I suppose in some ways I’m one of the near-miss stories in the attack on the World Trade Center (WTC). If I had gone to work at the time I’d planned the night before, I would either have been on the W train coming across the Manhattan Bridge, and thus watching it all happen, or on the local R train, which runs beneath Church Street, right in front of the WTC plaza, a few hundred yards from WTC 2. At about that time of the morning, if I’d been on the R, we would have been in the very near vicinity of the Cortlandt Street station, the uptown side of which lets out into one of the basements of the towers.
I don’t feel like a near-miss, not nearly as much as some of my other friends. I was still pottering around in my pj’s in Brooklyn when all of this took place. But while listening to all of this on the radio (I don’t have a TV and was glad enough of it after seeing the stills and streaming video on the net later), I kept thinking, write it down! But I couldn’t. It was too fresh, too immediate, too horrific, too unbelievable. I deeply admire the journalists reporting it as it happened, the reporters posting written accounts to the web in near real-time, but I’m not built that way, apparently.
Some of the early parts of the following were written after the fact because I was too shell-shocked to put much of anything into words, except e-mails and posts to one of the discussion lists to which I belong. I’ve never felt as though the list were a real community to me—we are too faceless and anonymous with our pen- and nicknames—but it was a great way to get news of people, keep in touch, and pass along information, and a great source of kindness despite our anonymity, and so I alternated between reading that, writing replies, listening to the radio, and crying. Oddly enough, as much as people denounce the Internet as a place of isolating anonymous communication, it was a godsend at this particular time. With most of the long-distance and cell phone lines inoperable or jammed, e-mail, discussion lists, and ICM chat rooms became a tremendously easy and reliable way to discover who was okay and who wasn’t, and to offer help and condolences. Although the news sites were difficult to get into, the reporting on them seemed far less sensationalistic and more measured, in retrospect, than the little bits of TV coverage I saw. Many of the people I heard from outside the city would never have been able to reach me otherwise, and vice versa. Five days afterwards, this was still true. I received something like 130 messages during that time, and sent out 83, at last count.
The Event, as someone on the list called it, is too enormous to grasp, the death toll too large to mourn, the disappearance of those two buildings and the following collapse of others around it too impossible to believe, the speed at which it all took place too fast to allow us time to grapple with it, let alone adjust. The problem with being a writer in times like these, even one who does not even dabble in journalism, is that one’s “recording angel“ never shuts off, no matter how much one would like it to. At times like these, I hate this part of myself, the part that can watch everything going on around me, no matter how awful, as well as my own reactions, and stow them away while thinking “Oh, that’ll make some great material later.” Nonetheless, that part of me is there, camera and tape rolling. Some kinder part of myself has blurred it a little, so there are gaps and glossed-over areas.
The public record will take care of recording the actual events themselves. I’ve tried to remember and record important things, significant things that I was thinking and doing and writing at the time. I know that if I don’t do this now, I’ll regret it later, difficult as I’m finding it both to remember what’s transpired, and much as I balk at putting it down.
Somewhere during the week, I took down my illustrated Bible, flipped to the page depicting Christ raising Lazarus, propped it up and lit an oil lamp in front of it. I found myself almost completely unable to pray, except to say “Thanks.” and “Help!” It was hard even to be with friends, though I was, and am, deeply grateful all of them survived unhurt.
What I wanted most to do in those early days was sleep, escape, be somewhere else—in another country, or preferably, another world where people did not hate each other enough to kill.
Instead, it’s Tuesday, September 11, 2001, daylight, a beautiful, cool, clear, blue-sky day, and since I can’t do anything that’s really useful, let me do what I can, what I do best.