On the morning of September 11th, 2001 I woke up in my Upper East Side shoebox apartment as usual and boarded the 4 train for my trip down to the French Culinary Institute on the corner of Broadway and Grand in SOHO. Business as usual. Arrive a little early, change into my whites, making some small talk. Greet my friends on the way to the kitchens to prepare lunch for the restaurant, Le Ecole. Downstairs, jokes with the guys in the supply room.
The first time I heard that my day would be different was when the UPS guy cheerfully asked if I’d heard about the ‘accident’ downtown. There was a fire in the World Trade Center. It wasn't even 9 o’clock in the morning.
Once someone asked me ‘What’s the one thing you always want to talk about, but you never do?’ Answer: 9/11. Actually, 9/11, 9/12, 9/13, 9/14… the most extraordinary and emotional days of a kind in my life. Days that are sometimes more vivid than any others in my memory. I’m reminded of them all the time, but I never talk about it. I never want to be ‘dramatic,’ or to fuel the flames of patriotism, fear, or difference. I don’t want the attention of people who have never met someone who was actually there. I do and I don’t. I must a little, right, or I wouldn’t be writing here. But, personal confessionals, isn’t that what blogs are for?
I wandered out to the corner to stare down Broadway at the towers, and found my good friend (I’ll call him) Peter, staring at the flaming side of the tower high above the street. ‘My sister’s in that building’ he said. As I tried to count floors down from the top, I said ‘Oh, she’s well above the fire, she’ll be fine.’ I put my hand on his shoulder, and told him I was sure his sister would be fine. I don’t like that I said that because I was so wrong and I didn’t know it.
Peter was frantically trying to make phone calls. No dice. We stood and stared for another minute, and then I wandered inside. I found out later that when the first tower fell, Peter took off running – home, the only place he could think to go. It was 6 miles.
Sometimes, thinking about that day, I remember only the irony and wonder, and none of the sadness and horror. Spending that first half hour in the kitchen, thinking about my taillage and what the day’s special would be. Where’s Peter? We don’t know. The kitchen is like a laboratory, the chef lectures us that day, and we should treat it as such. This before someone realized all was not okay, and we pile into the large show kitchen upstairs to watch the news. From inside a windowless room, on a giant projection screen, we watched and gasped as less than a mile away the towers fell down. I stood in the back, hand over my mouth along with 200 million Americans, wondering how it was possible, and what I should do next.
Is there anyone you need to call? Call Mom.
Mom says Dad called, he’s okay. Turns out he took the PATH train to work this morning, was in the basement of the WTC when the whole place shook and the lights went out. He remembers two things: no panic yet, no one knew what was going on. And the police appeared from no where, ushering people out. We communicate through my Mom – cell phones aren’t working very well. He’s walking up to FCI to meet me. I’m glad to know I can rely on my Dad that day.
In the meantime, my then girlfriend shows up. I give her a big hug, and come away filthy. Only then I notice that she is covered in dust. I brush pieces of building off of her shoulders. She has her own story to tell about running from billowing clouds of dust and debris, kicking in a door, being saved by a passing fireman. She’s remarkably composed. I take her inside, and chef brings her right into the kitchen, we brush the dust off onto the floor, wipe her face with a towel. So much for the laboratory.
There were no busses, no trains, no cars. We did the only thing we could do, we walked home. My Dad shows up and we begin to walk right up the middle Broadway, looking back at the patch of sky that’s now filled with smoke instead of buildings. This was like a movie. All of New York walking home, a low hum of conversation, but mostly with the up-turned inflection of questions. From time to time we passed a small group of people huddled around a boom box or a car stereo, trying to find out what was going on. There were rumors. Six more planes are unaccounted for, don’t cross any bridges, they’ll be hitting them next. We’re at war. We’re all just learning the word terrorist. Now and then a cop car or a fire truck comes screaming down the other way, but other than that we’re alone – no traffic in NY for once.
My Dad and I stay in my apartment for a long time, watching the news in disbelief. Eventually he found a cabbie who’d take him near the train station. No charge, he’d see how far downtown he could get. When he got there, the trains were just waiting, filling up, taking off.
The next few days are worse in my memory – full of eerie metaphors that I still don’t get. Peter’s sister was on everyone’s mind. I went over to his place – he lived with his parents – to help Peter keep the watch. His parents remember me as the tall white guy, they were always trying to feed me. We made posters, made the rounds of the hospitals to put them up. There were thousands of posters, thousands of people just wandering, looking for loved ones under every stone in the city. I went to the New School, stood in line to report her missing, check the lists of victims that had come in from hospitals all over. With an army of friends, we blanketed the city. At the Armory, we waited for hours to look at other lists of names. Giuliani came to give a speech. He looked tired, handled the anger like a pro. We looked for Jane Does with matching features, and checked out names that sounded vaguely like hers in search of a mistake. No luck. All that, and I never met Peter’s sister. But I can’t forget her face.
On the second day, I was on the cross-town bus on my way home, just passing through the park when the haze hit. The wind changed and the dust from Ground Zero blew the filthy fog uptown. It stayed for a few days, smelled like wet cardboard and tasted bad. Then it blew away and it was just the still smoldering pile down at the tip of the city.
My story is not so dramatic, so heart wrenching as many on that day. I escaped, my Dad escaped, my girlfriend escaped. We were fine. The pain of looking for Peter’s sister was nothing. But I was close. I tasted the dust, I saw the fire, and I walked, along with everyone else, away from a world-changing event. I sat in a restaurant that night, unable to pay because we had no cash and the ATMs wouldn’t work, saying to myself ‘Things will never be the same.’ My Dad and I have barely talked through our feelings about it, but we both admit we hate to say we were there because of the unwelcome fascination of others. All Americans felt that day, but fewer have the stories that we do. But we’re not a novelty, and we’d be happy to talk more if people weren’t so interested and compassionate. I just want to understand the vague feeling I have to go with vivid memories of fire and fear and that damned fog and ‘I’m sure she’s just fine.’
I left New York as soon as I finished with my culinary degree. I said it was because the city was too expensive, too lonely. I turned down jobs in NY kitchens, took one in Baltimore instead. I think I wanted to get out of a place I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand 9/11, and I still can’t parse my experience on that day. When I think about it, I have that almost crying feeling sometimes, and I don’t know why. I’m not so traumatized. Sometimes I’m even glad for such vivid memories, when so many others fade away. I can close my eyes and see the wall of posters at St. Vincent’s and NYU, and I feel the crush of expectation that came uptown with the wind and the fog.