This article was originally posted on in five installments on Dean’s World, and then lived on my old “other” blog, Likelihood of Success. I don’t remember exactly when I wrote it, unfortunately, and Dean’s World is not available in archive for that period.
Anyway, after I put the LOS domain up for sale, I moved the piece here, and dispensed with the requirement that readers keep clicking to get to the next section. I also added some more photos.
The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, new York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.
The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything…
A block or two west of the new City of Man in Turtle Bay there is an old willow tree that presides over an interior garden. It is a battered tree, long-suffering and much climbed, held together by strands of wire but beloved of those who know it. In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, I think: “This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree.” If it were to go, all would go—this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.Here Is New York by E.B. White (1949)
I work in New York City. That morning I was late on the way into the office. I had to stop off at what was then called the “AT & T Phone Store” to replace my cell phone. I chose the one just off Sixth Avenue in Midtown, near the subway stop before the one I usually got off at. This was around 53rd Street — a good two and a half miles north of the financial district, if you don’t know New York.
It was a very bright, pretty day — I remember noticing this as I got out of the subway. I went into the store and found a clerk, and he was showing me the different models. And then his own cell phone, clipped onto his belt at the hip, rang. He asked me to pardon him, and took the call. Then he hung up and came back to the counter.
“My wife. A plane crashed into the World Trade Center!”
“Oh, gosh,” I said. I thought of the time during World War II when a bomber returning from Europe slammed into the Empire State Building. “What a disaster.” I had taken my family to the observatory at the Twin Towers just a couple of weeks earlier, to look at the whole world from the top of a building. The salesman and I shared a “tsk” and chose a phone, and completed our transaction.
I decided to walk over the Fifth Avenue, where my office was at the time. Two “avenue” blocks, about ten minutes of a walk, into the Rolex Building on 53rd and Fifth.
I went into the entrance on 53rd, through the cool marble lobby, up to the 12th floor, where my office was at the time. The elevator opened into our library, and the receptionist looked up.
“Did you hear?” she asked?
“About the accident at the World Trade Center?” I asked.
“Both buildings — another plane!”
This was not an accident.
I walked past her to my office overlooking 53rd Street and switched on the radio.
This was something altogether different.
The radio was telling the story that had played out between the time I got off the E train at Seventh Avenue and doubled back to the phone store, and walked east to Fifth. Both buildings, now, were on fire.
Doom, I thought. War. And a whole new world.
I was in Manhattan, and Manhattan was under attack.
Emails fast and furious — the Internet was working. I was a member of a number of email discussion groups. The two most interesting this morning were “Princeton High Tech,” which included a large number of engineers, and “CYBERIA-L,” which was truly international and also had a large number of technically proficient people involved.
We were trading bits and pieces of information. The websites were mostly current, too. Then the speculation began about how many people were in the towers… and what could happen…
And what was happening?
The towers were aflame. The announcer on WCBS 880, the news station, then said words I had never heard in a lifetime living in and around New York — words that still convulse me, because of the doom they spelled, each and every time I recall them:
The Fire Department has announced a general alarm. All fire department personnel on or off duty are directed to immediately report to the site of the World Trade Center and assist in the operation.
This was chilling. This bespoke a situation truly out of control in the world’s great metropolis.
Rapidly, my computer was beeping with messages over ICQ, which permits users to search for other users who identify their geographic location in their profiles. People wanted to talk to other people in New York. Most, from Europe, as I recall, were sympathetic and wanted to know if I could tell them what was going on. They were very supportive.
Others, from other parts of the world, mocked and laughed at us.
A short time later the announcer, who was watching the events on television (I only realized this later — at the time streaming media was in its infancy, and we had no television in our law office), said, in a panicked voice, “The South Tower has collapsed!”
The City, they also announced, had been locked down. No one could enter or leave via the bridges and tunnels. We were all in this together.
Not long after, the radio announced the inevitable: The North Tower had collapsed, too. Along the way, other World Trade Center buildings were also destroyed.
I finally got through to home by cell.
I walked downstairs to turn left on 53rd Street. The City seemed, still, more or less the same. Maybe quieter.
But when I hit Madison Avenue to the east, I saw the most extraordinary thing.
