[Originally published in the Virginian Review October 17, 2001]
Silence. An eerie silence greeted me when I came out of the subway. I had been running late. Leaving my apartment in west Harlem, I had decided to take a cab to the closest express subway, the orange line, D train on 125th Street. The cab driver had not had his radio on. The subway had been normal; no one looked or acted alarmed. The train had briefly paused around 72nd Street but again, nothing unusual in that. Not until I walked out of the subway, on Broadway, did I even notice the vibe. Something felt off, an obvious yet tentative tension and the quiet, but I was distracted. I was relieved to find I was 5 minutes early for work and I stopped by the local newsstand for coffee that was attached to the main lobby on 52nd & Broadway. Stepping inside, a 'Twilight Zone' reality came from a radio, loudly assaulting my ears. Worried looks from over a half a dozen stunned faces as I heard a radio announcer say, “…second plane has just hit the (south) tower…this looks like a terrorist attack, folks…!”
The sound of fear was in the reporter’s voice as he began to give details of what was and was not known. I quickly made my way upstairs to my office. I don't remember the elevator or walk to my desk. My colleagues were all standing around talking in low tones about what was happening. My desk clock radio was being blasted so that the whole department could hear the latest news. I found myself for the next few hours running between my work/cell phones, watching the live feeds from the internet, calming co-workers and trying hard to stay calm too. Everything was so surreal. In these moments, I felt like I had left the world I knew behind. It was like walking into another dimension, so violent, chaotic, and yet everything looked and sounded familiar. It felt like some box-office movie. I desperately wanted to be the director yelling, "cut!"
When the Twin Towers fell, I watched over the internet. There was an instant feeling that bombs had been dropped, figuratively and literally. As the reports of more hijacking came in over the radio and on the internet – too much horrible information to process – my mind just could not wrap itself around the concepts of the carnage. Around me, people were calmly panicking and leaving work. No one wanted to be in the building. Rumors were flying that there were bombs in the subways, in cars, in buildings everywhere.
“If they can go after the Pentagon and World Trade Center, we aren’t safe anywhere.” I overheard one co-worker say as he walked quickly through our office, frantically trying to raise his family on his cell phone.
But who are THEY? No one knew who or what to believe.
By noon, after finally contacting friends and family, letting them know I was okay, I decided I wanted to go home. Not home to Harlem but to my childhood home in Virginia. Instead, I got in line outside at the ATM like a couple dozen others, waiting and praying for my fears to not take over. Fear was thick in the air, it mixed with a smell something like tires burning, though the warm September breeze made it faint, but then suddenly intense.
Like the breeze, my mind whirled with questions: Was this the beginning of war? Who could have done this and why? Is the world coming to an end?
I could hear my thoughts whispered in the voices surrounding me. Then, looking around Broadway, I saw thousands and thousands of people walking quietly uptown, some in the middle of the street, others trying to fit on sidewalks. The subways and buses were shut down and no one knew when they would start up again. People in business suits were leaving work in the middle of the day and walking home. Everyone was talking so softly, it sounded like a soft murmur. There was very little noise. There was no honking of car horns, loud shouts or yells, only occasional siren heading away from us to lower Manhattan. Broadway was completely shut down. There was an empty bus speeding downtown as I found my steps up Broadway, and around me, no one was talking, stoic shock on everyone's' faces.
Day and night, the only way to describe the heart of Manhattan – Broadway and Times Square – is loud, busy, lively, crowded, crazy, unpredictable, raw and real --a great place to people watch. But on THIS day, Times Square was a church-like quiet and beyond surreal. As I walked up Central Park West, with Central Park on my right, it occurred to me, how blue the sky was, how warm the sun felt hitting my face, it shone through the park trees. I could not help but feel blessed to be alive. In one moment, in one morning so many people were ripped from this Earth, never to be seen again. And like those who were gone, I left my home that morning, thinking not of death or destruction, but daily living plans, with stress, worries and complaints.
