a.m. | the
smoke, the mayor | tuesday
p.m. | emails
memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument. ... The memories
which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they
tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change.
--Primo Levi, "The Drowned and the Saved"
added this quote on September 29, because I've been noticing
how people talk about the attacks on September 11 with this
confused, inadequate intensity that may be the closest we
can come to comprehension. I'm scared that in the collective
imagination, these events will become another big event, like
a movie opening, or an election. That I don't know how to
think of something so enormous any other way, and that none
of us does. We diminish things with the glamor of drama.
did hear a huge boom around nine in the morning, but I didn't
think much about it. Usually what sounds like an explosion
is a big truck passing on Henry Street or Atlantic Avenue.
Then my Mom called to check if I was okay and I turned on
the TV and saw that it hadn't been a truck I'd heard.
I called my brother Barney who lives down near the South Street
Seaport, on the other side of the financial district from
the towers. He was home, and okay. While we were on the phone
the second plane hit the second building. (At least, I thought
we were. He says he was outside watching when that happened,
so maybe it was a replay. Memory is funny.)
There was a plume of dark smoke in the sky behind the brownstones
across my street. Big as it was, it was a narrow band compared
to what happened after the towers fell.
My camera happened to have a new roll of film, so I put on
a hat and went up the hill to the Promenade, which sits on
the East River below the Brooklyn Bridge and overlooks downtown.
It was packed with people. Staring, pointing, gesticulating.
Strangers recounting what they'd just seen to each other.
Both towers had thick rolls of charcoal-colored smoke streaming
out, straight up and then to the left, the south, over the
harbor and the Statue of Liberty. The image was horrifiying
already: enormous pieces of the tower walls were missing or
blackened, in jagged scars that (for whatever this shows about
how things work here in the U.S.) made me think of the covers
of sci fi books, the fallen city underwater in "Waterworld,"
the brutal, jarring feeling you get when you see the Statue
at the end of the original "Planet of the Apes." That feeling
that something you know and count on is over.
People were quiet. But not reverently silent like they were
in the streets the day after Princess Di was killed (I was
in Ashland, Or.). It was silent like at the street corner
scene of a terrible accident. Most people were staring in
disbelief and fascination. Many were talking. Some just clamped
their hands over their mouths or foreheads. One woman in her
40s was quietly crying in a group of 3-4 other people. Why
do people naturally bring their hands to their faces in shock?
Is it an atavistic shielding instinct? Many also had their
palms to their cheeks, like Jack Benny.
At this point the dark smoke was confined to the air immediately
around the towers. I took pictures of the people also, and
of other people taking pictures. People pointing. Hundreds
of people, some dressed in suits, some for jogging, some in
workmen's clothes. Parents and nannies with strollers. All
looking in the same direction together. A few moving into
or out of the crowd, talking hurriedly with each other.
I was facing away from Manhattan and a woman screamed "Oh
my God!!" in a high, bizarre tone and I looked back. The left
tower, with the bigger gashes in it, was tilting forward at
the top, carrying smoke and its visible beads of flame with
it, bowing east and falling forward. And it did move like
it was in slow motion, which I guess is because it was so
big and so far away.
People were screamingthough it was really more calling
out. More "Oh my Gods!" and "Oh shit!" and "Jesus!" And a
couple of stunned people saying simply. "It fell over!" Some
were saying it into cell phones, which were still working
at that point, "One of the towers fell down!" "The south tower
It was surreal and impossible to believe. Now a lot of people
began weeping. Several different women who looked like they'd
been out running before heading in to work at law or finance-type
jobs. Carrot hair, tank-top, sleek walkman, and a stricken
look you don't ever really see. Holding their housekeys in
one hand and trying to clutch both eyes with the other, crying.
A guy in a suit was wiping his hand back and forth across
his forehead repeating "This isn't real. ..." A
couple of people just turned and ran away.
One of the most jarring things was the sky south of the Battery,
out over Ellis Island and New Jersey, where anyone near Brooklyn
or Lower Manhattan can always see planes circling Newark Airport.
