3.21.16 20 Years in NYC, Pt. 3: ‘Many worlds I’ve come since I first left home’
Goin’ home, goin’ home
by the waterside I will rest my bones
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
to rock my soul
— The Grateful Dead, “Brokedown Palace”
So, this is that post. The post we were going to get to and had to arrive at but were hoping the train might express past the station. It’s a post mostly about one day, and if you don’t care to read about it but you’re really digging the other posts, you can skip this one and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. (Note: Politics will be discussed here, though not at length.)
I must say, as years go, 2001 started out quite well on a personal level: New century, new decade for me, new neighborhood, new home. There was a new president, and that wasn’t so great, but that aside … not bad.
I owned a place, and I was gonna decorate the hell out of it. I grew up with beige carpeting and white walls, and I was not going there again. I did some research and committed to a color scheme and found builders and had shelves made and ceiling fans installed and painted everything my own damn self in my spare time and on weekends, listening to NPR the whole time. I could look at places on my walls for years and remember the story or the tune Jonathan Schwartz or Ira Glass was playing or relating while I laid down blue tape or painted a section of wall. It was like capturing the moment in amber, or in my case, Behr paint lugged home from Home Depot. I assembled furniture, I chose themes and patterns, and while everyone might have been just quite nice about it once they saw the place, I got a lot of compliments.
Now, until about nine months in, remember, we didn’t have any idea what kind of shape the year was going to take. We didn’t know it was going to be the shape of many years to come. It was just another year. I’d spent a lot of 2000 working with the Green Party, and yes, I was one of those Naderites. We’d just had a pretty good run (if you didn’t look at personal politics) with a charming president who stayed eight years and balanced the budget and in 2000 the main thought I — and several others had — was that if this was as good as it got, we knew how we could make it better. More progressive. More egalitarian. And that meant not voting Democratic, it meant going third-party.
Watching the Bernie Sanders people and their enthusiasm today is like an echo of that election cycle. You want to move forward. You want better. You don’t want to settle for the middle ground. But settle you’re going to have to in the end, because that’s often how these elections work and if you don’t you might not get your second choice. You might end up with your very last choice.
All that said, yes: I’d voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 elections in the firm belief that it didn’t matter too much — New York state was going blue, and I could be secure that I wasn’t upsetting any apple cart. The idea was to send a message.
This was the shape of my hubris: I once sat down with a co-worker at Soap Opera Digest pre-election and I said something to the effect that if worse comes to worst, the American people might get slapped in the head by electing the candidate on the other ticket, well, that was their fault and they’d see. Then they’d know. I was thinking long-range. Four years of a crappy president, well, how bad could it be? Win-win!
Never ask the universe how bad can it be.
On September 10, 2001 I was in Astoria, visiting a Green Party candidate who was running for city council. Primary elections were the next day, and there were some last minute discussions, or some such. I really don’t remember what we were talking about. Whole thing wrapped up and I headed home remembering to vote the next day.
I like to think that the next morning, other early birds like me also voted in the morning and maybe came into work late because of it. Maybe voting saved their lives. No way to know.
It one of those cloud-free, bright, sunny days you get just before the season turns. I voted in the primary and went to work. Since no soap came on before 10am, I got down to business with L.A. Law on Lifetime playing while I spooned through some cereal. (We had two shifts at the job, 9-5 and 10-6, and I was on the early half. It didn’t really pick up around the offices until after 10, so it was nice to ease into the day.) I was watching basic cable when Tiffany, who worked in our art department, stuck her head in the door. “Are you watching?” she asked.
“Planes hit the World Trade Center.”
Now I was watching, cereal curdling along with my insides, cylinders firing on a couple of levels: Well, that’s going to leave a scar for a long time. I wonder how they’ll tear the building down? and Those poor people in the planes and the buildings, probably never saw it coming. And Wait, doesn’t Mark work in the Towers? and I wonder if they’re going to want us to write a story to tie into this in the next issue.
At some point, the buildings pancaked and I remember thinking, I didn’t know they would do that that. I hadn’t thought they’d fall at all, or if they did they’d topple in one direction or the other and cause even more carnage. But pancaking? Never crossed my mind. What did cross my mind is how you didn’t need much imagination to fast-forward 5, 10 years to when those unfortunate folks wandering the streets or being heroic in the buildings, breathing the collapsed buildings in, would start to encounter serious health issues. I think we all knew that even then.
