Some writing comes back and other pieces never leave. I always look for this essay below around the 9/11 anniversary. It was written by a woman named Sarah Bunting for her site Tomato Nation. I became aware of her work via the old MightyBigTv.com website.
I didn’t really want to go downtown in the first place. I had to speak on a breakfast panel, but I didn’t feel very well and I didn’t like my outfit so much, and I briefly considered bagging it and going back to bed — I mean, since when do I get up at six forty-five? Since never, that’s when. But, as so often happens, my ego prevailed, and I caught a cab down to the financial district. We didn’t see much traffic heading down the FDR Drive, which made a pleasant change, and I jumped out at 55 Broad Street at 8:15 and headed upstairs for some pre-panel coffee.
Fast-forward an hour. I’m in the middle of mentally composing yet another “uhhh”-studded sentence of impossible convolution about perspectives in content valuation (yeah, no kidding — I don’t know what I meant either), in response a point Omar Wasow has just made, when there’s a loud bang from outside that makes my coffee cup jump on the table. We look out the window. We figure it’s a big truck going over one of the giant metal plates Con Ed puts down in the street all the time. We shrug. We keep talking.
A runner comes in. The moderator steps outside with the runner while Bob Poncé is talking about streaming media, and she comes back in a moment later to tell us that a suicide bomber has landed a plane on top of one of the World Trade towers, and do we want to continue? I lean into the microphone to say that it’s probably not that important that we keep on about content subscriptions on the Web, all things considered, and if anyone has questions, they can catch us at the coffee urn on the way out. The group breaks up. There’s small talk. The moderator grabs a giant plate of bagels, and we head for the elevator.
Down on the street, Bob and I say goodbye to the moderator. Bob’s a reporter, and he wants to get closer to the towers and see what’s going on; I have no discernible common sense, so I follow him. I don’t go to that part of town very often even when I live there full-time — maybe twice a year — so I ask Bob if the streets are usually this busy at 9:45 in the morning. “It depends, but — well, actually, no.” We hang a left onto Exchange Place and see clusters of blue-jacketed traders on the street. I observe that, fifteen minutes after the opening bell, there’s no way those guys should be outside. “This has to be bad,” I say. Bob agrees with me.
We come up the rise to the corner where a crowd of people has gathered, all looking up, and the towers come into view — the south tower closer to us and to the left. “Ohhh, man,” we both say, and “Jeeeesus Christ,” and “This is not good. This is not good at all. This is fuckin’ bad.” So dumb. So dull. We sound like frat boys when the keg is dry, but there’s nothing else we can say about what we’ve got in front of us. In front of us, high above us, the south tower has a huge hole torn through it, a burning, screaming maw with thick black smoke pouring out. Occasionally, flames lick up one corner of the twisted mouth of the hole and then retreat, only to reappear on the other side. It doesn’t seem real. It doesn’t even seem that serious at first, actually, until I remember just how big the building is, how many stories high — and that the hole must therefore cover twelve stories, at least. “This isn’t the kind of history I want to be present at,” I say, lamely, to Bob. “Me neither,” he says.
We try to figure out what happened from what the crowd is saying. “A 767,” one woman says, not looking up from her camcorder. “Two of ’em. Just slammed right into the damn thing,” a man offers. We continue to stand there, staring up. Papers and debris flutter down against the sharp blue of the sky, kind of like a really horrible leaflet drop. Bob and I watch, almost amused, as more people come up to the corner and have the same double-take reaction we did: “Oh, it’s not gonna be that bad, a plane can’t just fly into the — oh my holy God, look at that shit.”
More people come to stand with us on the corner. People walk out into the street to look. The building on a hundred million postcards, panned past in establishing shots in a thousand movies, visible from my bedroom window growing up, has an angry jagged yell full of twisted steel and fire punched into its side. I don’t know what else to do, so I stand there, mouth agape, and stare at it. It seems like a particularly realistic CGI rendering in a movie trailer. I try to get my brain to deal with what my eyes are telling it, but it’s just not sinking in, and just then a hot fragment of something or other lands on my head, and I duck my head to shake it free, and as I do, I see a shirt cuff land gently on the sidewalk a few feet away. I stare at that, too. “Dude, look at that, this is seriously seriously bad,” I start to say to Bob, who’s digging in his bag for his tape recorder, but I don’t have time, because I’ve turned my attention back to the building again, and the building has chosen that moment to die.
