In the 10 years since 9/11 I haven’t felt compelled to tell this story too often. It’s sort of a jumble of surreal horrors and comedy, underscored with constant bad decision making on my part. But, I figure today’s as good a time as there ever will be to put it down on paper just so I don’t forget that it happened and it was very real:
I moved to New York City on September 1st, 2001. Fall semester at New York University was beginning, and I felt really lucky to get housing in the school’s posh financial district high rise dorms. First week of school is generally a time to be a complete moron, and I was no exception; eating pizza for every meal, smoking weed with complete strangers, playing dumb drinking games until all hours of the morning, and awkwardly fumbling to hit on girls for the first time as an “adult.” All while getting to explore the greatest city on earth. It was pretty awesome.
After 10 days of living there I was already getting used to the paces of Lower Manhattan, so when at about 8:45am a loud crash lightly shook my bed and startled me awake I gave a knowing laugh… “It’s nothing. It’s just the fish deliver trucks hitting a speed bump on their way to the nearby fish market. You’re not gonna fool me into getting up early again.”
But then I started hearing sirens and my curiosity got the better of me, so I opened my window to see the World Trade Center, a short 10 blocks away from my dorm has a small hole in it and is smoking. The news doesn’t really know what to make of the crash, it’s probably just a drunk pilot lost control of his prop plane. As I watch from my window I can see white office papers fluttering through the bright blue sky, and I’m struck by what a weird beautiful image it is.
“I’m gonna go over there and take cool photos of it!” I think to my douchey, faux-artsy college self. I grab my camera, throw on some flip flops and run out the door. “Maybe I’ll study photo journalism,” I wonder. But, about halfway there I stop because my balls are cold. I didn’t put on underwear and I’m just wearing a thin pair of yellow flannel pajama pants. This is my ‘cool’ ‘casual’ ‘laid back’ college look. My Israeli dad would always hate me for wearing those pants out of the house. “They make you look like an Arab,” he’d yell. But fuck you Dad! Yellow pajama pants are how I’m asserting my independence!
Nevertheless, cold balls win, so instead of walking head first into one of the most violent disasters of our lifetimes I turn back home to put on some underwear. I don’t believe in God. But I do believe in Hanes.
When I get back up to my room I can see my neighbor, Jenna, is awake and watching what’s going on. I offer to let her come watch from my window, since it’s the best view. Jenna was a sweet and beautiful dancer with short brown hair, who I was immediately in love with when I got to school. I’m not too proud to admit that inviting her into my room was at least 50% motivated by the thought that this would be a good opportunity to try to hook up with her. In my defense, we still thought this was just some fluke private plane accident, and Jenna was in tiny boy shorts, no bra, and I’d been silently shouting the word “COLLLLEEGGGEEEE!!!!” in my head for the last 10 days. Did I say 50%? It was 90%. At least.
We stand on my windowsill watching the now black smoke plume out, and our arms touch. It’s the first time we’ve ever touched, and I’m electric with giddy teenage hormones. I say something about the dark beauty of the smoke, and think I’m deep, or at least hope she’ll think I’m deep. We make all sorts of eye contact, which I read as her signal to go in for a magical, first college kiss… and then BAM!
A second plane comes hurtling through the sky and into the second tower. Jenna SCREAMS!
“Oh my god! Did you see that?” she yells.
Technically, no. I did not see the second plane hit the World Trade Center because I was staring at Jenna, imagining what a great couple we’d make and what her nipples look like. But, obviously, I lie. “Yeah, what the hell was that?”
I flip on the TV and they’re already replaying it. We watch it over and over again. My other neighbor, Mike, comes over to watch from my window, and it starts to dawn on us that this is far more serious than a private plane accident. I take some photos from my window…
At first one of us comments that the debris falling from the windows look strange, and then the slow realization comes. It’s not debris. It’s people. Each one I strain my eyes to make out the form, hoping I’m wrong. Hoping my eyes are playing games with a falling piece of metal. But they’re not. Maybe 5, maybe 6, maybe more.
I think that this is going to be one of the worst things I’ll ever see in my life… And then it gets much worse.
The first tower collapses. It just starts disappearing. Floor by floor into a mushroom cloud of ash and smoke. And I don’t think I scream or shout at the sight of it. I truly don’t comprehend what I’m watching as it happens. It’s a scene from a movie, and scenes from movies aren’t real I think.
But then something changes… The people on the street a couple blocks from my building all turn in terror and begin running in a panic. Moments later I see from what… a monstrous 20 story tidal wave of soot and ash, swallowing people whole every second. It’s coming directly at my building. At me. I slam my windows closed and tell Mike and Jenna we’ve got to seal the windows shut and stay put, we won’t be able to breath if that stuff gets in here.
Thankfully they both disagree with me. They say we need to run. And they’re right. If they’d listened to me, we actually would have suffocated from the debris filled air.
