When The Impossible Became Real   Leave a comment

I’d say it was the early 1990s.  Happened so long ago I can’t quite remember the exact year.

On this particular Friday, there was a a bit of civil unrest and a march downtown, towards the World Trade Centers; the cause, an injustice and the ensuing protest either worried people or, as was often the case in New York, completely ignored.  I chose the latter as I headed to my favorite midtown Irish pub to meet my friend Louise for an after-work drink.  We often met there on Fridays and became friendly with some of those who shared in our weekly ritual.  You could tell it was a good Irish pub; over half were natives of the Old Country.

“Say, what’dya think of that?” said one young Irishman, pointing at the TV.

“The protest?  Typical day in the city.  It’ll be forgotten by the time we leave here,” I said.

He laughed.  “Yea, and I heard in the subway here that the Trade Center had burned to the ground.”

Rolling my eyes, “Like that’s ever going to happen.”

* * *

It’s a few years later.  Another Friday.  I’m rushing to Grand Central Station with my skis slung over one shoulder, my backpack on the other.  There’s more chaos than usual and even though I had my train ticket in hand, I struggled to get out of subway and into the station.  I ignored all the brouhaha and raced for the train that was due to leave in less than a minute.  Unsteadily wobbling towards the train that would eventually take me to my cousin’s place in upstate New York, a sympathetic conductor holds the doors for me as I leap aboard.  The doors close instantly and the train lurches forward.

Every seat’s taken, but where am I going to go with my load?  I lean against the sides near the doors and lose myself in my thoughts, until I can’t help but notice nearly everyone is talking about The Explosion.

“What explosion?” I ask a commuter.

“You mean, you haven’t heard?”

“No, I’ve been stuck in meetings all day.  What happened?”

“A van drove into the parking garage at the World Trade Center and exploded.  Not sure, maybe six, seven, ten?  I don’t know, but people got killed.  Don’t know everything yet, but the word is it’s an act of terrorists.”

I scrunch up my face in disbelief.  “Here? That sort of thing only happens in other countries.”

The commuter shrugs and says, “Don’t know everything yet.  Could be some kids unhappy about something.  Story’s still developing.  Whoever it was, they were wackadoo.”

By the time I arrive at my destination, my cousin knows more.  “Yes, that’s right.  People died.  Lots of damage.  The parking garage is totally wrecked.  People were eating their lunch in a break room when they died.”

“God, how horrible.  Does someone really think they can blow up the towers?  Don’t they know they were built to withstand a 727 crashing into them?”

* * *

What a gorgeous day, I thought to myself as I boarded the No. 1 train going uptown.  It was a Tuesday, and I held auditions the day before.  I produced shows for kids and I looked forward to calling those who made the cut, and writing letters to those who might be on second string.  I worked at Lincoln Center at the time, on the 6th floor.  The door opens and the receptionist says, “Did you hear?”

“Hear what?”

“A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.”

“What, is the pilot blind?” Shaking my head, I continue to my office.

Turning on the computer, I read the parade of emails that churned through and sipped my coffee.

Suddenly, a woman screams.  “The second tower!  It’s hit!”

She has an itty-bitty TV that’s mainly used to watch videotapes.  Turning it on to learn more about what the receptionist has said, the image of a second plane crashes into the other tower flashes on its screen. Everyone runs towards her office to see. Pretty soon, it’s evident this is no ordinary day in New York City.  It’s probably the worst one in my life.  Ever.

My sister calls.  “Oh, thank God you’re there! I’m standing in a towel and I’ve been trying to reach you for over a half hour.  There’s hardly any phone service.”

“What’s going on?” I ask.

She tells me.  An iron taste fills my mouth as I can’t quite grasp the news that my beloved New York is on fire, the Pentagon is too, plus somewhere out in Pennsylvania a plane seems to have been shot down.  And perhaps more’s about to happen, but no one knows…yet…for sure.  “Don’t freak out,” she says, “You must remain calm to be safe.  Do you hear me?”

