Perspective: September 11
by David Wertheimer
September 11-23, 2001
September 11, 2001 +
I feel like I should post some sort of New York update, so:
It's 10:30 a.m. All is okay in my immediate circle, thank goodness -- brother and girlfriend both in midtown and safe, Mom in touch on AIM.
It's impossible to be untouched, though. Just thinking about the scope of the devastation gets one choked up. People are crying in the office. Everyone knows someone in this town: My brother's roommate's office is (was) in the World Trade Center. We can't not feel it.
Offices are closing, people are going home to take care of babysitters and loved ones, everyone is completely bent out of shape. We're still open for business, but no one's done much resembling work so far.
I am okay. So many people are not, though. My heart goes out to all of them.
More complete thoughts once the pandemonium dies down.
The stories have started to come in. Ted works way up high and Mary is due in ten weeks. Lonny works on the 105th floor and his wife hasn't heard from him yet. On television, a woman told the news desk that her husband called to say the plane crash was lower than his floor and he thought he was trapped, and that tale, relayed over the phone, hurt just as bad as any.
As a networked New Yorker -- and, after all, every New Yorker is part of the network -- it is impossible to not feel the pain and the anguish in this city today. Around the country people are astonished, terrified, sorrowful, but the mood in the city is one of mourning. Our collective jaw continues to drop at the next horrible account, as we wonder who we will hear about next, wonder whether there is a limit to the calamity.
All day we retreated, first from work to the TVs in our staff lounges, then into our telephones, then to coworkers stronger than we, then home to loved ones, slowly but surely. We got home long before the end of the work day and spent the afternoon glued to the news reports, trying to comprehend what had come to pass, blinking back tears at each new piece of television footage. We do not believe our eyes, our ears, our noses; we silently hope our senses betray us, that this is not real, that it can't be real. But we are not so fortunate.
We walked the streets today, or took the bus, for even when the subways started running again we feared for our safety in the dark unknown of the underground. Virtually every store below 42nd Street has been closed since late morning. Each block brought more dark shutters, gloomily displayed at midday, save for the pharmacies and grocery stores that awaited us, their shelves thinning but still plentiful, helping us prepare, preserving our sanity.
We head uptown to sleep under the thinly hopeful notion that we'll be farther away from the sirens, the smoke, the pain. Our apartments are quieter but our minds are not. Our hearts go out for those missing and those who love them. Today is a day for reflection and concern.
I am fortunate -- home with my loved one, my friends and family accounted for -- but not content. Today we all ache the same.
September 12, 2001 +
I woke up hungry today, having eaten just half a muffin and a bagel since 10 a.m. Tuesday. Yesterday was so bleak I could not consider eating; today my body, like life, is slowing going to return to normal.
Just past midnight from the 12th into the 13th:
The wind has shifted. Breezes started blowing to the northeast this afternoon, and the wind strengthened this evening, so the smell of downtown has infiltrated the apartment.
And what a scent: burning something, like rubber, only it's not rubber, it's rubber and paper and plastic and steel and money and tears and life. At this hour, more than a day and a half after the crash, the smoldering is from the wreckage, so one does not imagine burning flesh right away; but the aroma in the air is still the stench of pain, loss and death. Only time and statisticians will determine how many bodies were reduced to ash yesterday, those whose remains will never be found.
It is basically safe here, tucked away in a nondescript apartment in a small building in a quiet neighborhood, yet the terror of Tuesday stalks the night air. Peering into the air conditioner and glancing out the kitchen window cause the pulse to quicken simply at the sight of darkness: eerie stillness, the unknown. Something clunks in the kitchen, the home settling down for the night, and its resident sits bolt upright, tempted to check out the sound, if only for peace of mind.
Smoke, indoors, uptown, is slight, but it is enough. It is unrelenting, seeping under the front door, passing through the closed vent of the living-room air conditioner, pushing past the duct-taped and powered-down bedroom unit. It makes the throat just scratchy enough to notice. It serves as a reminder: every person in town is experiencing this. The world watches as New York feels, in its collective heart, and now, in its lungs.
