20 Years Ago, Just Over the Horizon

I’m not one of the numerous people who have to run and hide every September 11. I’m very much the opposite. I’ve obsessed on it since it happened; I’ve been working on a book length poem about it for years (and it won’t be done for years) and I have boxes of research material about the event. It’s not prurience; I am drawn to human drama. That’s not something for a writer to be ashamed of, although part of me is, because real pain is involved. But I share in the pain: more than most, yet less than a great many. I lost part of my town; yet some lost lives or loved ones.

My entire New York experience was tied to the original World Trade Center. On my first trip to New York City on a school field trip in 1979, we visited the Observation Deck of the North Tower. When I first moved to the City in 1988, we lived for about a year on Greenwich Street in Tribeca, just a few blocks North of the WTC, literally in its shadow. Then we moved to Jersey City…the daily commute from which took us through the World Trade Center Path Station. So I was there every day for a period of years. My wife happened to be there just minutes before the 1993 bombing. Then, a decade later, communicating aspects of the destruction on 9/11 became my whole job — it was literally my job.

I don’t generally keep a diary, but I’m glad I did write some immediate thoughts and impressions soon after September 11, because re-reading them now makes me remember much that I’d forgotten. Here are some sections, updated and minimally edited:

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I feel as though I have lost a very old and dear friend. My mood was funereal for days — I cried every day for two weeks, and many times afterwards when some new encounter would thrust it back into my consciousness.

I can truthfully say that I don’t believe I ever took it for granted. You could see the top of it from our apartment window in Brooklyn, and there were many times I would go and just have a look, the way you would look at the moon or a sunset. I wrote here about how seeing it in the distance after a road trip made you know you were almost home. Losing the most visible and distinctive part of the skyline–it’s like losing the moon. But also, losing one of the proudest emblems of your town, and indeed one of mankind’s most impressive achievements, a symbol of American progress and confidence…it’s a kind of psychic mutilation.

The World Trade Center was like Broadway shows and carriage rides in Central Park – part of the excitement and glamour of New York. The first and only time I went to the top was when I was 13 years old, on a school field trip. It was my first trip to New York (and truth be known, my first trip to any large city. It’s difficult to express the amount of excitement I felt–it was like going to Oz.) I was immediately ruined for any other place on earth and decided on the spot that I must live here always and as soon as possible, which is what came to pass. I’d only ever seen the Twin Towers on television, notably on the opening credits to Barney Miller, accompanied by jazz music that made it seem the acme of urbanity, success, and happiness. But at that point I hadn’t even known what it was called or even that it was taller than the Empire State Building and was actually a little disappointed at first that we were not visiting that other, more famous, building.

When my first wife and I moved here, the World Trade Center was very much a part of the fabric of our lives. We lived in its shadow for a year in a loft in Tribeca — it was at the south end of our street. After 9/11 the Food Emporium where we used to shop marked the outer limit of the military barricade around Ground Zero. When we lived in New Jersey, we passed through it constantly for five years. That’s where the PATH trains came in. In fact, Susie had been there not a half hour before the 1993 truck bombing (in which my friend the chef Joseph Cacace’s cousin was one of three prople murdered).

I close my eyes now and I see its various lobbies and plazas and escalators and shops and news stands so clearly in my mind, that I could paint a portrait of them.

I was in the WTC complex a couple of months before the attack for arts marketing workshops. In fact, after the workshop let out, I debated whether or not I should goof off for an hour and take the trip to the top again, as I hadn’t been there since that first trip. Now I’ll never have the chance. And now my children never will. I remember charging through those plazas, late for both workshops (as I had to drop Cashel for school, way uptown, beforehand), cursing the size and complexity of the place, my hat flying off from the wind off the water across the plaza. My commuting experiences hadn’t prepared me for how to negotiate the geography of the place as a worker. I really only knew the concourse. I hadn’t understood how to get across the walkways to the World Financial Center at first, and found myself criss-crossing, zig-zagging, in and out of the towers, up and down escalators, found myself in the lobby of the Marriott at one point, attempting to cross the West Side Highway on another.