“Sure,” I say, but wonder what safe translates into on this occasion.

Our executive director calmly informs everyone that since Lincoln Center is a tourist site, it’s being considered a target and we are to evacuate.  Gathering up my stuff, I turn off the computer and leave.  I’m too frightened to be scared, too much in shock to worry about what comes next.

Yet, there are shreds of encouragement tucked in corners.    The cataclysmic events that brought down two towers united a city of eight million.  As I walked home from Lincoln Center to my apartment in Murray Hill, the roads were clogged with traffic going nowhere.  Sidewalks were lined with crowds, each gathering in front of anything that broadcasted.  Monitors and displays in store windows, formerly showing videos of the latest whatevers, now presented a variety of news stations.  A cop, hands waving in exasperation, shouted to a lady, “Ma’am, I can’t tell you what’s going on because  don’t know what’s going on.”  Crossing through Central Park, an overturned garbage can held a boom box, ringed with listeners.  A Parks Department pickup truck played its radio for anyone that cared to hear.

I crossed Sixth Avenue.  My eyes were drawn to a particular, peculiar image in the distance: a distinct, crooked, Y-shaped double plume of smoke.  I deny its existence and move on.  Drifting down the streets, aware that I was headed home but unable to process the unfathomable series of events, I look up at the crystal-clear blue sky.  How can it be that such a gorgeous day brought such a horror?

This must have been what Pearl Harbor was like, I remember thinking.

Yet for all of this, no one, and I mean no one panicked.  They helped.  Store owners handed out water and sneakers to tired passers-by.  The police, aided by academy cadets, stood on every corner and did their best to help people on their way, soothe them, or, in a few instances, embrace those who worried aloud that their son, daughter, husband, wife, friend or other family were trapped and died.  “Just get yourself home,” I heard one cop say, “and keep the faith.  That’s what I’m doing.”

I finally arrive and turn the key in the door.  My neighbor hears me and rushes out to give me a hug.  “Come over,” she says.

“In a minute,” I reply.

My answering machine is full.  Friends from England, Australia, Germany and throughout America have tried to reach me.  All are crying.  All fear the worst.  I try to send an email but there’s no more service.  My neighbor’s door is open and I walk in.  She’s glued to the TV.  We both have friends who worked there, and I have a close friend who worked across the street.  Suddenly, a huge cloud of smoke heads uptown and we rush to close the windows.  At the same time, F-16s fly over.  “Oh, God, what next?” my neighbor says.

“Don’t worry,” I answer.  “We’re safe.”  But for how long?

Later, I return to my apartment.  I’ve eaten nothing and don’t care to.  Can’t watch the news any more; the sirens blaring and planes above tell me what I tune out.  Closing my eyes as I fruitlessly try to sleep, the repeating image of crashing towers plays a loop in my brain.  The next day is equally beautiful, but eerily silent.  Going for a walk at 6:00 am, when the city’s just starting to bustle in earnest, it’s noiseless and still.  No one goes to work.  Nothing is open.

Days after, the odor of burning electricity drifts throughout the city.  I can still smell it.  A few blocks from my home is Bellvue Hospital, set up as a triage but turned into a morgue and memorial.

Gradually, life returned.  Through all the tragedy and sorrow, New Yorkers, ever a resilient bunch, picked up their daily habits and continued on, showing the terrorists that NOBODY’S going to mess with THEIR city!  We shopped, dined and enjoyed each day for our friends and family that could no longer.

Exactly three weeks after this horrific event, a British man, a friend of a friend, came on holiday, having booked months in advance.

Nine months later, we married.

Twelve years later, we still are, very much in love and quite happy.

Thirteen years later, we’ll never forget that each day brings with it fresh opportunities for love, forgiveness and hope that one day, we’ll all figure out a way to get along in peace.

Remember that, and the lives of the victims of that tragic day will not have been lost in vain.



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