JERSEY CITY, NEW JERSEY — On Tuesday, September 11, I woke at 6:30 AM because I dreamed that someone had stolen my car. My dream had a sound basis in fact. My car had been stolen before, and the wheels stolen off it another time. As I did every morning, I went to the window to check the weather. My weather indicators were the two immense towers of the World Trade Center complex. On bad days their tops were hidden in fog or clouds of rain. On good days the morning sun shot shafts of silvery light through the crack between the towers. Regardless of weather, I also enjoyed the simple thrill of seeing the two buildings, by far the biggest objects in view, and I'd pause there, at the window, before getting dressed for work. I repeated this small ritual before going to bed, the view made all the more spectacular by the hundreds of offices in both towers lit up into the night. The advertisement that initially caught my eye for my apartment boasted, "Great WTC Vu." It wasn't an overstatement.
Tuesday was a beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky. No clinging haze. I could see clear past the dark twin towers and Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan, all the way to Brooklyn. I thought about heading into the city later. The weather was perfect for putzing around. I wasn't working. Like many others, I'd been laid off from my New Economy job in Manhattan's downtown financial district months ago. I didn't miss having to rush to the PATH train, the subway that every day takes tens of thousands of commuters to the World Trade Center from the Jersey side of the Hudson River. I didn't miss having to shoulder past thousands of people streaming up the long escalators and dodging through the maze of shops and turnstiles and wide hallways that honeycomb the ground beneath the tower complex. For the first time, I was enjoying a tourist's experience of New York City, rising late, wandering the streets at my leisure, going to museums and shopping in the middle of the afternoon.
Later, I walked to a park around the corner where I passed a man walking his dog. "Someone blew the top off the World Trade Center," he said. He bent down to pet his dog. I laughed to show I was a good sport and kept walking. "It's true, go look," he said. "My wife just saw it on TV." I laughed again to show I wasn't buying it. But as I walked back toward my apartment I could see a tremendous column of gray smoke blooming above the trees. I ran to the corner of Erie and 6th Streets, where there's a clear view of the downtown New York City skyline, and I stopped: one of the World Trade Center towers, the one with the big white needle on top, was on fire. It looked primeval, like a volcano about to blow. It was around quarter to 9:00.
A guy with a closely shaved head and a big smile was standing on the corner, hands on his hips. He acknowledged me by lifting his chin and saying, "Believe that shit?" We both stood and stared. We were soon joined by two or three other young men, all of us apparently without jobs and nothing else to do but stand on the corner and watch the World Trade Center burn while muttering "Damn," and "Shit," and "This shit is crazy." None of us had any idea why the tower was burning or what had happened.
The fire itself seemed limited to the top quarter of the tower, on perhaps a single floor marked by a thin orange line of flame that licked at the upper floors. But we could only see the western face of the building, not the northern face with the big hole punched in it, which I saw hours later on TV. Smoke was leaking out of various floors above the flames, pulled by the wind out into the harbor. The fire didn't seem to be getting worse. We began to speculate about what had happened. Was it an accident? A bomb?
A delivery truck stopped in the middle of the intersection. The driver leaned out and shouted to us. "It's a plane." He pointed to the tower, then at his radio. One guy exchanged words with the driver in Spanish.
"Did he say a plane?"
"Yeah, a plane, a fucking plane hit it."
"A plane, man, a whole plane." He raised his arms in imitation of wings.
"What kind of plane hits the World Trade Center?"
"JFK Junior and shit. Boom! Like that."
None of us thought that 'plane' meant 'jetliner.' We imagined propellers; or at worst, a Lear jet. An inexperienced pilot behind the controls. Heart attack maybe. A young hipster sauntered past and stopped at the curb. He glanced at us over the top of his sunglasses, then glanced in the direction of our gaze. He took off his sunglasses. His mouth fell open. Out of the corner of my eye an orange flash erupted from the second tower.
"Oh my God, did you see that shit?"
"Oh my God."
"Holy shit." He crossed himself in the Catholic manner.
