by Daniel Brauer
This is a 9/11 story, somewhere between fiction and non-fiction. I wrote it way back in 2002, then mostly forgot about it. Every once in a while, though, I'd stumble across it in my files, re-read it, and think, this isn't bad, people might like this. —Daniel, 2015
Taken out of context, and ignoring two details, the scene is not unusual: I am walking down 1st Avenue with my friend Nilay. We are planning on Chinese takeout. It’s a Tuesday evening, the sky is clear, even beautiful. People are out on the streets. We discuss the day gone by.
Ignored detail number one: I wear no shoes, the first and hopefully last time I will ever walk barefoot around Manhattan. The shoes I do not wear are black, shiny, expensive and thus uncomfortable, and the reasons I do not wear them are myriad and will be explained shortly. I only hope my feet do not mind the dust and microbes of 1st Avenue. Dust and microbes are on everyone’s minds.
Ignored detail number two: my chestnut hair is grey today, caked in ash. Much earlier, I remember bending over to dust off the shoes I am not wearing, and at the time it didn’t occur to me to dust off my head as well. Hours later, facing myself in a mirror, I realized why people have been giving me looks. I didn’t brush my hair clean. I want people to know where I was this morning.
It is the third minute of the second day of the first job I ever had. In the room with me is my orientation class: the New Hires of 2001, a diverse group of young upstarts from all corners of a globe without corners. We have in common youth and an acquiescence to mall-bought business costumes, and the rest we’ll learn together. Sleeves are rolled up. Potential has yet to be squandered. Excited murmurs butterfly through the room. You are witness to the personification of the glossed people printed onto every page of every recruitment brochure ever made.
The Skinniest Man Alive alludes to this, saying: “Those photographs have become three-dimensional.”
To which I reply: “We have become two-dimensional.”
At least four times at last night’s orientation mixer, I learned and forgot the name of The Skinniest Man Alive. All I remember this morning is that The Skinniest Man Alive is Sudanese, though I am fairly certain it has nothing to do with him being skinny. That’s the situation to my right. To my left is a Brit I know only as Dodger. I am fairly certain Dodger is not Dodger’s real name. You now have a sense of where my certainties lie.
No one notices the tiny speaker on the wall until it buzzes with more static than talk. A thick man enters the room and says: “Folks, there is no need for alarm. This is a precautionary evacuation only. In the hall you will be directed to the emergency stairs and exits. Please do not worry.”
Filing past the thick man, someone says: “If we were worried, we’d be running.”
Last night after the orientation mixer, The Skinniest Man Alive and I walked back to the World Trade Center, where PATH trains were waiting to carry us back to New Jersey. It was a wet night, and the fog fell so low we could see only the base of the towers. “It looks like they’re not there,” we both said at the same time, and I swear to you I’m not making that up.
Papers leaf through the air; they are email and spreadsheet printouts, handwritten notes, grocery lists and agendas. Little bits of white fluff sail like pollen around us, and Dodger says: “Bit dusty.” This is my first non-televised encounter with British understatement.
A crowd swells outside our building, none of them believing their cellphones don’t work. Looking down at mine I see the signal jittery, frantically jumping from digital to analog to nonexistent, as if it too is not sure how to react. The only people with any luck are those with two-way radio phones. I vaguely recall an ad asking me why, if I could, would I not get a cellphone with a built-in two-way radio for the very same price as a cellphone without? At this particular moment I have no good answer to that question.
The news spreads quick: a plane hit one of the towers. Images of little propeller planes fill my head; old sepia prints of precursory flying machines splintering to bits. The Skinniest Man Alive says: “Probably a Cessna, right? Got lost.” Dodger might be thinking: planes don’t get so lost. But that’s just my guess.
The briefly popular small-plane theory dies with the news that the plane was a Seven-Something-Seven, and that a tower has collapsed. Someone yells: “How the fuck does the World Trade Center collapse? We’re like, one minute from the thing and we don’t hear? What is it, a fucking pillow? Shit makes noise!”
Nothing has collapsed yet but how are we supposed to know?
A fat, fat parade float of a woman screams They have finally done it. “They have finally gone and fucking done it” and They are “going to fucking die.” Really it’s not clear who she believes They are, but I know who They are, and The Skinniest Man Alive, who knows I am Israeli as well as I know he is Sudanese, looks to me palms-up because he knows who They are too.
The nebulous idea of “Arabs” is in the air, and a pastiche of the Middle East quickly fills my head: tan skin and a billowing white caftan, stubbly chin and a SAM-7 proudly rested on the shoulder. A toothy smile. I throw in a falafel and a fez, because I am an idiot.
