I was there. Thirteen years ago today. I remember what I was wearing that morning: White Capri pants and a snug lavender, sleeveless tank top. I hated it. White pants after Labor Day? The summer blues hit me. I walked to the 86th street subway, went down the steps and waited for the warm dirty wind to kick up, indicating a train was coming in.
The 9 train came. Most New Yorkers today know that it no longer exists. But it did that day. The 1 and the 9 trains – local west side. I believe it was once known as the IRT line, although not many people refer to it that way anymore. I never did. Why does the 9 train no longer exist? Because of “that day”. It did make a short comeback, only to quietly become extinct.
The subway car I was in wasn’t very crowded. A few people reading papers. We trained along the line slower than usual. 79th, 72nd, 66th, 59th, 50th, 42nd….then at 33rd we stopped. It was 8:45am in the morning. The stop was longer than usual.
We started again. 28th street. We stopped again. This time an announcement came on.”There appears to be an incident down town. Perhaps a sick passenger. Dispatch has told us to hold for a few minutes.”
We waited for ten minutes. No more voices on the PA. No one was aware of what was happening.
Slowly, the train creaked and pitched over the subway tracks. 23rd street. We stopped. Let out a few people. Let in a few people. No word. No look of panic in anyone’s eyes. A regular morning, or so I thought.
18th Street. My stop. Up the stairs to 7th avenue, where I made my way in the direction of 6th avenue. I stopped off at the old location of Petite Abielle, the lovely Belgium hole-in-the-wall place where I purchased my daily on-the-go cup of coffee. I stood in line with strangers, all of us oblivious to the chaos downtown, living in the last few moments of what we knew to be the old world – the world before 9/11.
As I made my way toward 6th avenue, I noticed a crowd of people standing on the corner – the very same corner I stood every morning, waiting for the traffic light to turn so I could cross the street to my office building. This was the corner where I could look to my left and see the Empire State Building, its glorious familiar spire standing proudly. This was the corner where I could look to my right and find the two ominous (I’ve always found the twin towers so) rectangular buildings of the World Trade Center filling out the down town sky. This was the corner where I would say to myself, “I’m so lucky to live here. So lucky to have been born in this tri-state metropolis.”
A crowd of people stood on the corner. They stood and stared. Just another day in the life. Collective individuals looking downtown at something happening. What was it? Another film crew shooting a movie or commercial?”
No. As I approached and took my place in the crowd, I saw it: A giant massive hole in the north tower. Thick black smoke pouring out of a building that was now in flames. It was like a movie.
“Two planes hit each tower,” a man told me. “The second one hit the south tower a few moments ago.”
I walked across the street. On the other side, I looked into the eyes of people who walked in my direction, heading toward the scene that I just left. Did they know what happened? Are they aware of what this was?
I remember shivering as I entered the building. I remember my boss on the phone. I remember my guts churning with anxiety, burning with the need to tell him what I saw. I remember breaking the news to him. I remember him running out the door. I remember someone in my office trying to call his wife, who worked down there. I remember seeing one tower disintegrate into rubble on TV. I remember being told to go home. I remember walking home from 18th to 92nd street. I remember walking home and passing 6th avenue, and looking downtown at the last vision of the one tower that still stood. I remember walking through Time Square and seeing the news on the Diamondvision screen that the last tower, the one I saw fifteen minutes before had also collapsed. I remember needing a normal moment, and walked into the Tower Records in Lincoln Center to buy the new Bob Dylan album. I remember the quiet of west end avenue, leaving behind the throng of wayward people left stranded on the island. I remember my neighbor, a doctor, in his hospital scrubs, coming home with a friend in a business suit who had dust and cement in her hair. I remember hearing sirens for days. I remember ducking behind my chair when I heard a military plane fly low. I remember how the city was closed the next day, and the hush that fell over my neighborhood. I remember the smell of smoke that drifted through my open windows. The winds had shifted to Riverside Drive.
“That’s how it is in the world, ” my father told me that day on the phone. A survivor of World War II, he was a child when he saw bombs decimate neighborhoods. He understood tragedy as something people live with.
“You’ve never had to see this happen in America, ” he said matter-of-factly, with a hint of resignation, saddened by the incident, but not shocked.
“This is the world.”
I remember leaving that cup of coffee from Petite Abeille on my desk that day. I had not taken a sip. That cup of coffee purchased moments before I realized that everything was going to change forever.
That’s what I remember. I’ll leave out the rest. I want to remember that little Belgium place that I loved. That last moment before.