We book it down the 27 stories. None of the emergency lights are even on. There’s no evacuation drill taking place. Everyone is entirely caught by surprise. The normally well lit lobby is dark as night when we get downstairs. We rush to the front door and walk out into the blind mayhem.
The cloud has already over taken our street, and we can’t see more than 2 feet in front of our faces. Jenna, Mike and I all hold hands as we try to desperately stumble through the street. We can barely breathe. There are screams coming from all around. The ghostly faces of other people appear then disappear just as quickly into the fog. We come across a police officer with a pile of protective face masks, but within moments he’s mobbed from all angles by people grabbing them from him. The cop begins to cry when he’s run out. He screams “I don’t know what to do!”
I say to Mike and Jenna “The only way to get out of this now is to run to the Seaport and jump in the water! The smoke can’t travel in the water!” I had just watched “True Lies” a couple nights earlier on TBS, and Arnold Schwarzenegger escaping the fireball by jumping in the water was still fresh in my head. I was so wildly wrong. Again. Thankfully Mike and Jenna again disagreed with me. Maybe they were starting to sense a pattern. They say we need to run uptown for clean air.
So we begin to run. Still holding hands. Still only going as fast as you can when you can’t see in front of you. Still almost unable to breath.
With my shirt over my face, I take short breaths until I feel a tightening pressure from the polluted air in my throat and have to stop. We’ve been walking for blocks, and still no change in the air. Is the whole city like this? I’m not religious, but I actually wonder if this is the Apocalypse. For the first and only time in my life, I fear I might die.
But we just keep moving ahead, heads down, hands held, and the pollution begins to slightly dissipate. And then some more. And then some more. And eventually we can see and breathe again. We keep making our way north, right along side people caked in white soot. Businessmen, still holding their briefcases. You can see the path of tears down their cheeks through the soot on their faces. I’m holding my cellphone, and one of them asks to use it. But there’s no reception. The nearest cell tower was on top of the World Trade Center.
As we’re running, processing a million thoughts of confusion and fear and horror, I stop and do a double take when we pass a poster for the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, “Collateral Damage” that’s about to come out.
Before 9/11 the headline in the middle of the poster read “TERRORISTS STILL AT LARGE” and there was images of explosion. (Check out the trailer if you want to enjoy pre-9/11 terrorism porn at it’s best.) I don’t know what this is supposed to mean, but it’s strange how much of a part Arnie played in my 9/11. Maybe it’s a symbol that we’re entering into the pre-dystopian future of Skynet and Terminators. Or maybe it just means I’m a bigger Schwarzenegger fan than I realized.
Eventually we need to stop and catch our breath. We find a small park to sit down in, and watch the second tower burning. A bodega across the street has been abandoned, and people covered in the soot are coming out with 40’s and six packs, and cracking open a drink just as soon as they can. Jenna looks really shaken up. I put my arm around her, and tell her it’s going to be ok. I think, maybe today isn’t the best day to try to make a move on her, but… this is the sort of story that bonds people for life… the kind of story someone might want to tell their children… the children she and I will have together… after we’ve had sex an appropriate distance in the future. Right?
Like I said, this story is nothing to be proud of…
Just then, the second tower collapses. It’s somehow much less surprising this time. Even though it was only just moments ago that the first tower fell, I feel older and more experienced already.
We know we need to get a move on. The police are telling people to evacuate Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge. But there’s all sorts of chaotic rumors flying around that there are more planes headed towards NY, and fuck if I’m about to go stand on one of the most iconic landmarks in NYC with 5000 other pedestrians with more planes on the way. So I insist we keep heading uptown. Mike & Jenna finally agree with me.
At this point, it’s just a blur of running and chafed raw inner thighs. Eventually, we get up to Union Square, where most of NYU is lined up to donate blood. Mike, Jenna and I finally feel safe enough to stop. We plop down against the wall of the building and don’t say a word for a while.
For the life of me I can’t remember how we eventually got out of Manhattan that day, but somehow the three of us got to Queens, where my parents picked us up and brought us back to Long Island. Mike stayed with another friend, and Jenna came back to my parents’ place that night. We both showered and changed, she put on my sister’s clothes, I finally put on underwear. We quietly gobbled up dinner. We sat outside the suburban house in the still warm summer air. It was jarring for me to feel so clean, safe and comfortable again.
The next couple months would be their own strange journey of being displaced and living all over the city, eventually (arguably too soon for medical safety) moving back in to the warzone of Lower Manhattan, and seeing the character of the city and the country change in reaction.
But right now all I could see was that Jenna was still lost in emotions from the day, so I took her hand, and tried to come up with ways to make her laugh, or at least smile.
Was I still thinking I might hook up tonight? No. That’s disgusting.
But she was staying with me for the week, so maybe by Friday? No rush, right?
P.S. photo at the top courtesy of the wildly talented photographer, Katy Day Weisberger, who also happens to be my amazing cousin. She took this surreal shot on her way into NYC as she was about to start NYU herself.