As we began to speculate about the cause of the second fire, a banged-up taxi stopped at the intersection. The driver shouted, "Jumbo Jet," and smacked one hand into another to indicate an impact. My neighbor stuck his head out of his third-floor apartment window and shouted down that a jet had just struck the second tower. He saw it on TV. Everything we'd been thinking up until that point changed completely. We knew we were seeing only a fraction of the damage, and that there was a cause for it. One guy started talking about how "they" did it on purpose. "No one just accidentally hits the World Trade Center with a Jumbo Jet," he said. "Know what I'm saying? It had to be on purpose. It's perfectly clear out here. What the fuck, right?" It was around 9:15 AM, and our conversation turned immediately to Middle Eastern terrorists.
"They don't care about dying, yo. It's a whole different deal with them. It's, like, a good thing."
"They do it in the name of God."
"Ain't no God I know of."
We weren't yet horrified or even alarmed. The fire in the first tower didn't seem to be getting any worse and the orange thread of flame even seemed to have abated somewhat. We were mostly curious about how the morning was going to unfold. Our group of conspiracy theorists broke up to find a TV in order to feed and confirm our worst suspicions. My TV was packed in a box upstate. Besides, I couldn't tear myself away from the sight of both towers now sending up two huge columns of gray and black smoke far into the blue sky. I began trotting the few blocks to Newark Avenue downtown, where I planned to buy a cheap camera at one of the storefronts that sell electronics and plastic toys for ninety-nine cents. Cars were stopped in the middle of every intersection, tying up morning traffic. People shouted to each other from their cars and apartments and from across the street. Even the meter maids parked their three-wheeled Plexiglas scooters in the middle of the street to stare at the burning towers.
- - - -
Every time I see the towers resurrected on TV, only to be exploded again, I'm surprised at how small they seem. It probably goes without saying that squashing 1,350 feet of steel and concrete to fit a 27" TV screen doesn't do the buildings justice. The distorting effect is similar to experiencing the towers in person from below. Looking up from the street their imposing height is shortened by extreme perspective. But seen from a distance, or better yet, from two miles away in mid-town Manhattan or across the water in Jersey City or Brooklyn, it was possible to truly appreciate their magnitude. From these vantage points the towers had a context worthy of accommodating them: the entire horizon studded with the profiles of other buildings, giants themselves, that didn't even reach the towers' middle. You could drop a small town in the plaza between the towers and still have room for a ball field. The towers created their own weather, too. Pernicious wind vortices often surprised pedestrians by popping umbrellas inside out with a sudden blast. It wasn't unusual to see dozens of ruined umbrellas lying limp against the curb on Church Street outside One Liberty Plaza. On rainy days a phalanx of old Chinese women with ruddy faces and luggage carts stood outside on the Liberty Street concourse and sold new umbrellas with the cry, "bray-la, bray-la, bray-la."
Police cars and fire trucks roared down Luis Múnoz Boulevard in Jersey City toward the Holland Tunnel entrance a few blocks away, sirens wailing. Office workers emerged from offices I never knew existed and gathered in parking lots, their hands shielding their eyes from the morning sun. Construction workers perched on steel beams and held onto steel cables to balance themselves as they stared eastward across the Hudson River. I ran through the potholed lanes between empty warehouses near Jersey City's waterfront. At one point I heard someone scream but I didn't stop to see what had caused it. It was almost 10 a.m. when I reached the ferry terminal where commuters connect to the World Financial Center, the group of domed glass buildings immediately to the west of the World Trade Center, marked by a big tinted glass arch. About a dozen people had already gathered on the docking pier, mostly construction workers from the many development sites on the waterfront where high-rise apartment buildings are going up.
The view across the Hudson River was awful. The distance of a few blocks from my apartment to the waterfront, perhaps half a mile, made all the difference. I could see in one sweep the entire stretch between the Empire State Building and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The smoke cloud was tremendous. It now enveloped the entire tip of the island south of the World Trade Center, including the building where I used to work, of which I caught glimpses through billowing clouds of gray and black soot. The fire hadn't abated. There were new holes, flames shooting out of them. Sheets of debris peeled off and fluttered on the heated air before disappearing in the thick smoke. Someone said they'd seen people jumping. I began to frantically click the camera. Something about what I saw through the cheap plastic viewfinder seemed odd. And then it became horribly clear.
