Monday, September 12, 2011

The morning of September 11

by Alexandra Lebenthal

The morning of September 11 was an intense blue. It was a sign of the summer that had past, a tantalizing finger tempted us back to the vacations we had left behind. The clear day was also full of the promise of the return to the busy city lives so many of us lead; a new school year, fashion week, business ventures and so many other new beginnings.

I was in the final stages of selling my family firm of 76 years, and full of anticipation, excitement and a dose of fear. Change was ahead.

(One of my favorite photos of me- in front of The Austin Tobin Plaza between Towers 1 and 2).
My office was at 120 Broadway with the South Tower’s entrance a stone’s throw away. We had been in the Financial District since 1925. Times had changed, so while it was no longer necessary to have messengers shuttle securities from building to building, it would have seemed like leaving home to move uptown.

When the towers were being built in the early 70s, my Dad would take my sister and me to see the construction site. He wanted us to know that municipal bonds, our main business, built the Trade Center. I recall looking down to see cranes and exposed subways underneath, ambivalent to, or perhaps welcoming the economic activity above.

I was an expert at maneuvering the Trade Center. I could enter at the Liberty Street escalators and find my way past Lenscrafters on the right, stop in the Gap a few feet ahead, pick up airline tickets in the North Tower and easily get to the sky bridge leading to the World Financial Center.

On any given day, I would be at my office by 8:30, but my plan that day was different. A regular monthly meeting with a group of other female entrepreneurs would be followed by a meeting at Rockefeller Center.

A few minutes after 9 am my cell phone rang. It was my best friend looking for me and my husband, knowing we both worked downtown. She told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We had been isolated for those thirty minutes or so, but all of a sudden were thrust into the reality of the moment.

We immediately dispersed.

I emerged onto 58th and Park Avenue and saw large television screens in the window of a Morgan Stanley office detailing the scene.

I couldn’t bear to watch.

I walked away, and within minutes someone yelled that the towers were falling. I began to worry deeply for my employees, my father, husband and brother who all were downtown.

I started walking, strangely determined to get to my meeting in Rock Center. Keeping a schedule funnily enough, seemed the best course of action.

Someone on the street said Rockefeller Center was under attack. Terror went through my mind. What was next?

I went toward Fifth Avenue and saw one of our employees who went uptown with me, I think because we both wanted companionship. He never revealed, along the way, that his cousin worked in the Towers.

Approaching Carnegie Hill, I somehow felt safe, though the smell overpowered the air, and a tower of smoke visible from downtown.

We stopped at Dalton to get Ben in his first day of second grade. Ben was and is a child who has always had a deep interest and understanding of world history and events. I somehow felt I should tell him what had happened, not knowing that another parent in his class would have to explain what had happened, but to also say that the child’s father had died there.

Our next stop was Nightingale Bamford to get Charlotte from Kindergarten. School leaders were making sure each child’s name was checked off as a parent or sitter picked up their child.

Charlotte was, and still is a sensitive girl. I joked about how funny it was to appear in the middle of the morning. Luckily, with little sense of reason, she bought it. There were families at the school that day who later had to tell the real story that directly affected them.

I still didn’t know where my husband was. It was impossible to get through on cell phone, so all I could do was wait. Our sales manager stopped by my building on his journey to Westchester, and told me that everyone was fine and making their way home as best they could.

Jay finally arrived late in the afternoon. He said that there were so many moments along the walk home, when he felt like Lot’s wife, afraid to turn around, lest he be turned into a pillar of salt.

I finally saw him on Madison Avenue, having decided to go outside. I remember holding him close, oblivious to the dust that covered him.

That night we all went out to dinner. There was some strange human need for people to be together. The streets were crowded and every restaurant was at capacity.
The next few days were a daze — making sure that I could locate all of our employees, figuring out how and when we could get back into the building, feeling strangely badly that I hadn’t been at my office, a feeling that persists to this day.

The first time we would be allowed back to the office was the following Monday. I took my regular subway ride on the “Lex” line, though my regular Wall Street station was closed.

At Brooklyn Bridge, there was a distinct feeling that something was different. The subway remained in the station for some time, almost taunting: “Are you sure you want to go further?” Slowly the subway moved forward. I know I wasn’t alone in the feeling that we were riding into hell.

I ascended the stairs to Fulton Street, preparing for the moment when I would look to the right and see Ground Zero, but still gasped when I saw the jagged, torn “hand” of a piece of the once glorious building center framed by fire and smoke. The familiar shape of the steel and windows still there, but grotesquely twisted and cut.
The smell was horrific, my silk scarf doing do little to keep out the smell of burning computers, phones, desks, steel — and what I imagined to be souls.

Our office building was surrounded by police, who required we show ID to enter. Once inside, seeing my friends and colleagues was amazing — there was no shortage of hugs that day to go around.

We could not help but gravitate to our windows which framed the Towers. Our trading desk, a key part of our office was there — the same desk where our head trader had been doing a trade with his friend at Cantor when the first plane hit, turning around to see a fireball coming from the Towers. On that first day, and for so many after, those windows were a connecting point for us. The destruction twelve floors below was staggering. Fires, twisted metal, and somber men, carrying bodies draped with an American flag, a view that would last for months.

The construction site I had seen as a child was back again, yet in a horrific way. Once the rubble was cleared, I would see those same subways exposed to the light.

I stared out of the window next to one of our messengers, who didn’t tell me that his brother worked for one of the companies in the Towers. While I was mesmerized by the destruction, he was wondering where his family member was.

This Saturday afternoon, we boated on the Great South Bay. My thoughts were drawn to the towns that dot Suffolk and Nassau counties that lost scores that day. Towns that produced sons who could easily have been a fireman or policemen as well as a bond trader for Cantor- There isn’t a big difference — tough guys, family men, lovers of beer and laughter, who always have their friend's backs. I'm not forgetting the women, but I always have marveled at this.

Clouds had formed over the sky after a brilliant day, but two rays of light broke though, to the West toward Manhattan, almost at a perpendicular angle. I’d like to think it was a sign that life continues for all of us. For family members perhaps it was a connection from Heaven, and a message from those lost to us all that they are still with us and that we all are still connected by the spirit of humanity and country that never dies.
Alexandra Lebenthal learned from her father, Jim Lebenthal, and grandmother before, about the basics of finances and investments. Today she is the CEO of Lebenthal & Co., LLC and its wealth management division, Alexandra & James Co.