Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sept. 11, 2001

I first went to the Twin Towers, first had any real idea about them at all, when I was probably no more than five years old. The entire family went: Dad, Mom, Sharon & Stuart, and me.

The occasion was the closing of a very important business deal for my dad.

What I remember best about that power lunch in Window On The World was simply that I could look down on the cars below and they looked even smaller than my toy cars that I loved to play with so much. It seemed hard to believe they were real. Eventually when we got back to the street level it again did not seem possible that the cars could have grown that much larger in that time.

It was a very good, and memorable day. A happy family memory of us all together. Sadly, there just aren't that many of those memories in existence, so I prize the ones I do have.

Then the Towers were there in the critically-reviled remake of "King Kong" from 1976, which very much broke my young heart. Every version of that film breaks my heart, dammit, critically-reviled or not. He was a giant gorilla, and deserved better.

After that the Towers became a landmark that I thought of with some fondness. I saw them in "Trading Places" in the famous orange juice trading climax of the film, and they felt kind of like an old, warm, acquaintance.

I ventured downtown in the mid-90s to visit a friend who worked in the Financial District, and walked around the World Trade Center. The Towers were in a giant plaza, back a bit from the street. That time, for some reason, I looked up and it scared me a bit, they were just so big, so awesome in size.

After that they became more or less a compass point for me. No matter how lost I would get in The City I could look downtown, and there they were! Impossible to miss and right at the southernmost tip of the island.

I didn't have much reason to venture that far downtown usually. But I liked that they were there. I remember moving to The City in 2000, and learning that Robert Fripp was to play a free show at The Towers. I didn't go, but thought, hey, that's pretty cool. I wonder if they're trying to make the Towers, you know, hip?

I had a source that worked in the Towers too. Dennis, he was an attorney for a white shoe law firm, and was a good guy. I met him for lunch in 2000, only the second time I had actually been in The Towers since that long-ago lunch as a child. I went up to around the 50th floor, which took two elevators, and we ate in one of the many great restaurants that were in the street level atrium. It was a pleasant autumn day, and a good expensed meal. I remember now how awesomely huge the lobby of The Towers were, and how it was a bit confusing to know if I was at the right building. (Dennis, by the way, lived. Another source of mine, whom I spoke to only a few times, was the head of compliance at Cantor Fitzgerald. He did not live. I thought about him every time I opened my source list, and still think about him today.)

And that was my experience with The Towers. I had some affection for them. I loved that for at least a little while they were the tallest buildings in the world. As a Tri-state area native I have always felt that it is a in a sense a joke that other cities work so hard to build their big buildings, bigger than the ones in NYC. Okay, Dubai, you win. Like, get over yourselves. Having billions in oil money and, I don't know, indoor ski slopes in the middle of the desert does not a great city make. You know it, I know it, quit fooling yourselves.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 I hopped on the bus at Port Authority at 8:40 a.m. or so, and made it to the other side of the Lincoln tunnel after at least one of The Towers had already been hit. If I had looked downtown from my bus window, I didn't, I would have seen it smoking for about a second or two. I probably would have thought that whatever it was they would get it under control. Because they always did.

I had not taken the 1993 truck bombing plot all that seriously. I mean, I knew it was bad, but I thought it was ludicrous that these guys thought they could take down something as massive at a Twin Tower with some fertilizer. Put 'em in the clink, forever if need be, I thought. But give me a break!

As I got of the bus in Carlstadt, N.J. I heard the bus driver's radio say "all the tunnels are closed," right as he closed the bus door in my face. The driver looked a little confused. It sounded strange, but I didn't make too much of it.

It was only once I got to my job at Beta Industries, my dad's company, that I heard the whole story. A tower had been hit, possibly both, by airplanes? Everyone was, rightly, hyper-alert to the news. Claus, a longtime hand there, told me he had seen the Towers smoking from the roof of the building. I couldn't see it from the street level and thought about going up there. I may have even asked, but there wasn't much time.

