The following is an story that I wrote for my friend Tim, which, if you follow this blog, you know there were several other pieces I’ve contributed to the various journals and writing projects that he’s been part of at Rutgers and NYU over the years. The events described in the story are, for the most part, true, with some details changed to protect the innocent. Although it’s been eight years now, I can count on my fingers the number of times that I’ve shared this story: once to a few friends, once to my boss, once to Tim, once to a couple other random folks. I figured today was as good enough a day as ever to publish it.
Not Really About 9/11
There are, of course, those few events in your lifetime where you will always remember exactly where you were and what you were doing at the time when they happened. And most people in the New York City area, the United States – and much of the world, for that matter – consider the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 to fit into that category. In fact, for many people, the closer they were to the tragedy, the more opportunity it presented for them to boast about their own experiences. Many people, unfortunately, take pride in telling their own 9/11 war stories and have been able to contrive their early dismissal from their upper-east side office building on that day into a “narrow escape” from the debris of the falling towers. And quite frankly, even if there is a smidgen of truth to them, most of these stories are boring. So I’ll do my best to not tell you about my experiences on 9/11, because you’ve heard many similar stories before (and no, I did not “ride” ruins of the crumbling north tower to safety, as a popular urban legend tells about one lucky man). My story, instead, is about what happened before and what happened after and, while 9/11 may be in its backdrop, the story really doesn’t have anything to do with that day, itself.
My last memory of the World Trade Center comes a few days before the tragedy, on Saturday, September 8th when, in an uncharacteristic move, my then-girlfriend and I decided to have dinner in Union Square and then catch a move afterward. As Union Square gentrified and the crack dealers were replaced with trendy restaurant over the years, it became a place where I was no longer interested in hanging around. The crowds and the tourist factor just became too much to deal with. You could barely find a place at the bar of one of these restaurants to sip a cocktail, much less a table to eat without 4 weeks of advanced planning. Nonetheless, our dinner was over (I don’t even remember the restaurant – that’s how unmemorable it was) and we began to stroll around the square trying to kill the hour before our show started at the UA Theaters on its south side. As we made our way to the square’s southwest corner, I remember taking a moment to suck in the marvelous view of the Twin Towers as they revealed themselves in the nighttime. University Place is what I used to refer to as the “road to the World Trade Center” because it provided the most marvelous, almost-unobstructed view of the towers from anywhere that far north on Manhattan Island. Many people don’t believe me to this day, but at that point in time, I turned to my girlfriend and told her exactly what I just told you: Enjoy the view, as it’s the best that you will get in the city.
And then, Tuesday came.
But you know all about that.
After absorbing the events of the days prior, the first weekend came upon us and on Saturday, September 15th, my friend Mike and I held tickets to an Incubus concert at Hammerstein Ballroom on 34th street. We were not sure as to whether the concert would take place, as the inner-workings of the City that I had known all my life had pretty much ground to a halt. To our surprise, however, we heard the show was still on and made our way into midtown early that evening.
I had stayed out of Manhattan since that last Saturday in Union Square and wasn’t quite sure what to expect when we arrived. What I found when I got there was, perhaps, the most surprising thing that I could have imagined: Everything looked the same. Now, of course, a mere half mile south of where I was, lay the remains of two of the world’s tallest buildings and the five thousand or so people who perished along with them, but if you were out of site from the disaster area, everything was calm. Sure, there was a ton of police all over of the city, but, other than that, life appeared to be bizarrely normal. This caused some discomfort in my mind. Although I really didn’t want to see anything remotely related to the tragedy, I felt as if I needed some sort of validation that what I had experienced from a distance had really happened. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Chaos in the streets? Piles of debris scattered throughout the borough? Whatever I might have conjured up in my mind, it surely wasn’t there.
We made our way into the venue and, surprisingly, the sold-out show was actually full. Some people said they came because they wanted to make a statement – “Terrorists cannot stop the music.”, or some bullshit like that. But most of us just wanted to get back to some resemblance of everyday life. The concert went off without a hitch and was fairly uneventful, save the first appearances of people’s new-found, manufactured patriotism (“The United States is the best country in the world.”, shouted the anorexic, shirtless lead singer of the opening band, Hoobastank).
