This is something I wrote for two reasons: I never read first person accounts of average Manhattanites personal 9/11 experiences. Yeah, I know NPR–never even tried as I did have my own personal tragedy a month later. Secondly and more important, being able to write about 9/11 prove to me that I’m as over it as I ever can be.*
I am focusing on my book.
This post is unedited and has too many characters.
If you haven’t read my fiction before, people seem to like this and that. The first is about a New York girl in the 70’s who thinks she’s going to have an exciting day; she has no idea….the second is about a woman, my age, who leaves her lover. I will be going into the archives for some Courting classics. A bit burnt right now.
Dinah was lying in bed more asleep than awake when she heard the radio announcer say: “turn on your TV.” Still mostly asleep she took the remote from the nightstand, turned it on, and began to listen to people who sounded dazed and startled.
The auto brewed coffeemaker went off. She didn’t need caffeine. Dinah called her best friend Marly.
“No,” Marly said, “it’s not a terrorist attack. It can’t be. Planes are monitored. The Towers are fire proof. Nothing horrible will happen.”
“If the South Tower is fireproof, how can it be on fire? Marly, it has to be a terrorist attack.”
“It’s not. They’ll control it. Don’t panic or scare me.”
Marly hung up.
Dinah called her mother on Long Island. Her mother, normally the Queen of Anxiety, was calm.
“Dinah, you’re making too much of it. It’s probably just a plane crash.”
“No, ma, I think I recently read that the Towers were constructed so that fires can’t start. Oh, I’ll speak to you later.”
She threw on some clothes, took a thermos of coffee, two cameras, and ran up a flight of stairs to her roof deck. She could have watched from her terrace but she had never wanted to be among people more in her life.
People were on the deck watching the unfolding fire and TVs plugged into the outlets. Her first thought, she realized later was stupid. She had no idea people owned small TVs anymore. It felt like a party. She felt like the first person to realize that the Titanic was sinking.
Neil, the condo board president was smoking a cigarette. She had no idea that he smoked. Dinah asked him for a cigarette. Staying healthy didn’t seem to matter.
Neil asked if she was excited about the exhibit of her photos of old women in nursing homes. She didn’t understand what he was asking. The exhibit was supposed to open in three weeks. Was there going to be an October?
Later, Dinah would try to understand how she knew before the tower fell how horrible everything was. She saw a burly construction worker, sitting hunched over with his face down on scaffolding in a building on the next avenue. She could almost see the tears. Instinctively she took took photo after photo of him.
Everybody stood looking. Some people brought drinks and joints. Dinah didn’t want either, but she went downstairs to get some quality pot for the neighbors, and to use the bathroom. After she threw up, she took a quick shower. There were some messages on the machine. One was from a woman she barely knew who lived in Brooklyn. Her daughter had been on the subway at the time of the attack. If she survived could she stay at Marly’s? There were two more messages from people who wanted to come over. She tried calling, but her landline was dead, and all circuits were busy on the cell.
When she returned to the roof deck, people began screaming. She was about to make a joke about how she wasn’t that frightful when she looked south. The North Tower seemed to fall in a second.
Her cell rang. Marly was crying.
“I’m leaving work now. I guess I have to walk. Can you?”
“Yes, I’ll run to her school now.”
Arianna, Marly’s daughter had just begun middle school. She couldn’t learn about this from school. As she went to the elevator more people were coming up. Some were still in their work clothes, others in pajamas and robes. When she got to the lobby, she told the doormen, concierge and super that her apartment door was unlocked. Anybody who knew her last name was welcome to come to the apartment. The staff didn’t even look at her as if she were crazy, but nodded yes.
On the walk to school she saw many people walking from their midtown offices and heard snatches of conversation:
“We’ll reschedule the teleconference for tomorrow. I’ll fax him from home.”
She didn’t know whether they were in shock or really believed that tomorrow would be normal. Some people were covered in ashes. Had they known to turn around? How could they have walked so fast? Why hadn’t the ashes fallen off?
