Friday, September 11, 2009
remembering 9/11, another New Yorkers tale
As New Yorkers can attest and tourists can understand September 11th is a big deal here in the city. It's everywhere in the media and certainly on everyone's mind. This September 11th, eight years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, it is rainy and cold. The work day was relatively quiet and we plugged away, did our work, and got out of there. Coming home I caught up on checking voicemail and returning phonecalls. On the phone with a woman in Colorado she politely asked how the weather was today in New York. I admitted that it was rather rainy and miserable, fitting with the day in many ways. The pause announced that she was lost. "You know, because of it being September 11th and all", I continued. Of course then she realized what I was talking about and had no idea what to say. In the same polite tone we got out of the conversation and off the phone. A bit stunned I realized some people forget this day. Hmm. Because I remember it so clearly, my story at least, like it was yesterday.
It was one of those perfect September mornings on Long Island. The air temp was soft and comfortable, the sky clear blue with picturesque little clouds. The surf was kicking so there was an extra dose of salt to the morning breeze and it smelled fabulous. I had to go to work selling trees at the nursery so I barreled along in my old blue Explorer. That day I was on the schedule from 9am to 6pm. When I got to the main building to punch in the administrative offices were buzzing. People were saying a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, others were hopping on the phone, there was no internet. I went downstairs to the basement to Alex Mao's desk, the IT wiz kid who started as a cashier with me years ago. Before the internet got jammed Alex had been able to save a tiny picture of the twin towers with the fiery impact of Flight 11 atop the north tower. Of course then I didn't know all these details, as a partying 24 year-old in the country I barely knew anything about the World Trade Center at the time. I kind of didn't get it. Things weren't registering. But that visual was like nothing I had ever seen. I retreated to the tree and shrub shack.
That season at the nursery the tree and shrub sales staff set up our own office in a small wooden shed a long stone's throw from the main garden center and shop. The wood was worn, the windows still filled with the old wavy glass panes. The shack let in a warm sunlight through the huge panel doors at one end, exposing pieced together computer stations and bookshelves full of reference material, plant samples, tools. A lot of people worked at the 21-acre nursery, and five very different characters ourselves, we liked our safe little space to hide out. Clad in our work boots and summer uniforms, walkie-talkies on the hip, we found an am/fm radio and turned it on.
Already a few minutes after 9am the second plane had crashed into the south tower. We heard how Manhattan was being shut down and the military was being called in. Like everyone else we had no idea what was going on. People were pacing around the small office getting worked up. I ran out of the shack and scrolled through the address book on my cell phone. I was able to catch my mom at home. Frosty, my brothers girlfriend, worked on the commodities exchange in the basement of the World Trade Center. Luckily she was late to work that day. As she got out of the subway there was already a flow of people walking away from the twin towers towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Frosty called Gian Carlo still at home in Brooklyn and told him to turn on the news. Gian was able to call mom and let her know Frosty was alright before the phone lines into and out of New York became jammed because of the high call volume. Mom was watching the news on TV, and couldn't describe the images. I stepped back into the shack as the radio had a new announcement. The DJ was interviewing a general at the Pentagon when all of a sudden they themselves were hit by commercial Flight-77. The Pentagon, attacked! This is big we confirmed with each other.
It was 10am when the south tower collapsed and even the radio announcers were speechless. An hour had gone by but time was standing still. It's that moment that I remember most clearly. There was something about the duality of the perfectly beautiful day and the unfolding devastation that together made the moment so surreal. We just stopped and listened, suspended in space, absolutely motionless. James, a proud firefighter, sat with his 6'+ frame hunched over the small computer desk, the screen still inactive. I think that was the summer Cassady was pregnant, sitting at her desk, facing the other side of the shed. Kevin and Jessica stood in the late morning sun pouring into the building, motionless like stone obelisks balanced atop the worn wooden floorboards. About this time my brother was finally getting to the water's edge at the end of North 1st in Williamsburg. He joined the crowd and stared in amazement at the scene unraveling across the river. At one point, he would later tell me, he turned around to register the sea of eyes staring along with him. Expression was inevitable and instantaneous because none of us knew such devastation, violence, uncertainty, death. We screamed and cried and questioned. We heard the rebirth of "terrorists" and "terrorist attack". We hugged and held each other, wondering if this was really happening. Gian Carlo watched the second tower collapse with his own eyes around 10:30am.
All of a sudden our walkie-talkies rang out through the airwaves. "I need a tree and shrub sales associate outside the garden shop to help with flowering trees". The five of us looked at each other in angry bewilderment. There were no words but we were all thinking the same thing. Are you fucking kidding me?!? Someone wants to shop right now?!? Aggravated curses started and already tired of the banter I said I'd take it, grabbing my wide brimmed hat and heading out towards the larger barn. I passed through the admin building to confirm I was taking care of the call and it was the first time I heard of Flight-93 crashing in the Pennsylvania countryside. I met the clients and their garden designer and we began into the sea of overhead balled and burlapped trees. They told me their wants and we began to swim through the options and price tags. Somewhere between the fruit trees and the espaliers I finally had enough. I asked them in a smooth tone if they knew that we had just been attacked by terrorists. They did, though their reaction seemed enragingly bland. The garden designer, a local woman I knew, began in on her own rant. Soon the richie couple realized their priorities were kind of fucked up, or at least the garden designer and I did, and the purchase was pushed back to another time. The couple got back into their Range Rover, the gardener back into her Chevy, and they were off. They would be my first and last clients of the day. Once again I would retreat to the tree and shrub shack. James had found an American flag and we hung it across the front entryway. Kathleen then announced that we were closing for the day and sent us all home to be with our families.
By mid afternoon the media coverage of the same video clips was getting tiresome. I went over to Bob and Raina's house, my great older punk rock friend and his amazing daughter who I was dating. Having lived in the city for many years I wanted to see Bob and hear what he had to say about it all. We sat in his room with the dogs sharing a bone and talked through the flurry of emotions trying to make sense of it all. Years ago when he lived in Breezy Point and shaped surfboards Bob had befriended a fellow surfer, a firehouse captain. That morning when Bob first heard about the twin towers attack he called his friend. It went right to voicemail. Bob left a message saying to call him back right away. Eventually Bob would get a call back, his friend the captain on the other end. Because the surf was so killer that morning he took the morning for himself and decided to paddle out at dawn before going to the firehouse. When he got back to his truck he had two messages. One message was from Bob, the other was from his firehouse that they were heading into Manhattan. He called Bob back right away and Bob was the one to fill him in on the news. In the end the captain was the only one who survived from the entire fire company. Ultimately surfing saved his life that morning. An entire company of firefighters, killed in the collapsed dust and debris that swarmed the city. How would he ever get over those feelings of grief and guilt for all his lost men? I still don't know. Thinking about it still makes me well up. That's when it got really personal.
The church bells begin their evening chimes across the street. The rain persists in New York City. Manhattan is barely visible through the fog from the elevated N train carrying me back to Astoria, Queens. Each person in our own way reflects on this day. We relive our memories, and continue to move on, to help others cope, to show our support of the men and women who gave their lives. From the standpoint of this New Yorker, even though I can rant and rave like the best of them, I am thankful to those men and women who give their all to ensure safety and peace for the rest of us, and I hope people never forget 9-11-01.