Letter From New York 09 11 15 Memories of 9/11

At the moment I start writing this, the Acela train I’m on is gliding out of Wilmington, Delaware, heading up to New York where I will, hopefully, transfer on to a train going to Hudson. We’re running very late, the result of some unfortunate soul having been hit by a train ahead of us.

It is a warm day, beautiful. And all day today it has been on my mind that today is the 14th anniversary of 9/11. Across the aisle, a pair of women, one from Houston, one from Iowa, are chatting about 9/11 and there is a strange resentment I feel about them casually chatting the way they are.

I’ve wanted to lean over and say: please stop; don’t be flippant. I was there.

It is an inescapable part of my life, which I return to every 9/11 and odd days in between when something will trigger a return.

I was getting out of the shower when the earth moved and I thought there had been a small earthquake. It was the first plane, hitting the first building.

There was the phone call from my partner, Al Tripp, asking me if I knew what was going on? No, I didn’t. Turn on the TV. I did. And we talked for a few minutes, my watching on TV what he was seeing from his office window. We said good-bye.

Going outside, I walked to the corner, which gave me a clear shot of the WTC. Just before turning the corner, a man walked down Spring Street, his hand covering his mouth. I knew then that what I would see, rounding the corner, would be unspeakable.

It was. There was a gaping hole in the Tower and smoke flowing out of it, like blood from a wound. The first refugees were coming up West Broadway, crying and looking lost, though not as lost as those who would come later.

Somehow I was back in my apartment. Either on my land line or on my mobile, before mobile service finished, my then friend Andrew phoned me, to tell me his wife Cheryl was down at the WTC. He had told her to walk to our apartment; he asked me to be there for her.

I waited. She arrived, just as the Towers collapsed. We watched on television as it happened. We looked out on the street as the crowds ran, terrified, down Spring Street, people screaming.

Then there was the silence. Cheryl eventually left to make her way home, to wait for Andrew. When he called to check on her, he berated me for having let her go. There had no been stopping her.

Cheryl and Andrew were shortly reunited. They phoned me and insisted I join them. My partner was trapped on Staten Island; I was going to be alone for the night.

Going up to the corner of Spring Street and West Broadway, I wondered how I would get to their mid-town apartment. A bus came by. It was filled with people from the Financial District who had walked and then caught the bus. It stopped and I got on. I went to give my Metro Card. The bus driver put his hand over the card reader and shook his head. There was no room to sit. Businessmen were frantically attempting to make mobile calls. Some went through. Most did not.

There were two African American women sitting on one of the bus’s benches. We were stopped near 14th Street. A very old man was attempting to get up and approach the bus; we were about to pull away. The two women stood and told the bus driver to stop and open the doors again. They exited the bus and brought the old man on, a process that must have taken five minutes.

They gave him their seats. He had been trying to get home from a doctor’s appointment but he couldn’t make it to any bus in time to get on. They elicited from him where he was going and communicated to the driver. He nodded. We proceeded.

The next thing I recall, we had pulled up to another bus and our bus driver got off and conferred with the other driver. He got back on and went to the elderly man. The other bus driver would be sure he got home. The two women picked him up and carried him onto the other bus. The two drivers nodded at each other, two fighters in the same battle determined to carry out a mission. I have no doubt that man found his way home.

I still remember those women. I still cry when I think of them and that bus driver, so determined to perform a duty that they had not expected to fall to them. I felt humbled to be human.

Eventually, though I have no clear memory of leaving the bus, I found myself in mid-town, walking toward Andrew and Cheryl’s, walking stunned through streets filled with others as stunned or more than myself. People cried, people walked staring ahead, people walked as if they had no idea where they were going or where they had been.

Sometime while at Andrew and Cheryl’s it became an imperative for me to be at home. It was nonsensical. My partner was on Staten Island. But I became convinced I had to be home if he got there. I needed to be there and over great objections, I launched myself out into the crazed streets of Manhattan.

Walking for awhile, I finally found a livery service car that said he would take me as far south as he could go, which turned out to be 14th Street. No vehicles, except emergency vehicles were allowed south of there. The only people allowed to walk into the area were those with ID that showed they belonged there.

As I stood in the glare of floodlights and endless police cars were their lights flashing, opposite a line that went to eternity of dump trucks meant to start carting the debris away, I thanked God that my new New York driver’s license had arrived with my address on it.

Showing it to a police officer at a checkpoint, he nodded and let me go and I walked and walked and walked and walked until I climbed the stairs to our apartment.

I didn’t turn on the lights. The eerie ambient light of spotlights and police cars was enough to see. Sitting down on my bed, I put my head down and cried.

Overhead were the sounds of fighter jets, circling the city. The sound of them against the absolute silence of the city was beyond surreal, alone in the dark, I was inhabiting some strange world, and thrust into what was a nightmare from which I was not sure I would awake.

Somehow, I finally slept, waking early, walking out onto Spring Street in Soho, a normally bustling street of commerce. It was dead quiet. Papers from the Towers blew through the streets; the acrid smell of Delhi in the winter was in the air, a mixture of burnt rubber and acrid smoke.

It was as if I was alone in the world; like the last scene in ON THE BEACH, a movie about the end of the world, buildings intact but all living things dead.

Much of the day after, I spent sitting on the couch, waiting, not reading, not watching TV, just waiting for Al Tripp, my partner, whom I called Tripp. Eventually he returned.

I’m not sure now. It seems to me he got off Staten Island, into Brooklyn, walked the Bridge to home. I do remember him standing in the door of our bedroom and walking to him and putting my arms around him and holding him for a long time, feeling his living presence, aware that many that morning would never again hold their loved ones.

It has been fourteen years. I’ve waxed long tonight. Thank you for bearing with me.

I’ve noticed, sometimes, when people find themselves at dinner parties with those who were in the city that day, there is a need to share our experiences with each other, an ongoing, collective healing by telling our stories once again, as if, by each telling, we relieve ourselves of the burden of that day.

My brother once said to me in the days that followed that he was sorry I was there. On the contrary, I feel grateful to have been there.

I was a witness to history. Listening to the jets overhead, I knew the world would never be the same and it has not been.

It was a privilege to have been on that bus and witness the humanity of those two women. I saw the poor old man but was too much in shock to interpret his needs. They were. They responded. They rescued him. Wherever they may be today, I say a prayer of gratitude for them and what they did that day. As I do for that bus driver and all the other people who that day, did their best while their world was blowing up around them.

It is years later. We have now endured what seems like endless years of war. We do our best on some levels to pretend it is not happening. But it is and it all began then.

It is important to learn from what has been and it is important to let that inform where we go.

Thank you.

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3 Responses to “Letter From New York 09 11 15 Memories of 9/11”

  1. Anthea Says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience first hand! As I look out my window at the freedom tower- I can’t help but imagine the pain 😦

  2. Phil Rhode Says:

    Thank you

  3. tombers Says:

    Thank you, Phil, for reading. Appreciated. Mat

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