When she arrived at the Middle School people were congregating around it. There were two Security Guards and somebody who looked official.
“Hi. My goddaughter, Arianna Cortes, is in Sixth Grade. Her mother is walking from downtown. I’m on the list of people who can pick her up.”
The woman gave her a constipated smile:
“We prefer that children be picked up by their parents. Can’t the father come?”
“No, that would be impossible. Arianna’s father lives in Europe. Her mother works in the Empire State….if the news is out, and I’m sure they’ve heard, she’ll be freaking.”
“I’m sorry. If her mother doesn’t come in two hours, you can get her.”
Dinah looked at herself. For the first time she realized she was wearing Duane Reade house pajama bottoms, a camisole with a built in bra, and SAS sandals that were great for running, but nothing she was wearing matched anything else. Her hair was pulled together by a pink clip with sequins that would look too young for Arianna. Her Coach backpack had at least a quarter ounce of pot in it; she had forgotten to go back to the apartment and put it away. She really couldn’t be searched. School security wasn’t searching anybody. But shouldn’t they?
Other people were trying to get into the school. If they could prove they were parents, they were allowed in. Dinah ran to the nearest avenue, went into a bodega and bought her first pack of cigarettes in 20 years. She needed water but the bodega and apparently all stores had been giving water to the people walking. Dinah bought a diet Snapple and a Red Bull that she poured into her now empty thermos.
Dinah didn’t need to be more hyper. She couldn’t be hyper enough. She had run out of film in the old Konica that had been her father’s, and was using her Nikon D-1. Dinah didn’t like the digital’s quality but it was fast. When she went into Rite Aid to buy more film, it was filled with people buying band aids and triple antibiotic ointment. She felt like an idiot for not doing something more important.
But what? All she knew was photography, and she had to wait at Arianna’s school. They had to let her in. She couldn’t go home to change and get more film. This wasn’t like the day The Challenger exploded and people grouped in front of stores with TVs in the window. Everybody was busy going somewhere.
The only place people were standing around talking was in front of the schools. Other “in case of” were pleading to get in the schools.
“You don’t understand. Her father works in the South Tower; her mother works in the North Tower. I haven’t heard….” Before she saw Noah, she recognized his voice. Noah was a well known soap actor, but today everybody was equal. The Feinsteins, Steve and Sue, were his wife, Lily’s brother and sister-in-law. They couldn’t be dead. She had seen them on Sunday at a party in East Hampton.
“Noah, don’t even try.”
“Dinah, what…oh, Arianna. Where’s Brandon?”
Brandon was Dinah’s permanent fiancee. She hadn’t even thought about him. People joked that they would get married when they got their first Social Security checks. He was in Vancouver acting in some made for TV movie. His loft was in Tribeca. They shared a house in Montauk where she would have been today but her publicist, Joanna, wanted to go over somethings later that day.
She had forgotten all about it. Damn, Dinah was famed for her memory. She tried calling Joanna but couldn’t get through. She did get through to the Anxiety Queen.
“Dinah, come home. Brandon’s been trying to call you. He tried getting a flight home but they’ve all been cancelled. Call him. Oh god, Dinah, you’re all I have. I think you can drive home.”
“Ma, this has been my home for 25 years. I left the car in Montauk and got a ride home. Remember, I told you that yesterday and you were so happy I wasn’t going to be driving alone. What about, Barry? Your son? The one that gave you grandchildren?”
Her mother, the biggest non-believer never invoked the name of god. Nor did she ever forget anything. her memory was perfect. It was her sight that was gone. Dinah’s mother never got on her for not being married and not having children. She had no idea why she said that.
“Barry’s in LA. I see him and the kids maybe three times a year. But you Dinah, you’re my life..if anything….”
“Mommy, I’m sorry. I’m at Arianna’s school. They won’t let me take her for another hour. And Marly doesn’t have a cell.”