6 WTC on the left

Sometime in the ’90s, I went with my in-laws to an archaeological lab in the basement of 6 World Trade Center (the U.S. Customs House) to look at fragments of Crolius pottery that had been dug up as part of the African Burial Ground excavation. (My wife’s father was a descendant of this famous family of early American stoneware craftsmen). All of that stuff got buried a second time on 9/11, almost as though it wasn’t intended to be exhumed.

I think of the last time Susie and I brought the kids to the area. In 2000, we had the loveliest time over at Battery Park (accessible via pedestrian bridges over the West Side Highway). The children romped and played in the Palm Court at the Winter Garden Atrium (which was smashed to shards and covered in rubble on 9/11), and stood at the edge of the Hudson, waving to the tugboats (which were pressed into service Sept 11 to ferry refugees across the Hudson to Liberty State Park). I didn’t know for years afterwards, but one of the heroes of the water evacuation was a man named Huntley Gill, who’d been my and Susie’s boss at a real estate management company when we first moved to the city.

This all makes it very hard. I conjure the complex easily in my mind and have this strange urge to want to summon the virtual version, to almost try to will it all back into existence. It also makes it easy to vividly imagine literally what the victims saw and felt–what their last moments were. I picture their ghosts inhabiting the virtual World Trade Center. Thousands of them. It’s like the Titanic (about which we also obsess), or a battlefield, like the feeling you get at Gettysburg.

A few months before the attack I had the privilege of taking a private tour to the top of the Woolworth Building, just a couple of blocks away and almost as tall as WTC…and looking directly across at those awesome Twin Towers from a height nearly as great. At the time, I was a fund-raiser for the New-York Historical Society, New York’s oldest museum, about five miles north of the towers; at the time we had an exhibition up about the architect Cass Gilbert. (that was the rationale for us being there). It was a strange experience, oddly intimate, consisting of myself, two elderly donors to the Historical Society and a woman from the New York State Council on the Arts, escorted by a nattily dressed gent from the real estate company that managed the building (Witkoff Group, I believe). We were all alone at the top of one of New York’s oldest and tallest skyscrapers, the wind howling and moaning around us. At one point, somehow I got to talking with the elderly Mrs. Reed about world affairs (don’t ask me how), and she began to speak about the insupportability of the large, unchecked immigration into the U.S. since the 1960s, thanks to “that Ted Kennedy“. I guess I know how the topic went that way — we are looking across to the upper stories of the WTC, which literally filled our field of vision, though we ourselves towered over everything else. So naturally we got onto the topic of terrorism — the place had been bombed 7 years earlier. “Some groups are completely impossible for us to assimilate,” she’d said. I was professionally non-commital in my replies to her non-P.C. pronouncements as we gazed across at those huge edifices. Real or imagined, there seems a synchonicity to it all now. But I thought of that day many times when I thought of the last moments of the people stranded on the upper floors. That eerie, lonely feeling, so high above the world. More on that day here.

The last time I was in the neighborhood was a couple of weeks before the disaster, at Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Center for a movie screening. I’d stood out there with Amy Stiller (Ben Stiller’s sister) waiting to get in. Another windy day, with the gusts constantly taking my hat off. If only I’d known I’d never get that close again.

*****

with Cashel at an N-YHS opening, circa 2001

September 11

I’d just dropped Cashel off at school (P.S. 87, where he was in the second grade) and had gotten to work and was checking my morning e-mails, when our director of exhibitions came in and told us that a plane had just slammed into the World Trade Center. He said a 737 (it was in fact a 767). It sounded like an air disaster, i.e., an accident, like the one that happened at the Empire State Building a half century earlier.

After the standard New York workplace badinage requisite to any disaster (“What will happen to the primary?” my boss asked, not callously, as our old boss Betsy Gotbaum happened to be running for Public Advocate, second in line to the Mayor, in the day’s election), we put on the radio. They had live coverage from downtown. The jocularity evaporated pretty quickly. It was like listening to the Hindenburg broadcast…vivid and frantic descriptions of on-the-spot horror. The radio was our only pipeline to what was going on during those early hours; I wouldn’t have access to a television until many hours later.

