umbrella stroller. The whole things looked desperate, precarious. She was hysterical and the child didn’t look safe. That’s what I thought as I watched her pass. I saw a plume of smoke rising above the buildings to the southwest. The plume was large enough that I thought there was a fire somewhere close, maybe a few blocks away, 12th and 2nd Ave, maybe. I got on the bus.
When I got to the office I entered through the mailroom, as I usually did. I never remembered my keycard. Bruce the mailroom manager told me a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. Not long before a baseball player had slammed into a building in a plane. Or did that happen after? I can’t recall. Another unfortunate accident, but the day goes on.
It didn’t take long to realize that it was more than an unfortunate accident. There was another plane. And one in DC. And one in Pennsylvania. My office was a couple blocks from the UN. Theresa’s was a couple blocks from the Empire State. I started considering scenarios, dirty bombs, more planes. There was a time when it seemed like any horrible thing could happen. Meanwhile, our bosses told us to stay put. No one could get phone calls out. It wasn’t clear what was happening, so we rolled TVs into the cubicle farm and watched.
One of the towers fell. A collective gasp. The other building fell and a sense of panic set in. The feeling of imminent danger had subsided, but panic was there in its place. And it wasn’t panic over what was happening or might happen. It was more like a slow cold knowledge that everything was different. There was no coming back from something like this.
People started leaving the office. I had been on the phone with Theresaseveral times and then I couldn’t get her anymore. And I thought about the Empire State, and those other planes in my head. I called and called and there was no answer. Finally, I couldn’t wait anymore. I had to leave, but I was scared. I had no idea what was out there.
It’s hard to explain the fear. I imagine it’s something like dementia. Nothing was as it should have been. Step out the confines of that building and anything could happen. But I had to go. My friend Gerry walked me. Thinking back on that act, it seems so strange, to have one grown man walk another a few city blocks to his wife’s office, but it’s one of the kindest acts anyone has ever blessed me with. So thank you, Mr. Schramm.
Theresa was fine. Walt, the guy who was playing bass for us on the impending tour, found his way uptown to us. Slowly, you could make cell phone calls again. People reconnected and the gauzy fabric of the reality we superimpose started to knit itself back together. We started walking home mid-afternoon. The streets were unlike a NYC I’ve known before or since. Everyone was stunned, damaged, in shock. It was going to be a long walk back to Brooklyn.
As we approached 14th St, there was a homeless guy in the middle of the street signing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister. and probably had been for a while. His voice was blown and he stood in the middle of 3rd Ave and just screamed the chorus over and over again. In my mind, our nation has been that guy ever since–damaged, a little crazy, confused, belligerent.
The subway was running somehow, for some reason. We piled onto an L train and left Manhattan alive. Walt was dusty. He had emerged from the subway that morning blocks away from the Trade Center just as the first tower fell. He had to outrun the wreckage, P bass in one hand and briefcase in the other. Walt was some kind of an IT guy freelancing in the financial district. He lived outside of Philly and took the train in a few times a week. He was going to leave with us on tour the next day. I can’t remember Walt’s last name.
That night I wanted to get drunk. Williamsburg was alive in the late afternoon. It was a beautiful September day. We walked down to the riverside and watched the dual plumes of smoke rise and then we went to Muggs Alehouse and ate and drank. Because we were alive.
The tour was cancelled. The band never recovered. My career as a musician never recovered either. It’s nothing compared to those who lost loved ones on that day. The people attached to the handbills advertising lost family members plastered on the plywood construction barriers outside hospitals, or anywhere else available in the weeks after the attack. I often think of the co-worker whose fiancé was a firefighter. He died in one of the towers. When he knew he wasn’t going to get out he called her office phone. She was probably out in the halls watching TV with the rest of us. He left her a voicemail that said goodbye and that he loved her. My boss bought a tape recorder and recorded it for her a week or so later.
Everyone has a story from that day. Everyone who lived in New York, everyone across the nation. But now, on this day I think about my day. I think about that woman who ran by me as I came out of the subway. Who did she lose? Or was her loved one OK? I think about Walt and feel bad that I cant remember his name. I think about that person I might have been; maybe I would have been the successful singer/songwriter I thought I was on the way to being, or maybe it would have fallen apart some other way. All that stuff is held together with spiderwebs. It just takes the slightest breeze.
But mostly–and this is what I want people to think of when they hashtag #neverforget–what I think about is the smell. For weeks afterward the smell of the still-smoldering buildings was everywhere. It got so I knew the patterns of the wind currents on the east side of New York because of where I could smell the smell. In the mornings it was strong in Manhattan and I could smell it as I walked into the office. In the evenings the current shifted and I could smell it outside our apartment or on the street just before I went into the bar. It was the smell of burning plastic, something oily, a hint of woodsmoke, and somewhere in there, though I could never discern it specifically from the other scents, the tang of burning flesh, of those bodies never recovered. It was there in the city for weeks as the holes in the ground still burned like giant char pits.
There’s something important in that memory, something we’ve lost as the years have passed or the events of that day have been coopted for other uses. But I’ll #neverforget the smell. And the rest of us shouldn’t either.