Remembering the day

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September 11, 2001. 9:10 AM. As seen from 28th and Park Avenue South. Photo: JH.

The following are the Diaries from 9/12,13, and 14, 2001. When I go down to the river with the dogs every day, I look in that same direction. I will never forget it, the feeling …

September 11, 2001: Yesterday was a terrible terrible terrible day. For New York, for the country, for the world.

Unlike a lot of Americans, I never turn on the TV first thing in the morning. So I got a call from JH telling me a plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. I was reminded of the time (before my time) that a plane hit the Empire State Building. It must have been more than fifty years ago. I was reminded of the planes whose flight path out of LaGuardia are often over East End Avenue, and how sometimes they seem so low that I am concerned about possible accidents. I turned on the television, however, to see the second plane fly into the second tower, and everything horrendous and dreadful that followed right after.



It was a beautiful day in New York. Weather-wise. Sunny, warm but with a cool breeze; the best of early autumn. I went down to the Promenade by the East River at the end of the block right where the Brearley School stands, its classes full of little children. With my camera, to see if there was anything to see. The island of Manhattan curves to the east below 34th Street, and so from my vantage point in the East 80s, it is impossible to see the Wall Street area. However, as the photographs I took (as opposed to those JH took from his rooftop in the 20s) demonstrate, the black and gray and white plumes from the explosions filled the horizon, blowing east out onto Long Island.

As seen from JH’s rooftop at 28th and Park Avenue South.

It was a surreal experience. It was over there. Down there. Four or five miles away as the crow flies. Which in this great big city seems like a great distance. Except. It was here. The carnage. Only four or five miles away. I thought of Beirut. I thought of Bosnia. I thought of Macedonia. I wondered if the experience for those who were not in the actual center of it in those places felt as separated and horrified as it did for me now.

I found myself whimpering under my breath. Untouched physically, apparently safe. I tried to assimilate the ravages I’d seen just minutes before on the television with the huge and ominous clouds moving with the winds over the southern tip of the island. I tried to imagine what is unimaginable if not personally experienced. I was grateful for my safety, knowing it was only random and very likely only momentary.

I came back to the apartment to do what so many millions of us did for the better part of the rest of the day: watching the carnage unfold. I couldn’t work because I couldn’t tear myself away except to answer the phone — often from out-of-town friends inquiring as to my safety.

Who are these men who care nothing for their own lives — let alone the lives of hundreds, thousands of innocents — who would deliberately, knowingly fly themselves into violent oblivion? Who could they be? What could they care of life? What could they care of me? The answer, although unfathomable, was nevertheless quite clear.

As I said, it was a beautiful day in New York. And by mid-afternoon, when I again went down to the River with my camera to see what the sky looked like, many people were out on the street, almost as if it were a holiday. A non-school day. Many of the parents were now at the Brearley School, picking up their children, standing in front of the building, talking to friends. None of their faces (I couldn’t hear the conversations) reflected what everyone knew was happening only a few miles to the south. Some were standing at the railing overlooking the river.

One little girl was kicking stones at pigeons, trying to hit them. And hurt them, of course. Enjoying herself. Her father watched, unfazed. Or so it seemed to my vivid imagination. It was nothing really, really nothing, compared to the carnage down the river and around the bend. I thought how she, looking to be no more than five or six or seven, probably had no idea what was happening in the world, her world, our world. And, in fact, neither did any of us. Only perhaps, was the pigeon — object of her little game of cruel self-amusement — aware of the danger we are now all confronted by.

As I said, it was a beautiful day in New York. Almost too beautiful for anything terrible to be happening. Too beautiful to believe that underneath those plumes of black and grey and orange smoke, underneath the rubble of hundreds of thousands of tons of concrete, steel and glass, were hundreds, maybe thousands of victims, lifeless and disintegrated by something that most of us will never understand, or comprehend. I was whimpering again.