"Where's the other tower?"
"It came down, bro. You didn't see it?"
I didn't say anything. It seemed impossible, utterly impossible that something that big could simply not be there anymore. Never in my life had I felt sickened at the sight of catastrophe, televised or in person. Though I wasn't in any personal danger and didn't even have a particularly detailed view of the carnage occurring on the street at that very moment, I felt sick to my stomach. There was no sign of the tower in the smoke and dust. It was gone. The people most certainly trapped in it, gone.
"Yeah, this is history here," said a construction worker standing at the rail next to me. He was wearing dusty denim overalls and work boots, and there was dust in his black hair. He seemed nonplussed. "We're watching history happen right here. Hey, you got another smoke?"
I handed him a crumpled package of cigarettes from my pocket.
"You only got one left," he said. "I can't take your last cigarette, bro."
"Please," I said, offering him the pack. My hand was trembling, which surprised me. I hadn't eaten anything except a cup of strong Spanish coffee from La Conguita diner.
An F-15 fighter jet cracked the sky overhead, carving white contrails over Manhattan. A bluish-gray Navy vessel sliced down the Hudson toward the harbor. I looked around. The people who weren't pointing cameras or video recorders at the scene had their hands over their mouths or were trying to express something to the person next to them. One man in a purple knit shirt and tan khakis kept punching the keypad on his cell phone, holding it to his ear then dialing again. He cried as he did this. Someone asked him if he knew someone in the building. "My wife works there," he said, staring across the river. He removed his glasses, wiped his eyes, and dialed his cell phone again.
A sharp cry rose up all around me, a collective intake of breath like you hear in the bleachers at major sporting events. I looked up in time to see the remaining tower disintegrate. It seemed as though a gigantic invisible finger were pressing down on top of the building and driving it into the ground. The tower became a dark avalanche of exploding debris, originating from nowhere, cascading in great arcing plumes toward the street below, consuming itself until there was nothing left but a boiling brown cloud of ash and dust that rolled in every direction, sweeping onto the river and wiping away all traces of Manhattan south of City Hall. The rumble immediately followed, sounding like a dump truck unloading stone on a metal grate. Sound waves rippled through the riverbed and up the pilings into our feet. No one could live through that.
I found I was talking to myself. "Terrible, this is so terrible." I also found that I was crying. My throat ached. Someone behind me moaned, another shouted for it to stop.
"You got people in there?" The construction worker asked.
"No," I said, embarrassed now. "No I don't." I wiped my eyes and used up the rest of the film. Nothing but dust. Pictures of dust.
- - - -
I went home, showered, and drove toward Union City, New Jersey to have some work done on my car. The Holland Tunnel entrance, normally ten lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic that funneled chaotically into two lanes, was barren except for police cars blocking the tunnel. For two hours I sat transfixed in the dealer showroom amid shiny new Honda Accords and Civics, watching TV. Young salesmen wearing white shirts and bold print ties came in and out of the room to catch the news in between the few customers.
"Yo, you hear that they used plastic knives?" One of them said to another. "Like, if I was on that plane I'd be, like, fuck that man. I'm gonna die, I'm taking you out, bitch."
"Plastic knives, the white ones?"
"Whatever they use on planes, man. Yeah, plastic knives, the white ones. Isn't that crazy? Those are some crazy mother-fuckers, man. No plastic knife be stopping me."
He checked the beeper clipped to his belt, hitched his pants higher and left the room to talk to a young woman. The service manager came in, glanced at the TV and shook his balding head. The jetliner smashed into the World Trade Center for the hundredth time. The image lost none of its potency for me. I could've watched it over and over.
"There's going to be a big fucking parking lot somewhere in the Middle East after this is all said and done," the service manager said. "Pave it. Solve all our problems." He turned to me. "You needed new bearings in your rear wheel. You're set to go."
