On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was on the commuter train to Hoboken, rolling through the New Jersey Meadowlands when I heard a woman scream. I turned my head to the left and, behind me, saw her aghast, looking out of the window on our right. I wheeled my head around and saw the last lick of the fireball flame climbing up to the top of the north tower of the World Trade Center. The fireball quickly disappeared and billows of grey smoked and bright fire began to ripple up the top ten floors. I remember thinking that it looked like a matchstick and I noticed that the flame lick was at least five stories tall.
“What happened?!!” I yelled.
“A plane hit the building!”
Everyone on the train pressed against the Southside window.
“It was a big jet,” someone said.
“How do we know that?” I said.
“I saw it,” the woman began to sob. “I saw it.”
“We watched in disbelief for several minutes until the train pulled in to Hoboken Terminal on the Hudson River. The World Trade Center was just across the water and hundreds of commuters were on the riverbank watching in a stone-cold silence punctuated by syllables of denial. No. No. No. The station agent announced the PATH Train to midtown as if nothing had happened. Do I want to go to New York today? I remember thinking even as I descended the stairs on the way to the track. What does this mean? The word terrorist echoed in my mind but was as yet unspoken by anyone. Do I really want to do this? On the platform a mechanical voice on the P.A. announced “There will be no PATH service to the World Trade Center this morning” No shit. As I stepped on board the New York train I was thinking, Is this how my daughter becomes an orphan?
It was packed with commuters – standing room only – and as the doors slid shut everyone, without exception, took in a quick sharp breath. It seemed to suck the air right out of the car and I realized every single one of us was having the same thought: Is this a mistake? Is this how I’m going to die?
We slid below the river, and it was the longest train ride of my life. The downtown stations, Christopher and Ninth Streets, were bypassed at full speed and twelve minutes later the doors opened at the Union Square and we piled out into the pandemonium sunlight. During those twelve minutes the second building had been hit and on 14th Street, turning south, both towers were blazing about a half-mile away.
I turned and publisher of High Times, Jim Ski, was standing next to me.
“What happened?” I said.
“Another plane hit the second tower,” he said. “It was a big jet.”
I remembered of the first feckless attack that shivered the Towers in 1995 and said the word out loud for the first time that day.
“Yep,” Ski said, “It sure looks that way.”
We watched the Towers burn for an inordinate amount of time and then Ski broached a question.
“Did you say you wanted to go down there and see if we could help?”
Jim Ski was a gentle giant, a taciturn man with a meticulously trim beard. He had been the High Times publisher for almost two years at that point and was one of the most decent men I have ever worked with. We bonded early over our mutual love of comic books and super heroes so it has surprised me that Ski had the right inclination at that most surreal moment. I had a different response.
“No,” I shook my head slowly, “No I didn’t say that.” Ski took my lead at face value and we walked three blocks north to the High Times office.
In the ensuing weeks and months after 9/11 there was much talk of heroes. The nation recognized the New York City firefighters, police and everyday citizens, the first responders who stepped up that day and did the right thing, true American heroes and in the wake of that adulation the fact that I chose not to be with them that day gnawed at me occasionally. At the decisive moment Ski’s instinct was to go downtown and help and I declined. He was reflecting the values we both learned reading comics when we were kids: Be brave. Be strong. Show up. When the time came to be a hero, Ski stepped up and I stepped down, and my hesitation robbed us both of the opportunity. I was disappointed in myself for a long time. Time provides context, however, and many things more. Time simply provides.