By late afternoon the streets of the city, north of the catastrophe, were fairly empty. Few cars, almost no cabs. Like a holiday weekend in summertime. People walking home or to the market. What they were thinking was impossible to determine from their expressions, for they seemed to wear no expressions at all. Just moving forward, one foot in front of the other.

By six, back down at the river, on this warm late summer day, many were on the Promenade, strolling, walking their dogs, jogging, bicycling. I was walking my dogs. Did they care, were they concerned, were they frightened, outraged? Like me? Would they have known, to look at me, how I felt? No. It was a beautiful day in New York. Or so it seemed. When you couldn’t see the still huge and all-covering clouds to the south. When the sirens weren’t screeching in the distance, or on the FDR Drive just beneath us. When.

The devastation as seen from the promenade at East 83rd Street. At 10:30 AM and 3:00 PM.

I went out to dinner with Debbie Reynolds (for whom I’d ghostwritten a memoir a number of years ago). She was in town, a guest of Elizabeth Taylor to see Michael Jackson’s concert. Their jet, like all planes had been unable to return to Los Angeles. It was the first time we’d seen each other in about ten years. We went to Swifty’s. Which was packed. Although the avenue outside was deserted.

The place was noisy with conversation. At a nearby table a group of friends were celebrating a birthday. The room was not full of laughter, but it was lively. There was not an atmosphere of mourning or grief. Just as there wasn’t all through the day on the sunny streets of the city. This was very affecting. Everyone apparently going on with their daily business, or pleasure. Just like me. Giving no hint, from the looks of them, that they were frightened or outraged, or haunted. Which is what is operating just beneath the surface for most of us in New York on this day and this night.

After dinner, out on the avenue again, it was deserted. A car, or two or three passed by. Debbie and I began to walk back to her hotel (the Plaza Athenee) when a cab came along. The only one. He stopped to give us a ride. Park Avenue was all aglow in the lights of the buildings. The sidewalks were deserted too. Very unusual for a weeknight in New York.

There was the din of a hum in the air from the air conditioners of the apartment buildings. And in the distance, the occasional siren of an ambulance or a police van rushing through the streets. It was a beautiful night in New York. And with the empty streets, even more serene. Or so it seemed, if you didn’t think of the rubble and the chaos and the wicked devastation of lives just four miles to the south. If you didn’t think of the reality, which is that we are now At War. With a nameless, faceless, wretched enemy. So serene. If you didn’t consider the death and devastation lurking around all our lives now. Everyone. Everywhere.

DAY TWO:

A reader of the NYSD wrote in an email this afternoon: ” … It still feels strange and unreal, watching the television, reading all the media, the feeling is as if New York is having a snowday but the sun is shining … It was only the offhand remark of newsreporter on the synchronicity of the date 09/11 and 911 emergency that brought the real goosebumps …”

It started out as another beautiful day in New York. Weatherwise. The perfect temperature, in the low seventies. Blue blue, cloudless skies. The kind of day where you wish you had the day off, to just relax and take it all in. Except.


The same cityscape on the day of and the night after. From 28th and Park.


Many New Yorkers did stay home. Because the city was shut down. Because of yesterday. That day. Whatever you want to call it: infamy, catastrophe; the day of dread.

This morning I went down to the river to see if there were still the clouds of yesterday rising from the carnage, as if wishing that it was all a bad dream. There weren’t. But it hadn’t gone away. The skies down there were, instead, a chalky grey-blue. Everything south of 14th Street was shuttered. South of Canal Street, SoHo and Tribeca — an area “gentrified” (and named) thirty years ago by struggling artists fresh out of school, now the neighborhoods of the new New Yorkers, the hip new rich — was entirely evacuated last night.

My neighbor Charlie Scheips, who works at Conde Nast on Times Square, takes the bus every morning across town to Fifth Avenue, and then the Fifth Avenue bus downtown to get to his office. At 8:30 this morning, Fifth Avenue was deserted. Deserted. Except for Charlie’s bus and two police cars. And the National Guard; up and down Fifth and Madison. The streets all over the city were like that: no trucks, few cabs and even fewer private passenger cars.

