2001 was a lousy year for me. I’d worked the first half of the year as a personal assistant to an unreasonable (and unreasonably wealthy) woman, and quit in desperation in June, thinking I’d get a new job quickly. Instead I spent the summer temping, or trying to. Going from agency to agency to take their tests, interview, answer the same questions, and not getting jobs.
In August I got to be a PA on a film, shot in SoHo. We had a production office in one of the Towers, on the 94th floor. I went to and from the home base on 23rd Street to the World Trade Center, each time showing ID, getting a little photo taken, and taking two sets of elevators to drop something off to Ingaborg, our production assistant. I never actually ran into Ingaborg, and I was always glad; everyone said she was cranky.
Each time I went into the office in the tower, I took a little time to look out the window, at the Statue of Liberty and Governor’s Island and the ocean beyond. It was beautiful, awe-inspiring; it made me feel small. I’d lean on the square desk to chat with the receptionist; I’d grab some hard candy from the purple dish on the square side table; I’d sit in the brown leather square chair, scuff my shoes on the light brown industrial-strength carpet.
The movie had wrapped by September 11, and I was asleep in bed when the attack happened. My roommate called and told me to turn on the TV; stupidly, I asked, “What channel?” After the first tower fell I called my mom and told her to do the same thing. When she asked, “What channel?” I said, “It doesn’t matter.” I told her what had happened, and said, “and one tower has fallen. There’s only one tower of the World Trade Center standing.” That’s when I felt some hysteria creep in, and said, “But I’ve been unemployed all summer, and I’m sitting here on my bed watching it on TV!” And for the first time in four months, I was glad to be unemployed.
After the second tower fell I walked to the Red Cross Center on Amsterdam; there was a line at least a hundred deep to donate blood. I’m O-Negative; surely they would need my blood! But they had no capacity for all the people who’d shown up. They showed us into an auditorium for a briefing on volunteering, and we all signed up. I never got a phone call.
After the briefing I started walking downtown, toward the smoke. It took a couple of days for the stench of burning metal and rubber and bodies—the fire that didn’t die until November—to make it to the Upper West Side, but I smelled it that day when I got to Franklin Street, which was the furthest point south civilians were allowed. I pictured, as I walked, the square desk, the chairs, the carpet of our production office. I pictured the candy dish, fixating on wondering if it was crushed or burned or just fell. I fixated on these little things in order not to picture the receptionist, whose name I never learned. Or Ingaborg.
At Franklin Street there was a large crowd gathered, gaping at the crystal blue sky, nothing remaining but a puff of light brown smoke. The wind kicked up a few times and blew rough little particles in our faces. “That’s asbestos, folks,” the policeman said. “You’re gonna want to get out of here.” When I hear of the Zadroga bill, the huge number of health problems suffered by the first responders, I think back to that policeman and I’m glad he shooed us away. I hope he isn’t one of the ones suffering.
By this time the subways were running again, and, exhausted from my five-mile walk downtown, I took it back home. The cars were silent, people staring blankly. I got above ground, and by now the signs were out: “pray for our nation,” “God bless America,” “Candlelight service tonight.” People were out walking, like it was a holiday, but through the streets too, mixing with the traffic. Everyone looked dazed. Some stores had a TV or radio set up out front, and people gathered in front of them. It was a community of strangers who suddenly needed each other.
The Missing signs came out the next day, pictures of people when they were alive and happy and living the lives that ended so abruptly. They stayed up until mid-November; eventually the weather took them down. Ingaborg was on one of those signs.
I got a job two months later basically across the street from what was by then Ground Zero. Every morning I walked past the church that served as a rest station and a memorial, with more signs fixed to the fence. These signs didn’t say “Missing,” though; they said “In Memory of.” The dust had been cleaned from some places, but not others; there was a bicycle chained to a street post, decorated with flowers; probably from a delivery man. The fires were still burning underground.
I don’t pretend to be affected any more than anyone else by this tragedy; I wasn’t down there when it happened, I didn’t dodge falling debris or run for my life. I lost someone I knew only by notes and other people’s comments. And yet every September 11 I feel it so very deeply. I look for the names I saw on those signs, I read survivors’ and families’ stories. And I cry.