The radio was on inside, as was the TV. 1010 WINS' main correspondent on the scene was a woman who wasn't even a full time reporter, she just happened to live down there and was just reporting it almost like a normal, shocked, horrified person would. I wish I could remember what it was she said, but when one of the Towers collapsed her horror came through so loud and painfully clear on the airwaves. A normal woman called upon to describe, for an audience of hundreds of thousands, a true vision of hell.

I remember the normal radio anchors kept their professional faces on better. I also remember a comment that went something like this: "And the stock market is closed, which may not be such a bad thing." Hard to believe.

After the first tower fell I didn't think the second would, but of course it did. More horror, more terror. Later that afternoon fighter jets scrambled above our heads at the warehouse. "Looks like they're going to kick someone's ass," somebody in a parking lot said. But of course there were no asses to kick. The anger, though, was already quite real. Soon the need for vengeance would find voice, but not that day.

During lunch I drove out to a high viewpoint, and simply saw a low hanging gray cloud downtown, quite big at first, only to level off and grow a bit less dramatic as the day wore on. The real drama, though, was in realizing the Towers were knocked out, like a face missing its two front teeth.

It was an odd work day, of course. My dad and brother were in Chicago, and wanted very much to get home. (Eventually they drove.)

Perhaps the strangest part of my day was when business as usual tried to assert itself. My dad had a longtime business associate named Bill, who was the very definition of the hale-well-met fellow. He was a kind, friendly, gregarious man, who seemed like a transplant from Jimmy Stewart's America at all times. Army vet, I think WW2, always ready to recount his wisdom and advice. And, a salesman.

Bill ("Call me Bill!"), would frequently either call or drop by, and if my dad was there they would kibitz for some time.

Well, things had been winding down for Bill for a while. His health, I had the sense, was starting to go south. His snow white hair, it looked like, had started to fall out. I believe his wife had died not long before. I got the feeling he was probably not doing all that well, his skin seemed a bit flakier than in the past. But to go to lunch with him, or simply talk with him for a minute or two, you could just tell he woke up every day determined to be the same old Bill, to look as good as ever, to care as much as ever about his job, to be as good a guy as ever.

Well, sometime after lunch on September 11 who should stroll into Beta's offices but good old Bill? Friendly as ever, with that warm smile on his face, ready with a good handshake. "Hi! Nice to see ya. Is your father around?"

I looked at him as if he was some kind of hallucination. Funereal might be one way to describe the office that day, and, probably, any other place you could go in the Greater New York area.

I looked at Bill some more. I didn't want to be rude to him, but this was just too strange. Breugal, I don't know, maybe he could have imagined something even more bizarre than this. Or David Lynch.

"No Bill," I answered, "he is in Chicago today."

"What about your brother? Is he with the old man?"

"Yes, Bill, they are both in Chicago. They are trying to come back, but it might be hard because, well, all the airports are closed."

"Would it be okay if I left a note?"

"Sure Bill." Beat. "Let me grab a pad."

Mind you, everything I said was almost in slow motion, I was so in shock, and stunned from the unthinkable events, still transpiring, about a mile away as the crow flies. Buildings were still burning, and the Pentagon had also been hit, and that other plane (Flight 93, I later learned) had gone down somewhere. Was it shot down? Did we get any of this right today, as a nation? I didn't know.

I tried to be as courteous as reality would allow as Bill wrote out his note (on our pink "While You Were Out" stationary). I dutifully put it on my dad's desk, where he could find it, and then I stood there, in a sense waiting Bill out. I didn't want to bring up the obvious calamity taking place if he wasn't going to. Maybe there was a good reason he didn't want to talk about all this death and destruction, as he was a vet? I didn't know. But he never brought it up with me, and we never discussed it.

Bill then made, as best as he could, his usual rounds in the office staff, and I don't believe his upbeat Dale Carnegie-esque demeanor changed even one iota during his entire short stay. Then he firm-handshaked his way out of our lobby, back to his car, and drove on to his next appointment.

Later that day I talked to my dad on the phone. He wanted to know how things there were, and if we were okay. I told him I was fine, but I probably would have to stay with Mom for the next few days as all the bridges and tunnels were closed for the foreseeable future. And I made sure to tell him Bill had come by for a visit.

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