What I remember on 9/11.
I was on the island that day, 9/11/2001 — Manhattan Island, site of Radio Music Hall, Empire State Building, and the World Trade Center. My old office, Deutsche Bank at 100 Liberty Street, endured mass destruction. I was told the cafeteria on the second floor had it’s windows blown in.
I wasn’t in the building on 9/11. I lost my job the week prior. That day, I was in my apartment, starting a job search while still dealing with the pain that comes from a tough loss. My goal was to find a product management position still in the banking sector.
After the first plane hit, I didn’t know what to do. You’ve heard it all before. It was like a Gerard Butler movie, not real life. All I knew was I had to find work. I was on the phone when the second plane hit. I was on the phone with a contact at HSBC. Moments after that explosion, he said,”Um, I can’t talk right now,” then hung up.
That’s when I realized no one would be talking. We were all stunned and glued to our screens as the horror unfolded — the Twin Towers, dual symbols of global commerce and national pride and prosperity, suddenly set ablaze by sligh, patient, and plotting terrorists that flew planes into glass.
As I watched the South Tower burn, I couldn’t believe that which took twenty seconds to get to from my building’s front door was gone. The south tower was that close. I remember an An Au Bon Pain was tucked to the right right inside. I went there for lunch.
Here’s a story: I started working at Deutsche Bank in August of 2000. Ever been to New York in August? Let’s just say if it weren’t for all the urban hustle and bustle, you’d think you were in the Sierra.
One day during the first week, from the time I left my apartment building to the time I arrived at the subway, it was so hot, I sweat the whole ten minute walk. And not just sweat, but sweat as if I ran a marathon in the very same heat. I was drenched.
And if that weren’t enough, I then waited on the express train platform for fifteen minutes. The platform, although waaaaay underground, was even hotter. Just standing there I sweat even more profusely. Sweat soaked through my shirt, pants, socks, and, yes, underwear. It was as gross as it sounds.
When my train arrived, I ran into the south tower’s Structure clothing store where I bought an entire change of clothes — yes, even underwear. At one point, I looked in the mirror and was shocked to see I was completely naked in the fitting room. I couldn’t stop though. I should’ve been at work by then. That, plus a store fitting room is no place to examine your birthday suit.
I made it to work and was still dry upon arrival. That experience taught me to carry a spare set of clothes until the cooler weather arrived.
The funny thing about television is what’s on the screen is rooted in entertainment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a football game, a talk show, or a PBS borefest. Even the news back then had a dramatic element. You could watch the unimaginable unfold on a screen, and it may strike you as compelling, but it didn’t stop you from going about your business.
On 9/11, that was different. That was my Kennedy assasination moment, just like crossing time into this dystopian pandemic. I was in my apartment, struck by events as they unfolded. I saw the planes crash. I saw fellow New Yorkers and Americans jump from buildings that burned at temperatures hundreds of degrees high. I saw ash float through the air and coat whatever was in it’s way. Black, brown, and white all suddenly grey walking around like zombies. I saw it and I was stunned, sure, but I still went about my day.
There were two instances where I understood the moment’s gravity:
First, that afternoon, around 2 or 3 in the afternoon. I saw a mass of people marching up 2nd Avenue by the hundreds. The men wore suits and ties. The women wore pant suits, skirts, and heels. They looked hot and tired. Many carried briefcases and many struggled with them. Some just struggled. I didn’t know what was going on.
It wasn’t until the next day I read about how the transportation systems were shut down. Tunnels and bridges were blocked off. Taxis weren’t available. Getting along in the city that never sleeps was not getting anywhere. The people I saw that afternoon worked downtown and had to walk home regardless of where they lived. If you lived in Park City, you walked. If you lived in mid-town, you walked. If you lived in the Upper E or West Side, you walked. If you lived in the Bronx, you walked.
And if you lived in New Jersey, you walked. New Jersyians, if there is such a thing, couldn’t take The Path train across the Hudson to their New Jersey residence. Instead, they had to walk through downtown, midtown, and uptown all the way to the George Washington Bridge; they crossed the bridge and then made their way home. A forty five minute commute by train, if not shorter, took many many hours. If you lived right across the Hudson from downtown towers, the trek home on 9/11 was like walking three sides of a rectangle, two of them long. Up an Avenue, across the GW, and down. All I know is, to see those people, it was something.
The second moment occurred when I started to see missing persons signs. At first, I was accustomed to witnessing entire walls covered with sheets of paper that said “Missing: John Smith. If you see him please call (212) — — -”. Photographs were underneath or between the text. Some were in black and white, some color. Some were school pictures. Some were informal head shots. One was with his dog. Whoever they were, they looked happy.
But I remember the memorials had an aura around them. They were vigils. The number of people on those walls was astounding. Hundreds. So sad. So many lives lost. So many people were desperate to find loved ones and never would. That night, the city needed comforting, and they got it.
9/11 was a nice, bright day, but my heavens, was it dark. That night, the restaurants were packed. If you stepped outside you could hear the restaurant noise as outside seating was packed. You couldn’t miss the patron chatter and clang of dishes. It was loud.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I don’t think I was alone. Who could after a day like that?
At 3am, I went for a walk. No one was in the streets. Even the city had quiet moments. I walked to the corner and saw a phone booth. Back then, before cell phones were cell phones, we had phone booths.
At the corner of 82nd and 1st Avenue, I saw a lone missing persons flyer in the booth. It wasn’t surrounded by anything but the metal frame, stuck in a clear window. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name. But what I do remember is thinking about the gravity of this one person’s situation. Someone, one person, is out there looking for a loved one that died on TV. They didn’t know if it was true. It was all so very new, and no one knew anything. The reality hit me hard.
I moved out of New York in December of that year and I never returned to banking. Over the past ten years I’ve taken care of my kids. A few months ago I started writing on Medium.
And I haven’t returned to Ground Zero either. So much has happened. I don’t know if I ever will.