First, the sky, looking south, had, I believed, already darkened significantly. But that was not what struck me.
Walking uptown, i.e., north, all the way to 53rd Street and past, was a procession of New Yorkers — men holding their suit coats over their shoulders, everyone on foot, walking north — everyone was walking north, away from the smoldering disaster that was downtown. They were just walking north; to where, it was not clear. But they were walking away from the destruction, like a midday, impromptu, white-collar parade of the dumbstruck. I went back upstairs.
Back in the office, we were all discussing our “escape from New York” strategies. I knew there were no hotel rooms; the Princeton Club was also sold out by the time I called, rare enough indeed.
One of the senior partners, who lived in New Jersey also, had already left, trying his luck at getting out by heading north, instead of west. (The idea was just to get off Manhattan Island onto the mainland.) It was urgent: His wife’s brother had been on the top floor, and was talking to his own wife about what was going on and the phone went dead.
The last thing he said was, “It’s getting really hot here.”
From home, I learned that they had gathered the family information for all the children in our religious school comprised of about a thousand families at the time and, amazingly, managed to confirm that there were no parents unaccounted for in what was clearly now a slaughter. This was some relief in terms of dealing with our children and their friends and, of course, our own neighbors and friends.
I went into the conference room. Most of the partners, and a few senior client representatives who happened to be in our office that day, were sitting around the table. We sat there and mostly stared into the silence.
The pain was unbelievable. The humiliation; the anger. My city, destroyed. The Towers I had watched rising through my childhood, ashes.
But for now, I had to figure out how I was going to get home.
I went downstairs and walked west. Perhaps they would, at some point, reopen the Lincoln Tunnel. I had to get through the tunnel to get home. Every other way to New Jersey was of limited value, because my car was parked in a park-and-ride lot just a mile or two on the west side of the tunnel. We live due west of the tunnel. No other way out seemed to make sense.
Senselessly, however — having neither a plan nor much sense left, being stunned by the day’s events — and rage, and a burning desire for revenge, welling up within me — I walked (the subways having been closed) towards the entrance to the tunnel.
I walked south, and alternately west, taking right-angle zig-zags along the rectangular pathways that delimit the miles upper Manhattan. My back and shoulder were already in pain — from the stress, of course, and the fact that I had, at the time, a serious disk “bulge” that was being treated. But I was not in the Towers, or even downtown; I was feeling a little more glad to be alive than I might on a typical morning of practicing civil litigation in New York; and I walked, hoping an answer would present itself.
As I got closer to Hell’s Kitchen, the West Side neighborhood where I’d studied for the bar on a sweltering August night 13 years before and the area where the tunnel entrances were, I began to hear rumors that perhaps the tunnel would be open to foot traffic — perhaps we would all walk the grit-encrusted two-and-a-half miles under the river bed of the Hudson, the way they did when they crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on foot during the great transit strike of the ’80?s, and reappear in the promised land of the Garden State. We actually milled around the block on Ninth Avenue and 39th waiting to see if this idiotic conception was true. All we saw were a lot of police officers, stunned as we were, and it became obvious after a while that no one was about to let anyone into that tunnel.
I kept walking west. To the river itself. Maybe I would swim home.
I crossed West Street, the west-most vehicular roadway on the Island, and joined a line forming in front of one of the commuter ferry lines. Word was they were ferrying anyone who could get on board across the water, for free.
West Street was filled with ambulances heading downtown. They were from neighboring cities and towns as well as those native to New York City. Mobile ICU’s from where I was trying to get had, somehow under the orders then in effect, been allowed over to the Jersey side (over the George Washington bridge, I assume now, and back south to downtown) and were speeding to the site of the disaster where, we would soon learn, they would not be needed. It became obvious in the hours after the attack that the one contingency most focused on — the provision of emergency medical personnel and the staffing of emergency rooms and triage centers — would not be necessary today.
And for the first time, as I crossed West Street and cleared the walls of the marble canyons of Manhattan, I gazed toward the financial center and saw the smoldering remains of Ground Zero, burping thick black-grey smoke into the air, nothing visible down there but smoke, painfully reminiscent of nothing save the destruction of Sodom by the wrath of Heaven.