Very shortly thereafter the second plane hit and it sank in rapidly that it was almost certainly terrorists. I called Susie’s cell phone and left a message for her to stay home. I didn’t know that she had already seen the disaster first hand from our neighborhood in Brooklyn with our toddler Charlie and had already called me crying, begging me and Cashel to come home; I didn’t get her message until much later. The phones were all knocked out. (“Stop it! Stop crying!” Charlie had said to her)

I went over to Cashel’s school (a block away) and met one of his classmates’ parents who told me school officials weren’t sending the kids home per se, that it was optional to take them home early. We both agreed that it was best not to alarm the kids by pulling them out of class just yet. The disaster was five miles away–we couldn’t even see it from where we were on the Upper West Side. As I walked back to work, I now saw people walking around in a daze, crying on the street.

When I got back to my office, we heard the eyewitness accounts of the collapse of the buildings live on the radio. There followed accounts of the crashes at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania along with rumors of smoke at the White House, a bomb at the State Department, a fire on the Mall. One listened with a sense of disbelief. (Rightfully so, in the cases of the rumors). Looking out the window, by now you could see hundreds of people walking up Central Park West – an eerie sight. We heard that all the bridges and tunnels and subways were closed. (I later learned bridges were open and some subway service was quickly restored).

At this point, I went back to get Cashel from school, knowing that by now a large number of frantic Upper West Siders would be yanking their kids, and he might be getting scared. By this time, there were indeed scores of parents waiting in a line. I gave Cashel’s name and room number to an aide and waited in the auditorium until they brought him to me, struggling in my mind with what I would tell him, how I would keep my composure. Just one day prior, I had passed out cupcakes to his class for his sixth birthday. Now here we all were, fleeing. I didn’t want to scare him, but I had to tell him something…so I told him the truth, without emphasizing the implications. I said that some bad, crazy people had done a terrible thing, but not to worry, because the police and the army would protect us and get the bad guys. I could barely get the words out.  He seemed blissfully calm about it, mercifully unaware of any danger (and indeed remained so throughout the weeks that followed).

I brought Cashel back to my office, showed him where daddy worked, and gathered up my things. We couldn’t go home (bridges and subways were closed), so we went to wait it out at the home of a co-worker, a walk of some 40 blocks (a couple of miles), with hundreds of people walking uptown around us. We wanted to stop and rest and have a bite to eat along the way, but a lot of businesses were already closed. We finally found a pizza place and deli and stood in line for about twenty minutes. A typical UWS woman in front of us was hilariously in denial about what was going on. “I want a nice rye bread,” she was telling the man, “No, no, not that one!” The world is ending and she’s picking out which loaf of bread.

We stayed at the friend’s house for about an hour. She had already blown town, it was just us and the maid. We should have bonded, but the woman oddly kept to herself in the kitchen. We put on the TV and I saw my first pictures of what had happened and couldn’t believe my eyes. It was difficult to synthesize. It was actually much worse than one imagined from listening to the radio, which is the opposite of what you would expect. It’s never like that. For once, my imagination was not up to the nightmarishness of reality.

Cashel played undisturbedly with toys while I stayed glued to the tv, trying to get news about the travel situation. When Giuliani came on to speak (from an “undisclosed bunker” which later turned out to be a firehouse I knew very well) he mentioned that some of the subway lines were back in operation and I knew that Cashel and I could get home. (My plan in a pinch was to walk us home via Queensboro Bridge, which would take us to Astoria. Then we’d walk south via Long Island City and across the Newtown Creek to Greenpoint, where we lived). As we were on West End Avenue, we had to walk halfway across Manhattan (a mile or so) to reach a train we could use. Cashel was a trooper, although I had to bribe him with some Skittles to get him to walk the last leg.

Whoa! A king-sized Skittles was only 99 cents??? Set the Way-back machine, Mr.Peabody! Wait — don’t. No! Do! Gotta think….