You don't really think about them, but they're always there.
Today they weren't. No planes in the sky at all.
The smoke started to appear. A light cement-colored cloud
now, growing and unfurling upward from spots on the skyline
blocks away from the towers. Too far north. Tough to imagine
that the smoke shooting up somewhere around Canal Street was
from the Word Trade Center. It was like watching weather move
in fast-motion. Patterns that have no relation to the usual
scale of things. The building fell and the smoke began. And
we heard the boom of the building hitting the street. And
dozens of birds in the trees near the Promenade suddenly burst
out over our heads and flew toward the river and turned south.
I started to go forward to the rail, to take more pictures.
I was cautious and polite at first. I moved through the crowd
the way you do at a big spectator event or a long line for
somethingyou don't want to bother anyone or push them
away. But it occurred to me I could have muscled and shoved
as much as I wanted. There was no jockeying for position.
Once the first tower fell, it stopped being a spectacle. Everyone
was just stunned. I could have broken every convention of
crowd behavior. It probably wouldn't have mattered. A business-looking
guy in his 20s was striding along, talking in a loud angry
Italian-American accent: "Get your uniforms on, boys! Somebody's
gonna pay for this. Just show me who I gotta shoot!" Nobody
tried to egg him on or quiet him down.
One woman at the rail told her family "We should get out of
here." All the smoke was spilling out between the buildings
in clouds 20, 30 stories high, overwhelming the Seaport and
FDR Drive, spreading over the water. It was less than ten
minutes after the collapse and lower Manhattan was almost
gone in smoke.
smoke was moving toward us. Slowly more and more people started
leaving the Promenadenot everybody though. It was just
smoke. I left too eventually, and while I walked east I saw
dozens of people still coming to look, some rushing to see,
some walking. Pockets of people everywhere, stopped. The same
words everywhere, "One of the towers fell down." "The radio
says a building collapsed." Strangers grabbing each other to
walked toward home and when I looked back two blocks toward
the Promenade, the view west was completely blotted out by
the smoke and dust. No Jersey, no Statue, no river even. You've
all seen the pictures of Manhattan with the plume of smoke
spilling back out over the harbor. It took me two days to
realize that the swath of smoke reaching along the horizon
like that reminded me of the pictures of the fires in the
Kuwaiti oil fields in 1991. Hundreds and hundreds of pieces
of paper were wheeling through the smoke, flashing in the
sunlight like glitter.
air in Brooklyn Heights began to have a thin haze in it and
a smoky smell set in which lasted until about nine the next
morning in Brooklyn, and is still everywhere in lower Manhattan.
home I was on the phone with Barney again as the second tower
fell. The newscasters narrating as we watched didn't even
know what to say. "Look at your screens," the woman
on CBS was saying. "If you look at your screens right
now, you can see the north tower of the World Trade Center
was around 10:30 then, I think (there are chronologies published
everywhere by now, of course). And the game of "Hide
the President" had started. First he's in Florida, reading
a stilted, prepared statement that was not reassuring at all.
I think that was the one where he called the terrorists "the
folks who did this." Then he's flying to "an
undisclosed location." Then he's in Louisiana reading
from his cards again. Then he disappeared for another 4-5
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani rushes down to ground zero,
is nearly killed in the first collapse, is trapped for several
minutes next door to the fallen south tower, and still manages,
upon his escape from danger, to address the City regularly
for the next several hours. In each appearance, Giuliani is
forthright, firm, reassuring and more deeply human than he
has been at any other time in his public lifein statements
which all appeared unprepared and from the heart. How sad
and compelling that the president embraced by the religious
right and the military can only trudge through prepared prose,
while the prosecutor known best for his unapologetic insensitivity
can reassure the entire City with plainspoken feelings and
straight talk. The next day, Senators Clinton and Schumer
spoke with the same sober, dignified eloquence. Hillary had
clearly listened to her husband's oratory all those years.
But it's the mayor who has moved me the most. More than ever,
I believe leadership is about command, humanity and empathy.
How we long for it and need it.