First Day

photo by Roberto Rabanne

From chapter 1: Walking into Manhattan as the towers fell

... as I walked I noticed that downtown Brooklyn was being covered in ash. (The first tower had fallen, but with all the sirens, traffic and other sounds I had not heard it.) I stopped at a small shop to buy a fresh notebook and pen, then walked up into Brooklyn Heights. There was so much smoke that I thought a building had gone down on our side of the East River; but it was all the massive cloud created by that first tower falling, and by the smoke of the fires.

I walked along a path down an alley of trees in a small park dedicated to Brooklynites who had died serving in World War II. This was where I would jog on normal mornings. There were people walking the other way covered with ash, and guards by the courthouses with shotguns. I was worried that I might have trouble talking my way onto the Brooklyn Bridge, but when I reached the entrance the real problem was that the walkway was filled with thousands of people pressing into Brooklyn. I jumped down to the roadway – the Manhattan-bound side was already closed to nonemergency traffic – then climbed back up to the walkway when the crowd there had thinned some. Ahead was the north tower burning at about the 90
th floor.

On the roadway, below me now, cars with sirens raced by every 30 seconds or so. I saw a fireman on a small motorcycle, almost a scooter, going as fast as the little motor could take him, into Manhattan; and another fireman walking in the same direction, by himself. It occurred to me that these were off-duty men who had heard about the fire and were simply trying to get to it by whatever means. Walking ahead of me – we were pushed up against the right-hand barrier by people going the other way – were three people in civilian clothes with sidearms on their belts; off-duty cops, I supposed, heading toward the disaster.
I was relieved to be going their way. Whatever this disaster was that was happening around us, I felt lucky because I had a job to do. Whatever this disaster was, there would be a debate on it, and public debate was what my job was all about. I had to see what I could see and get to the paper; it gave me a feeling of resolve, a peaceful feeling.

There is an old man in a dark suit, coated with white ash. He is nearly round: a creation, I suppose, of decades spent sitting in chairs and moving only his hands. He conveys himself steadily forward in a rhythmic, rolling, heaving walk, carrying one of those distinct red-brown accordion folders that lawyers use to hold their papers. It was full to bursting (they always are), clutched in his left hand. In his right hand a briefcase. Ash covering his bottle-thick glasses.

A young man with a ripped T-shirt. Everyone, just about, with ash on their clothes. Very few people crying. To say this was an orderly procession is somehow an understatement. It was as though people were commuting away from death – that was their point of departure for the day. A handful of people ran, I imagine out of simple anxiety or because they might have thought the Brooklyn Bridge could be attacked, too. (And why not? Why not kill us everywhere? Why am I not falling into the river?) But the great majority walked away from death at a prudent, if quick, pace.

A young man jogged past me toward Manhattan, in his running outfit, headphones on. He was not going to let a little disaster interrupt his exercise routine. He was, in his way, the most surprising sight on the bridge.

I was halfway or so across when a rumble sounded and the second tower collapsed. A thousand people turning around for a moment; some screams. I checked my watch: 10:30. The building came straight down like a waterfall (like a pillar of water). It seemed unbelievable that something so huge could drop like that. It took maybe 15 seconds.

A thousand people turned back to their walk toward Brooklyn. Some had cried out and friends or strangers had braced them up. The helpfulness of people was striking in that it was so unsentimental, quick and practical. We had just now seen hundreds of people exactly like us die.

A man appeared beside me. I could not tell why he was going into the city. He gestured up at the open air where the towers and the people in them had been. “Somebody’s going to pay for this,” he said. “Somebody already has,” I said. I’m not sure what I meant. It’s just what I said. I had the dead in mind. The lightness of that new open air above the city; the heaviness of these newly dead.

As the bridge ramped down into Manhattan the smoke thickened and there were many fewer people. I could breathe, more or less, not well. The air had a distinctive smell, with burning plastic in it and something like wet clay.
I considered turning left and heading toward the towers, but to reach the Times I needed to go right. Responsibility took me uptown, past City Hall and up around the courthouses on Center Street. Most of the police officers and firemen were rushing toward whatever remained of the World Trade Center so the streets were clear; the civilians had fled, the officials had not yet taken over. I felt I had the run of the city, that sense that comes when the streets have emptied during emergencies or very heavy snows. I can go anywhere, and I am alive.

Security people had already cleared a space around the Javits Federal Building, which is attached to the New York headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I thought, almost involuntarily, of old Senator Jacob Javits, son of Lower East Side immigrants, a good-hearted Republican who did not mind having his name put on big buildings. I was glad he had not lived long enough to see this happen to his city. I’d never thought of death in quite this way before: as something that could happen just in time, fortunately; as something you would not want to do too late.
Walking north through Chinatown I tried to reach Becky by cell phone but the phone system had ceased working. At pay phones people were lined up, waiting so patiently in their ash-covered clothes to phone in and say they weren’t dead. Two men in Chinatown pulled the grate down on their commercial-sign store. What else to do but close up? Who knew what would be happening later today? Who could possibly have even the slightest idea? North through Chinatown, the news becomes less clear, less emphatic. Maybe on this block of Soho we can keep the shop open? Even though so many people are simply standing in the street with their mouths open, staring downtown, waiting? And already around Prince Street I looked a bit odd, because of the ash coating. It’s in my eyes, nose, mouth and hair. It is, it was, the pulverized remains of two tall buildings, also in some tiny part the last powdery remains of several thousand people, which I tasted on my tongue and around the rim of my mouth and swallowed, goodbye.

By the time I reached the Village I was brushing the ash off my shirt and face because people were looking at me strangely. On Bedford above Houston, not far beyond the fire station, a woman bounced on the balls of her feet in physical anticipation of a grief that was coming her way, she just knew it, she said to the woman standing before her, a friend, “They say to wait because they still don’t have no information.” The second woman began to cry and totter, saying something; the first woman braced her up, yet bounced even more rapidly. She held her friend by the shoulders, at arms’ length, screaming, “No don’t say that! Don’t say that! They don’t have the information yet!”

I found my sister-in-law nearby, in the West Village. I was tired of walking and had thought to borrow her bicycle. She was at the deli around the corner from her apartment, stocking up on food to get her through whatever calamities might lie immediately ahead. She had a colleague with her, a young woman who hung back while we talked. The woman had (my sister-in-law told me quietly) got to their office early, before the first plane hit. Their office was on Church Street below Chambers Street. When the plane hit, and then for some time afterward, she had observed people falling from the sky. Or not falling, exactly, because they were not pushed. They were flying.

Straight down to death in the sidewalk. My sister-in-law’s colleague had fled from this, hurrying north; now she was here at the deli counter, furtive, hardly able to speak. She could not get back to home in New Jersey because all the routes had been closed. She would spend the rest of the day at my sister-in-law’s tiny apartment in silence.
I rode the borrowed bicycle north, coughing up the ash I had taken in downtown.