When we got back to our neighborhood in Greenpoint, we stopped to look at what was left of the World Trade Center, my first look. It was now just a plume of black smoke. We had stopped at the very same spot only the previous weekend. I had pointed the towers out to Cashel and remarked that they had been finished when I was about his age. They had only been there for about thirty years. In point of fact, they were publicizing the 30th anniversary of the topping-off, and the WTC was in the process of changing hands. It was the publicity that had put me in mind of it, made me think to discuss it with him. “Seems like it’s been there forever though, doesn’t it?” I’d said.  Such little moments – and there are a few of them – now seem fraught with significance, after the fact.

We got home at about 4:30pm and I put on the TV and stayed riveted for the next 8 hours. I watched in real time as the often forgotten third tower, the 47 story World Trade Center 7, collapsed. President Bush addressed the nation a few hours later. I realized at midnight that I had forgotten to eat, and swallowed some devilled chicken out of the can. Only one channel was available to us: channel 2, CBS. All the other stations had had their antennae knocked out, since they had all been on the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center. I didn’t speak for hours, and it began to alarm my wife.

Not even on my mind at all was the fact that I’d actually had a show scheduled for that night. I can’t remember if I managed to communicate with anyone, the cast, the venue, or whoever, to discuss cancellation that night. There was no need, there was no question about the fact that life in New York City had stopped.

*****

In the days immediately afterward, it was very hard to hang on to one’s sanity. Not just for me, for everyone, I think. I bought every newspaper and magazine that covered the story and clung to them for days, studying them, trying to find some key. Soon there was a bundle of them two feet high and it was beginning to look like my grandmother’s house. Since that day, I have wanted to know the WHOLE story, what happened to EVERYBODY, and have obsessively read hundreds of articles, posts, books, watched dozens of films and television specials. I want to wrap my arms around this complex event somehow, to process it, and then to tell it.

But in those first days, it was very disorienting. It was like being whisked away to some horrible parallel universe. On the first day after, the 12th, there was no work, the Mayor had told people to stay home. By then, that horrible acrid smoke had made it to our neighborhood. It was to hang there for weeks. It stung the eyes, seemed to permeate everything. Susie said, “We have to get out of the house, “ so we went to our local park, but it wasn’t much of an escape. Almost immediately one of our touchy-feely parent-friends came and announced a march for peace and I wanted to wring her neck. I couldn’t even bring myself to talk to her I was so disgusted. It wasn’t surprising; the woman’s mother-in-law, as it happens, was Vanessa Redgrave, but it really wasn’t a perspective I felt like hearing at the moment. The whole impulse seemed so wrong headed and unnatural it was like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Your immediate thought is for peace with the people who did THIS? The air around you is full of the incinerated remains of thousands of innocent people and you want to protect the people who did it? Give me at least two minutes to shake my fist and swear curses, for God’s sake! I couldn’t stand it, I couldn’t even talk to her, I had to get away. (Addendum: my perspective nowadays might be different, but who knows? Emotion overtakes reason).

We brought the kids to Prospect Park and we escaped for a little while.  The atmosphere was extremely subdued and tranquil there — like the grounds of a sanitarium.

The return to work the following day was another flight into madness. One could do nothing. Even if you could concentrate on your work, which was impossible, how in the hell could we send out quotidian fundraising proposals in the wake of what what had happened and what was still happening? Beyond this, the whole management structure of the place seemed to be falling apart. The Society president (Professor Kenneth T. Jackson) called a meeting where he announced that it was the Historical Society’s duty to respond in some way — to collect relevant items, to do related exhibitions, etc. An emotional, charged rift resulted. People were tearful and angry. The Chief Financial Officer, the #2 man at the Society, had been a 30 year veteran of the NYPD, had no doubt lost friends, he stormed out, publicly disgusted. In the weeks that followed, there was a big staff shake-up, there were close to a dozen resignations. Because I supported the President’s position (which ended up being the right one, as it turned out) I found myself thrust into an unaccustomed leadership role at this large, 200 year old, tony institution, privy all the sudden to the closed door upper management meetings where people were yelling at each other, where the top people were asking my opinion and only days before I had been a schlub tied to his cubicle. When the shakedown was complete I was somehow Director of Public Affairs.