After the show, Mike convinced me to go to a party being hosted by some girl he knew named Laura. Supposedly, Laura was a trust fund baby whose parents were nowhere to be found as they traveled around the world, leaving Laura with a loft in the Meatpacking District at a time when the Meatpacking District was still a place in the city where they used to actually pack meat. The apartment was supposedly in a building where legendary rocker Lou Reed lived, which, I believe Mike thought would somehow make his invitation more attractive (it didn’t). Nonetheless, I tagged along and we made the short drive down a handful of blocks and over to the west side. Parking, as you might imagine, wasn’t exactly a problem this week, as people were staying away from the island as if it were a pile of radioactive remains after a reactor meltdown.
The building was large and non-descrip with an industrial sized door separating it from the sidewalk. Mike had instructions to buzz Apartment #4 in order to be let in, but someone had conveniently placed a telephone book in the doorway to let any guests pass without the inconvenience of being buzzed in. The cavernous stairway was old and dirty. The walls were painted in an outdated lime green with coats that appeared to be layered on year after year after year. There was almost no lighting as we made our three story trek up to the apartment while our footsteps echoed loudly all the way to the top of the stairwell, no matter how carefully we stepped. “There’s no way Lou Reed lives here”, I thought to myself. As we reached the fourth floor, I could hear music playing and smelled the faint waft of cigarette and pot smoke. We opened the door from the stairwell and a few twenty-somethings spilled out into the hallway, which was shared by two or three other apartments who, apparently, either didn’t care about the party going on or, like Laura’s parents, were no place to be found.
We entered the apartment and I was quite surprised by what I encountered. As I had later come to learn about many New York City apartments, the interior certainly does not often match the exterior. The space was a very large single room with a modern kitchen and a second-floor sleeping loft. It was tastefully decorated in dark woods and worn brown leather furniture with a massive amount of books, family pictures and various accoutrement adorning walls and bookshelves. It kind of felt like an Abercrombie and Fitch-meets-TGI Fridays, minus the women in striped red shirts and the life-sized, half naked pictures of men on the walls.
I was promptly introduced to Laura, who took an immediate liking to me – not because I was special, but because she was high enough at this point in the evening where she took an immediate liking to just about anyone who walked through the doors. Laura told us that we could have our run of the place and that we should mingle and “help ourselves”. Presumably, “help ourselves” referred to the kitchen full of alcohol, the eight-ball of coke sitting on the leather coffee table and the giant Zip-Loc baggie of weed being guarded by the punk-rock boys who just came from the show down at CB’s. I chose cheap, lite beer as my poison.
At this point in the evening, I wasn’t really feeling too much in the party mood and looked for a comfortable place to rest myself, without any luck. As the music blared in the main room and the cigarette and pot smoke became heavier and thicker, I wandered down the hallway leading towards the front door and planted myself on the floor with my back to the wall. With my knees pulled to my chest, I nursed my beer and watched out of the corner of my eye as people moved around me. Across the hall to the right was the entrance to the apartment. To my right, about five feet down on the opposite wall from the entrance – the one where I was leaning – was the door to the main bathroom. Affixed to the door of the bathroom was a small, yellow sticky note with the warning, “No Lock on Door. Please Knock.”. “Good to know.”, I thought to myself.
A few minutes later, I felt a brush on my shoulder and was greeted by a thin, young guy who plopped himself on the floor, coming to a rest only a few inches to my left. He introduced himself with a, “What’s up, man?”, without telling me his name. He was a scrawny, lanky, scruffy dude wearing baggy jeans, skateboard shoes and a tight-fitting, gray hoodie sweatshirt with a faded, indistinguishable logo on the front. His pitch-black hair was shaggy and partially covered his forehead just enough to make it difficult for you to look into his eyes if he didn’t flip it back onto the top of his head. He was a hipster who lived in Williamsburg at a time before the hipsters found Willamsburg and the old warehouses were all converted to condos. If he was clean shaven, he might look closer to, say, twenty-seven, but in his current state, he looked more like a young twenty-something skateboarder.
