A few years after graduation from college in NYC, I met a girlfriend at the Angelika Theater in SoHo on a dark, cold, rainy night. We decided to warm up at La Laterna near Washington Square for some dessert and our usual recap of the film’s tragic subject matter. In that setting, it was easy to let our souls camp out in the darkness and despair. Far different from public perception from TV shows and glossy magazine ads, the combination of Lower Manhattan, the edginess of fashion school and those two things compounded by business realities in the fashion industry made it easy for people in my world to dwell in depression and difficult to choose happiness. Fast forward through the years of working in that environment: everyday a struggle to not dwell in the melancholy, but rather embrace the little glimmers of beauty and goodness around me. I met an amazing man, got married and was suddenly living a NYC fairy tale life. But, just as quickly, the grim darkness became my frame of reference again one Tuesday morning.
It took a good amount of effort to push open the heavy beveled glass front doors of the old prewar building that was our first home as a married couple. Once outside, I glanced up at the small expanse of sky visible on West End Avenue. The air was crystal clear (a fairly unusual occurrence for New York City). The clouds that day were spectacular, the kind that you dream of sleeping on when you’re little and don’t realize they are vapors of moisture. I rounded the corner of 86th street, praying a prayer of thanksgiving and praise for the beauty of Creation, and excitement for how beautifully my life was unfolding. I stole one last glance around me and descended the stairs to the dark, smelly subway tunnel.
My commute was progressing as usual: at each stop more commuters sardined themselves into the subway car on the 1/9 line headed downtown. At 51st street, just 10 blocks from my work and 1 subway stop away, a woman entered the train in an absolute panic. A few of the jaded commuters glanced up at her. Frustrated, she started screaming loudly, “I promise I am not crazy, get out of this train! A helicopter has hit the World Trade Center.” She phrased her words the way she did because New Yorkers just close their ears to such nonsense … nutso people get on the train every day yelling insane things. As I’m generally wired to do, I took the better-safe-than-sorry approach, choosing to get off the train and walk the rest of the way to my office on 41st Street and 7th Ave. As I got off the train I prayed for the safety of the people who chose to stay on the train. As I emerged above ground I knew something in what she was yelling must have been true: the vibe on the street was palpably different. As I stepped onto the elevator to my office on the 16th floor, I knew by the faces around me something horrible had in fact happened. I walked straight to my desk and immediately turned on my little radio to 1010 WINS, the news channel for New York. This was really before the internet was everyone’s go-to for news (not to mention our work internet access was limited to email). Each person was doing the same thing: listening to that radio broadcast in shock at their desks. Soon the voice announced it was an airplane that had hit the first tower, and shortly after that the second tower strike was reported. I was frantically dialing the phone to get through to my husband’s executive assistant, who should have had his flight itinerary. All I knew was he was due to land in LaGuardia any minute. She said she would call me back after she located his information, even though they did not yet know the flight numbers of the planes. I was sitting at my desk weeping at the thought of being a young widow. Then came the shock of a plane hitting the Pentagon and another plane crashing in Pennsylvania. As information came in, the heartbreak was increasing and phone communication was decreasing – the phone lines were blocked. Finally, an email came through from one of my husband’s high school friends. It just said, “Are you ok? I heard NYC is under attack. Tim asked me to email you.” I immediately responded, “Where is Tim? I am ok.” It turned out Tim’s plane had turned around before approaching LaGuardia and was flying so low to the ground that for a moment during his flight he was able to receive emails on his blackberry and had replied to this one friend who had pinged him immediately upon news of the attack, asking him to do whatever he could to call or email me. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that he was ok. I was grieved that so many in NYC that day could not say the same for their loved ones: the towers soon fell one after the other, leaving a blanket of soot and debris over the City as the tragedy we all now know so well unfolded.
The Port Authority immediately closed all motor vehicle access to the island of Manhattan’s bridges and tunnels, so the only way to get out of the City was on foot. I wanted desperately to go to our country house where my sister and our dog were living at the time, but there was no way out. They sent us all home from work because of the bomb threats, confusion and instability. Since the subways were shut down, I walked the 50 blocks back to our apartment to sit in front of the TV and watch in shock. The air was so thick from the trade center collapse that even at the other end of the island all you could see out our apartment window was smoke. As dinner time approached, I ran around the corner to grab some Vietnamese takeout and I was stopped in my tracks. All of the fast paced New Yorkers were stopped and facing Broadway as if they were watching a parade. A parade it was: massive crane after massive crane, as wide as the three lanes of the avenue. It may have been 15 or so cranes, creeping down Broadway to the rescue effort. It was odd an eerie in New York for people to stop and interrupt their precious individual agendas, but somehow we all felt as if we were standing at attention and paying tribute to something we knew was much bigger than ourselves, but nonetheless we were involved.
It was weeks until the normal pace of life in the city resumed, and for a time the hurried, grumpy New Yorkers were actually talking to each other, smiling at each other and in general caring for each other. It was a bonding of sorts. Many lost their lives that day, and many lost loved ones. I was thankful not to personally lose anyone super close to me, although I grieved for the many who did. Life in the City was permanently changed that day. The world was changed that day. Even though this was the first time in my life I had been around real tragedy, genuine darkness and evil, somehow from all those years in lower Manhattan where it dwelt in my culture it seemed like an old acquaintance I had chosen to unfriend, that I had hoped never to see again.
Come back for Part 2: the Days After