My disorientation was nearly total during this time. I felt like when you’re body-surfing and a big wave tumbles you ass over tea-kettle and you have no sense of up or down and you’re just getting tossed around by this turbulence. Surreal things were happening. I went to the Met Museum and was one of only about a dozen people in the entire place. To be like, the only person, in the entire Met! It was very unsettling. Like a Twilight Zone episode. When I came out, there was Anna Deavere Smith, talking to a TV camera. Just random, she and they happened to be there at the same time, so the quick-thinking local news reporter said, “I’ll get her comments”. I wish Smith had done a piece about Sept 11 — it would be amazing.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. These words from Ecclesiastes kept going through my head. Though we’d all been hurled into a new reality, I definitely felt like this WAS reality. It was the PREVIOUS era that now felt like a dream. Like I had been sleepwalking before this somehow. I suddenly felt politically, spiritually, morally realligned somehow. That there had been duties that I had been neglecting, that my work and my life had to change somehow to meet the new conditions.

“Irony is dead,” people kept saying, and I felt so too, but if it was true, it meant the bulk of my theatrical work was now instantly irrelevant. I had to face a real dilemma. I felt a need to make a total change in what I was saying with my art, and yet I was still committed to a number of shows. Do I go ahead with them? Or cancel, letting other people down? The answer for the first upcoming performance on Friday Sept. 14 was obvious. Not only didn’t the performers have any heart to perform, but the very theatre was shut off to the public by the National Guard barricades that closed off everything South of 14th street.

A couple of days later, I got the assignment to cover the event’s impact on the theatre community for American Theatre magazine, and this gave me something constructive to concentrate on over the next while. The article came out in the November issue — a very quick turn around for a monthly magazine. It’s one of my proudest accomplishments; you can read it here. (Even so, my old MacDowell Colony cohort Alissa Solomon had me beat. Her Village Voice account of her first-hand experience came out the following day, Wednesday, the 12th. The Voice was a weekly. Adding something that late in the day must have required enormous stress and effort. Here’s her account here!)

Sunday the 16th, Susie and I brought the boys to church, which we rarely attended, perhaps once a year. Never had I been more appreciative of the rituals of my boyhood. The priest had selected many readings and hymns that seemed appropriate at the time (prayers for times of war, and the like). During the service, fighter jets were screaming overhead. This, I thought, is why people call religion “a rock.” When the moorings seem to give way, you can cling to the very ritual of it. It is comfortable and familiar, and I never thought I would think of those things as virtues, but I sure do these days. I’m not even talking about such things as faith or belief, which I know will make a large percentage of my readers uncomfortable. RITUAL. A life raft. Stability.

I felt like I was having an out of body experience. What the hell was happening to me? Who am I anymore? Where am I? All my usual frames of reference were dissolving. All at the same time, the most visible landmark in the city had been destroyed, thousands of people were dead, the daily papers were full of funeral news, public spaces were turned into memorial shrines, soldiers were all over the place, subway service was crippled because of anthrax scares in the coming weeks…and meanwhile, absurdly, I had sort of leapfrogged into an unfamiliar new life. It was very much like a nightmare.

I went to see the Pile with my own eyes a few days after the event. You couldn’t get very close, but the Pile was very high — high enough to see from a distance. That much chaos and disorder and destruction — deconstruction — made me feel for the first time I could understand the early 20th century modernists who’d lived through their own wars in Europe, inspiring Dada, Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Absurdism. There was horror and disassociation beneath it all that I never suspected in any but an academic way. Now I FELT it. (Addendum: It’s also why I can’t stand the jagged edges of a lot of what replaced the original WTC)

And for the next couple of years, my job was all about sensitively publicizing the exhibitions and public programs and collecting initiatives the Historical Society was undertaking in response to the attacks.

