r-daub-a-blog, September 11, 2007
11 SEPTEMBER 2001
Everything seems insignificant right now.
The west side of the bridge is bottlenecked with people. The cars don’t have a chance.
I wait, in no hurry to get to a place that has only begun to exist.
Tens of thousands surround me, yet there is near silence. A murmur at most, very soft tones.
Small steps forward, courtesy abound. Our disbelief makes us all alike at the moment.
We shuffle up the incline to the suspended limbo of leaving one island for another, and right now we are heading nowhere in particular, just a general direction. What awaits across the river is more likely confusion than the safety we seek, but nowhere is safe right now, nothing.
Of all the things said about the people of this city, there are no better in the world during a crisis—millions crammed together as one, a closeness we immediately feel despite being strangers. Living in the same dimension, we are affected by the same things, and, more often than not, we react to them in similar fashion. At the moment we are all heading from, and only upon reaching the eastern bank will our journey become to. With that in mind, there is no panic, no pushing, no shoving. We are all crossing the same bridge.
High above the sparkling river, clear of the spires that had been obstructing our southward view, the plume that from our previous vantage point had looked like a lost cloud now comes into full view. We can’t help but look, and then can’t help but look away. We repeat this motion over and over, and each time we feel the same initial shock. Our eyes cannot accept that they are no longer there and not just hiding behind that strange cloud, and our minds cannot accept that, yes, this is real.
Fighter planes roar over our heads, while silent boats make white trails in the river. Up here all we can do is walk and glance and try to figure out what will become of us when we are back down on solid ground.
The pace on the bridge is slow but steady, but at the elevated subway station on the other side, the mass of humanity has stalled. People are stuck in the stairwells not knowing if they want to continue up or retreat back down, while on the street the crowd has spilled into a giant puddle growing larger with the hope that there might actually be some magic train that can take them away from all this.
It quickly becomes clear that the only way out is by foot, and I am fortunate enough to live only four stops down the line from here. I break away from the crowd and begin my journey under the tracks, and in a few short blocks I encounter something resembling normalcy. The only sound I am conscious of is the scraping of my shoes on the sidewalk.
Suddenly I realize that I am tired, and also hungry since I didn’t have a chance to eat before it began, so I decide that I will stop at the pizza place around the block from where I live and take it back to the apartment—home. That’s where most people in this city are trying to get right now, and I may be one of the fortunate few not living on the bedrock I just departed who actually gets there before the sun goes down.
Out here all is quiet, even more so than usual without the thunder and screech of the trains above. No one is panicking at the ATM and withdrawing their daily maximums, as I and several others had done earlier after seeing someone else do it. It is so quiet, in fact, that I begin to wonder if out here they even know. But they must. The whole world surely knows by now, perhaps more than I since I have only seen a few minutes of television coverage in passing and have heard everything else from word of mouth.
My feet are beginning to blister, and, despite wearing a watch and glancing at it every so often, I still manage to lose track of time. Finally, back in my own little neighborhood that still to some degree has the feel of an era prior to the birth of my grandparents, I duck into the pizza place where I usually stop on Friday evenings after work. While waiting for my slices to heat up in the oven, I stare up at the TV showing the replay over and over again. No one else seems to be paying attention to it except for me—once was enough, perhaps, and probably too much for a lifetime.
Business as usual, it seems, which seems unfathomable at the moment. Yet, there must be comfort in having something to do—anything to divert the eyes from the video loop that will likely go on for the remainder of recorded time, images that will become engrained into the minds of our unborn children, history that is only hours old yet already timeless.
Finally I make it back to my sanctuary with pizza in hand, but there is not much comfort here. I am isolated, cut off from the rest of the world due to the disconnection of all my media paraphernalia. I do not have cable TV in the apartment, and the big antenna that fed my rabbit ears was on top of what went down, leaving me with static and an eerie hissing white noise on the tube that makes it feel even more like the end of the world. The phone lines are jammed and I don’t have a cell phone, so I do not have the ability to call anyone or get on the Internet.
One realization leads to another, and it occurs to me that no one besides my co-workers can be quite certain that I am even alive, and that I can’t be quite certain that anyone else I know is alive either. Mom is a flight attendant and she was scheduled to take off from Boston this morning, and my uncle is a firefighter downtown. I am beginning to wonder if I am actually still alive, but somehow it seems like I must be—for now, anyway, if whatever is happening is still happening.
After finishing my pizza, I suddenly have an overwhelming urge to get out of here right away. I can’t possibly sit here by myself cut off from the rest of civilization without knowing what is going on, and though I live in this little studio apartment—basically a small room with a bed, bathroom, and kitchen—this is not home.
Since the subways aren’t running I’m not exactly sure how I am going to get there, but fortunately it is merely further out on the same island, so I do have a chance at succeeding. And, if and when I do finally arrive, I don’t know how long I’m going to remain.
I hastily throw some clothes into my backpack along with the five cans of Budweiser in the fridge. Suddenly I’m back out on the street and climbing the stairs of the subway station down the block, not so much because I believe that a train is going to pull in and take me right back to the mob scene at the station over near the bridge, but to look out at the rooftops and figure out how I am going to get the hell out of here.
The platform is deserted except for a few holdouts clinging to the notion that the trains may actually begin running again at any moment, and a few minutes later I am back down on the street no wiser for my effort. I do, however, have the good fortune of spying an available cab and a driver willing to give me a ride. He asks me where I want to go, and I tell him the nearest station where the commuter trains are running to points east. Without a word he makes a turn and we are on our way—I’m not sure exactly where, but that may be a good thing. As long as I am moving, I am fine. I can’t stop and sit still, not right now.