Everything happens at once, and yet at the same time somehow nothing happens at all for a second, as the building sighs and slumps towards us, and the top section shrugs down into the hole made by the plane, and a ring of debris and ash shoots out from where the hole starts. From the ground, it looks like the top of the building is going to come clean off and fall in our direction, but for a full two beats, we all just…stand there…admiring it: “It’s coming down.” But it isn’t coming down, not really. It’s not real. We see it, of course. But it’s not happening. The building isn’t coming down. The building can’t come down. It wouldn’t do that.
The ground begins to shake. The building groans deeply, regretfully, almost an apology for its failure to hold: “MUHHHHRUHHHHAAAAH.” The building is dying. The building is sending a wave of dust and detritus to give us the bad news, and the wave is running through the streets towards us with a sad, choking sigh: “HHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAA.” And then all of us all at once realize that now’s the time in the movie when the nameless extras run screaming, so finally, at last, as the building begins its awful death swoon, that’s what we do. Well, most of us do. I settle for walking purposefully, and get knocked into a mailbox as a result. People flee to nearby buildings, stopping only long enough to grab the elbows of those who have tripped and fallen, pushing others in front of them towards the door, any door. I wind up in a revolving door at the Bank of New York, squashed into it with four other people. We are ejected stumbling into the lobby as the wave goes by. “HHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAAA.” More people tumble in behind us, clutching onto each other, coughing, staring at nothing in disbelief.
And so we all just stand there, alive, with nowhere to go. A few people cry, but mostly we stare and stare, looking at each other, pacing, shaking our heads, clearing our throats, cursing. Dust starts to filter into the lobby, and the security guys herd us towards the elevator banks, and then away, and then out into the office area, and then away from the windows, and that’s when it starts to get hectic and weird, what are we doing, does anyone know what’s going on, I heard there’s seven planes, if that whole thing comes down we’re dead anyway, where’s the vault we could hide there I think, I can’t believe this I just can’t believe it, I can’t get a goddamn signal why can’t I get a goddamn signal, can’t they tell us where to go, Jesus look at that guy he’s practically covered in — whatever that stuff is, how do I get an outside line, what’s happening, what’s happening, for God’s sake what’s happening, this is fucked totally fucked man, did you see that, what do I do now, I don’t — I don’t know what to do now.
We don’t know what we’ve seen. Even seeing it, we didn’t — see it. It’s like Godzilla. It’s like Independence Day, like Deep Impact. It’s like the demolition footage of old Vegas hotels. And it’s like nothing we have ever seen before, or wanted to see, or thought or dreamed of seeing. It isn’t happening. It hasn’t happened. Nothing’s happening — what’s happening?
We fan out into the offices beside the lobby. There’s a smoke alarm going off. I find a phone on a desk that’s free, get an outside line, and leave a stupid, meaningless message for my brother: “I don’t know if you know what’s going on down here, but I’m in the Bank of New York and — I don’t think, uh, I don’t think we’re doing lunch today, dude. This is — I’m okay, but I don’t — I don’t know. Try my cell if you get this.” It’s the most banal voicemail ever, under the circumstances, but my mind is on autopilot, to the point where I’ve actually begun wondering where I might find a bathroom and whether they’ll let us smoke in here. The view out the windows is nonexistent; the wave is still passing us. Dust and ash hiss against them.
Minutes pass, minutes we spend alternating between asking fervent questions and listening very hard. I meet a guy named Don. Don just came into the city via the PATH train, World Trade Center station. It’s Don’s birthday today. Don and I try to figure out what’s going on outside. Don buttonholes a guard — where should we stand, what’s the latest, where’s everyone going, tell us what you know, tell us what you don’t know, tell us anything at all. The guard doesn’t know anything and has nothing to say. We walk over into the branch lobby, which has cleaner air. The mood is that there is no mood — null, flat. Everyone is instinctively clustering together in pairs and groups, some already knowing each other, some just meeting, and Don and I decide, without saying so out loud, to stay together — disaster “buddies,” so to speak. Don has a soft-sided briefcase and a crisp business suit and a compact build, all of which project an air of neat, good-natured competence. Don laughs at my feeble gallows-humor jokes and responds with his own; Don looks like Blair Underwood a little bit, around the eyes. Don is, in short, pretty normal and nice, and I’d like him anyway, out in the world where we both used to live, so it seems like a good idea to stick with Don.
