"Indian Summer Morning"
It was a beautiful Indian Summer morning.
The sky was blue.
I walked out on my stoop as my neighbor walked out from under hers – the old black woman whose name I never learned.
I said hi to her. We exchanged pleasantries. Beautiful day! Lovely.
I felt good. It was going to be a good day. One of those days you were just glad to be alive.
Joe, the old Italian who never left when the neighborhood changed over, decades before, was on the corner. I said hi and told him I had to get to an appointment. Can’t chat today.
I could see the building ahead of me, The Williamsburg Bank Building, the tallest building in Brooklyn.
It was a short walk, just past the open train yard.
When I got off my block I stopped recognizing the people. They were just people, going here and there, on their way to work.
Never make eye contact.
I made it to my appointment early. I always did.
I picked up a magazine. I was really into the article I was reading. I didn’t notice the Chasidic guy across from me, and everyone else around me, had wandered off.
A crowd had gathered by the window. I didn’t see them there.
A collective gasp went up from the group. I didn’t react. I was a New Yorker. New Yorkers don’t react.
They were New Yorkers too, more than I was. They were born in Brooklyn. They knew how to not react – they couldn’t help it. But they reacted.
I got up to see what was up. People were walking away from the window, pale-faced, some crying. I asked the Chasidic guy what had happened. He said a plane had just hit the Trade Center. I asked if he was sure. He said he had been standing there, watching one of the towers burning when a plane came and flew right into the other tower.
He got out of there. Everyone did except me and one other patient. It was hard to get an appointment and took a long time to see the orthodontist. I wasn’t about to go through that whole wait again when, look, I’m at the front of the line!
Nobody knew that it was “9/11”. It was just a day in September. I was just a guy on my way to work, stopping at a doctor’s office. There was a fire, something about a plane. They’d probably close down the trains that ran under the Trade Center. That would back up all the trains. It would probably have taken me two hours to get to my office that day.
The trains were probably fucked up. That was my reason for not going to work that day.
Plus, I figured I’d just be sitting by the radio, or looking for a TV, or looking out the south side of the building to watch the fire until they put it out.
Certainly, they’d put it out. It was just a fire. Firemen put out fires in high-rises all the time.
I walked back to my apartment.
I called my cousin Roy, on the way. He worked in the Traveler’s building.
I asked him if he knew what was going on. He said a plane hit the Trade Center. I asked, what, like a little Cessna?
No, a big plane. A passenger plane.
That didn’t make sense. It could never happen. It’s not in the flight path. Commercial pilots wouldn’t get that far off course. It was a clear day. Are you sure?
Ya, he said. I was standing outside “hot-boxing” a cigarette before my next meeting. I saw it fly into the building.
I didn’t believe him.
I went inside and walked up to the top floor.
Well, if I’m going to be home all day, I might as well just let go and enjoy the day.
I opened the hatch to the roof and took a good look at the towers. I had a great view.
I brought up items I’d need to make my viewing more comfortable, a lawn chair, my radio, a drink.
Years in the future people would forget there was a fire in the Trade Center. I took pictures.
My assistant, Parul, called my cell. What’s going on down there?
There’s a big fire. Something about a plane. I’m not sure. I’m going to hang out and watch it for a while. I’ll probably be in later. We’ll have to see. Maybe I’ll just take the day off. It’s been a while.
I can see my profile, climbing the ladder to the roof, placing an item on the roof. I’m talking to Parul. As I duck my head back down into the hatch, a tower starts to crumble. I come back up and stop talking. What! What! What’s happening!!!
My voice cracked. It’s gone.
The tower… it’s just… gone.
There was just a big cloud of dust and smoke now, obscuring the other tower.
I told Parul there was going to be pandemonium. Stay in the office. Don’t go anywhere. You’re safe there. Just stay put until things calm down and we know what to do. I’ll be in touch. I gotta go.
I went back down and closed all the windows in case the dust made its way over. It was a shame. It was nice to have fresh air in the place. I’d have to turn the a/c back on now.
I filled up every container I had with water, just in case it went away.
A neighbor came up onto his roof – one of the guys in the funk band, upstairs from the old black woman.
We talked. We hadn’t talked much. Just wow! Wow.
We went down the hatch into his place. I’d never been in there. It was cluttered. It looked like a funk band lived there.
He had the TV on. We were under attack.
I was confused and worried.
We saw the second tower fall, on TV.
We scrambled up the ladder to see the hole. There was a hole in our city. There used to be a skyline, like a beautiful smile. Now there was a hole with a missing building, bleeding smoke and dust.
I can’t remember that guys’ name, or even his face. But we stood there and shared that moment, knowing something had just changed.
I didn’t think about the firemen. I wouldn’t know about the jumpers for six months. All I knew was I was trapped on an island which would surely be cut off from the world soon. That’s what they did in a crises. They closed the bridges and tunnels.
I went to the ATM and took out cash. Maybe there’d be a run on the banks. I’d need cash.