News of Washington breaks, and I can only imagine the complete obliteration of the Pentagon. Before this moment I’d been busy concentrating on the jittery crowd, the white fluff I now know is ash, and the way that ash was coating my defiantly shiny black shoes. But now, imagined before my eyes: the entire country in flames. If New York and Washington are hit, then maybe Los Angeles and Chicago too? And Disney World cannot be the happiest place on earth if it is brimming with Hydrogen isotopes. Maybe the world is coming to an end and here I am on the southern tip of Manhattan fidgeting with my cellphone?
Today I experience two moments of fear, and the first comes like a trickle of rain drops: a lone man runs past, screaming for everyone to run. Then come three. Ten. A thousand people running without knowing why, one follows another follows another until they are at the water and there’s no place to go. I’m not worried about gas or asbestos or radiation, I’m scared of the people around me, that someone will snap and spark hysterics. There is no room to jostle. There is more ash than air. A man screams he can’t breathe and someone somewhere cries “we are going to die” over and over again. It’s when things look like a disaster movie that you realize they are real.
At some point the sun went out. I didn’t notice when, but looking up to where the sun ought to be I see only a fading twenty-watt bulb. It is dusk, in the morning.
The second moment comes with the thunder of jet planes. Everyone’s eyes shoot up. I picture air strikes. Bombs dropped and missiles fired. Action-figure pilots in goggles and pressure suits leveling completely the city, and giving me a thumbs up. The boom bullets overhead, echoing in the cloud of filth that envelops us on the ground, and momentarily dithering our collective pulse. Someone suggests it wasn’t a jet, but the sound of a tower collapsing. Eyes shift down from the sky we cannot see.
Dodger rolls his turtleneck up over his mouth and nose.
“Every other person working by Wall Street is down here.”
“Everyone who’s not dead.”
“Do you think there’s gas? Is the air safe to breathe?”
“If it’s your time, it’s your time.”
A lone ambulance is in the midst of the crowd, its driver trying her best to be a paramedic, a fireman, and a cop. Calmly she repeats “I don’t know” to every question posed to her. She sees a man in the crowd gagging, his spit frothing at the corner of his lips. He is with one knee on the ground and crying.
“Excuse me, sir?”
Thousands of people trying to move together results in a glacial progress. They head to the FDR, the highway shouldering Manhattan’s east side, and they now are surprisingly calm and determined. Slowly they funnel onto the highway. They wear suits of soot. Hair that was black is now grey; that was grey is now white.
Dodger rubs his bloodshot eyes and nods vaguely to Battery Park, right next to the towers, where the firm is putting up the Londoners through orientation. “Reckon they’ll be shipping us back toot sweet,” he says, shaking our hands. “Carry on, then.” And in a moment he is a figure blended out of sight.
The Skinniest Man Alive is for the FDR route, but I tell him I need to check up on my sister who works a few buildings away. This is true, but also conveniently omits my desire to avoid the herd. For all the ostensible calm my mind is furiously producing paranoid imagery of the elevated highway rigged with dynamite. Timers ticking. Flame-licked asphalt and jagged concrete slabs mauling people not killed in the blast. What if they want me to go that way?
I am amazed my contact lenses don’t bother me. All this crud in the air and I’m seeing clearly. I will write Johnson & Johnson a letter. I will extol the virtues of Acuvue II brand contacts to every person I know, as I am doing for you now. I will be the J&J poster boy, because I don’t have my glasses with me this morning and if I had to take out my contacts I’d be blind and lost and helpless and then—then—there would be no detached observation, no ostensible calm; only a very scared me sitting on the street or a bench, wondering what’s going on, hoping a cop notices me.
Maybe I should go in? I mean, in. I am healthy and aware, and not having trouble breathing or seeing. Who knows what’s going on closer to the towers? Maybe people need help? What if someone is really in trouble? I can save them!
Images of me on the news flitter through my mind. I am a hero. I am selfless. Wolf Blitzer, me, Sunday morning. For a moment I feel impetuous.
My sister is MIA. A security guard tells me her building had no evacuation, “people just sort of… left.” A few still scuttle about the lobby, a huge cavern of glass. The air in here is still clean and the front desk is letting anyone make calls. I queue up at the phone.
Outside the glass people pass slowly by, like the exodus scene in The Ten Commandments, only not happy. Some cough and cry, rubbing their eyes, but a few have a bounce to their step. There is joking going on, camaraderie and smiles, and a hectic drive to help whoever needs helping.
