In some ways it’s hard to call up the emotions of that day. In other ways they are as alive as ever. I wrote this piece a week after the towers collapsed.Read More
blue sky. the morning of september 11, 2001 i met my editor tracy devine and bantam deputy publisher nita taublib for breakfast at charlotte, just across the street from the random house offices. it was one of our many wonderful meetings, talking about books and life--a colleague of ours had just gotten married, and we were catching up on that when we heard a plane had hit one of the world trade towers.
a small plane i thought, it had to be, but how terrible no matter the size, how shocking. but it wasn't a small plane, and then the second jet hit, and nita and tracy and i hugged goodbye and hurried away into our lives to plan and make sense or no-sense and be in new york city--all three of us lived there--that had already changed forever, only we just didn't know it yet.
impressions: the blue sky everyone still talks about; plume of smoke visible from midtown, constant sirens, walking downtown and seeing people on cell phones--i didn't have one yet. an hour later, after the towers fell, seeing people in business suits covered with ash. the next nights: below 14th street, a dust cloud that glowed red after dark, as thick as the foggiest london night. the posters hung by families, their missing loved ones, on the wall by famous ray's pizza across from st. vincent's hospital. going to the cathedral of st. john the divine, didn't matter what religion you were or were not, just a place to gather and pray and mourn.
the city smelled of smoke and ghosts. people were kind to each other but also lost it on a frequent basis. i remember those early days, tuning into local tv news, pre-theme music. do you know what i mean? the moment when a tragedy acquires a combination of familiarity and production values, and the tv producers give it solemn theme music and a name. it takes away the raw. i hated when that happened a day or two after 9/11.
heading to the west side highway many nights--closed to traffic, it was kept open for search and rescue workers. people lined the streets, watching pickup trucks, fire trucks, many with out of state plates, drive south toward the world trade center. i was in the midst of leaving a worse than bad marriage, but the tragedy bound us together for a few more months, and those first nights after the towers collapsed we'd go to the west side highway, watch those rescue trucks in the surreal riverside light. i couldn't bear for anything else to collapse.
during the early days after the attack, friends helped at the site. the poet-nun sister leslie went to st. paul's with other sisters from her community, to offer spiritual comfort to the rescue workers. poet-naturalist e.j. mcadams, then an urban park ranger, spent days in and around the rubble, going into apartments to rescue animals abandoned in the evacuation. interesting that my two closest poet friends had reason to be there--the city needed poets more than ever.
the week after the towers fell i stood on park avenue south and watched a woman in a yellow dress commit suicide, jumping from a ledge and landing at my feet. the grief in the city was unimaginable. had she lost someone in the towers? or was the city's collective sorrow just too much to bear?
in december my friend, poet, writer, and radio personality colin mcenroe came to the city from hartford and he is a sensitive soul as we all know so we went downtown but mostly we went to the cathedral to watch paul winter prepare for his solstice concert and a few days later there was a fire in the cathedral and everything seemed touched by sorrow, mystical beauty, blue stained glass, and the unpredictability of life.
ten years have passed. the anniversary unbearable at first, but time dulls, if not heals, the shock and pain. for years the cats and i have looked out my south-facing chelsea windows to see the towers of light rising up from where the twin towers once stood. they appear beautiful, mystical, but i love nature, and i couldn't and can't deny that they're magnets to birds that fly by night, fall migrants heading south for the winter--the birds get trapped in the light columns, and at dawn fall to the ground. after a while i couldn't stand seeing those light towers--they reminded me of death, not hope. so i stopped looking out my window the last years of this decade of september 11's.
i'm not in ny this year. i want to be far away, and i am. the sky is blue, the way it was that day. there are no speeches or memorials or flags. there are no columns of light. but there is peace and prayer and memory, and there are poems, and there is love. nita and tracy, we were together that morning. i'm holding your hands, wherever you are.