Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 - From THEN to NOW

I have spent the last two weeks wondering how I was going to write a post with an angle or approach that I deemed worthy of commemorating the tenth anniversary of one of the darkest days in American history.

So here I am, listening to CNN regurgitate the murky details of a new terrorist threat we may or may not have to contend with…and I’ve still got nothing. So I think I will just write about that day and how it changed my experience of living in this large and once indestructible city. Admittedly, I am not sure if I am writing this post for you or for me. Maybe both.

Ten years ago I was a struggling writer and actor, much as I am today, and I was at a bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at 8:00 AM. No I was not on a round-the-clock bender, I was actually in ‘holding’ for an independent film I was shooting that day. So there I was with about twenty other actors and ten crew people, eating breakfast, chatting cordially.

As an actor, a general rule to follow is ‘the smaller the film, the more you will be sitting on your ass waiting for the production team to get their shit together and shoot.’ I was still sitting on my ass at roughly 8:53 when my cell phone rang.

I remember that piece of shit phone; I’d only had it for a month or two, a Sprint phone, probably the same size that a landline phone is today. My best friend is on the other line relaying that minutes earlier, a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.

Since we are in a bar, I turn on the television and surely enough, there it was. I was not watching some shitty Michael Bay atrocity that may or may not be in my DVD library, I was watching real life.

We discuss what kind of a plane it was and how it could possibly fly into the tallest structure in New York. We don’t have any answers and suddenly a Production Assistant hands me an updated script. My lines have changed. Fuck. I have to learn them because, well, I’m a professional and I was getting paid $100 dollars for my thespianic expertise so national crisis or not, I would learn my lines.

I sit at the bar and try to ignore the unfathomable images on the TV but my eyes keep drifting upward. ‘Learn your lines asshole’, I tell myself. This piece of shit film might just be the break that launches your career. The film was about a world where white people were the minority and blacks were the majority…interesting concept. I was playing the leader of The White Panthers.

I am trying to memorize some poorly written racial epithets when I glance up at the TV and see a plane fly into the Twin Towers. There is an explosion and the image cuts out for a nano-second. In that nano-second, my brain tries to decipher whether or not the image was some sort of replay of the earlier incident superimposed over the present image and in the several seconds that followed my mind tries to reconcile how NBC News could commit such a technically complex blunder while reporting live. My mind goes everywhere, except to the reality that it has happened again.

What they were. 
Finally, the brain-chatter is drowned out by the sounds emitted by the thirty people in the bar that had just witnessed United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower.

I call back my friend and the call goes through. This would be the last call I could make on that phone until I woke up the next morning. What the fuck? That is all I can say? Is their some sort of fluctuation in the electro-magnetic field that is fucking up the radars of every plane in the metropolitan area? Did the smoke from the first tower obscure the usual approach to LaGuardia Airport that southbound planes take?

My mind races…employing preposterous scenarios to explain how two planes had flown into such immense buildings. My brain goes everywhere except to the inescapable truth. My mind simply will not go there. Or maybe it just doesn’t want to.

Maybe I don’t want to believe I live in a city where skyscrapers were not places of commerce but targets on a battlefield in a war I am incapable of understanding at the moment. Maybe I just liked the security I have always taken for granted and I am not quite ready to relinquish it.

The girl next to me is crying but I don’t know what to tell her. Some guy at the other end of the bar is talking about his brother who works in one of the buildings. He says something about his cell phone not working but I can’t really make it out.

I pick up my script and look at it. I can’t make out any words but in a very strange way, I can see the page with a preternatural clarity…every pixel, every textured imperfection in the paper. But my eyes can’t focus on a single word, let alone memorize sentences and assign emotions to them.

They say we are still shooting my scenes today but the exteriors they are shooting before mine are taking longer because the constant cacophony of passing sirens is wreaking havoc on their ability to record sound.

I go outside for the first time since it happened and I realize what a beautiful day it is. I can’t say for sure but it might just be the prettiest, bluest fucking sky I have ever seen and the temperature is perfect. It is the perfect day for the perfect fucking nightmare.

