Beloit College Magazine: Live from New York

Beloit College Magazine: Live from New York

A Native New Yorker’s September 11

VALERIE REISS
12/01/2001

I was running late. There was the issue of the black pants vs. the denim skirt. Dressing for my temp job on the 100th floor of 2 World Trade Center was putting me into a fashion tizzy. Even after a week and a day of working there I was still transitioning from freelance casual to business casual. Also, the E train was late.

My train arrived at the Chambers Street/World Trade Center stop at about 8:55am—20 minutes later than I’d have liked. When I got into the lobby of the WTC (the subway connects directly), people were yelling to get out of the building. Someone said there was a bomb scare. Most of us nonchalantly turned around — probably some whacko made a prank phone call—while others ignored the warnings and went inside anyway.

The stairs leading outside were clogged with people. My gut started to go cold. Finally emerging into the glorious fall day, I followed the collective gaze up. The building, the 110-story World Trade Center, was on fire. A gash filled with orange flames, gray smoke pouring out, pieces of white paper flying on the blue sky. First thought: ‘Wow. This looks like a movie.’ Second thought, ‘I wish I had a camera.’ Finally, ‘I’m getting out of here. Now.’ People were standing, transfixed, gazing. I had to navigate around the stopped people. No Will Smith, no big lights, no huge Hollywood trailers taking up good parking spaces nearby. But it was hard not to look.

The gravity of the situation was not yet clear. But I walked, then ran. Called my mom. Could tell by her voice that she hadn’t turned on the news yet. Heard an explosion at Canal Street—a plane hitting the building I had worked in. Reached my house on Sullivan Street, a mile away from the Trades. Ash was falling; I continued uptown. Information filtered in: two planes, an accident, not an accident. The streets were full of people staring downtown. It was a clear, cool, beautiful day. Got to a church on 11th Street. Sat in the garden, numb. Went into the sanctuary to be silent. The doors behind me opened to lower Fifth Avenue—a perfect view of the towers above the Washington Square Arch. Soon heard screams. Loud, everyone-screams from the street. Horrified, shocked, compassionate screams that still echo. And more a long moment later. I could not look. “It’s gone, it’s gone, it’s f****ing gone,” a church security guard yelled. He walked in, yellow tie, white shirt, holding his head, eyes straining. “It’s gone,” he said, walking back inside, passing my pew up front, “They’re both gone.”

There was nothing to feel then. I reached for sorrow, for gratitude that I was spared, for the feeling that life is precious, that we are here, then not here—the Zen lesson of impermanence. Or at least some reliable Jewish guilt. But I felt too much, so nothing.

I love New York. Instead of growing up adoring trees, mud and the sound of cicadas, I was raised with the beauty of Manhattan’s shoulder-to-shoulder buildings, pollution-pretty sunsets and my people — warm, rude, real—around me all the time. Inside my heart there’s a grid, streetlights, hungry homeless people, caffeinated yuppies and shimmering rivers filled with garbage and precious things that have been lost.

I missed the worst of it by about four minutes. The stuff they didn’t show on TV but that many, many New Yorkers witnessed. The panic, the people raining, a woman jumping with a baby in her arms. I missed the real, real worst by about an hour: This week I went to a memorial service for the 200 employees my company lost—including Denise, who sat next to me, and Lizie, my direct supervisor two desks down. A P.A. announcement told them to sit tight.

There are two tower-shaped shadows in me, slowly melting to smoke. Surreal is a word we’ve been using, which of course doesn’t begin to cover it—the skyline is destroyed, more than 6000 of us are dead, I’ve heard Judy Collins sing “Amazing Grace” live two days in a row.

And yet the word ‘retaliate’ makes me as sick as seeing the new, blank, hazy patch of sky out my window. And I don’t know a single person who witnessed this day first hand who feels differently.

By the time you read this, scars will have begun to knit and doubtless, fresh ones will be made—somewhere. But reading the missing person signs posted on every street; seeing a large Mack truck emblazoned with ‘Bellevue Morgue’ and looking into the eyes of firefighters covered in the pale ash of “ground zero,” makes it nearly impossible to wish this fate on anyone, even those who did it first.

 

Valerie ReissBeloit College Magazine: Live from New York

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