Flags were flown high and vigils were held all across the New York City.

The light was whiter today despite the bluest skies. The sunbeams cast a silvery golden sheen on the trees lining the avenues. Despite its beauty, there was now something ominous and hard and even sinister about it.

At the hospitals the people were lined up around the block, waiting sometimes hours, to give blood. In the neighborhoods along the Upper East and West Sides, people were dressed for leisure in tee shirts and shorts. At the newsstands there were lines … lines waiting to get a paper. The New York Times was sold out everywhere. And then the Daily News. And then the Post. These were the same people who’d been glued to their televisions for any piece of news they could get.

They needed more. Because so much remains unknown. Not only how, and who (despite the obvious suspicions), but WHERE ? … were the victims? And how many? All we know is someone who had a friend or a husband or a wife or a brother or a sister who “hasn’t been heard from in more than a day.”

Hasn’t been heard from. Not missing. Not dead. Hasn’t been heard from. Are they among the injured, the 1500 or so casualties now in hospitals throughout the area? Are they unable to identify themselves? The optimism of disbelief.

Or are they amongst the rubble? Still alive. Pieces, unidentifiable, strewn about, and buried.

Hasn’t been heard from. Code word: hope.

By early afternoon the neighborhoods streets and avenues were crowded. Families; fathers, mothers, pushing strollers, teenagers; men, women, rollerbladers, joggers, people walking their dogs.

About two o’clock I took the 79thStreet crosstown to the West Side. At Madison Avenue we were diverted up to 97th to make the trip across the Park. The other transverses were blocked for ambulances traveling back and forth. The busride was still fast because the streets were almost empty of traffic.

Returning to the East Side I decided to walk across the Park. It was also a beautiful day for a walk in the Park. The benches, the children’s play areas, and the Great Lawn were literally teeming, with quiet crowds, people stretched out on blankets relaxing. sunning themselves; reading, talking, gnoshing, basking. The meandering asphalt walkways were crowded too, as were the benches along the way. A stranger gazing down on this — verdant and pastoral, yet metropolitan space — could think there was a holiday going on.

Except by mid-afternoon, the bluest of the blue skies above were mixed with the silvery white clouds, the same clouds which yesterday had drifted east toward Long Island, now drifting north. They brought the grim reminder. The air was fetid with the stench, the burnt out and smoldering, the pulverized ashes of disintegrated asbestos, and concrete. And death.

I went to dinner at Swifty’s about eight-thirty. The night air seemed to have cleared. After dinner, leaving the restaurant, I passed the table of Felicia Taylor, the NBC Today anchor, having a late dinner with her boyfriend Dylan Brown. Felicia had been downtown all day, covering the carnage. I didn’t recognize her at first. Although I see her often, sometimes daily. Because there was a grimness that possessed her face tonight. Erasing all that ebullience that is characteristic of her. The woman I was with, having seen Felicia on the television, started talking about her day. Felicia just bowed her head, as if to stifle her anguish. There was nothing to say.

Back outside the air was again thick with the stench of the catastrophe. It was a quiet night, a mild night. There were cabs to be found and few cars to clog the streets. There were occasional sirens in the distance. And there was the stench of yesterday, permeating everything. Even the apartment. It wasn’t a beautiful night.



THE CITY ON THE THIRD DAY:

Midtown Manhattan, the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side looked like a typical New York weekday. The yellow schoolbuses were lined up, double parked around the corner and across the avenue where Chapin and Brearley sit. The cabs were out. The cars. The crowds. It had the feeling of a workday, not a holiday.

It was a warm day, not as beautiful as yesterday. Although people were sunning themselves, reading the papers on the benches along the Promenade in Carl Schurz Park in my neighborhood. The smoke and stench that filled the air last night was gone. The skies over the southern tip of Manhattan were pink and white and blue but from the distance of a few miles, not smoky.

