I have been asked this quite a few times in my life. Exactly two months after the towers fell, I was in Las Vegas. When you are a gambler, you sign up for player’s cards at casinos and earn comps. There are a lot of casinos in Las Vegas. I showed my ID to people a lot of times. Every time, I got asked about it. After that trip, it died down a bit. Then I started going to Europe and it began all over again. Every European who has ever asked me about it, has done so with the most sincere look of interest on their face, as if I am about to expound a fascinating firsthand account of that day. I hate to disappoint them by telling them that while yes, I was indeed here on that date, you saw more than I did. Including the collapse of the North Tower, which had a television antenna on top of it. While you were watching the tower collapse on your television screen, you were watching the antenna that gave me television reception collapse as well.
I live in Brooklyn, on the N train line. Back in September of 2001, it ran under the World Trade Center. I passed under it at around 8:30 every morning. On September 11, I had to be at work early to let caterers in for a morning meeting. I was long gone from that station by the time the first plane hit. I was at my desk at work when the first plane hit. Someone sent out a company wide email saying she had just seen a plane crash into the World Trade Center and included a warning for anyone who needed to travel down there that morning, that it would probably be a madhouse.
No one knew what was going on. It was an interesting piece of news for sure, but everyone just pretty much went back to whatever they were doing before hearing the news. What I was doing was aiming for “Employee of the Year” by sitting online talking to friends on a message board, no big deal.
Then the second plane hit.
I found out about this by a post on the message board I was reading. I didn’t believe it because how could that be possible? Come on now, TWO planes happen to hit the World Trade Center back to back? Pfffffffft.
It was then that I discovered that the majority of news websites were no longer loading. I could not get on ANY news website. What the fuck is going on? Wait, is this real?? Hello? Can someone please tell me what’s going on? I can’t seeeeeeeeeeee!
At this point, my job announces that anyone who wants to leave is welcome to. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. The trains were taken out of service and I wasn’t really dressed for an eleven mile walk home. I wasn’t even really in a rush to get home. I was content to stay in front of my computer and stay updated.
I went outside to smoke a cigarette. It was LOUD outside. Sirens screeching like a mother fucker. All you heard were sirens, all you saw were people walking around like zombies.
Then a man starts to walk by with headphones on. He stops suddenly, clutches his chest and starts choking on his next words which were “The South Tower just fell.” Um. The South Tower did WHAT NOW?
People who ask me as a New Yorker for some firsthand account of the day really do not comprehend what it was like being here as it was happening. Every time something new happened, it was just met with a WAIT WHAT response. I don’t really think I was horrified at all as this was happening. I was just kind of confused as to what was real and what was not because it was not possible for all of this to be real. It was so impossible to get any legitimate confirmation on anything. The news websites were overloaded for what I remember being an entire day. It all seemed so ridiculous to me that surely some of it is being fabricated. This is too insane to be real.
Then came the rumors about the Pennsylvania plane. Why would a plane be hijacked in PENNSYLVANIA? That cannot possibly be true. WHAT? The Pentagon is on fire? Come on now, this is not the time to be making stuff up.
Finally, I left work. As I walked downtown, the streets of New York were like a movie. There were so many cars pulled over, with their radios all blasting the news in synchronicity. It was kind of creepy to walk through. There wasn’t really much traffic as I work by the Queensboro Bridge, which was closed. All bridges into Manhattan were closed. I remember walking down the middle of the street while the sirens were still blasting in the background of all the car radios.
At some point during my walk, it was announced that the MTA put some trains back in service. I got this information while listening to AM radio on my walkman. The rest of the world was home watching television, getting live updates. I was less than five miles away; I had still not seen a thing.
I got on a train to Brooklyn. Obviously, it was being rerouted. It could not go on it’s normal route under the World Trade Center since the World Trade Center was now inside the train station.
We went over the Manhattan Bridge. Never been to New York? Don’t understand the proximity of the Manhattan Bridge to the World Trade Center? Here is a picture taken on the bridge as the collapsed World Trade Center burns in the background.
As soon as the train went outside, everyone got up and pressed up against the windows. It was dead silent on the train, no one said a word. The train stopped on the bridge and we sat there for a while. No announcements, nothing.
When I got home, I still didn’t really know what was going on. I turned on my television. I had no reception. I didn’t really know why, I honestly just figured that it was temporarily down like the internet and phones. I had no idea that the television antenna was on top of the World Trade Center or that I would not see television again for over a month.
I spent most of the night in my second bedroom, posting to my friends online. There are two windows in that bedroom. One is covered by a cardboard advertisement that I have resting on the window sill. The other one is broken and doesn’t stay open so I keep it closed. When it came time to go to bed, I went into my bedroom where my windows had been open all day/night. I was overcome with how badly it reeked of burning.
Think about things that have bad smells. Have you ever complained about a coworker burning popcorn or microwaving fish? Have you ever smelled burning wires? Or burning plastic? Burning hair? Well picture the smell of two skyscraper’s worth of employee lunches, appliances, wires, paper, desks, chairs, carpets, entire bathrooms…oh and two full sized planes and 2996 burning bodies. That is the smell that had overtaken my bedroom and every bedroom in New York that night.
When I woke up on September 12, my television was still out. I still didn’t really comprehend why. I checked my work email and confirmed my office was closed. I left my apartment and turned left to go to the corner store to buy newspapers. On my way back, I was shocked to see that to the right of my apartment, was the world’s biggest cloud of burning hanging up in the air. To the left, blue sky. To the right, burning death. Literally burning death.
Back home, I sat and read the papers. I had the Daily News with the now famous picture of a severed hand. I am not going to post it. If you have never seen it and would like to, you are going to have to Google.