Jersey City had gone into a state of emergency in the short time I'd gone. I couldn't get back to my apartment. Police officers stood at all intersections leading downtown, arms crossed, sweating in the afternoon heat. Traffic was backed up everywhere. In an impressive and rare display of restraint, no one honked. Eventually I made it back to 109 Erie Street, having driven almost to Bayonne, where ferries were beginning to unload bodies somewhere near Liberty State Park.
At the pier, dozens of people from the New York side of the river disembarked from the Henry Hudson ferryboat. They came from the glimmering new apartment buildings and hotels around Battery Park City, from offices that had shut down or no longer existed, from the narrow warren of streets crisscrossing the financial district. Some still wore white or green masks over their mouths, hung loose around their necks. Some carried cats or had their arms in slings or bloody scrapes on their chins and elbows. Some cried, most smiled and thanked the ferry's crew. Everyone's shoes were covered in white dust. No one looked back over their shoulder across the river.
They filed past a card table with a "Disaster Relief" sign taped to it. The table was loaded with big plastic containers of water and white cardboard boxes of Entenmann's coffee cake that volunteers offered to them. Most walked past like zombies, tipping back paper cups of water and staggering onward past the Red Cross table set up further on to direct people toward the temporary shelters and the New Jersey Light Rail station.
"Where am I?" A woman in rumpled office attire stopped to ask me.
"Jersey City," I said.
"They said we were going to Hoboken." She absently smoothed her skirt and teetered off on shoes with one broken heel.
The ferry left and returned half an hour later with another load of stunned passengers. The rest of us onlookers stood behind a yellow 'Caution' ribbon, including a young married couple and their two small children. They were eager to talk to anyone and told me that they'd met in the military. The father had been working a construction site in Secaucus. When the trouble began that morning, he quit the site and walked home, where his wife had made him a great dinner, he said.
"Don't I always?" She said. "I work better under pressure." He kissed her and wrapped his arms around her shoulders. Their little girl ducked under the yellow tape and ran to the Disaster Relief table to grab some cake. Her dark-eyed little brother followed. An old man wearing a bright orange vest handed the little boy a foil package of Cracker Jacks.
"We ought to bomb the whole place," the mother said. "Did you see those kids dancing around and clapping? Where were the adults?" She answered her own question with disgusted conviction. "Dancing and clapping right with them. Those people are sick. They deserve to die for doing this, I don't care." She held her hands over her girl's ears as she said this.
The setting sun turned the smoke that billowed out into the harbor a soft purple, edged with yellow. Two Blackhawk helicopters circled around the site from the east, their windows sparking gold in the sunlight. The buildings undamaged by fire or debris, their western faces unclouded by ash and dust, flashed copper and bronze streaks on the water. Lights were set up around the Red Cross tables. Two young men wearing motorcycle helmets, sunglasses and leather jackets showed us a brand new camcorder they'd just purchased that afternoon for the occasion. They explained that they'd been cruising around taping the devastation and people's reactions. Would we mind if they asked us questions? I stepped away. The mother smiled crookedly, looked at her husband, and repeated verbatim what she'd just told me, elaborating upon the terrible effects of the day's events on her children.
- - - -
On my way home I ran into a man in shorts and shirtsleeves, wheeling a luggage cart across the deserted Shop-Rite parking lot. He asked if I knew of any hotels in the area that might have rooms. He'd been evacuated from his apartment in Battery Park City earlier that afternoon. He had an English accent. I said no, but that he was welcome to stay at my place, which was virtually empty and only a five-minute walk. I said this in the same tone as the guy in the park who first told me that someone had blown the top off the World Trade Center. He politely declined and said he'd take his chances with the shelters, wherever they were. I directed him toward a giant glowing red JC Penney's sign at the Newport Center mall.
I found my car and slipped into the driver's seat. I cranked back the seat and listened to the radio for a while, hungry for news. All day I'd balanced rumor against hearsay to piece together a story I still didn't understand. All I knew was that the World Trade Center towers were gone and that life not only in New York, but everywhere else, was never going to be the same.