Was everything back to normal, as it looked to be? No. How could it be? Why would it be? Now we are beginning to learn of the fatalities. Although there is no number yet, the estimate is in the thousands. Sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, lovers. Every one of us knows somebody by one or two degrees of separation. The little girl who goes to school with the child of a friend of mine, who lost both her mother and her father. The waiter who worked at Swifty’s a few months ago and who had left to go work at Windows of the World. The trader who called his wife on his cell to tell her that they’d just been hit. After which, he was cut off, his voice never to be heard again. The young man who called his parents from under his desk. Never to be heard from again. The people who had been instructed by their office supervisor to go into the conference room and wait for the signal to evacuate. The people in the wheelchairs, the working handicapped.

It’s endless.



The churches and temples have been full of mourners, for we are all mourners now. The talk everywhere is all about retaliation — “wipe ’em out” — although very few of us can be certain who they are. One friend of mine, who claims connections to Intelligence sources, told me that they, these heinous enemies, are already here, operating in this country, just as they were months ago when some of them were taking flying lessons in Florida. Today’s (9/13) New York Times op-ed page had a column by Tom Friedman that intelligently and wisely puts dealing with these things in perspective. Take heed, o ye leaders of the U.S. of A., oh please take heed.

The New York social calendar has been pretty much wiped clean. Fashion Week, comprising scores of shows and events all week long, was canceled. Tonight Lincoln Center was going to have the opening night Gala of its Great Performers 2001-2002 season. It was to be an All-Rachmaninoff Program with the Philharmonic Orchestra of London, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Conductor, and Mikhail Pletnev, Piano. Followed by a dinner on the Grand Promenade at Avery Fisher Hall. Canceled.

People have been advising me not to write about social events now, telling me that it would be inappropriate. I don’t actually feel like writing about social events right now anyway. Although I don’t believe they are inappropriate. I can understand the decision to cancel tonight’s concert, and I am in agreement. But now is also the time to listen and to see the glories of human creation and human spirit, to congregate with each other in whatever way, at whatever venues, having been massively attacked by the forces of human destruction. We need that antidote now more than ever. We need to be reminded, now more than ever, that it is the forces of human creation that ultimately prevail in life. For all of us.

News came over the internet that several soon-to-be-released Hollywood movies have been postponed indefinitely because they featured violent and murderous incidents not dissimilar to what really happened in real-life on Tuesday. It wouldn’t affect me anyway because I’ve always hated those movies with their gratuitous and bloated penchant for blowing up everything, including people. And then excusing themselves by saying “it’s just a movie.” To me they were always real harbingers of real dread. Besides being the work of lazy, inept producers, agents, directors and people who call themselves “writers.” Not any more, from here on in, are they “just a movie.”

There were a couple of things going on tonight, which I skipped out on because I simply don’t have the heart for it right now. Instead I took the dogs for extra “walkies” along the Promenade just before sunset.

There were many people out. Warm enough for shorts and sleeveless shirts. An after-work, after-dinner atmosphere. Families walking with their children, runners, dog-walkers, older couples getting their exercise. The dogs in the two dog runs (one for big, one for small) were chasing each other about, galloping, scampering, fetching the ball. With the child-like enthusiastic energy that makes you laugh just to see it.

There were lots of people reading, chatting, sitting along the benches overlooking the part of the River known as Hellgate, and beyond the Triboro Bridge and Queens. We are still graced, still blessed with this same old view of life on the other side of the river.

The smooth and heavy, steady movement of the East River is always a calming, reassuring sight. There are prints of this same river view, hanging in the lobby of my apartment building, pictures created in the middle of the 19th century — another reminder that the forces of nature are greater than any and all of us; and that life is about, life is, moving forward.

It’s still going to be on everyone’s mind. Underscored by deep and random fears. Fears of What Next. We’ll be all right. Like the river, we will keep moving ahead, steadily and with the same resilience that is our nature, that is nature. That is also the American way. It’s not about a country, although it is: it’s about life itself. And all who are exposed to it are subject to it. Created by freedom and opportunity. It is a universal experience. It is the nature of things. And nature, as any sensible being can see, cannot be vanquished. No matter the madness of its foes.

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