In fact, when I was asked to go downtown the towers were still standing and at that point no one thought they were going to fall. There was little for anyone to do except watch the police and firemen do their jobs. The fire was eighty stories above the ground and bodies were falling through the sky. Going downtown to Ground Zero at that precise moment would not have been motivated by the Samaritan instinct but by a lurid voyeurism that even then I found vaguely disturbing. I remember thinking something like that. Plus there was another, more concrete reason for my refusal to go downtown…
Recall my sense of trepidation boarding the PATH train to New York, the unspoken word ‘terrorist’ slamming in my skull. Recall my feeling of unbridled relief when the doors finally opened at Union Square. I never feared death before I became a father and since I’ve become a dad I’ve feared nothing more. When the train doors opened at Union Square I and dozens more piled out of the subway car and into relief. This is not how my daughter became an orphan. Moments later, standing on 14th and University, watching both Towers in flames, my visceral reaction was to run from danger for the sake of my daughter. Let the mad world burn and the lunatic stars collide; I am no hero, I am a father: I would not just die for you; I would kill for you. I would lose my soul for you. I would let the whole world starve and let my kingdom fall before I would ever let anything happen to you.
And keeping that in mind…
I certainly wasn’t going…
It turned out to be the right decision. In the years following the 9/11 attack we watched as the first responders began to metastasize respiratory ailments and cancers contracted at Ground Zero. Congress, who, without exception, said they would never forget, behaved like swine. Ski’s instinct was correct, of course. It was the right thing to do; but my instinct on 9/11 turned out to be prescient. I’m not especially proud of my decision to avoid downtown that day, but I’m glad I’m here to think about these things. I can hear my daughter laughing in the next room.
We walked a few blocks uptown to the old High Times office at Park Avenue South and 19th Street. From the window in Ski’s fifth floor corner office we had a front row balcony seat for all that followed.
The radio droned low as we listened to the wild speculation of that first hour that was created by a vacuum of real intel. Most of the HT staff stayed home that day but a few straggled in, and after a few minutes of watching the towers burn the webmaster asked me if I wanted to go down to the street and smoke a joint. On Park Avenue the population of Manhattan was quickly disappearing. There were a few sirens doppling in the distance and small pockets of people were heading down towards Union Square to catch a better view. We smoked two joints of Strawberry Cough in rapid succession with absolute impunity as the police were otherwise engaged that morning. We took no pains to be discreet. We hardly felt the weed’s effects because a numbing shock precluded any normal sensation. We offered our own mutually uninformed theories about what might be going on and made fevered estimates of how many deaths the day would provide. A deadly calculus could include the number of people who worked on the upper floors combined with the number of passengers on American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175. I pulled the last hit out the second joint and flicked the roach to the curb then went back up to the fifth floor where the two towers a’flame framed in the large picture window looked like a disaster movie in progress. There were no street sounds in the insular office high above Park Avenue, only the insistent radio newsman broadcasting in urgent tones appropriate for an impending apocalypse.
Then at 10:05 a.m. – 1 hour and 20 minutes after the first attack – I was looking directly at the Towers when I saw what looked like a silent shimmering illusion of the south tower suddenly slipping into the Earth and a vertical column of grey-black smoke rising up simultaneously to conceal its slide. Without sound, without shiver, it looked almost like a graceful deception, a magic trick that begged disbelief. It wasn’t.
“It fell?” I asked myself, not certain of what I saw. The silver tower disappeared down in the smoke. “Did it fall?” I thought, still not believing my eyes. Peering to penetrate the smoke, I tried to see the truth. “What happened?!!” Then, in the dense roiling grey cloud I saw a perfectly round hole twirl open and clearly, where I saw a building a moment before, there was now a medallion of blue summer sky.
“It fell.” I said quietly and the resignation in my own voice brought me back to the moment.
“It fell! It fell!” the radio announcer was hysterically piping.
“Whoa!” said someone in the publisher’s office.
“Da-amn!” the Jamaican secretary intoned.
Twenty-three minutes later, when the north tower collapsed, it was almost anti-climatic. By then we were expecting another disaster because the south tower’s destruction convinced us that the unthinkable really could happen. Like a foreshadowed plot point in a grade-B horror flick, after the collapse of the first building, the second fall seemed certain.
