In the fall of 2001, I lived on 176 Broadway in New York City, one block away from the World Trade Center. It took me a long time to make even rudimentary sense of what happened in my back yard on September 11th, and ultimately flipping a coin and taking photographs proved the best therapy. But I wrote about the events of that day a few different times, as if they would taste any different when I chewed on them some more. Below, you can read a long letter I sent to everyone I knew in October 2001, trying to explain what had happened to me and (my then-fiancee, now-wife) Jen. I don’t know if it’s cathartic for anybody except me, but I think it has documentary value, at least.
I live one block away from the World Trade Center. No, that isn’t true any more–my home is now one block away from a mass grave and 200 million tons of rubble.
The World Trade Center was where I bought paperbacks, shirts, and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. My ophthalmologist’s office was in the basement mall. On its public plazas, I saw shows by Brooklyn DJs and Vietnamese puppeteers. When I walked around New York City, I would always look up, see the Twin Towers and tell myself, “That’s how far away I am from home.”
On Tuesday morning, September 11th, at nine AM, I was woken up by a phone call from my brother Nick, dryly informing me that I might want to look out my window. In a bathrobe and unlaced sneakers, I blearily stepped out onto my balcony, not knowing what I would see. The balcony was covered with little splatters of papier mache and stray financial documents blew around my ankles. It looked much the way it does after the Yankees have a victory parade down Broadway. Except when I looked up, the World Trade Center was on fire. Smoke and flames belched out of its upper floors. I thought I was seeing a once-in-a-lifetime event, one that would be over an hour or two later–although I figured it would take them a long time to renovate the upper stories–so god forgive me, I went inside and got my camera.
That was when the second plane hit. The explosion was loud, of course, but more than that, I felt it, the sickening sensation of too much bass in my chest. Jen and I clung to each other and watched TV, trying to figure out what was happening. The phone rang constantly, with friends wanting to make sure that we were still alive. I fielded most of those calls while Jen stuffed Alma (the cat) into her carrier and pulled together some possessions in case we needed to leave in a hurry. Jen worried that the buildings might collapse; I reassured her that there was no way that could happen.
Irony has never been cheaper, or more terrifying. When the first tower collapsed, it sounded like an angry god was tearing apart the world with his bare hands. The sky turned black. That was from the ash and debris billowing out from the collapse, although we didn’t know that just then. I fully expected our roof to collapse on us.
We took a deep breath: we were still alive. We gathered more possessions; I copied my novel and my screenplay onto a diskette. In my second-dumbest analysis of the morning, I said, “You know, if we leave the apartment now, we might not be able to come back until late this evening.” We decided that things looked worse on the street than in our apartment, and we should wait a little.
After a few minutes, the sky outside faded to gray: a false dawn, a false hope. Soon after that, the second tower collapsed, not as loudly as the first. The sky turned black again. The air inside the apartment got smokier. In perhaps my one bright move of the morning, I changed the outgoing message on the answering machine, announcing that we were alive but were leaving. Once the dust settled outside (literally–and I never thought I would have occasion to use that phrase literally), we left, with one bag each plus the cat. For some reason, I had decided that my most prized possessions were these: two pairs of socks, the travel edition of Scrabble, and the paperback of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
We walked down nine flights of stairs, and found the lobby was filled with a gaggle of nannies, each holding a young child swaddled in a wet towel or pillowcase. The streets were empty and covered in ash. It looked exactly how you would imagine the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. Our caravan marched north, kicking up vast clouds behind us. A cinder landed on Jen’s back, burning her slightly. Later on, I had this horrible realization: the dust on my boots was not just the residue of buildings and papers, but cremated people.
After three blocks, we emerged into the sunlight. After another ten blocks north, we were surrounded by New Yorkers having their ordinary days: strolling on the sidewalks, arguing about office politics, living in yesterday’s world. We went up to 24th Street to stay with our friends Matthew and Molly. (“I would feel better if I knew you were somewhere safe,” Molly said when she called us. “And it’s all about me.”)
Dumb things we thought about in the immediate aftermath: Jen fixated on how we had planned to go to a dance performance on Saturday night at the WTC plaza. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the Krispy Kreme had just finished their renovation, and how they could have just saved the money. And I kept remembering how the World Trade Center was surrounded by big ugly concrete planters, installed after 1993 to stop another truck bomb, and how they ended up not doing a whit of good.
Recovering from the shock, I had no interest in the reasons for the attack, little ability to grieve for others. I knew that soon enough, I would be thinking about the wider world, but for the moment, I was almost completely self-absorbed. When Major Giuliani gave televised press conferences, I shouted my own questions at the TV set: “When will Gavin Edwards and Jennifer Sudul be able to go home?”
The day after the attack, we walked south down Broadway, showing our driver’s license at five different checkpoints. We told them we were going to check on the cat, but we really, we just wanted to make sure our home was still there. After each cordon, Manhattan became emptier and the sky grew darker. As we got near City Hall, we saw uniformed soldiers standing on the backs of trucks with machine guns. And then the streets were filled again with noise and congestion: a traffic jam of emergency vehicles, all jockeying for location around the void where the World Trade Center once stood.
From one block away, we could see smoke and emptiness where the buildings once stood; Jen began to weep, and I just felt sick. A priest wearing a dust mask came over and hugged Jen. Somehow, we got access to our building. Our home was intact, if a little smoky. We left with just a few changes of clothes. As we walked north, leaving the disaster again, the streets were uniformly gray, the ash had turned to mud, and there was no pavement visible anywhere. The scene looked like a nineteenth century daguerrotype.
