God Knew We Liked The Sun
Ask anyone what they remember about that day, and nine times out of ten they’ll mention the weather. It was the most glorious September day in New York, sunny and bright tempered by the kind of breeze that lifts the edges of skirts and makes the trees dance. If it had rained, or been oppressively humid or boomed with thunder, our collective memories would be vastly, metaphorically different. The gorgeous weather on September 11, 2001 was a tiny shot in the arm to help us through the day. God knew we liked the sun.
I’d been living in the New York City area for only two years at the time, and had just turned 24. I lived across the Hudson River in Hoboken, NJ with roommates in a 5th floor walk-up where the fire escape attached to my itsy-bitsy bedroom. My room was smaller than both my roommates’ due to budget constraints, but I felt like I’d won the best space because technically mine had a balcony. People in their early 20s are romantically hopeful that way; they can gaze out a window and see a universe of shooting stars and possibilities, fan pillows across a fire escape and dream it’s a private balcony.
At 24, I was almost recklessly optimistic. I’d lived a safe, sheltered, lucky life and I didn’t look at anything or anyone and assume or expect the worst.
In the mornings, I took the long route to the train station, walking along the fringe of Hoboken so I could look across the river at downtown Manhattan. I always felt sort of bowled over in those 20 minutes; my brain was still adjusting to the fact that I lived and worked here, that my commute included a skyline view on one street and an Italian ice if I took another. People always complain about commuting into the city, but it was usually the highlight of my day. I was grateful for it.
On that particular day, I gave myself plenty of extra time for my morning walk so I could make a lap around Sinatra Park, which juts out right over the Hudson River. As I made my way closer to the park, I saw a small puff of smoke coming from one of the trade towers. A cabbie was parked nearby and staring at it.
“What’s going on? Is the tower on fire?” I asked.
“I was sitting right here and just watched a plane nosedive into the World Trade Center. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.
There was no part of me that thought it was intentional. At 24, my thoughts didn’t work that way. So I made my way down to the PATH train and traveled into Manhattan for work, expecting the freak plane accident to be the water cooler talk of the day.
By the time my train arrived at 23rd Street and I emerged from underground, the second tower had already been hit. People were alternatively standing in the middle of the street, staring downtown, or panicked and running as far away from the Flatiron Building as they could. This was before camera phones, before peoples’ first reaction to every event–good or bad– was to stand there and film it.
In the office, we huddled around an old TV in the mailroom, getting a better understanding of what was happening in our skies, at the Pentagon, in our country, 20 blocks away. We paired up and began our journeys back home; all buses and subways in and out of Manhattan had been shut down, so people in Brooklyn and Queens went by foot, while those of us from Jersey would need to cross the water.
It was the first and only time I ever took the ferry. The line coiled for hours until we were finally able to board, hundreds of hot, weary bodies crammed side-by-side on the boat as we drifted past the smoldering site. The ferry dropped me off in Weehawken, the next town over, so we continued to silently walk one by one down the road. My roommate Ashley and I fretted for hours about our other roommate John who worked in Building 7; he was unreachable by phone and hadn’t come home yet. We knew he was okay when we turned on the news and saw him on TV, covered in ash. My mother–who was on vacation abroad at the time–worried that I might be dead, not because I was in New York City, but because I had been set to board a plane from Newark to San Francisco the next morning and she’d gotten the dates messed up, and thought I was on Flight 93.
A friend and I returned to the park that evening with a crowd of dozens, standing across the river, silently watching the towers smoke and burn. We didn’t know what else to do. We didn’t go to work for the rest of the week. No one did. The smell lingered for a month. People covered their mouths with surgical masks. Union Square Park was littered with thousands of handmade signs and posters of people searching for their loved ones, burning candles, the ground pierced with American flags and strewn with yellow flowers. People offered hugs and prayers. The We Heart NYC posters took on new significance, many graffitied with addendums like “More than ever” or a tiny arrow drawn into the center of the heart, “you are here” scribbled in felt pen just above it.
My first counseling job in 2008 was on John Street in downtown Manhattan, blocks away from the World Trade Center. Seven years later, we still got referrals from people who lost loved ones in the attacks, downtown business owners who’d gone completely broke after having to close their shops or restaurants, people who lost their apartments, people with unexplainable respiratory illnesses, people having panic attacks, Muslim women who stopped wearing scarves and feared for their safety after having beer bottles thrown at their heads.
Even today, I’ll occasionally do an intake where the person says they’ve “just never been the same” since that day.
There was a fine dining restaurant called Windows On the World in the north tower. It was all the way up on the 107th floor, and on a clear night you could see all of the bridges to Queens and Brooklyn from there, every light in the Manhattan skyline, every drop of water in the surrounding rivers, but none of the garbage on the sidewalks, none of the dried-out old gum glued to the pavement. It was the glittering view we all know from the movies. The view that makes people travel here from all over the world, hoping to absorb a bit of magic. The dazzling city of dreams you constructed in your head the first time you read The Great Gatsby.
One of my favorite early New York City memories was drinking and dancing one night at the restaurant’s bar, named– not-so-humbly– The Greatest Bar on Earth. There was a live band playing swing music that night, and a group of dancers turned up wearing A-line skirts and pin-curls, bright red suspenders and glistening saddle shoes. The men tossed the women across the room like ragdolls, and they all looked so happy and free it was impossible to watch them and feel anything but joy.
I refused to get on the dance floor, not from embarrassment but because — like always in New York City–space was finite, and I felt like they deserved the room more than I did. I sat in the corner sipping my $16 cocktail, my heart exploding with gratitude to witness their jubilant innocence and uninhibited glee. I looked out the window and saw a postcard below me. I felt like I was in a movie, or a really vivid dream. Fifteen years later I feel so thankful for this memory because it tempers, just a little bit, some of my other ones.
But still, at the end of the day and like everyone else, I’ll never forget.