Of course, it looked like a movie; how could it not look like a cinematic special effect? But we knew it was horribly real, and it was one of those moments that you never ever escape because you will never see anything that terrible again. Over time, reliving the image, that morning continued to crystallize in my memory, and I came to think of what I saw as not two buildings of falling to the ground but of two thousand six hundred souls rising. That’s not poetry. That’s not a metaphorical conceit. That’s what I saw.
So the rest of the day was denouement. We learned later that the Pentagon had been attacked and that United Flight 93 scarred a Pennsylvania cornfield. Suddenly America was under siege and filled with crash and burn and the consensus at High Times was that by nightfall we would be living under martial law. We tried to call our families but the phone service was down. As the evening approached we began to wonder how we were going to get home. The subways were closed and my colleagues who lived in Brooklyn and Queens would have to walk across the bridge; but getting back to New Jersey was not going to be that simple. The PATH was not working now. The tunnels were closed. There were no buses, no cars, no cabs. Finally around six pm the radio announced that ferries were leaving for Hoboken from a dock at 39th street about twenty-five blocks away.
It was a beautiful summer evening but for a palpable grit in the air. Manhattan had become a ghost town. The cars disappeared (Where did they all go?). The people vanished into their buildings’ embrace and the canyoned streets were muffled and quiet. Now, it was like strolling through the set of a 1950s sci-fi flick. We walked along the white line at the center of an abandoned Fifth Avenue, beneath the untouched Empire State, suddenly restored to its traditional status as New York’s Tallest Building. Times Square was deserted and three blocks beyond, on the banks of the Hudson, I was astonished to find there was no line at the ferry. We stepped right on board.
The ferryboat hugged the Manhattan side of the riverbank until it reached Ground Zero; not one word spoken on deck as we passed within a hundred yards of the site. It was three stories of burning, smoldering, smoking ruin, another abiding image forever etched in my mind. The ferry suddenly cut starboard and headed across the river. Minutes later, as we disembarked at Hoboken Terminal we were moved into a long queue of commuters that wound round the station. We couldn’t see where it led but we dutifully got in line, and after twenty minutes we turned the corner to find a parking lot filled with twilight klieg lights and canopies. FEMA had set up an ad hoc processing camp for commuters arriving from New York. As we edged closer to the front of the line we were told to step on to a plastic tarp and our feet and shoes were blasted with water from a high-powered hose. Moving along, a pretty girl with wide clear eyes handed me a plastic bag and told me to wrap my laptop as just ahead we finally saw the end of the line: everyone – man, woman and child – was being compelled to walk, fully clothed, under a makeshift shower.
“Why?” I asked the volunteer.
“To get the dust off,” said the big round eyes.
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Yes, it does,” the eyes replied with authority. “Just keep moving.”
As I approached the shower I recalled my glib lifelong response to the only other example I knew of government-induced showers: “Man, I wouldn’t get in those showers. The minute they said, ‘Get in the showers!’ I’d say ‘Fuck you! Shoot me! I’m not getting into the showers…’”
That’s what I was thinking as I stepped into the showers.
The water was cold. September 11 in New York City had been a warm temperate day with cloudless cerulean skies, but when the sun went down that evening there was a slight chill in the air. Emerging from the chilly shower soaked to the skin underscored the temperature drop and shivered me to the bone. Children and old folks must be freezing, I thought as I left the terminal grounds and made my way into Hoboken town where the business district remained open and everybody was loitering outdoors. The looming New York City skyline was proximate, smoking and scarred. I walked into an Italian men’s clothing store and bought an ill-fitting knit shirt and a pair of dress slacks that Tony Soprano would have loved – not my usual couture but it was dry and soft and especially warm. The moon rose over Manhattan and the train to take me home was two hours late. Somewhere near eleven pm I straggled into my front door, hugged my wife and went immediately into Dylan’s room and stared at the untenable beauty of a sleeping four-year-old girl for an awfully long time. After a while, my wife called me to the living room and we did a few bongs hits while we watched the start of the infamously interminable coverage of the days terrible events, the beginning of the 24/7 news cycle that endures to this day.