Guys from the fish market are on the street with water buckets and hoses. They pass out napkins drenched in water—ersatz gas masks—and people plaster them across their mouths. One guy with a hose sprays another on the head.
Suddenly everywhere: the cops. Bewildered, but pointing and directing. Their eyes flitter, on the lookout for anything odder than what has been passing for normal so far. Thanked by passers-by, I imagine the officers are somehow, conflictedly, contended – for once appreciated.
Overlooking this is the Brooklyn Bridge, a mythic structure on a backdrop of the most strangely peaceful azure, dotted with people trudging across in what, from a distance, looks like single-file. They have briefcases and backpacks, and these are filled with laptops and handhelds, notebooks and glasses. Not the usual everything-we-own-in-a-basket you see refugees carrying. Today New Yorkers briefly join the ranks of the dislocated masses worldwide.
Inside the glass castle I sip an iced tea, courtesy of the management, as my mother yells at me. She is watching on television in her office. She is worried. She gets antsy when I drive sixty in a fifty-five, so I try to sound normal. “Yes I’m fine… bit dusty… feet hurt.”
“I told you those shoes were no good!” She is vindicated. She tells me my sister never made it to work this morning, but she’s been calling. She left voicemails.
“Cellphone’s not working… I don’t know how you’ll reach me… I’ll call you later.” I’m planning on crashing with Nilay. “He’s closest. I’ll walk up.”
The second tower collapses.
“In those shoes?”
Darkness descends as a cloud envelops the world outside the glass, billowing past cars and people, hurtling out onto the water even as its sneaky tendrils slip in under the revolving doors.
“You want I should go barefoot?”
Monochrome dreamscape: a side street coated in ash; the black pavement, the red and silver cars, the clear and reflective windows, all redrawn in white and shadow. Goose-down debris drifts around me as if I am inside a crystal ball which fills with snow when shook up and jingles when wound. On the ground, the leaflets and posted notes and torn papers flicker, but in my ears I imagine I can hear the susurration of soot landing on the ground and nothing else. A lone grey figure trudges past, kicking up dust with every step, matted in soot and sweat and with eyeglasses repeatedly fingered clean, yet still dirty. I don’t think he sees me watching. I wonder if I can sip my iced tea without getting ash in the bottle.
In Chinese and Spanish and English, with jaws universally dropped and skin turned all shades of pale and identical horror registering in eyes of every shape and color, people talk about the smoke to the south. I don’t know what neighborhood I am in.
Mostly my mind is blank, stuck in a torpor that lets in only scattered and random memories.
Memory one: a cuckoo clock I had when I was little. I remember fondly the little dancing Germans painted on its side, and how its red and green bird would pop out and go cuckoo! at all the wrong times. Thinking about it carefully though, I realize I never owned a cuckoo clock. I rewrite my memory, it is now my grandparents’ cuckoo clock. Then a friend’s cuckoo clock. Eventually I am forced to settle on the idea that at some point in life I came face to face with a poorly functioning cuckoo clock, and this seems of absolute importance.
Memory two: the balcony of our old apartment has a clear view of the east side – the so-so side – of the Mediterranean. My grandfather teaches me gin rummy. I am six. He is ancient. Shirtless, his chest hair is white and clinging on for dear life. The top of his head shines like a mosque dome. The light cascading off the sea casts a long shadow into the pit near his heart, but I am too busy with cards to wonder what it is. Years later I would find out he got shot through the chest while fighting for Stalin’s Russia. Which reminds me of my father, whose first memory is Stalin’s funeral, a hell of a first memory, and if he were walking with me now he would probably note that today, whatever it ends up being, pales in comparison to everything Stalin did. Dad would spend a good half hour explaining how evil routinely manifests itself in the guise of men with mustaches. After this he would list with encyclopedic accuracy the nations and tribes exiled in Siberia: “if you knew what that man did to the Crimean Tatars!” My thoughts drift back to my grandfather and the crater in his chest.
Memory three: I’m 13, in the States for 6 years, as American as apple pie when baked by an immigrant mother. The Gulf War is on television. My family has a newfound addiction to the all-knowing, all-talking CNN, and someone realizes a SCUD missile has landed in my grandparents’ neighborhood. We each take hour shifts at the phone, working fastidiously against all-circuits-are-busy-now, until finally a groggy grandfather answers. Summed up and liberally translated to English, the conversation is roughly as follows:
“The ringing woke me up. Why are you calling so late?”
“A SCUD just hit your neighborhood.”
“I was sleeping.”
