I’m not sure why the 9/11 attacks are looming larger than last year for me, but it might be partly the specials on PBS (Ric Burns’ excellent documentary, as well as the “Tale of Two Towers”) or partly that we have enough distance to make sense of the whole, the way we can grasp the whole of Manhattan when we see it by plane.
I’ve been working on a little memoir on the year 2001, a year that completely overturned my life and forced me to think differently. Yes, it’s self-involved (don’t bother telling me), but it’s just a snapshot of my life at the time, and I don’t want to forget what those days taught me. So I thought I’d put a couple of chapters on the blog just to give them some air; here is the chapter relevant to today (I’ll post the conclusion tomorrow):
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
Without a hurt the heart is hollow.
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
The fire of September that made us mellow.
– “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks
Like two drunks after a horrific bender, Tessa and I had a hard time getting up, out of bed, and out of North Carolina after the Pink House shoot. When Michelle and some of the other “sorority sisters” saw us the next day, we were holding hands, and they remarked that if we had survived that production, we could survive anything.
After the kind of de-briefing and de-contamination process usually reserved for astronauts returning from the Moon, we packed up the car and lit for Cleveland. Neal Lerner, Tessa’s longtime assistant, was getting heart surgery at the best cardio hospital in the world, and we were going to see him through it. This was scary stuff; it definitely took away our Pink-House-is-everything mindset when we saw Neal’s fingers, bloated, yellow and barely moving, as he waved goodbye after the surgery. Although lost to the mists of time, Tessa and I had our worst fight to date while driving back to New York, a conflagration so bad that she nearly rolled the car over. Thank god we came to our senses by New Jersey.
The next weekend was Labor Day, our last trip to the Stephentown farm, accompanied by Rick Gradone and Tessa’s mom. We hiked to the top of Mount Greylock, where the cold winds blew the threat of impending winter in our faces. The next night, September 3rd, we were back in New York at Lindsay Bowen’s birthday party, on board the Yankee Clipper in lower Manhattan.
The boat was uniquely situated by the World Trade Center towers so that the North Tower entirely blocked the South Tower. I leaned to Tessa and said, “You know that modern-day Civil War movie idea we were talking about?”
She said, “Yeah, why?”
I pointed up at the World Trade Center. “Well, if there was a scene where one of the towers had fallen during the war, we could film it from this angle.” She smiled and said it was a good idea. Indie filmmakers; always looking for an angle.
On the night of September 10th, I rented episodes 2 and 3 of Ric Burns’ documentary on New York, mostly centering around lower Manhattan of the 18th and 19th century. Later on, I watched the Jennifer Jason Leigh movie “Existenz” with Tessa on my lap, asleep.
The next thing I remember, it was morning, and Tessa had very calmly said to me, “Planes have flown into the World Trade Center, and one of them has fallen.” I didn’t believe her – her tone of voice was weird and inappropriate for that kind of news – and I went back to sleep for about ten more seconds. It was the sound of CNN that made me bolt upright. Tessa never has the TV on during the day.
I watched the television with a sense of detached bewilderment until I saw the replay of the first tower actually coming down. Then I hugged Tessa in genuine fear and said, “Oh my baby!” She was uncharacteristically stoic in that moment. Instincts kicked in, I grabbed my clothes and shoes and said, “Well, let’s get outside,” and as we walked to the West Side Highway, the other tower came down. A weird thought I had: “now the Woolworth Building is the tallest downtown again.”
The details of those hours, from the vantage point of a long time on, seem increasingly hazy and familiar, like a Jungian dream shared by everyone in the country whether they were there or not. But there are a couple of indelible images that ghost the back of my thoughts.
First, the missing-person flyers. They went up by about 4pm that day, and all I could think about were the heartsick relatives, making color copies of their dead children. There they would be, in a trance, at some copy place, having found a photo from a vacation. The pictures seemed all the same, taken at some happy time thousands of miles away, cropped so that the dismembered arm of a friend or a sister draped over their shoulder. So many dismembered pieces of body parts floating all over these pictures, making 100, 200 copies as if the sheer number of images could coax them back to life.
Then there were the lines of cheering New Yorkers that formed on the West Side Highway as the fire trucks and policeman emerged from the brown depths. I passed one such group of cheering folks who were all disabled (as described in an email that day):
“I found a line of 10 or so handicapped people in wheelchairs by the curb, holding signs that said ‘Thank You!’ that they waved as rescue workers drove by. Some of them couldn’t even wave them correctly through paralysis or cerebral palsy, but they tried as best they could. A few blocks away, I sat down with Tessa at lunch, where ‘Going to Carolina in My Mind’ came on the stereo, and I went to the bathroom to try and stop sobbing.”
Michelle and I pass out salads to victims’ families at the Armory, 9/12/01
The pervasive feeling was one of binary horror: you were either very dead, or very much alive. You were either a fireman and therefore able to help, or you could stand in line and try to donate blood they didn’t need. I feel good about our actions of that morning – I carried an entire family’s ash-covered luggage over my head as they looked for their son, and Tessa invited all of 8th Avenue to use her phones – but mostly, we were like everyone else: unable to do anything except appreciate how much we loved our city.
The night of September 11, we took the car, went to my place in the East Village, and grabbed all of my important stuff. We also went shopping and took care of some business, which was one of the smartest decisions we ever made: they locked down everything south of 14th Street the next day. Unfortunately, we also went over to Dana and Lindsay’s place, where Peter Jennings came on the news and said something like, “It begs the question of whether or not a nuclear bomb can be delivered the same way.”
In a way, the bottom fell out of my heart that moment. I hadn’t even considered it. Dana gasped, and though I was still in a state of charitable delirium, the thought of a truly post-apocalyptic world began to take root in my psyche, and it would be almost a year before I could function normally again. That was the moment everything changed.
(to be continued tomorrow)