Our guest blogger is Bryan Waterman, an NYU professor of English and all-around awesome human who is currently teaching at NYU Abu Dhabi. He occasionally blogs on his own site with partner in crime Cyrus R.K. Patell, but spends more time on Tumblr and Twitter. This article was originally written for The Great Whatist in 2006 – 5 years after 9/11/01. This is the first entry in the return of our series, Professors Who Blog. If you’re a professor who’s interested in blogging for us, get in touch.
That’s me, exactly five years ago — the morning of 11 September 2001. Until I dug this picture out today, I’d forgotten how long my sideburns were back then. My hair, too. I guess it was closer to the nineties than I realized at the time.
There’s a lot more about that morning that I haven’t forgotten, though, things I won’t shake as long as I live, even though like most New Yorkers I’ve had to learn to shove down the realities of what we saw and felt. Otherwise, how could we continue to live where we do?
How would you describe that look on my pale-as-death face? Disbelief? Horror? Total panic? I look afraid to move, afraid or unable to break my gaze. Here, of course, is what I was looking at, about three blocks to the south of me:
I haven’t seen the movie these stills came from. (They follow one another directly in the film. A friend across the country TiVoed it a couple years ago and emailed these photos to me.) I haven’t seen any of the 9/11 documentaries, in fact. Trying to take in someone else’s narrative reordering of the whole experience seems absurd. My own memories are all of disorder.
You can’t see them in the still, but I was watching the jumpers more intently than anything else, their skirts and dress shirts billowing like parachutes while I counted second after second until they disappeared from view.
If you had told me five years ago that in the fall of 2006 Oliver Stone would have a 9/11 movie showing at our neighborhood theater, where third- and fourth-floor lobby windows overlook the Memorial Hole in the Ground, I would have laughed. If you had told me that Nicolas Cage would star in it and that, in the trailer, office paper confetti would rain down on him in slow motion like so much ticker tape while schmaltzy music soared toward an emotionally manipulative climax, I would have punched you in the face.
There was no schmaltzy music the morning of 9/11. I remember this instead: The low scream of a jet liner sailing over my head at 500 miles per hour, and just enough time before it disappeared into the north face of the North Tower for the woman next to me in the elementary school yard to say: “I can’t believe how low they fly those planes sometime.”
There was the moment of silence before the fireball erupted to the side of the jagged-toothed hole in the facade. There was the sound of gas tanks exploding, the sound of the woman next to me, fumbling with her cell phone, screaming, “Oh My God – my husband’s up there!” The sounds of parents running through school hallways, especially after the second plane hit twenty minutes later, shouting their childrens’ names. Or the blare of hundreds of car horns and sirens as people tried, at first, to drive as close as they could get.
There were taxi radios warning that four more planes were missing — maybe headed for LAX?
There was a homeless guy wandering through Tribeca yelling that THIS is what happen when Republicans take the White House by fiat and that we should all write in Bill Clinton for Mayor. (It was, after all, election day.)
There was the sound of the cop telling us we couldn’t proceed toward our apartment: “Turn THE FUCK around and move UP-TOWN! Your neighborhood has been evacuated!”
At the cluster of courthouses and municipal buildings that make up the civic center, just north of the Brooklyn Bridge’s entrance, we heard a noise louder than the loudest thunder you’ve ever heard, a sound like the earth splitting open to swallow you, infinitely louder than the most penetrating Dolby surround sound.
Stephanie crouched against the wall and covered her ears. “We’re being bombed!” she said, just before tens of thousands of people rounded the corner from City Hall Park and rushed at us like a herd of startled cattle. We turned and ran, too, to get away from them. One of us pushed Molly in a jogging stroller. One of us held hands with Anna and Ian, our friend Karen’s fourth-grader son. We’d taken Ian with us from the school because his mom hadn’t made it yet to claim him and we were actually afraid the tower might topple and crush the school before she got there.
It was blocks before the rush of people slowed to a steady walk and someone told us a tower had actually collapsed. At some point we were able to look south and see the other tower standing there alone. We imagined, briefly, what it would be like to live in a New York with only one Twin Tower.
For the most part I don’t remember the kids making a sound. Molly, in fact, was asleep. I do remember Anna, who’d just started second grade, saying: “You’d have to hate America pretty bad if you’d kill yourself just to hurt it.”
I remember a soundtrack of people’s stories, the thousands of people in our sea of emigrants and refugees marching up Lafayette Street, stories about how they’d made it out of one or the other of the towers. I remember people complaining that their cellphones didn’t work and a deli owner calling us over to give us and others free bottles of water.