After about an hour, it was my turn to board. I took a seat on the top deck. The sail across the Hudson was painfully slow because of the crush of boats awaiting docking permission on the other side, in Weehawken, New Jersey. We sat there, staring, of course, at the broad, thick plume of smoke as we floated and bobbed in the middle of the majestic Hudson. The sun was beginning to set over the cliffs that overlook the river from the Jersey side — the Palisades — and it was calm, mostly quiet, and, to say the least, somber. The ferry company did not charge us for the ride, which was certainly a grand gesture.
Finally we made it to shore. My car was just on the other side of the massive, elevated section of New Jersey Route 3. Unfortunately, however, I was not allowed to get it: Because of the potential for another attack, no one was allowed under that section of towering steel that held up ten or so lanes of highway. There was only one way to go: North, along the banks at the foot of the Palisades.
We walked, all of us, what must have been a mile — I don’t know exactly how long it was, until we reached here:
These stairs get you over the top, onto the main geological plain in northern New Jersey — the cliffs are the margin of what geologists call a “diabase sill” that scientists say was formed at the close of the Triassic Period by the intrusion of molten magma upward into sandstone, and for my money was going to get me a lot closer to what we call civilization here. Of course if you’re driving a car, you don’t take the stairs; you wind ’round and ’round north or south and eventually end up “on top.”
But I wasn’t driving a car. In fact, by now my neck and back were caught in their own miniature conflagration; the nerves around my bulging disk were creating, as my entire upper-right back spasmed, a pain no different from the sensation of a knife being repeatedly plunged in my right scapula, but this was war, and it was clearly every man for himself. So, in my two-piece Brooks Brothers suit and my horsehide wingtips, I traversed the steps up the side of the Palisades, taking terrorism very personally but, again, thanking God that I was alive, and walking, and not at the bottom of the steel and concrete shoeboxes that formerly had held up thousands of my neighbors in their daily exertions and that now was, in its compacted form, their shared grave.
One is that I got to the top, of course, and eventually made my way home. The normal one-hour commute took me seven hours, due to road closures, mass insanity, and attempted shortcuts around roadblocks that became endless tours of Bergen County, New Jersey. I walked the streets of West New York, Weehawken and Union City trying to figure out how to get to the park and ride in North Bergen — physically almost impossible for someone on foot — until a hasidic Jew in a van who lived in Union City saw an obviously out of place landsman and mercifully gave him a ride to his Buick.
And here I will end the story, almost, except to say two things.
I tried to call home — northern New Jersey, across the Hudson River. No answer — or were the phones clogged already by then? If so, I used my cell phone (the old one), which did work. But no answer yet.
That was one thing.
We couldn’t imagine hardly anyone getting out. The opinions of the technical types were that a minimum of 10,000 had died.
The second thing was what happened before that, just when I got to the top of the stairs — winded, coated in sweat and grime, in agonizing nerve pain and, like a lot of other people, in no less spiritual pain over what had happened that day. I was at the top of the stairs but, I thought, at the nadir of almost everything else at that moment.
And when I rounded the bend onto the street, right behind a stone retaining wall, a young, well-built guy, about 25, I’d guess, was standing there with a huge tub full of bottles of water on ice. He gave one to everyone coming up the stairs, with a big smile. We exchanged words — something about thanks, something about us all being in this together — and yes, it was the most humane moment of the day for me. It gave me the strength, I think (not just for the hydration), to finish the rest of my quest to get home that day.
The next day New York was closed. The day after that, though, I was on the bus rolling into a ghost town. Those of us who had to be there streamed in as if it were any other day. But it wasn’t. The highways were empty; the tunnel, a hollow tube during the height of rush hour. Soldiers with weapons walked past my office in the Rolex Building. And for weeks after that we cruised into Manhattan at a pace that would have been familiar perhaps during the Depression, and it was as if we “serious New Yorkers” had the wounded city to ourselves for that time.
And as the buses lined up for tunnel, on the helix just to the west of the cliffs I climbed that day, we staired dumbly at the smoke rising from the Battery, from the huge empty hole in our guts where once our civic dreams, however drearily encapsulated by 1970,s municipal architecture, did indeed promise to raise us to the stars.