A few feet outside my car, on the stoop of a brick row house, three men and a young kid of about nine were horsing around. The kid was practicing karate moves on the men, none of whom appeared to be his guardians. The men were drunk, talking and gesturing loudly, except one man who held a buzzing device against his cheek in order to speak. I desperately wanted a smoke. I'd bought more cigarettes, but neglected to get matches and my car didn't have a lighter. I got out and approached the stoop, making the universal 'flicking lighter' sign. One guy stood up and offered me the butt of his cigarette. After I lit mine off the end of his, he flicked away the butt and asked me for a fresh cigarette. I gave him two. He lit one with my cigarette and stuck the other behind his ear. He rocked back on his heels and blinked slowly.
"Is this some shit or what, man?"
"Terrible, isn't it?"
"I'm ready to kill if I have to. I was in the Navy."
"Hopefully it won't come to that."
"Vietnam. I can do it, too. Call up the SEALs. I'm thirty-five, you think they'll take me back? Probably too old, right?" He cackled. "Look at me."
"Right," I said. "We're old timers."
"I'm a rebellion man. I been rebelling all my life. Send me over there. I'll take care of that shit. I'll kill everybody."
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," I said. "I'd hate to see you get hurt."
"You think I'm lying," he said, drawing closer. "I'm a rebellion man. I don't take no shit. I'll kill if I have to. I know how."
The kid ran by and made a flying kick at Rebellion Man's knees; he laughed and tried a move of his own, spilling his beer in the process. The man with the buzz box mouthed something that made everyone laugh, but I couldn't make it out. I withdrew to my car and locked the doors.
At around 1:30 a.m. I woke, jolted by the sound of a backhoe rumbling down the empty street in the direction of the Holland Tunnel. Across the river, red and blue lights swirled and blinked along the length of the West Side Highway. It looked like every cop and engine company in the tri-state area was on the scene. Some windows in downtown office buildings were still lit as if people were working there, or would soon return. From the site where the World Trade Center once stood, the fierce white glow of emergency lights. Smoke still stained the sky, a dark, starless smudge against the night.
- - - -
6:30 a.m., Wednesday. Cold and quiet. No traffic on the streets. Even the birds seemed to have left town. I walked to the waterfront. The Disaster Relief tables were unmanned. Trash strewn everywhere. I was alone. I stepped onto the ferry terminal dock and gazed at the smoking rubble across the water, now lit orange from behind by the rising sun. Reaching into an Entenmann's box, I broke off a square chunk of cold coffee cake and washed it down with bottled water. The smoke continued in an unbroken brown cloud from the rubble out to sea and beyond. It seemed a permanent fixture of the landscape now, a monument to itself: Eternal Smoke.
I don't know why I'd come back. The notion that the World Trade Center towers were gone seemed impossible, even though I knew that they were indeed destroyed. Thousands and thousands of people dead. I'd watched it happen with my own eyes. I'd seen the footage on TV. Yet my mind stubbornly rebuilt the towers every time I closed my eyes, inserting them neatly into their allotted space in downtown Manhattan's crowded skyline. I suppose I went to the river to witness the empty space on its first day of existence — if an empty space can be said to exist — to begin reshaping my mind around its jagged contours. I wanted to be prepared for whatever strangeness the future held, unburdened by nostalgic yearning. I had to get used to the void.
I turned around to leave, surprised to see a man standing in the parking lot next to a car with its doors swung open, the radio tuned to a news station. He was setting up a sophisticated view camera on a tripod, the kind they use for fashion portraits. He adjusted the bellows, bent over to look through the lens, and fiddled with the bellows some more. I asked him what he was taking a picture of. He looked at me. Wasn't it obvious? Then he gestured vaguely across the river and hunched behind the camera. Clutched in his hand was a cable release connected to the camera body, his thumb poised over the plunger. But before he pressed the plunger, before he captured his portrait of nothing, he paused, took a deep breath, and carefully drew a black velvet cloth over his head.