September 13 came, my job reopened. The business next door received a bomb threat. We were evacuated and the office was closed for the remainder of the week.
When Monday came, I still had no television reception. I left my apartment for work and went to the train station. MTA employees were handing out new subway maps that no longer featured the N line. It simply wasn’t on the map. But we are at the N train platform. You could tell they underwent some weirdo training because they kept repeating “there is no N line” and I kind of wanted to scream “THIS IS THE N LINE”. But they were adamant. This was now the M line. The M train was stopping here and the N didn’t exist anymore.
From that day forward, commuting to work was difficult to say the least. My train didn’t exist anymore. It’s replacement went into Manhattan but not to my job. I started taking a new route to work but that involved taking the D train, which a ton of people were also doing. So that train was always overflowing with people. I had to walk every morning to a station that was four stations further away from Manhattan than the nearest station to my apartment. It was the only way to get on a train. People were calling 911 and pulling emergency breaks like maniacs. If someone had a hair on their head budge slightly, people panicked in fear of a subway bomb.
The D train goes over the Manhattan Bridge. Every morning on the way to work, every evening on my way home from work, we went over the Manhattan Bridge. Every morning and every evening, I saw the spot where the towers used to stand, marked with an enormous cloud of smoke. Every morning and every evening that I saw this spot, I listened to the train conductors announce that the air conditioning was going to be turned off as we crossed the bridge due to air pollution. The towers burned for three months. I don’t know if most people realize that. Three months. Every day for three months I heard that air conditioning announcement. Twice.
At work, one of my managers had called me in to talk to me. He let me know he had no expectation whatsoever of me showing up on time and to not worry about it. Don’t leave earlier, don’t stress out, and don’t worry about it. He has since passed away but I still think about that kind gesture every time he crosses my mind.
Next up, there was new security in place at the building I work in. We all had to be issued badges with our pictures on them and could no longer enter the building without swiping the cards at the entrance.
During all this time, I still had not seen any footage of the incident. I still did not have television. I was so emotionally drained from my new schedule that I had no interest in looking it up online.
Once I figured out that my television reception was not coming back anytime soon, I decided it was time to get cable. I called to sign up and was told there was over a one month wait, due to the overwhelming amount of people who like me, were signing up because they had no longer had television reception. By the time I finally got cable, it had been six weeks since the towers fell. Life was slowly getting back to normal. I still had never seen any footage of that day because by the time I got cable installed, they weren’t showing it 24/7 any longer.
In late October, the N train came back. That was really weird. I moved into my apartment in 1998. The N train, as far as I was aware, had always run express in Brooklyn, and then took the long way underground to go local in Manhattan. I had no idea that the N train was intended to run over the Manhattan Bridge and only ran underground because the Manhattan Bridge had repairs being done on it that had apparently spanned eleventy billion years. Now that the N train cannot run underground, the MTA finally finished the work on the bridge and the N train is now an express train making my commute so much quicker.
I think most people think of cities like New York to be a giant mass of strangers. That isn’t exactly true. I see the same people every day on the train. You never acknowledge each other, but you get to know each other. Oh hey, there’s that kid who’s mother encourages him to nearly knock down any person in his way when he bolts for a seat. Oh hey there’s that weirdo lady who dresses up as if she is going to Easter Mass every day, who spends the entire hour on the train reading her bible while moving her lips, and for some reason, stands up at 57th Street and moves to the door, but doesn’t get off at 57th Street, ever. Oh hey, there’s the guy with the mullet. There’s that adorable hipster couple who are adorable despite being hipsters. You recognize these people. You see them every day. You learn what stops they get off at.
There was this one couple I would see just about every day. She used to sit on his lap and they would make out the entire time they were on the train. They annoyed everyone. Every day they would exit at the World Trade Center.
Once the N train came back, you could see everyone doing a mental check. “Okay there’s Mullet, there’s Mama’s Boy, there’s Crazy Bible Lady, there’s Adorable Hipster Couple” and so on. But Annoying Couple were missing. I don’t know why this bothered me as much but it did. I didn’t even know these people. The World Trade Center doesn’t exist anymore. OBVIOUSLY anyone who used to take the train there would not be doing that now. Their job is no longer there. There is no reason to go to work if you do not have a work to go to any longer.
But we passed under the towers every morning at around 8:30. They got off the train at the towers every morning at around 8:30. They had sixteen minutes to get inside before the first plane hit.
I did not know these people. I don’t even know if they worked in the towers. When I would see them on the train every morning, I would roll my eyes. They annoyed me. They annoyed everyone. But for some reason, I became fixated on their absence. I wanted to know what became of them.
A few years later, I stepped onto the N train on a weekend. I actually got excited. OH MY GOD THAT’S THE ANNOYING GUY! Then I noticed he had gained weight and had huge bags under his eyes and reeked of pure misery. I am not sure I have ever seen a person look sadder in my life. I am sure I can guess what happened to make him look like that.
That Las Vegas trip I mentioned earlier. I had booked it prior to September 11. After, so many people were petrified of flying. That caused an insane amount of flight cancellations and I was able to cancel mine and rebook at less than half the price.
I still don’t know how to answer when people ask me about living in New York during the attacks. I don’t know anything. I only know what I experienced and it just seems so trivial compared to what happened. There were 2977 victims who died, none of which I ever met. I only know what changes I saw in my daily life and they were nothing compared to the lives of every person who was directly affected by this.
In 2004, September 11 fell on a Saturday. Several channels show “September 11: As It Happened” on that day. I sat on my couch and for the first time ever, I watched it as it happened. For three years, I was oblivious to the footage that the entire world watched that day. For the first time, I finally realized that this was all real.