“You were sleeping? Your neighborhood is missing.”
“It needed fixing. Would you like to speak to your grandmother? You woke her up too.”
The majority of my childhood memories revolve around my grandparents. I saw them last ten years ago. And I never even wrote them letters.
Doctors and nurses wait on the streets by the hospital.
I ask a doctor: “What should I do to help?”
“I don’t even know what I should do to help.”
The line of people waiting to give blood wraps around the block. “Today is booked. Wednesday is booked. Thursday we can fit you in.” The people on line fidget. They hate not being able to do something. Anything. Anything rather than waiting in line. I hear a nurse mumble: “There won’t be no one to give this blood to, I can tell you that.”
No waiting in lines for me, I want to be a hero! I want blood on my hands and crying on my shoulder. I want running and yelling and doing; to deliver babies and comfort victims who happen to be attractive. Again with Wolf Blitzer and me on Sunday morning. I’ll be one of those people.
The woman coordinating volunteers is slim and petite, pretty. I find her and pronounce: “I want to help!”
She says: “Sit. Wait.”
I find a group of people like me, all sitting, all waiting. Chatter: where were you this morning?—did you see it?—saw it from midtown—saw it from my office—saw it from home—oh you went to so-and-so university?—my brother goes there—my aunt went there—I had sex there—I’m shipping off for the Gulf tomorrow, will you sleep with me? —did you see the people in line for the blood? —did you see the people jumping? —they have cookies in the other room.
I sit in a corner and the people’s words echo. After twenty minutes the pretty coordinator sits next to me. She looks at my shoes, powdered with ash and torturing my feet, though she can’t know it.
“Are you okay?”
“You have been sitting here alone for over an hour. Do you need to talk to someone?”
An hour. “I’m just a little tired.” Twenty minutes. “From walking all day.” What’s the difference? “Just let me do something.”
She does not look so convinced.
“Hey I’m in the volunteer room, not the patient room!”
“Fine. You want to help? Go help.”
Allow me to describe the woman I will forever know only as Bag Lady. She is taller than me, maybe 5’8”, and about my age. Slim. Her dark hair is, today, frazzled in a way that suggests her head has been used to mop remote military canteens. With her brown eyes red-rimmed, she cries into a phone, dialing a number over and over again.
Allow me now to describe what I learn, in bits and pieces, about Bag Lady. Firstly I learn her name but it promptly slips my mind, otherwise I wouldn’t call her Bag Lady. Bag Lady has a kid she cannot get in touch with. “I tried a hundred times.” Bag Lady goes to university downtown by the towers. This morning, the second she stepped out from the subway, she saw the first plane crash right before her eyes. She panicked and fell. Hit her head. “I was hurt. The man said he would help me.” But the man stole her bag instead. Thus she is Bag Lady, because she has no bag. What else does she not have? Bag Lady lists: money, school ID, food stamps—“What if I can’t feed my son!”—credit cards, driver’s license.
My directive from the pretty coordinator: “Help the bag lady, Dan.”
This was not what I had in mind. Where is the blood? The heroics? “What can I do?”
“Listen to her. Calm her down. You wanted to help, right? This is helping.”
My bid at greatness has backfired and I am stuck listening to Bag Lady, who informs me she has an aunt in midtown. “She’ll give me some money, give me somewhere to stay tonight.” Bag Lady is worried about her kid, she hopes he is safe. And, she thinks she will lose her job because she hasn’t showed up at noon like scheduled.
“I think that’s okay,” I say. “Today.”
“They’re strict with the hours, you don’t understand.”
“Can you call them? Explain why you’re not there?” As if they don’t know.
“They’re not picking up…”
“So, they’re not there either?”
This calms her down. I’m not so bad at this helping thing. The pretty coordinator suggests I escort Bag Lady to midtown. “She shouldn’t be left alone, she’s on medication.”
Bag Lady was brought to the hospital complaining of a bruised head and was given a sedative cocktail that is not working.
On the streets with Bag Lady! Her aunt is thirty-seven blocks away, and we’re going to have to walk it because the taxis in traffic look like bricks in a wall. I outline the route on a sparsely detailed tourist map: right of the Empire State Building, left of the East River. “See, we’ll just walk up 2nd Ave,” I say. “Get there in half an hour. No problem?”
“No problem,” she says and we get to moving. In minutes, she is hysterical. “That’s him!”
“The man who took my purse.”
“Are you sure?”
We follow. Double back. Walk around a park. Watch this random man get a burrito. Bag Lady scrunches her brow. “Oh, no that’s not him.”
