May 24, 2013
9/11 and the Damage Done
Posted on Sep 7, 2011
I immediately called my mother, who lived on the Lower East Side, not that far from the towers. On the news, the scenario was spiraling out of control. The towers were in flames, workers were jumping out of windows, and mobs of stunned people were pouring out of downtown Manhattan, heading uptown or across the Brooklyn Bridge in flight. I couldn’t get through to my mother, nor could I reach my sister; as I later learned, she had actually seen the second plane crash from a nearby vantage point. Pamela was having trouble reaching her other daughter, Tanyth, a photographer who had also been documenting urban life in unexpected ways, and who was living in Brooklyn. I kept trying to call my mother and the line was busy; finally I heard from her in a call that was filled with static. She was still in her apartment, she said, and had opened her door to businessmen with briefcases who had been buzzing doorbells as they ran up the streets from the financial district, trying to find a working phone so they could contact their families and let them know they were all right.
“It looks like Hiroshima down here,” she said. “But I’m OK. Everyone’s covered in ashes.”
My mother, a lifelong sculptor, is the kind of person for whom Manhattan was cooked up—open 24 hours, a haven for creative people who would have suffocated had they been forced to remain in their various hometowns, and filled with the best art and music and theater and libraries and cuisine and minds that the world has to offer. Not to mention the chance encounters to be had on the streets or in one-of-a-kind card shops or walk-in beauty parlors at any given time—here pulsed life and here on these byways my mother had found true North since fleeing Ohio in the 1970s and heading for the safe zone that renegades had been carving out since the days of the American Revolution.
We made plans to see each other later that day or the next; we didn’t know exactly where and when because the subway lines had been shut down along with other forms of public transportation, but in any case we figured that either I’d walk downtown to her place, or she’d walk uptown, depending on the street situation. At the moment, it was a good idea to stay inside—or at least where you were, provided you were in a safe place. Wanting to see what we could notice from the top of Pamela’s building, we climbed up several flights and through a skylight that led to the roof. It was a beautiful and classic fall day in Manhattan—clear blue skies with a hint of crispness in the air, promising the delights of the harvest season. We looked south toward downtown, but couldn’t see smoke in that direction. But on the breezes that were swirling up that way from the vicinity of the Statue of Liberty and beyond, there was a hint of the calamity that was unfolding, an acrid note of jet fuel and smoldering elements—metal mostly—and within a few days, the disturbing scent was wafting over the entire island of Manhattan.
A couple of days later, I also contacted my editor at Rolling Stone; we too had a meeting scheduled for later that week. The plan was to talk about the Robert Blake story and catch up about other things as well, but of course that now seemed absurd—along with just about anything else that may have been in the works, for by then everything had come to a total halt, as citizens everywhere grappled with the nature and reality of what just happened.
“I was walking my son to school,” Will Dana said when I reached him and we began talking about the moment of impact. “There was a very low-flying 747 right above me on Fifth Avenue. I looked up and saw the rivets. That’s how close the plane was.”
Our conversation continued for a few more minutes and then Will said that our meeting was still scheduled; Rolling Stone was planning a commemorative issue and did I have any ideas? As it happened, a photograph of Yasser Arafat giving blood had gone out on the wires; the donation was for anyone at Ground Zero who might need it in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Of course there were no survivors, but since the moment that the photo appeared, I had been thinking about it. Yasser Arafat? I thought. Was it a publicity stunt? Who would want his blood? And who, at death’s door, wouldn’t? It was a strange gesture, and one that I couldn’t shake. Soon, after mulling it over for days, I wrote about it.
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