The Long Walk Home The Day After Tuesday (SGU WTC Re-edit)
September 12th 2001 started with a hangover – and my usual unemployed search for loose change in the couch so I can buy a newspaper, coffee, and buttered roll. I started every morning that way since I got my working papers at the age of 15 -minus the hangover – well, most of the time. I was 25 and recently laid off from some internet company that promised high end fashions and a digital concierge with more computer bugs than actual worth. I was also a brand new father – unemployed with a baby mother in the New York City shelter system – riding it out until her section 8 came through so I could pretend I was a family man.
Every day of my life was me trying to stretch out my unemployment benefits to cover whatever needs my son had and my selfish need to pot smoke myself into complacency. I didn’t want this life. I was sleeping on the top bunk I grew up on back at my mother’s apartment. I had a girlfriend I was pretty convinced didn’t love me and was only playing the role of a responsible person with an unplanned pregnancy. I matched her with the crazy Latin boyfriend routine from the projects, acting out whatever he learned about relationships from the blunt guts and 40oz covered benches in his communal backyard.
Needless to say we didn’t last long.
I woke up on September 11th at exactly 9:03. My baby mother called me to let me know she would be late because of some activity at the World Trade Center. I adored my son, and most of my days were spent with them until their shelter imposed curfew was up. It was a beautiful and yet tedious time of my life. There I had this woman making the ultimate sacrifice in order for me to have a chance to be a doting father and all I wanted to do was walk away and go to sleep. She gave up a private and exclusive university – I couldn’t even give up smoking. Her eyes reminded me of every single thing I hated about myself. Every disappointing decision I made compounded itself in every diaper I changed and every bottle of milk I made. I hung up the phone and prayed she would be late forever.
Then I turned on the TV.
The shelter was nice enough to allow my baby mother and son to spend the night with me at my mothers. We all slept together in a twin size bed. It was the first time since my son was born that I wanted the both of them so close to me. No one could have imagined something so amazingly catastrophic. When you grow up in NY the first thing you do it look up at the sky scrapers. You have a trust in them. The steel behemoths of success and power filled with the white collars that run them and the blue collars that maintain them – they don’t fall on you, they won’t. Trucks can’t knock them down. Planes don’t run into them. The city as one living organism – somehow works. Planes don´t hit buildings, they wave hello and goodbye as they surf the clouds and dance around the sun and the moon.
The skyline loves you.
My corner store was on edge. The streets of the Lower East Side where empty and eerily quiet. From every open window all you heard was the news blaring the same rhetoric over and over in a million different languages. Every newscaster in the world was trying to win a Peabody award or an Emmy, putting the events of yesterday in some sort of poetic and defining context. I just wanted to buy a news paper.
“Mafeesh (some derogatory arabic word we would shout at eachother) where’s the Post?”
“No Post today”
“What do you mean?”
“It didn’t come, no deliveries”
“So let me get a coffee light and sweet and a roll”
“My friend nooooooo deliveries”
Then the reality started to hit me. There was no traffic outside minus the fire trucks, police cars, news trucks, and ambulances. Then the tanks started to roll in, and those big military trucks that you would only see in a episode of MASH or whatever war movie that might have been on HBO. My deli guy, a young dude from Afghanistan, was holding a bat. He was visibly nervous. Every Puerto Rican junkie with a brain cell left to watch TV was entering the store and throwing sly and loaded threats at him. Some were funny, others were too real. We knew this guy all our lives and everyone was looking at him like he was the enemy. The air in the bodega was suffocating with this newfound xenophobia aimed at Muslims, or anyone with a tan not brought on by rice and beans or the sun. I left him in his paranoia and proceeded to walk north in search of a newspaper.
When the first tower collapsed I cried. I thought about the day cares that were in those building for all those working moms. I didn’t even know if there even was a daycare there but for some reason that thought took me from smug educated Palestinian sympathizer to a wounded New York City father. When my baby mother and son arrived I did the whole cliché-ish touched their faces to see if they were really alive thing then ran outside once assured they where safe. I wanted a rooftop. I wanted to see the most amazing thing ever. The first thing I saw was my best friend Cynthia – Covered in ash – crying hysterically. She would later tell me of running from downtown as the tower collapsed and how the plane flew right over her head and into the south building that was right across the street from where she worked. She would tell me of seeing people jump, some on fire, all of them with no hope for survival.
