Monday, September 11, 2006

About other things entirely

Five years ago today, I was not yet a literary agent. I worked in New York City, at one of my between-publishing jobs -- in finance, as a marketing writer. I was thinking of quitting, even then, though it would be another year before I did. After 9/11, I felt I owed it to my city to stay and help it rebuild, even if it was just by continuing to participate in its economy. But that day, all I could do was stand in the street and watch a cloud of dark smoke and ash engulf lower Manhattan, worry about the people I knew who worked and lived farther south than I did, and wonder how on earth I was going to get out of the city and home that night with all of the public transportation shut up tight against the sudden barrage of bomb threats. Beyond that, I fought the persistent thought that there might not be a city to return to once I finally did get out.

What do I remember most about 9/11? I can still smell the strong, acrid burn to the air even forty-plus blocks away from the Trade Center. It had been a perfect pre-autumn day, with clear blue skies and perfect temperatures and, ironically, a cleanness to the air that you only get a few days a year in Manhattan -- and somehow it made the tragedy all the more surreal. I remember watching the televisions hanging from the ceiling where our sales force normally watched CNBC during the day -- all switched to CNN as the morning progressed -- as the towers were hit, and later as they fell. I remember the bizarre silence outside in the streets when I finally couldn't stand the claustrophobia of my office anymore and went out to try and breathe... No buses, no taxis, certainly no planes overhead, no traffic of any kind. There were people everywhere, though far, far fewer than normal, but none of them were saying anything. They all looked shell shocked -- because they were -- and everyone made eye contact. If they did say anything, it was a whispered, "Are you all right? Can you believe it?" Perfect strangers. It didn't matter.

And I remember finally getting out of the city, late in the afternoon. Grand Central Station had reopened despite all concerns, and started running Metro North trains outbound only. There was only one train at a time for each of the three lines, all schedules thrown out the window. They simply waited until they'd crammed as many people as possible into the cars, then set out, making every single stop and never going very fast between stations. My 50-minute commute took over two hours that day, in a train as silent as the city had been. One man in my car, an older gentleman in a uniform reminiscent of those worn by elevator operators or bell hops, sat staring into space. He was covered in white powder from head to toe and was bleeding slightly from a gash on his forehead. I don't know if he was in one of the towers or simply on the street running when one of the buildings came down, but it was clear either way that he'd walked all the way up from lower Manhattan. Exhaustion and shock clung to him along with that dust. When I finally left the train at my own station and saw medical teams waiting there for potentially injured passengers, I knew he would be taken care of at his own stop.

I never appreciated the internet more than I did on that day. With the phone circuits in Manhattan strained to capacity, and cell phones virtually useless (most cell reception bounced in and out of Manhattan from atop one of the towers), we all relied heavily on e-mail and blogs to find out if people we knew were all right. I received a steady stream of inquiries all day long at work, and long into the week that followed. It was a lifeline.

I've been watching far more 9/11 programming than I intended to this week. I don't want to, yet I feel this need to despite everything. Perhaps because this is the first time in years that I'm spending 9/11 in Los Angeles instead of New York: I fly home tomorrow night. Still, I vastly prefer reading other people's takes on that day. Where they were, what they were doing, how they found out. Anyone interested in reading someone else's account might check out Liz Marcs's story of hearing a woman's tale of Pearl Harbor, and how that telling informed her 9/11 experience. It's a thoughtful post that gets to the heart of what many people are feeling today.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not unusual, but I was in my office, engrossed in writing an action scene, with the phone propped between my cheek and shoulder . . . on hold.

The CS rep came back on the line and blurted out the awful news.

Monday, September 11, 2006 at 11:48:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Pamela Harty said...

As hard as it was to watch from the safety of my home 1000 miles away, I just can't imagine how painful it was for everyone in NYC that day.

Monday, September 11, 2006 at 1:44:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nephele, that was a wonderful, compelling post.

I got to watch my great-niece being born while the towers were falling. Her father is American, and while he's not in her life and has in fact never seen her, that she was born on 9-11 brings the tragedy closer to me.

I'm watching the mini-series on TV last night and tonight, and even though I know the ending ahead of time, it's very compelling.


Monday, September 11, 2006 at 7:13:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Shannon McKelden said...

Well, Nephele, I just cried my first tears of the day. And, I'm not sorry. As much as I don't want to remember, I do. But, your tale brings it all that much more clear. It must have been awful to be there in person.


Monday, September 11, 2006 at 9:27:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Joia said...

I'm crying, Neph. You have such an honest way with words. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I've never heard these kinds of details from someone on the other end of the city when it happened.

Monday, September 11, 2006 at 10:57:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Natalie J. Damschroder said...

Cindy, that's really poignant. I always feel bad when I learn someone's birthday is today, because how can you separate the horror of that day from the joy of birth? Both deserve recognition on their own level.

My daughter was born right after Columbine, and I spent the entire labor and her birth with the TV coverage ongoing over my head. I don't know why we didn't change the channel. I never thought to ask, and though I am not a reflective, "full circle" kind of person, I think my subconscious valued the balance of the two.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006 at 12:30:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Deidre Knight said...

Nephele, thanks for sharing this very personal viewpoint of such a terrible day. I was incredibly moved. hugs

Tuesday, September 12, 2006 at 9:25:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Cindy said...

Big hugs, sweetie. Massive hugs. I was thinking about you on Monday, and I could just hear you telling this story as I read it. I'm a few days late, but I'm really glad I happened to check in on the blog!

Thursday, September 14, 2006 at 1:07:00 AM EDT  

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