Hipster boy sat silently next to me as I soaked in the atmosphere around me. Drunk girls hovered in the doorway making drunken conversation while wearing slightly-too-tight spaghetti strap shirts and smoking cheap cigarettes. Two guys were making out in the big Pottery Barn-esque leather chair on the other end of the hallway. A couple of smooth-talking, academic looking older guys were becoming familiar with girls who would have been in elementary school when they started college. And although the crowd was eclectic, to say the least, I was comfortable in my surroundings, as it was good to get away from the far-too-well-off suburban machismo and daddy’s-little-girl atmosphere that I typically experienced during my weekend party life. No one gave a shit here, and I kind of liked it.
It took a good two or three minutes before he start talking to me, or rather, just talking, as he wasn’t actually looking at me, but I was the only one within conversations distance for him to be chatting with. It had been a week of painful video replays, tearful images, Osama-bin-whomever would be caught promises by men in blue suits and everything else that had gone along with events of the week. And, while Hipster Boy may have been too young to be properly educated or too high to be anything close to articulate, I must give him credit for being the first conspiracy theorist to have chewed my ear off about what happened. In the course of a few minutes he didn’t hesitate to blame the CIA (the US wanted “sympathy” from our foreign neighbors), the European Union (our country was a threat to their economic growth), his mother (she was a Bush supporter) and many other crackpot theories that we would hear from all the other crackpot theorists on the TV, Internet and radio over the next couple of months. He talked too quick to be drunk, so I wondered if he had partaken in the party favors back in the living room or brought his own variety of goods along with him that evening. Clearly, he wasn’t well.
The crowd around me changed over the next five or so minutes, as he continued to blabber on. I was half-listening to his rant and nodding my head, while taking the occasional pleasure of watching people frequently barge into a bathroom which was void of a lock and lacked a sign big enough that people would actually notice before turning the door handle. As I changed from my head-at-my-knees position to Indian-style seating, a young girl who couldn’t have been more than 19 or 20 sat on my right knee as if I was her grandfather. She smelled like bubble gum and I had no idea who the hell she was, but she stared at Hipster Boy with a quizzical and intense gaze, as if she had been there the whole time and really understood what the fuck he was talking about. I smiled at her and she smiled back while resting her head on my shoulder. We sat for a few minutes, still speechless, until Hipster Boy finally turned his head, flung his hair back and addressed me directly. “Are you even listening to me?”, he said. I nodded again, without really even looking him in eye, which caused a surprising eruption and change of tone in his voice. “You’re really fucked up.”, he told me.
Now this, of course, was irony. Here I was, sitting all to myself in a far-too-sober state, minding my own business, thinking about how I would like nothing more than to lay my head on my pillow before I returned to my boring, white-collar job on Monday morning. And according to the coked-up, Hipster from Willamsburg blabbing about government conspiracies, *I* was the one who was fucked up. That, of course, I found amusing. Maybe it was a week of the deadly CNN/Fox News cocktail or maybe I was just too fed up with the place, but I responded by raising my own voice saying something like he should take a look in the mirror if he wants to see who’s fucked up (Yeah, that was really witty of me, I know.). And to that, he responded with something that was absolutely satisfying at the time: He said absolutely nothing.
And that was my cue to leave.
I gently nudged the sweet-smelling girl off of my knee, made my way into the living room and grabbed Mike by the back of his gray hoodie. And although I was adamant about leaving, he had the car keys and managed to convince me that a late-night burger would settle me down and make me happy. Laura offered the upstairs bed to us if we wanted to crash there, but I had previously heard her offer said bed to no less than ten other people that night, leading me to believe that the night was ending in some sort of orgy or she was just too lit to remember who she was talking to. I pulled Mike further to the door and he promised Laura that we would return.
We made our way a few blocks down to a bar which looked as if it had been there for a hundred years, even though I had been in that neighborhood a million times in the past and had no recollection of ever seeing it. Mike knew they had a late night kitchen and his native-like knowledge of the area paid off. In an hour and a half we managed to eat a juicy burger, down three or four more beers and seemingly solve the problems of the world with our deep, chummy conversation. And when 4:00 finally hit, we hung out a good half hour more bullshitting with the friendly bartender, who was a good twenty-five years our senior. Thanks to good food, good beer and good people, my spirits were revived.