Don and I drift around the room, watching the people calling frantically, watching a woman sitting quietly on the floor with a cat carrier beside her, watching other people watching us watch them. Muttering. Listening. Praying. A man says a Hail Mary. A radio is found, and turned all the way up. We can’t hear much over the smoke alarm, but the broadcaster sounds close to tears. We learn about the Pentagon. We learn about other planes. A woman warns us away from the windows where we linger: “The Stock Exchange is back there. I’d get down, I were you.”
Later still, around 10:30. We can see outside now, and a few of us venture out to get the lay of the land. The land is covered with half an inch of dirt and debris, the sky and the ground all the same flat pinkish-beige. Silt is still falling. I light a cigarette. It seems wrong to smoke, in a way — disrespectful, I guess — but I don’t know what else to do with myself. Knots of people stand outside, blaming Saddam, testing out possible bright sides. It’s like a snowy day in Manhattan, the way people hustle down the street all huddled up against the weather, but with charred papers everywhere and sirens going like crazy. It’s like The Stand, only the hundreds of us inside left, the occasional police car chirring past, kicking up a wake of dust. It’s like the blizzard of ’96. It’s like nuclear winter. It’s not like anything. The sky is blank and dusky. Ash sifts down on our shoulders and hair. A night of sorts is falling. The air feels cool. We blink a lot.
Another rumble. “I don’t like the sound of that,” I tell Don, but laughingly. And why shouldn’t I laugh? What else could happen, after all? This didn’t even happen, even though I saw it, saw the building die, heard it moan and give up, so sorry, so angry, watched it begin to fall and then turned and walked away without a single thought in my head. I didn’t think. I didn’t fear for my life. I didn’t know what I should do, or where. I just turned around and went…elsewhere. What else could I do? What else is there? I don’t know — I don’t even know a thing that I just saw. How many ways can I ask “what?” and not get an answer without laughing?
Don thinks the rumbling is coming from a dusty motorcycle that is slowly and bizarrely making its way up the street. I choose to believe that — but the rumbling doesn’t stop, and when the ground starts to shake again and another wave of debris crests over the top of a neighboring building, we bolt back inside. Don stuffs me in the door ahead of him, shouting, “Go! Go!” and I have a crystal-clear moment of “oh please, it’s no time to hold doors for ‘the ladies’” annoyance in spite of everything. It soon passes, and when we’ve all gotten safely back inside, I thank him. We turn to look outside, but once again, outside is gone. We wander back into the banks of desks just off of the lobby and hear on the radio that the second tower has now given way.
More chatting. More speculating. I leave Don near the radio and walk around the lobby, hoping to find a pocket of air where my cell phone will work, but the signal is fine; the system is, it appears, “busy.” I don’t even know who to call, really, or why, or what I would say. “I’m alive, so far”? It doesn’t matter. No calls go through. The windows remain blank expanses of grainy beige. On our side of the windows, no genuine sense of what has happened, no true reaction to what we hear — except to the smoke alarm, which is redundant and stress-causing and which several of us have begun yelling at, to wit: “Oh yeah, THAT’S HELPING — someone TURN that shit OFF!”
I meet up with Don again. We know now that both towers have gone down, that it’s maybe not over yet, that the entire lower half of the island is under a cloud. But the verb “to know” doesn’t apply here, quite. We heard that on the radio, and from others in the room. We saw part of it. But we don’t know it.
How do I know we don’t know it? Well, at around eleven, when the second wave has ebbed, a (shirtless) firefighter in the lobby tells us that, if we want to leave, we should head for the water. And we head for the water. Passenger planes have come out of nowhere and slammed into giant buildings. Passenger planes have turned the Pentagon into the Horseshoe. Thousands have died, gotten crushed, while we watched, while we fled. And yet, outside we go. No helmets. No masks. I have three-inch heels on and they don’t fit quite right. I can’t run, I can’t breathe or see very well, and still I decide to go. Well, I don’t decide, exactly. I just…go. I mean, Don and I look at each other, and one of us says that it’s probably no better inside than out, in the end, and then shock-addled Don holds the door open for taken-leave-of-the-senses me and we just…walk out into it.
There is now an inch of ash on the ground. Burnt papers — depositions, fax cover sheets, annotated minutes, reports with shopping lists scribbled in the margins. Bits of cloth. Chunks of wood and plastic. Mostly, though, dust. Coagulated air. Nothing for it, though. We will go. I pull my t-shirt up over my nose and unholster a Camel Light, Don claps a kerchief over his nose, and we go. First, south. Then, west. Then we consult my street map. Then we keep going. We don’t walk quickly. Others, ahead and behind, proceed at the same strange zombie-ish pace. We put on our sunglasses to protect our eyes from the dust. Don picks up a piece of paper, idly, just to look at it. After a moment, he drops it as though it’s too hot to hold. It’s simultaneously eerily quiet and shockingly loud on the street. The whole world is one color — the color of a shadow. A fog of dust hangs low in the streets, London-style.