Repeatedly she asks: “Why would someone do that? Today! He said he wanted to help…”
What do I know about people? I’m a callow man and my proximity to today’s events doesn’t change that. “Some people are just bad,” I say. It is a sort of answer that doesn’t really answer anything at all.
In time I let Bag Lady use my cellphone, which has started sporadically working. In time I give her a few dollars for a hot dog and juice, because she hasn’t eaten a thing all day, and the medication made her thirsty. In time, “half an hour, no problem” grows to an hour, and then an hour and a half. We get into a somewhat normal conversation, except that her voice teeters on the verge of breakdown. She tells me about her son, whose name I learn and promptly forget. He is nice to his mother. Got ten fingers, ten toes, teeth—a good boy through and through.
Please don’t doubt the entire time there is one thing on my mind: my feet, burning. Images of my toes rupturing like overcooked sausages, and bleeding, hover before my eyes. I want so badly to take my shoes off. But how can I with this woman in the grips of emotional pyrotechnics, hopped up on who knows what, beside me? She is depending on my level-headed guidance to shepherd her to the safety. And suddenly I take off my shoes?
We arrive at our destination and Bag Lady is reunited with her aunt. They thank me and I wish Bag Lady luck, and that is it. No blood. No powdered surgical gloves. Only a set of feet sacrificed for the sake of a stranger whose day has been far worse than any I’ve known.
I remember the words of the pretty coordinator: “This is helping.”
The last time I saw an M-16 I was five years old. My father brought his home on a break from reserve duty. He let me hold it but I couldn’t even pick it up, it was so heavy I thought he glued it to the floor.
Today I’ve seen at least twenty M-16s, slung over the shoulders of military personnel as they stand in the middle of intersections and direct traffic.
A woman rolls down her window and asks a soldier: “How do I get to the Lincoln Tunnel?”
The soldier looks at her blankly. “I’m from Poughkeepsie.”
“I’m going to work. My shift starts in a half hour.”
“I think it’ll be okay if you don’t go today… who’s working today?”
“I’m a prison guard.”
“What are you talking to me for? Hurry up, your shift starts in a half hour.”
There is a girl I am probably in love with, who I have not talked to in a year. We had a fight and were both too stubborn to admit we were wrong. Between you and I, she was wrong, not me. But I should’ve admitted it was me anyway, a long time ago, because I don’t even remember what the fight was about in the first place. And I probably miss talking to her more than she does me.
My cellphone says I have a dozen voicemails but I can’t get at them. The phone beeps anyway, reminding me of the fact. Thinking the girl is one of the people who left a message, I begin composing an email in my head; to send out to friends and everyone who called. I’ll include her on the list, so that she will think “I am one of the people on the list” and I will think “you are the only person on the list.”
My moribund little feet jut out from under ashen pants. It is four p.m. and I’ve been mostly walking, in my criminally ill-fitting shoes, since nine in the morning; since Dodger and The Skinniest Man Alive, who I won’t hear from again for weeks though I don’t know that, of course. The big guard at Nilay’s building sits in a little booth behind a little pane of glass, shaking vigorously from side to side his big head with his big cheeks, as he tells me I have to wait outside because I have no ID and “there’s no one gettin’ in here who doesn’t have an ID, got it? Not today. Not ever, but not today.”
With feet bare and my shoes beside me, I watch people come and go from the building. At one point three incredibly attractive girls hover around me, and I pray they will notice me and ask me how I am and allow me to weave tales of heroism for them, so that they will take me with them wherever they go. But they don’t notice me and eventually I settle into stand-by mode.
When Nilay finally arrives, at seven, he says: “Well well, the man himself.”
I say: “Took your time, y’bastard,” though I hadn’t really minded the wait.
I bring you back now to the Chinese shop, where I am in flagrant violation of the “No shoes, No shirt, No Spring Roll” policy dictated by a sticker on the door, a sticker which confuses everyone because this place actually does not offer spring rolls, so that even if you had shoes and a shirt you’d have to get dumplings. Everyone, except the cooks sweating into their bathtub woks, concentrates on the little television atop the soda fridge. The towers’ collapse is on auto repeat. This is the first time I see what actually happened this morning, and I feel ripped off. I want to have seen it live, I was there, so close, but other buildings blocked the towers so I didn’t have a view, and I wish I had a view. All I have is ash in my hair.
“If you take any one thing from today, any bit of learning or wisdom, let it be this—”
“Things can only get better from here?”
“No… no I don’t think it gets any better than this.”
© Daniel Brauer 2002