I don’t realize where I am until I get there, and I give the driver a larger tip than I normally would for simply having gotten me this far. Upstairs at the ticket window, the man behind the thick glass tells me that the eastbound trains are running again, albeit slowly, and that I am likely going to have to wait a little while. I tell him that this is fine and purchase a one-way ticket that will take me to the edge of the next county—’home,’ as it is, although my wandering spirit never felt it as such when I actually lived there.
By the time the train finally pulls in, it is after 5:00 PM—the heart of rush hour on a Tuesday evening when it is usually standing room only—but there are only a few passengers other than myself on this ghost train. Many who rode in this morning aren’t making the return trip, and the few sitting here now are ashen, staring straight ahead, motionless. They look like corpses, but every once in a while they blink. This is the most surreal thing I have ever seen in person, something right out of a nightmare, and more than at any point in the day I have to convince myself that this is real.
Although I have my pick of pretty much any seat on the train, I choose to sit on the floor of the vestibule. I am shaking, so when we pull out of the station I reach into my bookbag and crack open one of the Budweisers, which I consume in just a few gulps. It is only after downing two more in similar fashion that the shaking subsides.
There is a slight possibility that my mother is gone, yet I have a very strong feeling that she is fine. My uncle, on the other hand, is in all likelihood gone since he probably would have been one of the first on the scene if he had been on duty. Again, though, I don’t feel a darkness.
There is, however, a tint in the sunlight that would have otherwise provided the greater metropolitan area with a beautiful late-summer day. This is likely the awareness that, when all is sorted out, most in this city will learn that they knew someone who didn’t make it out. I could have been down there too, and not that long ago I was—I had interviewed for a job in a building right around the block, but they eventually hired someone else.
Nearly an hour and five cans of beer later, the train suddenly pulls into my stop without me even realizing that I was approaching home since all I had seen when the doors opened at each stop was the cloudless blue sky. The empty cans are collected in a plastic shopping bag on the floor beside me, and the conductor didn’t even come by to punch my ticket.
Right now there doesn’t seem to be any point to anything except getting to the house and seeing if anyone is there or if there’s a message waiting for me. Down on the street I get into a cab with a crazy drunk woman who claims that she is somehow affiliated with the FBI and some surfer dude attempting to explain how he misplaced two cars earlier this afternoon.
While my fellow passengers seem oblivious, I can’t stop thinking about it. I keep my mouth shut and look out the window at the neighborhood where I spent my adolescent years concerned about things that seem utterly ridiculous right now. Everything pretty much still looks the same except for some minor changes here and there, such as a few new stores replacing ones that have closed down and the new electronic sign in front of the high school and other miscellaneous little things. There are no visible signs that anything is wrong or that anything is out of the ordinary despite the feeling I’ve had since this morning that the world has arrived at its end. Even the Mustangs, my old Pop Warner football team, are out on the practice field preparing for Saturday’s game.
I am the last of the three passengers to be dropped off. The house is dark and empty, and the light on the answering machine blinks so many times that I lose count of how many messages there are. They are mostly from friends and relatives telling my mother to call them when she gets home so they know that she is okay, and many are hang-ups as if it was the second or third time they called. The phone lines are live here and I manage to reach my sister, who informs me that Mom is in fact okay and that she is at a hotel up in Boston, her flight having been called back to the gate at Logan after they got word of what happened. She also heard that our uncle is okay too, but that he lost just about everyone in his division.
I feel better after getting off the phone, but, upon turning on CNN and seeing that video loop once more, the reality of it begins to sink in. I stare for a few minutes absorbed in the commentary and speculation, hanging on every word to hear news that becomes dated the moment it leaves the reporter’s mouth. I make a sandwich and stare at the TV for a while longer, but I am alone here and no one is on their way. As the last of the daylight disappears, I start to feel very alone.
I open the fridge and the only beer in there is light beer—and this is no time for light beer. I can’t imagine sitting here by myself all night staring at the TV, so I call a cab and a short time later the guy who drove me home from the train station pulls up in front of the house. I tell him to take me to the bar.
There are only a few people there, which seems surprising because I thought most of America would be in need of a drink right about now. The TV is tuned to CNN, and the few people there—all of whom are guys more than twice my age—are offering their own takes on the day’s events. I don’t know these people at all and would normally feel no connection with them whatsoever, but right now it seems like we have a lot in common, if only because we are all sitting here in a hometown bar apart from the ones we love and without anywhere else to go.
The owner is tending the bar himself tonight, and at around midnight he says he’s closing early. I shake hands with everyone and wish their families well, and my new friend the cab driver gives me yet another ride home.
Back at the house I know I’m not going to be sleeping anytime soon, so I find a bottle of spiced rum in the liquor cabinet and start calling people. I dial everyone on my little index card of numbers that I carry around in my wallet, and everyone is pretty tolerant of my inebriation and the late hour.
I eventually call my ex-girlfriend down in Baltimore, whom had emailed me earlier in the day asking if I was okay and also left a message on the answering machine while I was at the bar. I hadn’t spoken to her in over a year, not since the brief visit she made while I was living in California. We were exes then too, and the timing was not right for us to get back together during that particular visit. While she was driving away and I was standing on the sidewalk waving good-bye, there seemed to be a heartbreaking finality that made me think that I was never going to see her again. After her car disappeared, I went back inside and cried because I didn’t think my life would ever again be as good as it was when we had been together.
When I hear her sweet voice tonight, though, I can tell right away that the awkwardness we felt in California is no longer there. After talking to her for a while, I begin to realize that something good can emerge from the unthinkably bad. Maybe there is a glimmer of hope in the world right now, and maybe all has not ended. As unlikely as it may seem on this dark night, maybe something new and wonderful has just begun. ▪