15 years seems an impossibility—for the New York of that time, and the New York before, to be so far in the rearview. It’s especially strange when my overwhelming feeling for much of 9/11 was that none of us might survive the day, or the weeks and months to follow. I woke up that Tuesday with plans to take a break from looking for a job that would get me out of my parents’ house on Long Island, and to go to the city in the afternoon and evening, ending up at a party called NYNEX (named for the pre-Verizon phone network that’s another ghost of New York past). The sky was brilliant, I was over the cold/flu that had sent me home early from a post-graduation trip to Europe, and the phone was already ringing—so far so good. And then it kept ringing. My brief sense of promise quickly turned ominous and, almost unconsciously, I went into my parents’ room and simultaneously turned on the TV and hit play on the answering machine (no cell until 2003), which already showed 10 messages. As the cathode image zapped into focus, I watched smoke pouring from both buildings of the World Trade Center. Then, the south tower fell, while my mother’s voice pleaded, through the crackle of the cheap recorder, for me to not get on the train.
The rest of the day passed in a ponderous silence punctuated by the bleat of the busy signal. The attack and then the collapse of the towers first overloaded, then completely knocked out regional cellular and long distance calls. Most of the broadcast TV stations went with the WTC antenna, and some of the radio stations. All flights were grounded, deadening the constant background hum of traffic into LaGuardia and JFK. The 9/11 timeline is so well-worn now that the unknowns of the events as they were unfolding have been obscured. The news that was able to trickle through reported up to eight planes, then three, that were in the air still unaccounted for. In the meantime I dialed and redialed friends—two of whom were working in the immediate neighborhood of the WTC, my parents, loved ones across the country, and for hours couldn’t reach anyone. My parents didn’t know until they finally came home from work that I was actually at the house and not downtown. I stared out the window at the now comically blue sky, shuddered at the sound of military aircraft passing overhead, and wondered if I ought to be duck-and-covering in the basement.
Eventually, I couldn’t take the immobility and decided I might as well do what I was supposed to before getting on the train—go have blood drawn to make sure I was fully ok following the mystery illness I’d picked up in Venice. I couldn’t reach the lab to see if anyone would be there, so I just walked. From the high hill in our neighborhood, the Manhattan skyline was clearly visible—just 20 miles away. A thick column of smoke engulfed Lower Manhattan and seemed to reach into the upper atmosphere, and even at that distance, the smell was intense—an acrid combination of dry cement, jet fuel, burning plastic, electrical fire, and something worse, something biotic and animal and seared. I made my way through sprinklers in front yards, and crowds of kids exiting yellow buses at the end of the school day, and finally arrived at the lab, where the techs and I communicated in monosyllables, all of us with one eye on the cable news feed of bloodied and dust-caked pedestrians, billowing clouds of paper, bodies launching themselves past flames and smoke.
The weeks that followed are blur—a bodily experience of the idea that the brain in shock is unable to parse time. I remember heading downtown to see friends within days; I bought dust masks to take with me and wound up giving away the whole box within an hour, to people who were navigating the streets with tissue stuffed up their noses to try to block out the smell of the dead. The stillness of Manhattan below 14th street on lockdown, except for the rumble of military convoys. Heading to the ongoing vigil in Union Square and seeing friends I didn’t know were in New York in the circle and crying together. The normal rattle-and-shriek of the subway being almost unbearable on nervous systems primed for flight. The fully armed cops and MPs in the cars next to people coated in dust from working on the pile. And everywhere the paper signs with smiling photographs, begging for information. The reading of the names that’s now an annual event began spontaneously as, community by community, people began to count the missing and dead in the midst of systemic breakdown. I went to one for our area, where friends of my parents were among the names, another for the town where my mom taught where many of the students were children of first responders.
As horrific as 9/11 was, even worse was the absolute knowledge that if we made it through day one, we were looking at weeks, months, years of turmoil and, likely, war, due to the administration in the White House. Nothing justifies what the US has gone on to do, and the millions of people who have died for the thousands lost, and the thousands more traumatized, that day. New York, in many events and protests that followed, insisted that the government not act in our names, not that the vast majority of our elected officials listened.