The most astounding story I didn’t learn until weeks later, when the Society was planning an exhibition of photos of September 11 by Magnum Photographers. I kept hearing about this amazing real-time video footage taken by someone who happened to be in lower Manhattan when the first plane hit. I eventually learned that the videographer was my good friend Evan Fairbanks, who had taken many of my publicity shots for my shows (and had even acted in a couple), and indeed whose photos still adorn my web site. He had been shooting at Trinity church when the first plane hit, and made his way over to the towers. He shot much of the stuff one didn’t see on tv — New Yorkers gaping up at the fire, police trying to evacuate people, firemen going into the building. His camera happened to capture the second plane hitting the south tower, and the south tower collapsing, at which point, the whole thing goes black, when he dives under an ambulance and the dust cloud catches up with him. The whole bloody thing is less than a half hour. More on the Amazing Odyssey of Evan Fairbanks here.

I got to know so many others who bore testimony. French-American Jules and Gédéon Naudet, who were at NYU film school at the same time I was, and whose 2002 film 9/11 contains their incredible experience accompanying the first FDNY company to enter the North Tower. They got the only clear footage of the first plane hitting the North Tower; it was a coincidence, they just happened to be shooting in the neighborhood that morning. An updated version of the film is now showing on CNN. I also met Ric Burns, who added a new chapter to his 1999 New York documentary that was focused on 9/11. Another friend from the neighborhood worked on the film also, and Ken Jackson was in it. (Burns also made the seminal 1991 Coney Island doc, and co-produced The Civil War [1990] with his brother Ken). I met Leslie Robertson, the actual engineer of the World Trade Center (the guy, now a tragic figure, who designed the structure of the building; he died earlier this year), as well as Stuart Hoke, then pastor of Trinity Church, which is across the street from the WTC and became a sanctuary for hundreds of workers and refugees.

I got to meet many of the first responders, and many of the victims’ families. I may have lost no one myself in the attacks, knock wood, not even a friend of a friend; but I have comforted the widows. I wasn’t there that day, but I have held artifacts of the disaster in my hand: pieces of the buildings, pieces of the planes. What a weird place to be, so close to an experience but on the other side of a not-so-wide gulf. I have always longed to close that gulf. I have no idea why.

As we opened these exhibitions and held these programs, it was my job to organize the press conferences, to interface with the radio, tv and print people (people like Leslie Stahl and Charlie Rose and NY Times’ Eric Lipton and James Glanz et al being pre-eminent among them), and to usher people through the exhibitions (people like Prince Andrew and Elton John). We attended the New York State Museum opening of their 9/11 exhibition and had dinner at the Governor’s mansion afterward, with the Patakis at the head of the table. Some of my colleagues later became part of the founding staff of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and work there still.

The Bergen Record sent us a “cease and desist” for pirating this photo! Nice public spirit!

Reintegrating theatre into my life became a question. On October 2, three weeks after the event, I produced and hosted a vaudeville benefit show at the (now defunct) Red Room, which raised a few thousand for the families of first responders. After this I went ahead with a planned Halloween production and some burlesque shows, which, predictably tanked. It took me about a year to find my footing again as a producer and presenter. Meantime, I began writing a very lengthy involved literary/dramatic work, that I’m loosely intending to present around the 25th or 30th anniversary. It is STILL too soon. We only ended the Afghanistan war a few days ago. My friend Edward just lost his brother to the lung cancer he contracted as a first responder (see his moving piece in today’s Daily News). It’s been a long time — but an event this big won’t be small enough to take lightly in our lifetime.

But meantime, here is a tiny excerpt of the work in progress and some of my related writings which I’ve posted here, as well as my other blog, and elsewhere:

The Amazing Odyssey of Evan Fairbanks

On Jason Thomas: The Lost Hero of 9/11

A Vaudevillian Hero of 9/11 (William Rodriguez)

The Little Known Miracle of Downtown Hospital

American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11

Marie Roberts: 22 Drawings of “The Pile”

9/11: America’s Theatres Respond

A Memory of the Woolworth Building

A More Cheerful Time of Bravery (On Phillipe Petit’s tightrope walk between the twin towers)

Behind the Tribute in Lights

Thoughts on the National September 11 Memorial and Museum

World Trade Center Reborn