I can hear the sirens except they don’t drift in and out of earshot like they normally do. They are constant, like the rain machine that puts me to sleep every night…except the people in the cars with the sirens are on their way to an unimaginable hell that has somehow descended on lower Manhattan.

I suddenly think about my mother. She knows I work in the city every day but probably doesn’t know that actors never go to the Financial District unless it is to score blow. She is undoubtedly petrified so I call her. At least, I try to. The call is not going through and my phone is telling me that the network is busy. I try my dad. Nothing. I finally realize that there are ten other people around me unsuccessfully trying to make phone calls.

Someone runs outside and says the Pentagon just got hit. Those were his exact words. I don’t know how to translate that at first but then through some frantic back and forth, I learn that once again a plane was used as a missile.

I pace back and forth on the sidewalk and I don’t care about the film anymore. I look around at these people and our eyes meet but we say nothing. We don’t have to. We are all scared and confused and addressing it would be redundant.

Here is where things get hazy for me. I am simply ill equipped to handle all this information and I lose my general bearings. Time, space, feelings, thoughts…they all kind of get lost together, blending into a fog.

Now, the notion of terrorism is well beyond indisputable but I still won’t go there.  Terrorism was just some exotic concept that other countries had to deal with. It was nothing tangible and it certainly couldn’t happen here. Oklahoma City, the previous bombing at the WTC…those were just crazy people doing crazy things. Not international terrorists who had executed a complex attack that took months if not years of planning, doing so with military precision.

Someone finally tells me that the shoot is postponed because of the sirens and I am free to go. The sirens…they canceled the shoot, not the horror and death that was in progress ten miles downtown. 

The only thing I can think of is finding a phone because my piece of shit with the retractable antenna is malfunctioning. So I start walking…walking because mass transit has been shut down. So have all the tunnels and bridges leading into Manhattan. Nobody can come in and nobody can leave. We are all trapped on this island and I live in Queens.

Every phone I pass has ten people waiting to use it. Every restaurant and bar I see is mobbed with people glued to the TV. Yet the city is oddly quiet.

I stop at a bar and stare at the TV, just gazing through the window at the horror. I am having some sort of thought; I can’t remember what it was…when suddenly the South Tower collapses. 

The bar erupts in motion and sound but I can’t move. I just stare. I am somewhere around Lincoln Center right now, which is miles from Ground Zero, a term that does not even exist yet in the New Yorker vernacular.

Unable to offer a response, I walk away and continue ambling downtown, deciding that I will make my way to Queens, somehow. At some point in my trek, the North Tower also collapses.

I am on the West Side and the Queensboro Bridge is about two miles across town. As I cross midtown, I stop on Sixth Avenue and there is a clear view down to the bowels of Manhattan. All I see is the plume of smoke that satellites would later photograph from space. I am sweating from walking several miles so I take off my shirt and drop it in a garbage can. I don’t want it any more.

I eventually reach the bridge and it seems that the moment I get there, they open it to pedestrians so I start walking. There are throngs of people walking but no one talks. Minutes later, the bridge is opened only to cars leaving the city. They drive slowly, as if they were afraid that driving too fast might incite the anger of whoever it is that has been flying planes into American buildings.

I spot a U-Haul truck creeping along and see that it has bars on the back that could be grasped the same way sanitation workers hang on to the back of a garbage truck. I break into a jog and hop on the back of the truck, grabbing on the bar.

We pick up speed, passing by the hordes of people inching their way into Queens. I look at them and they look back. Some guy pumps his fist at me in approval but I cannot muster a response through my fog.

Then I look out at what is happening on the other side of the East River.

And I see what looks like the aftermath of Mt. Saint Helen’s eruption of 1980 emanating from the island of Manhattan. Here I am, shirtless, holding on the back of a U-Haul truck passing thousands of pedestrians, watching New York City burn.

There are no words, no thoughts, no feelings. Just smoke…and the lingering probability that things will never be the same.