We left the dive (I still don’t recall the name – it’s no longer there) and stumbled our way back to Laura’s place with Mike probably not good enough to drive back home, but neither of us sober enough to detect it. As we made our way up the echoing, green stairway, I noticed the volume level had considerably dropped and I assumed that much of the party goers had gone about their way. The people smoking in the hallway, the girls who were fixtures at the door and queues of people barging into the un-locked loo were reduced down to a handful of six or seven die-hards hovering in the living room, silent.
I noticed one of the spaghetti strap twins leaning on the arm of the Pottery Barn chair and figured I would ask her a curious question which my not-so-sober mind had raised.
“What happened to the skateboarder-looking kid sitting on the floor next to me earlier tonight?”, I asked.
What I got back from her was a look of confusion. Not the type of confusion like she didn’t know who I was talking about – she had been standing next to us for close to twenty minutes, after all – but the type of confusion as if I had asked a totally obscure, incomprehensible question like, “Is your head made out of potatoes?”.
“Where did you go?”, she asked quietly.
I found this bizarre, as I had never seen this girl before tonight and had never spoken to her ever in my lifetime. Why did she care and why was she asking? And before I could translate my confusion to words, she responded to my question.
“He died.”, she said.
At this moment in time, my brain was about to short circuit. I wondered what the fuck she was talking about and asked why she was fucking with me.
“He died.”, she repeated. “After you left, he went into the bathroom and didn’t come out for a long time. As people became more and more impatient, someone went in there and found him laying on the floor with a needle in his arm. We called 911 and they tried to revive him in the hallway. He wasn’t breathing and his heart had stopped.”
“He was dead.”
I felt something smack me in the face like I had never felt before. As I looked around, the tone of the remaining few in the room now made sense. Mike had made his way up to the loft as soon as we had entered and I went to look for him immediately. He was on the bed hugging Laura, who was sobbing over the death of someone who, apparently, she wasn’t even acquainted with, nor did she even know how he got there. It just all didn’t make sense.
Without saying a word, I turned around and headed for the door which, in retrospect, was probably a good idea considering that the cops were probably showing up sometime soon. I walked east and grabbed the first taxi I saw and paid for the short ride up to Penn Station. The cab ride gave me time to think in isolation: Was I the last person he spoke to before he died? Or, what if I hung around just a few minutes longer that night? These were questions that could never be answered and would probably drive me insane if I continued to contemplate them. I resolved that what was meant to happen would probably happen, whether it be in the bathroom of the apartment that night or whether it be many, many years later in some other lonely place. “These are things not worth contemplating.”, I kept telling myself.
As I walked down the slow-moving escalator of the station’s Seventh Avenue entrance, I noticed that the usually gleaming white subway tiles on the walls to the right were void of their sheen, as they were covered, floor to ceiling, with hundreds of pieces of paper. Perplexed by this, I walked over towards the Long Island Railroad staircase to find a woman desperately searching for one small patch of exposed tile in order to hang a flyer of her own. If you had seen papers like these hanging on a telephone pole or lamppost anywhere else in New York on any other day, you might suspect that it was trying to sell you something or displaying the picture of a lost dog which had gone astray days earlier. These walls, however, became a temporary lost-and-found section for the hopeless, not searching for family pets, however, but for family members themselves. Each flyer contained some sort of headline similar to “Have You Seen This Person?”, usually accompanied by a short biography describing where they were working last Tuesday, what they looked like and what they might have been wearing. And while the flyers were an attempt to resurrect one last glimmer of hope from the most tragic day in the country’s history, the irony was that many of the accompanying photos were of people celebrating some of the most joyous days of their lives, such as weddings and graduations. Given my mood of the moment, I asked myself if the relatives who took the time to create these and scatter them about the city realized that, no matter how many of these flyers were hung, these people were never coming home. But then I wondered what I, myself, would do in this situation.
Probably the same thing, I thought.