“She doesn’t? I thought all you kids. Oh Dinah, you have to wait for Arianna. If anything happens to Marly….”
“I know, mommy. I would come to the house after Marly arrives. I’m sure she’s fine. But I don’t know if the trains are running, and I’d have to walk to the train station.”
For the first time Dinah realized that her mother wasn’t just blind but old. She had moved from the family house in East Cliff two years before to an apartment in East Cliff Harbor. Most of her friends were dead, or in Florida. Her mother, Beatrice, never Bea, called Marly “my third child.” She had been Dinah’s best friend since nursery school. Marly’s mother was dead and her father so demented none of this would mean anything to him.
The street was becoming filled with more people covered in ashes. They would go into the school and come out with children who didn’t seem to be upset. Where was Marly? She only worked three or so miles from the school.
If there had been another attack, if something had happened to The Empire State these people wouldn’t have made it to here. Somebody would know something.
Noah had an old boom box with a radio. It was talking about the Towers. She really couldn’t comprehend the words. The Feinsteins hadn’t arrived either. The area around the school was becoming too crowded with people who were allowed into the building. Noah wanted to sit on a bench in a park across the street. It faced the school, but maybe they would miss Marly and the Feinsteins.
She stupidly asked if Lily was with the kids. Noah was eager to talk. “She’s trying to keep them watching cartoons. Rosie’s too young to understand, but Tallulah keeps asking about the people in the Towers….”
Dinah saw Marly. She was barefoot and carrying heels.
“I didn’t have one god damned pair of sneakers or flats. My feet are all blistered. Where’s Ari?”
“They wouldn’t let me get her. But you’re here. That’s all that’s important.”
Marly ran into the school and came out minutes later with Arianna who looked scared and was crying. The school year had just begun the week before and one of her new teachers thought that she looked old enough to confide to. Arianna tried telling her that her mother worked in the second tallest building, but the teacher had gone on and on about people she knew in The Towers.
Noah was still waiting for the Feinsteins. He thought it would be good if they could go out to lunch with Lily and Tallulah. They met at Carmines for a very expensive pasta lunch. Arianna had calmed down after seeing her mother, but both she and Tallulah were scared for kids who lived in Tribeca and Battery Park City, or who might have been in The Towers.
Dinah didn’t know if she was being truthful when she said:
“Nobody died who wasn’t on a plane or in the Towers. The highjackers were stupid. They picked a time of day when kids wouldn’t be in The Towers. It was too early. They went back to Lily’s. She still hadn’t heard from her brother or his wife. Noah had gotten the kids and taken them to their apartment. Tallulah said that she could calm her cousins down. Please, please, could she go there?
Arianna wanted to go also.
“I can tell them about the time Dinah was in a hijacked plane. I remember, Dinah, mommy, how scared everybody was even though I was only a little kid. Dinah lived. Please can I tell them that?”
Normally they would have let the girls walk the two blocks by themselves. But they went and saw them into the apartment. Marly and Lily came back with Dinah to her apartment. They sat on the terrace, smoked a couple of bowls each. It would have been an exceptionally beautiful day if they weren’t watching the fires that seemed to be becoming bigger by the second.
It’s not a complete version of the day, and leaves out the second half. The planes flying overhead with no people in sight, but in every bar…also it doesn’t talk about how many people who lived downtown didn’t think people who lived uptown suffered enough to count as a 9/11 survivor.
Nor does it talk about the impromptu gatherings at firehouses that weekend, or the trips to Union Square to pay homage to something, and so much more. It’s just a fictionalized version of one person’s first half of the day everything did change.
I forget exactly how much Mayor Bloomberg has allocated in the budget to monitor and help health of Ground Zero workers. It’s a lot. That money is coming from New York City residents, and I do resent that
If this was America’s tragedy, every American should share in the costs
I can never love another place the way I love New York but unless I win mega millions tonight I can’t afford to stay and I’m far from poor. I haven’t played mega millions so….