After a few minutes, it begins to get lighter and easier to see; the air thins a bit. The occasional police officer waves us towards the FDR Drive. They seem casual, business-like. We walk. We clamber over barriers. I hop awkwardly over a divider, still for some reason concerned about my mini, when I feel it on my shoulders — heat, heaviness.
It’s the sun. The sun is out. The sun is out?
The sun is out. The sun hasn’t turned on the TV today.
Don and I turn north. The police won’t tell us anything, except to keep going north. Once in a while, we have to crowd over to the side and let radio cars through. There’s not much talking now, just a column of dusty, rattled, dogged people five or six across, trudging uptown, squinting into the distance, trying to figure out where we can go, or ought to go. Now and then, Don and I pick up a snippet of news from a fellow refugee on the road, but we pretty much just walk and murmur to each other. We don’t say anything memorable. We just walk and hear our own voices and our shoes on the pavement.
I turn to look over my shoulder. It’s hot out here on the road — a clear, sunny day in late summer. Behind me, night. A pall of stormy smoke hangs over the lower end of the island, billowing up from the ground to the west, from what remains of the towers. Here, it’s day. There, it’s not. I turn back around.
As we approach the Brooklyn Bridge, a ferry pulls in to the pier, calling for passengers to Jersey City. That’s where Don lives. We both stop, frowning, and for a moment we just stand there together as others pass us with their heads down, concentrating on going. We don’t want to leave each other. Without each other, it’s just us by ourselves. It seems strange and worrisome, and I sense that he wants me to go with him so we can stick together still, but I also know he knows I have to go north and finish the walk, that it’s important for both of us to get to our homes. All of these thoughts come and go and we don’t say any of them aloud. We shake hands, wish each other the very best of luck, although it’s not a day with much of that. Don heads back towards the pier. I turn back to the hill ahead of me. I don’t turn around. It’s just me now, going home.
With Don gone, uncomfortable things become clearer. My feet hurt. My mouth is dry. I have just seen thousands of people die. I can’t reach anyone on the phone. I have to pee. The World Trade Center is gone. Military planes shoot through the air in the distance. I want to go home. I must go home. Get home; try the phone. Get home; try the phone. That’s all. That’s all there is now.
Down the FDR ramp and into the streets, heading up through Chinatown. It’s wild and busy, people jogging and jostling, crossing against traffic. The sirens persist. I finally get through to my mother’s voicemail and pant out a message. More dialing — calling Wing Chun, calling my dad, calling my brother, seeing “system busy” on the display, trying again.
I ask a traffic officer where I should go. “Just zig up, and then zig over, and just keep goin’ that way,” he says. I zig. I zag. I try to think about what I’ve just seen, force it into my mind, but my mind keeps dodging it and hiding behind the blisters on my feet and my full bladder. I walk in the street because there’s no traffic moving. Along the curbs, men sit in commercial vans with the doors open, blasting the radios so everyone can listen to the news. A few people gather around the vans; a few stand on the steps of buildings and look south with blank faces. Most of us, hundreds of thousands of us, keep walking. The war planes fly overhead. Sirens wail all around. In front of a church, the staff hands out water and orange slices, douses the overheated with water, leads people inside to talk to a priest. I consider going inside the church, where it will be cool and dry and smell of Murphy’s Oil Soap, just to sit down for a minute and maybe to feel a cool hand on my forehead, but I walk on by. My feet hurt a lot. I need better shoes, and I need a bathroom, and I need to get home.
Chinatown. Everyone’s out on the street here, too, but most of what they say, I can’t understand. I stop at Green Garden, a restaurant, and the sympathetic hostess lets me use the ladies’ room. It’s a very nice ladies’ room. I splash water on my face. There’s ash in my hair and eyebrows, which I note dispassionately before hiking my tights back up and going back out into the street. Further up, on Mott, I stop again to buy a cheap pair of shoes, and the lady manning the booth absently quotes me a price of ten dollars. After she sees my face, my legs — coated with dust up to the knees — she’ll only take a dollar. And so I continue uptown, in a black t-shirt, Burberry mini, black tights, and red-white-and-blue Sport USA shower flip-flops.