That evening, the TV news reported that 1 Liberty Plaza was collapsing, with attendant gas explosions. Since 1 Liberty Plaza is catercorner from our home, this was utterly terrifying. We wondered why we hadn’t taken anything important to us–photos, notebooks–and watched the news come in contradictory dribs and drabs. I tried to get used to the idea that I had probably lost my home and everything I owned. (Better than dying in the initial accident? Of course. But not a good time either.)
That night, just before dinner, I went out for a copy of the New York Times. The corner newsstand didn’t have it, so I kept walking for twenty, thirty blocks, telling myself I was looking for a newspaper, knowing that I was walking away from something else. I kept walking north, walking north, always walking north.
The next day, it turned out that 1 Liberty Plaza had never collapsed, and was still standing. (As I send this email, the latest report is that may even open for business in a few weeks.)
A few days later, the TV news told us that lower Manhattan was open again and that we could return home. We went back with industrial-strength dust masks and a snow shovel, ready to clean off our balcony and rebuild our daily lives. Unfortunately, our apartment was one block inside “the frozen zone,” which meant that we absolutely were not allowed to even visit. The streets of lower Manhattan were filled with tourists cheerfully wandering around, gawking at the scenes of the destruction and snapping photographs, getting in the way of emergency vehicles. As we trudged back north, I had to resist the urge to hit them with my snow shovel.
This pattern repeated itself over the next few days: we kept on being told by the TV that we would be able to go home tomorrow, but then when we went downtown, discover that our particular building, 176 Broadway, was too close to the World Trade Center to be unfrozen. Matthew and Molly were being wonderful, astonishingly gracious hosts, but we knew they hadn’t bargained on having us on their couch indefinitely, so we checked into a hotel across the street. (They kept custody of Alma, which Molly regretted when she got bitten on the wrist.)
Somehow, the days passed. Jen went to school and to work; I managed to write an article or two. Everything felt like we were moving underwater: I was sleeping ten or eleven hours a night, and simple errands (like buying socks) seemed to take up half the day. Jen didn’t want to ride the subway. We were both shattered, but managed to not have our worst moments at the same time, which let us take care of each other. The worst was seeing the Manhattan walls covered with flyers with pictures of the missing: they were all dead, I knew, and I grieved. And it was too easy to imagine Jen or I having been among them.
The Hotel Marcel, where we were staying, had been extending a half-price sale to people displaced from the World Trade Center area. After ten days, they decided they had reached the limits of their generosity; we moved back into Molly and Matthew’s place for a few days, and then to Club Quarters in midtown. (It’s a “nonprofit business hotel.” Yes, I know that makes no sense.) There was more room there, so Jen was better able to study for her comprehensive art-history exam, which she passed with flying colors.
I was constantly astonished by how hard it was to get information as to what was happening in our neighborhood. The newspapers had mostly moved on to stories about the larger scope: impending military action, the mayoral prospects, the eventual rebuilding. Basic information on the status of the thousands of people out of their homes was surprisingly difficult to find. We tried going to the victims’ support center on Pier 94, which was an astonishing place: enormous tented catacombs, with cubicles set up by FEMA, the Crime Victims Board, the Red Cross, etc., etc.. Dozens of translators for all possible languages. Unfortunately, the groups that might have been able to help us out were completely swamped, and we didn’t want to tax their resources any further. (Things could have been much worse: our insurance company was covering most of our expenses, including our hotel bills.) The cafeteria was empty, so we ate dinner there; each table had fresh flowers and a box of Kleenex.
(Side note: during this time, we went to see Laurie Anderson in concert. Lou Reed sat three rows in front of us, looking like a couch somebody had left out in the rain. I had hoped for a wry distraction, but too much of her music touched on what we had been thinking and feeling. “O Superman,” from twenty years ago, proved to be scarily prophetic in almost every lyric: “Here come the planes/They’re American planes, made in America.” If you own it, put it on and prepare to be freaked out.)
After about two weeks, the city allowed access to our building again. I was relieved to find that after all the bad news, our apartment was basically intact. A lot of ash had leaked in through one window open a tiny crack and through the slight gap at the bottom of the door to the balcony. The whole place smelled like a campfire. I hired a crew of professional cleaners who had been doing the common areas of the building; their specialty is cleaning up buildings after fire damage. Over a three-day period, about eight people cleaned out our apartment with special vacuum cleaners and other HEPA equipment. They wiped down each object individually and dry-cleaned the couch.
Three weeks and one day after the attack, the building’s board announced that we could return; we had clearance from FEMA and all the various local agencies. Phone service, which had been knocked out the evening of the 11th when the local switching station went down with 7 WTC, had returned a week prior. Astonishingly, we had never lost electric power. The very next day (Thursday, October 4th), we went home.
We’ve armed ourselves with HEPA air filters and lots of scented candles to improve the air in the apartment. When I’m inside, I can almost forget what it’s like outside. It’s really really good to be home. But most days outside, the air still has the acrid smell of the burning debris of the World Trade Center. The west side of Broadway is still closed; the east sidewalk is completely congested with tourists trying to take pictures of the site. The neighborhood seems to be coming back to life, although cabs don’t come down this far yet and we still don’t know if some big local stores (J&R Music World, Century 21) will ever reopen. It’s strange and upsetting every time I step out of the subway and the burning smell fills my nostrils.
People in the building are more friendly than ever before. There’s a real sense of community, of having survived something. But now that I’m home, the awfulness of what happened, and the scariness of the consequences–all the stuff that I’ve kept at arm’s length since it happened just so I could survive–is sinking in. I’m just trying to stay busy, get through one day at a time. I’m still experimenting with what works as a distraction: Movies and boardgames have proved useful, while I just stare blankly at novels and visual art. I don’t know if life will ever feel the same as it did before the 11th; it’s going to take a long time to get even halfway back to where I was.
A lot of people have made life more bearable in the past month, offering shelter and socks and, most importantly, friendship. Thank you.