I make it into Queens and walk back to my apartment. It is empty and I have no idea where my roommate is. He works in Rockefeller Center so chances are he’s fine.

I grab my phone and I have twelve voicemails. As I listen to them, the gravity of the day registers and finally, for the first time…emotions. As I listen to messages from my mother, my girlfriend, my college girlfriend, my friends, my acquaintances, my co-workers…I find that I am sobbing. This is at a time in my life where I had not quite learned how to feel so the outpouring of emotion is unprecedented and frightening.

As I sob, I call my parents. Then my girlfriend. And then my ex-girlfriend. And then my shrink. And my friends. I call everyone just to connect, just so I know they are still there, a part of my world that did not go up in the enormous cloud of smoke blanketing lower Manhattan. 

An hour later, my roommate comes home to find me watching the looping of footage that is recycling on every channel. We speak briefly but I feel like I have nothing to say to him. I don’t know how to communicate with him in this horrible new world.  

I watch news coverage for six hours and then I pass out on the couch, with my roommate watching TV beside me. I wake up at four in the morning. I walk into my bedroom and cry myself back to sleep.

What they are. 
The next day, I have a life to get back to, which is good because it leaves me with no time to languish in the aftermath. I have an audition and an appointment with my shrink that I really, really fucking need to go to.

I catch my subway, which arrives in seconds. The train is not atypically at about a quarter capacity, some people are dressed for work, others not. But the mood is solemn; a post-funeral cloud hovering over the subway car denser than the one hanging over Ground Zero.

I look at the other passengers and they look back. We actually take each other in, which never happens on the subway…or anywhere in the five boroughs. Some grin. Others nod. Whatever the response, there is an unspoken understanding that we were all going through this together; which is inexplicably comforting.

My shrink is on Sixth Avenue, which had the same view down to the Financial District and the Avenue is closed to cars. People stand briefly in the street, staring at the cloud of smoke, before continuing on with their lives.

Offices and restaurants are open for business as are casting offices like the one that held my commercial audition. The city is alive but dead; functioning but altered. The towering skyscrapers are different now; vulnerable, mortal.

There are men in full military fatigues with machine guns in subway stations, at the Port Authority, at Penn Station, on the streets. This may be a common site in some countries but not on the sidewalks of Manhattan. Soldiers ask to check my bag and I decide to let them. They are holding machine guns so it does not seem like the time or place for a debate on civil liberties.

The next day I see that people are wearing American flags of varying sizes on their person. I buy one and wrap it around my belt. I’m not sure why, I have never been patriotic. Something made me do it though and I would not take off that flag for a month, maybe two, I can’t remember. Crime rates were surprisingly low in the weeks that followed and box office revenues were incredibly high. 

As people toiled in the rubble, looking for thousands of survivors, only to find several, the city and country struggled to redefine themselves. Osama bin Laden started popping up on T-Shirts that said “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” People, myself included, started shuddering every time they heard an airplane flying overhead.

Rudy Giuliani became an international hero and George W. Bush proved himself an adept cheerleader in ushering the country through unprecedented times. But as the weeks and months passed, the sense of common loss that united the city gradually dissipated. Eventually, the atrocities at Ground Zero devolved from something you could not escape to something you only thought about every few hours…to several times a day…to once in a while.

Beautiful phantom lights were installed at the sight that shone like the Twin Towers’ ghosts into the stratosphere. City planners wrestled with Port Authority diplomats over what building and memorials should be erected at the site while dump trucks hauled the remains of the building and the thousands of victims that perished to various landfills in the tri-state area.

It has been ten years and I don’t think it is necessary to ruminate on how many ways the world has changed. Augmentations to Airport security, increased Islamophobia, underwear bombs, the War on Terror, the death of bin Laden, there is too much to reflect on and this post is too long as it is.

New York City changed because of that day. Everything is different now. I am different. We all are. Knowing that is enough. Mourning that fact will not bring back the 2,977 victims that died that day but it is important to remember. As I look up at the flag I wore ten years ago that adorns my work desk, I remember. That is all I can really do to honor them. 

What it will be.