There was no slow motion the morning of 9/11. Everything happened in mindnumbing blurs or with a real-time slowness that didn’t require production tricks. How long did it take before our phone and email trees paid off and Karen found us at NYU, her face and hair streaked with ash and someone else’s blood, a surgical mask pulled up and sitting on top of her head? (Years later Karen and I would watch Edie Falco “play” Karen in a 9/11 memorial reading of various New Yorkers’ stories: “How am I going to find Bryan Waterman’s office at NYU?”)
How many packs of cigarettes were jointly consumed on the sidewalk in front of our friends Rachel and Missy’s apartment in Queens, where we stayed for the next few weeks, until NYU put us in a hotel in the East 30s? We’d watch the news when the kids were in the other room, talk to family members on the phone, break into tears in the shower when fighter jets flew overhead — the only airplanes you’d hear at that point, the skies quiet otherwise.
Other things I won’t forget, from the days and weeks that followed:
- Molly’s fifth birthday party in exile in Queens, and all the friends who schlepped from other boroughs to be there for her and for us.
- Standing on top of a parking garage in Queens a few days later and getting my first glimpse of the Island without the Trade Center. It looked like it should upend and sink into the ocean, midtown going down first.
- Showing up to class the following Monday in a white Old Navy undershirt (still creased from the bag) and new Old Navy jeans, the same outfit half my students wore too.
- The Planet of the Apes t-shirt I found on the sale rack at Old Navy, which seemed the most appropriate thing to wear. The end of irony must have lasted about five minutes.
- Not having any money, since we’d only moved to New York five weeks earlier and neither of us had received a paycheck since April or May. My first check from NYU wasn’t scheduled until October 1. We’d maxed our credit cards between the move, the kids’ school clothes, and a family reunion in Arizona that summer. I certainly won’t forget the friends, family, colleagues, strangers, and foundations who gave us money for clothes and food over the next month.
- Going to see Built to Spill at Irving Plaza with our friend John while we were still in exile and Union Square was still filled with candles. Doug Martsch came out to sing a cover of “Imagine” as a solo encore; the room burst into spontaneous whistles, shouts, and applause when asked to imagine a world without religion.
- Taking the kids across town where they continued school, at first crammed into a shared space with another elementary school, 60 or 90 kids to a room.
- Heading down into the subway carrying a jogging stroller, two kids leading the way. (We weren’t yet New Yorkers and didn’t realize that kids shouldn’t lead the way down subway stairs and that strollers + subway = pain in the ass.) Some woman looked at us with disdain and said: “Adults first, kids follow — and they’re too big for that stroller!” Only later did I think of the comeback I wish I had been fast enough to deliver: “It’s nice to see the assholes are up and running again!”
- Quitting smoking on October 1, needing to have control over some aspect of my life, sick of hiding my grad school habits from my kids. (That means I’ll be five years smoke-free in a couple weeks.)
- How dark and quiet it was downtown when we finally returned at the very end of October. We had to talk our way through a police barricade on the FDR in order to get our cab full of crying kids and shopping bags into the no-car zone.
- Countless nightmares of airplanes crashing nose-first into the ground, collapsing on themselves and leaving no trace.
- Thanksgiving at our apartment that November: renting tables and chairs to accommodate the nearly 30 adults and half dozen kids, many of whom had traveled to be there.
- The smell of the fires that burned at Ground Zero through January.
- How much I hated the term “Ground Zero.” And the sight of Old Navy American flag T-shirts on tourists.
- How much I loved this cartoon in the Village Voice. How much I wanted to tape it to my office door but was afraid it would be inappropriate:
- Standing in Washington Square park looking south to where the Twin Towers should have been standing in the distance, and thinking about nothing so much as the scene in the original Star Wars where Obi Wan registers the damage done to the force when Darth Vader has just used the Death Star to destroy Princess Leia’s home planet: “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”
- How the Towers of Light memorial sort of backfired when planes passed through the beams of light and seemed to reenact the tragedy.
- How parents at the neighborhood parks for months would panic when a plane would fly overhead, and how none of us could resume conversations until someone had spotted it and reassured the others — often without anyone speaking a word — that it seemed to be on a regular schedule and flight pattern.
- How tall the towers were. How many people they held, even when they were almost empty.
The other night a friend of mine talked about how tall they looked from a distance, but how they seemed to shrink as you approached. Then, when you finally got to their bases, you’d look up and they’d seemed to go up forever. “It was like God Himself should be sitting at the very top,” he said, “somewhere up in all that fog.”