My phone rang: It was my friend and former editor from London, Tommy. We exchanged a few lines but he mainly wanted to check to make sure I was OK. That still amazes me: Someone I didn’t know hugely well, who I’d met only a couple of times, cared enough to call internationally to check on me. I called my mom and let her know I was OK. Others may have called to check but I don’t recall — most of the day is a blur.
See, in 2001 there really weren’t a lot of ways to reach out immediately. Social media didn’t exist. We had internet, and email and even email was the kind of thing your mom might not be on yet. So there was no way to know what was going on down there except by watching TV. But we had to get on with the work of the day. We weren’t being excused to go home early — there was an issue of the magazine to put to bed — and it’s hard to simply remain stunned or horrified for extended periods. You adapt, you wait for the next thing. You push forward.
The assignment came through: Contact as many actors as you can and see if they have reactions. Are they going downtown to help? Then write an article. And sure, in movies people get up and say “I can’t possibly do work under these conditions” and have an emotional moment but honestly — we just did the work. News is partly about putting emotions into a mental cupboard for later and getting down to the business of gathering information and telling story. I do remember thinking that this was the most shallow reaction one could possibly have in the face of everything that had just happened — but we were entertainment magazine writers who covered the soap industry. This was the job. You did the job. I did the job.
During the day either via email or on the phone a friend I had through my Law & Order fandom contacted me and said her husband was in the city on a business trip and didn’t have a place to stay. He was walking uptown. (Many people were walking by this point; few subway trains were moving.) I said he was welcome to stay at my place. Could he get to where I worked? Could I meet him somewhere? Below 14th Street was blocked off to all but emergency responders. Her husband found a place elsewhere in the end and I didn’t need to offer a bed, but I would have.
Then the day ended and we could go home. If we could get home; not all subways were running as per usual. I could ride the 7 train to Queens, which outside of Grand Central was above ground, so I was set. I boarded and we chugged along. The car was very quiet, not the quiet of early morning when people are half-awake but the quiet of people who are pensive and only partially present. As we curled around Queensboro Plaza and got that great east side view of the city you could still see black and gray smoke trailing from the south end of Manhattan. We all moved to the window to watch until the bend on the tracks curved us out of the way. Then we went back to our seats and avoided each others’ eyes.
I spent the rest of the evening unable to do anything beyond watch it all unfold in front of the TV set. Dinner was a Ben & Jerry’s pint.
Over the weekend I went downtown, as far as I was allowed. Union Square and Washington Plaza were common gathering points, and were now filled with candles and flowers and people gathering just to talk and be together.
On one side of Union Square sat some folks chanting for peace; on the other some odd folks had put on Colonial outfits and were playing drums. I had no idea I was looking at a scene from the future, encapsulated on two ends of the same square.
Further downtown at Washington Square a fence had been erected around the arch (I believe it was there because it was being renovated) and people had stuck flowers and cards in the wires. One card read, in fussy old-fashioned script: Why
I went further south until I reached the cordoned-off streets. I was frankly concerned about breathing in the air, and there was nothing to see. I have pictures of the streets, but photos of absence mean very little. Here is a place where two giant buildings stood. You shouldn’t be able to see the sky, but now you can. Move along.
Businesses were closed and it wasn’t clear how safe things would be, so I turned around and came home. Did I think about jumping in to help dig? Did I think about in some way participating in the clean-up? I did. I did nothing. I just came home.
I learned later on that Mark was OK. He’d been in the towers, and he got out. We weren’t in touch any more, but his friend Jim — whose email address I had — filled me in. In the end, I lost no one in the Towers. I could only mourn second-hand for those who did, who had to wonder and worry and not have answers for far too long.
I don’t think anything would have stopped September 11, 2001. All we could do was manage our response to it, to try and be the country I really hoped we would be in the face of being handed the world’s sympathy and empathy and righteousness. For an eyeblink, we were on the side of angels.
Instead, we had a set of politicians in charge who saw it differently, and they did not rise above the moment. They threw a tantrum.
It is still being thrown today.
Part 4 next week.