Somewhere near Lafayette and Bond, I get my mother on the phone. So far, everyone’s okay. Mr. Stupidhead is okay. Dad is okay. I am okay. I walk and chat, breathless, animated, unable to describe what’s happening or what happened with any coherence. “Unbelievable,” I say. “You wouldn’t believe it,” I say. I say the words because I have to, must, should say them, should feel them, must, have to feel them, but the words don’t touch me and I feel nothing. I feel the flip-flops slapping against my heels, and I feel thirsty. One hundred and ten stories telescoping in on themselves — I don’t feel that. Seeing it from so close — I don’t feel that either. I only feel the walking. I hear people talking, see them crying and hugging one another. I hear the radios talking about the President and the Pentagon and the terrorist campaign and the National Guard. I hear F-14s zinging through New York airspace. Sirens. Sobbing. I hear all of that. I feel none of it. I do not feel lucky to have escaped. I do not feel worry or fear. My mind is clear. No, not clear — dead. As it counts off the blocks between me and home, my mind is as silent and motionless as death.
Home. The death of the building. Home. The sun. Home. The cloud. Home. I will get home. I don’t think beyond that. I don’t think before that. Just that. Just home.
I slog into a deli to buy a Coke. It’s not far now. There’s Karim at Jean-Claude Biguine who gave me a sassy haircut yesterday. I wave to Karim. Here’s the hill. Ah, the hill. Here’s the light at 34th Street. I cross the street. Here’s the corner. Here’s the building. Here’s the lobby, and the elevator. Here’s the front door. Here’s the bed and the desk and the window and the clothes on the floor. Here’s home.
I change clothes. I write emails and place phone calls and check websites and stare dully at the television. I watch what happened, to try to prove it to myself from a dozen different angles. Here’s the plane. Here’s the next plane. Here’s the collapse of the first tower, and then the second. Here’s the hulking smoking Pentagon and the President on the run. Here’s the bang and the fire and the smoke and the unbelievable unbelieving screams on the ground. I watch. My mind lies quiet.
I have come home, but this is now not home. It is not safe, or familiar. It is where I live, a place I know, but it is not home. I call my mother again: “I’m coming home.” “Can you get home today?” she asks me. “I don’t know.”
I pack up my things. I retrieve my car. I sit at a stop light as fire engines stream by, dozens of fire companies come from Long Island to help us. I cheer for them, or try to, but it’s hard to summon up the necessary volume. I drive around, thwarted at the tunnel entrance, leaning out of windows to talk to harried cops, trying to find the bridge entrance, nearly crossing a bridge to Long Island by mistake, getting hit by a semi, listening to the radio, sitting in traffic, talking on the phone, all done at a safe distance from reality.
At last, I get onto the bridge. Automatically, without thinking, I turn to see the skyline stretching away on the left. The skyline is gone. The Empire State Building is dark. The World Trade towers have disappeared. The lights below 14th Street have gone out. Nothing moves or sparkles; the occupied city is dark except for a necklace of EMS lights, and the slow, steady, sorrowing plume of ash wending its way down into the harbor. And my mind wakes up. I imagine the screams of the dead, from which the scream of the building protected me before. I hear the evenness my father willed into his voice, hear Don telling me hesitantly, “Well. Take good care, Sarah.” I feel the hole in the city as a hole ripped out of my chest and head, thousands burned and crushed and orphaned and ruined and dead. I merge onto I-95 South, and I cry — great whooping moaning sobs, strangling me, fighting to get out of my throat and go nowhere except back into my ears. I clutch the wheel to keep it straight, signaling, getting left, barreling onto the ramp for I-78 West, driving home as I’ve done a thousand times before, and I cry and cry and cry.
Near Hillside, I stop crying. I don’t feel better, but I stop crying. On the radio, the President refers to the 23rd Psalm. “Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for Thou art with us.”
The President is wrong. I fear evil. No rod or staff can comfort me. Surely goodness and mercy have turned their backs on all of us today. I have no interest in the house of the Lord.
I come up the driveway — home. My mother stands in the doorway waiting for me, and with the light behind her, she looks small. The house itself seems small and weak. Everything seems small and weak. I have come home, but the story is just starting, and I don’t know that I can tell it right. Telling a story is all I have, all I have ever had, to give. The telling used to seem important and strong. A story used to seem powerful, and now it’s really nothing at all. Just paper, in the end, easily burnt and blown away.