I looked around myself and felt like I was part of a mass exodus. I was one of thousands of refugees walking in a neighborhood known for its rich and famous. We have all seen the scenes on television news: Croatia, Africa, Asia and other war-torn countries; people, refugees, walking away from their homes, away from all the devastation, toward what they hope is safety. Worry living in their walk and fear etched on their faces.
The news played loudly and echoed from car radios that came from an otherwise quiet traffic jam. I kept noticing and thinking of the oddest things ---a man's yellow tie matched the sunlight ---Anything but what was going on in the world.
As I walked, I watched as The Dakota – where Madonna could not even get an apartment but Yoko Ono still lived even after John Lennon was shot – loomed up on my left at 72nd and Central Park West. But my ears heard people talk about seeing people leap out of a 110-story building.
I saw the Tavern on Green on my right, Central Park’s famous restaurant, nestled in the park’s finest green foliage. I watched as a young mother tried to console another woman who was terrified that she could not get to her little girl, stuck at school, in Brooklyn.
I saw one woman covered head to toe in the Twin Towers’ toxic powered soot ---a shadow of her businesswoman self ---the crowd passed water to her. Pouring it over her face, offering her tissues to clear the soot, someone gave her a water bottle to drink while consoling her. She collapsed on a park bench to rest for the first time since leaving lower Manhattan, New Yorkers' compassion on unpretentious display.
As I walked, I spoke to people about their experiences. One woman, who was from South America, cheerfully spoke of her first days in USA and how much she loved America. A distinguished bow-tie wearing older gentleman spoke of Pearl Harbor and what he remembered of that time in history, comparing it to the present-day tragedy. A Muslim couple, both the woman and the man in traditional dress, with her walking behind her husband, made their way to one of the bus stops. But the bus was too crowded. People, who stood in the bus doorway, like sardines against the glass door, expected the bus to continue uptown. But the traffic jam made the bus move only a few feet at a time. People, standing in the stair-well, scrambled not to fall out of the back door of the bus, though a few had no choice. When the bus stopped, people got off with much effort and people scrambled to get on illegally from the back of the bus. The Muslim couple got stares and nasty looks, but no one said anything to them. Fear was on their faces too.
My feet began to hurt somewhere around 110th Street. Usually, I don’t walk the full 6-miles home in my cute summer sandals that I would never wear again, but my fatigue and ache was not from the walk.
At 125th Street, the police blocked off the heart of Harlem USA. Stores were closed and not many people were out. The sky was still so blue but now F-16s crisscrossed the cloudless sky. After finding my grocery store open, I bought food and water, walked 2 more city blocks, up four flights to my apartment, where like everyone else in America, I watched and listened to the same horrific scenes over and over again. After finding that my job would be closed the next day, I did not go to bed until near dawn.
Over a month later, the scene from lower Manhattan has been shown on the news countless times but the thick smell--- a cross between raw death and burning tires --- brings the scenes into reality for me. The stories of the heroes, the victims, and the survivors are just beginning to be told. And I feel I want to, need to read and know them, even though it weighs heavily on my mind every day.
Like everyone else, my senses will be forever overloaded with the memories of that day and
experience forever burned into my mind. To my knowledge, I do not know anyone personally who was located in the World Trade Center area and died, but my sense of loss is no less profound. The suffering that happened that auspicious morning has changed a world I thought I knew and could rely on.
Over a month later, the world we knew is no longer. We once happily took this world for granted. I look back on this past spring and summer, wishing I had somehow enjoyed it a bit more. It was a time of innocence.
Biological warfare, bomb threats, Anthrax, planes used as bombs, and so much more horrors are now a part of the American everyday existence. All we can do now is “…live one day at a time…” with hope, gratitude and courage in our hearts though catching the subway or bus still gives me pause. We cannot afford to take anything, anyone, anymore for granted.