I tried to call Roy again. All circuits were busy. I tried the landline. Same thing.
I used both phones. The landline worked better. Everyone Downtown must have been on their cells.
I couldn’t reach my parents. I got ahold of my Grandma Elsie in Florida. She hadn’t heard. I told her to sit down.
I was OK. Call my parents, it’s hard to get a line out.
I sent Roy an email. He got it on his Blackberry and called me back.
Dude, I’m getting out of here.
I said, maybe you should stay. It’s going to be mayhem. Just stay put, until things calm down. I didn’t understand. He didn’t listen.
Later, I talked to his girlfriend, Amanda. She couldn’t get ahold of him. I told her to email him. She couldn’t. I could. I relayed messages between them all day.
There was nothing else to see on the roof. Just sadness.
I bought a pack of cigarettes. No point in quitting if I was going to be stuck at home for a few days. What else was there to do but smoke.
I went out on the stoop. The same neighbor came out. Some of his housemates came over. We sat on my stoop. My neighborhood was really feeling like a neighborhood. I was about to move away.
We sat there and shared cigarettes all morning.
Eventually the walkers arrived. A few at first. Then masses of people.
They’d walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. They’d walked for miles.
Some were covered in concrete dust.
A young guy walked down our block. He must have been a trader or banker. He wore a beautiful suit. It was gray with concrete dust; the dust was piled up on his shoulders. His afro must have had an inch of powder on it. His face was gray. He was lost.
Are you all right?
He asked how far to King’s Plaza.
Miles, was all I knew.
I gave him my bottle of water. He drank most of it. I told him to keep it. He poured it on his face and wiped his eyes.
The rest of the neighborhood came home. Some guys next door worked not far from my office. They had walked home the entire way. It was seven miles. I’d clocked it in my car, once.
We contemplated each passing moment. Everything would change from here out. We knew that. We knew it.
We didn’t know how. Who could imagine. We just knew it would be different.
Finally, the F-16’s flew over. That was the first time I felt safe. We didn’t know who was attacking us, how long it would last, how much damage would occur. But somewhere up there, they were watching over us, keeping us safe. They weren’t going to let anything happen to us. Not again.
Day gave way to night. I’d helped Roy link up with Amanda. She picked him up on the other side of the river. He had his own story.
After dinner, I met the neighbors at Freddie’s Bar. We sat in a booth, drank beers, and smoked more cigarettes.
One of the guys put his cigarette in the ash tray and I absent-mindedly picked it up and took a drag. I put it back down and he didn’t say anything.
Did I just smoke your cigarette?
It was a nice night. I look back on it fondly. The dim glow of Freddie’s Bar, the eclectic music by bands with no names, and the camaraderie of the neighbors I was finally getting to know, after four years.
I wondered how my friends were. Did everyone make it home safe? Was anyone else Downtown?
There was a girl I had dated a few days earlier, Joyce. It wasn’t a great date. She wouldn’t drink the shot of tequila I’d bought her. I had to drink two. At least play along.
I had decided not to see her again.
She lived on John Street. It was two blocks from the Trade Center. I couldn’t call it Ground Zero. I never will.
I called Joyce to see if she was OK. She was glad I called. Get me out of here!
She had gone to stay with a friend from work, on the Upper East Side. His boyfriend was angry there was a girl staying in the apartment. They were fighting. She couldn’t stay.
Joyce arrived on a Wednesday with nothing but her dog and her purse. She stayed for two weeks.
On Friday, we decided to head in and get her a change of clothes. We got off the train at City Hall and headed south. We got as far as the Manhattan Bridge before we were stopped by a National Guardsman and told to wait.
We stood there for fifteen minutes, until a motorcade drove by. It looked like the president’s. It was too long to be anyone else’s. And who else would be down there?
There were others waiting with us. A crowd had gathered. Not all of them made it past the guard.
Downtown was empty. The further south we went, the more desolate it became.
The streets had already been hosed clean and recently. They were wet. But the awnings all had several inches of concrete dust on them.
It was dark. There was no power. We had just the fading daylight, and not much of it, in the canyons of Downtown.
We showed ID to Guardsmen with M-16’s at two more checkpoints.
Joyce’s block was silent and lonely.
We went into her building. The Super was there with a friend. Many candles were lit. He gave us a flashlight.
We walked up the stairs. I think it was eight flights, maybe more.
Everyone was gone except one neighbor. She heard us tromping up the stairs and came out to talk.
We filled several bags with clothes, makeup, toiletries, perishable food, whatever we could carry.
When we got back to Prospect Heights, a stranger asked me if I was going to the vigil at the Fire House. I said I’d try to make it.
We brought candles and lit them with our neighbors, in a big circle around the huge garage door.
Some of the men were missing. We said a prayer for them.
As the sun went down, I scanned the crowd to get a good look at who was there. It was everyone. Every race and nationality. Men and women. Singles and families. Young and old.
That day we were one people. We were a community.
We were a neighborhood in Brooklyn.