September 13, 2001 +
...keep your head when all about you
are losing theirs
—Rudyard Kipling, "If"
I have spent the week attempting to keep reason ahead of emotion in this trying time. My efforts have been channeled into maintaining calm, keeping others from being overwhelmed by fear, pain and aggravation.
Life slowly returns to normal in New York, with a million caveats. I'm at work but not concentrating well. I was supposed to fly to Chicago tomorrow, and I could still get there, technically, perhaps by car or train, but the logistics are overwhelming. Subways and bridges and tunnels and buildings open and close at random. Bomb scares are occurring citywide. Chicago? On and off I realize how glad I am to be anywhere.
A special message goes out to the many of you who contacted me to see how I have been doing. My life is largely unharmed, excluding the unavoidable emotional anguish and tough decisions, like canceling the trip to Chicago (and bless the Internet for enabling me to convey this information so efficiently). But I have my health and my loved ones and, quite forcefully, the love of many of you, and for that I am truly thankful.
September 14, 2001 +
I just went to ESPN.com and immediately felt ashamed and dirty.
Who cares about baseball right now? This is still a time for grieving. The city is still bare, quiet, slower and sad. I still cannot eat right, cannot think right, cannot let go.
Rain came overnight, and today, for the first time since the attack, the skies are a natural shade of gray. The rain does little for the spirit, smothering the hints of good humor that were beginning to surface Thursday. And it's cold outside, too.
All week we have had perfect Indian summer weather, warm and crystal clear, the cloudless blue skies accentuating the destruction downtown while providing a poignant reminder that Little Orphan Annie knew from what she sang. Tomorrow there'll be sun.
But today there is still mourning and coping and swallowing hard and wondering what might have been, ought to have been.
September 23, 2001 +
By Friday afternoon I was tired, one long week of disaster having turned into two. I spent the weekend consoling friends losing loved ones, and while I had a pleasant Rosh Hashanah holiday break, bad news and bad moods clouded my Thursday and Friday. Keeping one's chin up while the rest of the world frets is tough work.
Friday night Amy and I went out on the town, trying hard to shake the negative vibe off our collective psyche following ten days of aggravation and a needless fight that nearly wrecked our evening. We wound up seeing "Rat Race" at the Loews 19th and Broadway cinema, which restored our spirits; the dumb fun was just what we needed. Happiness returning, we headed for home.
On the walk we entered Union Square to see the World Trade Center tributes and instantly found ourselves facing a new, heartbreaking side of the disaster.
Candles were lit everywhere, mostly within floral arrangements, covering every available area, even the off-limits central grass. Chalk messages lovingly, temporarily defaced statues and sidewalks. The square glowed with love and sadness as pedestrians quietly observed the scene by candlelight.
Covering all the fences in the square were huge sheets of paper decorated by schoolchildren. All were dedicated to rescue workers lost in the line of duty. The sheets contained drawings of fire engines, tender tributes and prayers by youths who seemed to barely grasp what had happened downtown.
We made our way to the front of Union Square, by 14th Street near the subway entrances, and froze. Hundreds of candles were surrounded by thousands of flowers in an elaborate, impromptu tribute to the disaster victims. A lone bagpipe played solemn hymns as passers-by paid their respects and prayed. People spoke in hushed tones, as though everyone knew not to spoil the scene that had been created.
I stood in silence and finally lost control. Ten days of strength -- of consoling and supporting friends and family, of swallowing hard and blinking back tears at each new report and handcrafted banner -- were all I had.
In front of the flowers and candles, motionless, holding Amy for dear life, I wept. Several long minutes passed as I cried, tears filling my eyes and flowing down my cheeks. I found the pain that I had been suppressing, and in one grand sweep I let it overtake me. I made no effort to hide my pain; instead I shared my grief with the city, with the souls of those whose lives were lost and touched by loss.
Once my tears, and Amy's, had subsided, we slowly, quietly made our way out of Union Square toward her apartment. Amy peered up at me as we neared the street and apologized for fighting with me; I did the same. We kissed lovingly on the curb and went home, sadder than we hoped, but wiser and wealthier for our new understanding of the trauma we had endured.