I put “9/11” in quotes because it is no longer a date, but an event – just as “Pearl Harbor” is no longer a location. There is my *own* 9/11 story: it is actually three or four weeks long. It begins with that glorious, absolutely lucid, dulcet clear cerulean sky on that Wednesday morning, as I drove Jake to school, and we saw the light glinterring off the dewdrops on the fields at Douglass Campus. It was one of those glorious early-fall days that make you believe that “God’s on His Heaven, and all’s right with the world.” Jack was down in Florida with the PruPac bus, taking care of prepping its bus systems prior to its deployment.
So he had to call me from Florida to ask me if I was watching the TV after the first Tower fell. I was in the middle of a long phone call with Toni Mullins, who was distraught because she’d had to put her dog down that morning. Jack actually had the operator break into my call with her. I turned on the TV, and at first didn’t understand what was happening – there was a Tower, and a lot of smoke – but where was the other one? The announcers on the television seemed mystified, as well – where was the other Tower? Suddenly, we all realized – it was gone. It had collapsed. Such a thing seemed unbelievable, and still does. How could the Tower just crumble like that? It was so huge, so sturdy, made of steel and concrete and stone – where did it go?
What had happened to all the people that were in it? That was my next shocked thought. There were 30 to 50 thousand people that would work in the Towers on a weekday. What had happened to them? Now, we say “3,000,” and are horrified by that number. But on the actual day, and for days after, we were certain that the death toll must have been much, much higher. We have never given proper acknowledgement to the calm and deliberative way that those Towers were evacuated, and that so few people – comparatively – died.
But on that morning, I was still too completely numbed by what I was watching, too awe-struck, to process what I was seeing. The first coherent thought I did have was about the school. I knew Toni wasn’t there, and wondered what I could do to help. I drove over there immediately.
When I got there, the teachers were standing around in the hallways, stricken and frightened. Trish was a basket case – Bill, her husband, was supposed to be working on the roof of the North Tower that morning, helping to install a new antenna. She hadn’t been able to reach him, and was terrified that he’d been killed. None of the classrooms had been informed, and the teachers didn’t know what to tell the students. They drafted me, as Chairman of the Board of Directors, to go into every classroom and inform the students about what had occurred.
The children whose responses I most remember were the K – 2 grades. Every classroom in that age group (and there were three) had the same question: Did the planes hit the buildings on purpose? It was very difficult for them to understand that one – that TWO planes had to hit the TWO buildings separately. But when the children understood that, they all asked the same question about it: Why did they do it? What had we done to make them so mad at us? Those children all understood that this sort of thing wouldn’t have happened because of nothing at all. The mush-mouthed reason that adults later repeated dully, “They did it because they hate our freedoms,” obviously made no sense to them. These kids had no reason to feel compelled to mouth the old “acceptable” explanation that the adults clung o. They wanted to know what we had done to make them so mad at us! It’s a natural question, especially to children, who are very aware of the sorts of reasons that people get angry at each other. They figured we must have done something pretty dreadful to make them so angry at us.
Americans never did find out that reason – which is why we are in such a miserable space over there today.
I suppose my breakdown and suicide attempt 2 weeks later was a part of 9/11, as well. I got through the actual day alright, being very strong while everyone else was cracking up. I remember sitting in my bedroom that night, alone, hearing Barber’s elegiac “Adagio For Strings” playing on WNYC. (It seemed to be all they played for three days.) I copied Auden’s “September 1, 1939″ into my journal….”as the clever hopes expire of a low-dishonest decade.” “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” “We must suffer them all again.” I knew what was coming…at that moment, I was afraid that we would simply nuke Baghdad. (We were fortunate that Bush felt queasy, when Cheney was so gung-ho.)
The Anniversary here has been a lot of turgid, self-important programs on cable revisiting the horrors of the day. They are very difficult for me to watch. There has been a lot of memorial music on WNYC, including all the music that listeners suggested memorializing the day.
But for me, what I have been thinking about is the actual death of the buildings as well as the people. Those buildings were actual presences in my mind, even realer and more visceral than many politicians or celebrities. I’d never met the Presidents or television stars that are supposed to be so important – but those buildings… I knew them, had looked up at that 100+ stories from their bases in the courtyard, had been on the rooftop viewing area, had eaten some of my best meal ever in the restaurants, had watched the arguments over their creation, and then their years-long climb into the skyline…. and had seen them everytime I even got *near* to Manhattan. They mattered to me, in the way that only a monumental piece or architecture that is part of your life can.
The Towers have been gone for so long that I can divide NY into “Towers NY” and “After Towers NY.” When I watch movies from the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and I see the Towers, it’s the indicia that the movie is truly ancient. Even more than the autos or the clothes or the haircuts, it’s the presence of the Towers that date these films. Once, seeing the Towers in a movie was a quick way to know that the screenplay was actually taking place in Manhattan. Now, seeing the Towers affixes the film in *time.*
Now it’s impossible to head to Manhattan from anywhere in New Jersey without seeing The Hole. The Hole mean “Where the Towers Should Be.” No building, no matter how fantastic, can ever fill The Hole. You would have to build the Towers up again – perhaps, this time, in gold cladding, rather than silver.
The Towers were more than a landmark – they were a marking of the land, a talisman, a promontory used to align one’s travels to and on the island. Now that negative space is the monument. The only fitting occupier of that space is the Tribute In Light, beams of light, shooting up into the heavens.
The best part about the Towers was the ride up to the top, in those elevators that had a pressure differential as you entered them, because of the vacuum of air being pulled from the top. The Windows on The World, especially when it held Cellar in the Sky, was also a truly magical place. The food was great in Windows; in Cellars, it was extraordinary at times. But the view from that restaurant! To dine on top of the WTC was truly a magical experience, one of the great reasons to visit NYC in the late 20th Century.
Actually visiting the *offices* in the WTC was a different story. Unless you were in an office with a window, you might as well have been in any corporate rabbit warren – with the difference that you would have to walk down dozens of flights in case of a fire alarm.
The Towers seemed to be show up in every movie shot in Manhattan during that period, as well – the visual proof that the film was set in New York. When they were built, they were supposed to be the Rockefeller Brothers’ Great Pyramids. (Anyone else remember when we called the Towers “David” and “Nelson”?)
They were not attractive, but became almost beloved *because* of their stark, blunt, preposterous bland monumentality. (It certainly look like the new “Freedom Tower” is going to be the Ugly Tower.) And, yes, Phillip Petit bore them aloft into the realm of transcendence. The film, “Man on Wire” is a wonderful documentary of the event. But the children’s book, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers,” captures the true spirit of the feat …especially the last illustration, which shows Petit walking on a tightrope suspended between the memories of the Towers, nothing more.
I don’t think America will ever build their like again, not in my lifetime.