I never told her how jealous I was of her.
After her one by one everyone I knew started to show up. Even kids that I hated or could never get along with came around – everyone with an excited bewilderment about the day’s events. No one could believe it and everyone had a theory. After the initial shock and awe we all stopped talking about it, like a life changing secret no one wanted to share because of the consequences. Everyone just wanted to get fucked up, smoke a shitload of weed and drink a beer or 5. We all had found each other in front of my building on 5th street and Avenue C when the block could no longer carry our curiosities or vices we all went to a rooftop on East 4th. By then the 2nd tower had already fell and lower Manhattan looked like the boiling top of an erupting volcano.
I never saw the towers on fire, and secretly envied everyone who did.
As I arrived to 14th St. I realized what was going on. My entire neighborhood had been quarantined. Anything that needed to be carried and couldn’t fit on a bike wasn’t making it pass 34th St. The police combined with the M-16 carrying military was asking for ID’s from anyone trying to return home or going and ogle the wreckage. If you worked downtown you needed to show a work ID and if you were visiting someone they had to meet you at a checkpoint and come and get you, frustrating everyone.
And then the military tanks… So many tanks. The only time I’ve ever seen a tank was when I went to the Smithsonian in DC. There they where, armed and ready and on my street.
The mood on the rooftop was oddly festive. Everyone from my 501, PTA graffiti – and strong arm any Chinese person with an orange bag crew – days was there. We were a motley bunch of cantankerous frenemies, and there we were, breaking bread like we had never decorated our own backs with knives. No one dared to mix politics and religion about what had just happened to our city. Everyone just smoked and drank until their walk home became an amnesia filled stumble. Some of us brought our dogs while others had their roller-blades on. We all laughed and shared. Everyone hugged. Everyone called their families and told them they how much they loved them. No one even looked at the smoke rising from the pile of rubble downtown – except for a set of brothers sitting near a ledge comforting each other.
This was their rooftop. Their sister had worked at Cantor Fitzgerald and if it wasn’t for her alarm clock mysteriously failing that morning she would have been in one of those towers. A week before that, we had our annual BBQ in our backyard and I met several of her co workers. The story was that they all had made it to work on time that morning – and were never to be seen again. How do you thank God and curse the Heavens in the same breath?
By the time I found a newsstand with a newspaper to sell I was well over 34th street. By the time I was walking back to the Lower east side the first of the missing person posters started to go up around Union Square and Bellevue hospital. My entire city started to look like a ride share bulletin board on a college campus – except sadness was the only passenger. Random strangers were comforting each other in the street and everyone was lighting candles and organizing vigils. The crowds near the check points became bigger and bigger as the day grew longer it started to resemble the opening bell at the stock market. Everyone claimed to have known someone who died that day. The entire city had the same tragically romantic heartbeat. That, for some reason, had me increasingly jealous.
I started to compare the event to the story-line in the graphic novel The Watchmen – Some ruse by our current dimwitted President to get the people of the world to like him or some power move by his Illuminati filled family. Pure hate and envy on my part. All I had was the day’s historic newspapers and a gallon of milk that I was hoping wouldn’t spoil on my long walk home.
Due to pro tools and other new technologies, my department didn’t have much of a workload as it used too – so I would help out by doing local photo pick-ups and deliveries. One of my stops was the Chief Medical Examiners office. By then what was a small building next to Bellevue looked like something out of a horror movie where the government tried to quarantine an outbreak or kidnap E.T.. After going back and forth for a while I asked my boss what was in the black containers I kept picking up and dropping off and why was he on my ass every time I was a half hour late to that one place.
I wished I didn’t.
I was responsible for picking up and delivering the slides that countless 9/11 family members depended on to identify their loved ones remains for burial. Every single workday was another face I saw loaded with hope twisted in deep sadness and despair. A sadness buried in confusion and anger with questions even god shied away from.
I no longer envied anyone.