Mike Jahn

UserpicSeptember 11, 2001: A Letter From the Front
Posted by Mike Jahn

It rained Monday night and early Tuesday morning, hard enough to flood the West Village apartment of my son, Evan, and his wife, Denise. The flood was bad enough to keep them up half the night sopping up the water with towels. The task was so exhausting that Denise decided to skip her 9 a.m. meeting at the World Trade Center. Instead, she was out on the terrace and was putting the towels out to dry when a mob of amateur butchers flew two jetliners into the landmark buildings where she otherwise would be sitting. It was line-of-sight from their terrace to America's future. She watched, transfixed, as flames and smoke rose and the buildings came down. 

Praise the Lord for rain

I was in a New Jersey Transit bus pulling into the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 8:42 a.m., about three minutes before it happened. I was there as result of a last-minute decision made because I was too tired for the ten-minute walk to the train station. (But the bus stop is outside my door.) The bus goes straight to midtown. En route to midtown, the train goes under the World Trade Center. 

Praise the Lord for tired feet and impetuosity

Still unaware that the skyline was being redone, I walked across 42nd Street hell-bent for my own 9 a.m. appointment. I walked by the corner of 43rd and Seventh, and paused long enough to reflect on the fact that 43rd Street in front of The New York Times headquarters looked exactly like it did 35 years ago (not counting the demise of Gough's Bar, where the guys from the press room used to drink drafts, wearing hats fashioned from pages of newspaper). Everything else about Times Square had changed, considering what has been called the "Disneyfication" of the square over the past decade. When I started uptown again I found my path blocked by a large group of people looking up at the news ticker and giant screen TV on the facade of One Times Square, formerly called the Times Tower and, later, Allied Chemical Tower. It's the triangular building atop which the ball falls on New Year's Eve. "Tourists," I thought, and stepped out into traffic to walk around them. Two blocks further uptown I had been slowed by two more corner crowds, all looking up, many with mouths agape. Then I heard a hardhat yell to another that "a fuckin' plane crashed into the World Trade Center." I stopped, turned, and watched along with everyone else. 

It was eleven hours before I would get home. The homeward trek would take place via feet, boat, feet, train, and car, in that order, and the feet component would add up to about five miles--more than enough to put me into the recliner with the remote and a six-pack of Buckler (The Afghans who run my local convenience store having run out of Kaliber, the nonalcoholic beer that I drank in those days.

My early morning wish to avoid walking didn't exactly work out.

Here's what it was like in the City that Never Sleeps on the day that the Daily News described as with the simple words "It's War." It was long, and draining, and strange in that sort of way poets are called for to describe. It reminded me of scenes from Independence Day, Armageddon, M*A*S*H (the movie, not the sitcom), Godzilla, and, oh hell, I don't know, The Mouse that Roared, in which invaders land in Manhattan only to find it deserted. Very shortly after the attack, authorities (the famous "they"), closed the island. No one in, no one out. Whoever stood in the streets on Tuesday morning was staying a while. After my 9 a.m. appointment grew into three hours--much of it talking about what happened downtown--followed by lunch with a pal at an Irish joint in Times Square dominated, that day, by gigantic TVs, infuriated patrons, and at least one very nervous looking busboy who appeared to be of middle Eastern descent, I set off on two quests.

The first was to get my hands on a couple of pills I would need before midnight in case I couldn't get home. I will confess to having reached the age where I need that sort of thing nightly and, sadly, not for the entertainment value. I talked a local doctor into giving me a prescription only to find out that a Rite Aid pharmacist was more than willing to hand over a night's supply, no questions asked, no money accepted. It was only the first instance in which I found it impossible to pay for something. The pills turned out to be easy to get. But a cheap AM radio was not to be found anywhere. Normally, you can buy them from sidewalk vendors for a couple of bucks each.

The second goal was to get home. For the time being, that was impossible. The island remained closed, although as the day dragged on an increasing number of bridges (but none in the direction I was going) were opened to foot traffic.

According to the Daily News's Corky Siemaszko, "... New York resembled a Third World capital after a particularly explosive coup"

No subways or buses were running. Taxis had entirely disappeared. There were, in fact, almost no civilian vehicles about. Instead, the streets were empty and strangely quiet save for official vehicles and the occasional convoy of police-escorted buses carrying victims to hospitals. Phone service, especially cellular phone service, was on and off, and highly erratic when it was on. A woman calling from Connecticut got my cell phone, which has a New Jersey area code, and when we sorted out who she was trying to reach determined that the circuits got every single digit wrong. The number she dialed bore absolutely no resemblance to mine, despite the fact she swore she dialed correctly. Twice.

I set out on foot for Evan and Denise's apartment, a distance of 40 blocks (two miles). We hung out on the terrace for a while, watching the smoke rise, then watched the news on the big-screen TV back where it was air conditioned and shook our heads. The sun failing to do a good enough job drying the towels, Denise took them down to the basement and put them in the dryer. Occasional forays out onto the terrace showed billows of smoke still rising from what remained of the World Trade Center. The smoke shared the clear blue sky with press helicopters and fighter jets, which roared over Manhattan and the outer boroughs. The normal, 24-hour buzz of Manhattan traffic and the blaring of horns was gone, replaced by silence broken every minute or so by the wail of sirens. Slowly and silently, stunned survivors walked uptown, a sooty and morose procession. Some spoke quietly on cell phones ... or jabbed in frustration at them. Most just walked, alone in their thoughts. They passed each block's neighborhood hangabouts--the usual suspects one finds on every corner or in every local hash house countrywide, the janitors, delivery men, small storeowners, and borderline ne'er-do-wells--who debated loudly the mechanisms of building collapse, international terrorism, and carpet bombing. Doctors also walked around, and quickly one came to accept as normal the sight of a doctor in blue scrubs standing in line for coffee or candy at a local shop.

If you were in a suit and looked tired, you got used to strangers walking up to you and asking, "you okay?"

Toward late afternoon, the view from the terrace showed ferries operating out on the Hudson. So we headed off for the waterfront, where poking around turned up a couple of piers where I was likely to hitch a ride. Our feet clattered on the cobblestones of the wholesale meat district, which also is home to gay bars and the sorts of nightclubs that Puffy, Jennifer, and others of that crowd periodically shoot holes in. Now, Manhattan has a beltway of sorts. Starting near the mound of smoking debris on the southernmost tip of the island and proceeding clockwise, there is West Street, the West Side Highway, the Henry Hudson Parkway, the Harlem River Drive, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, the latter known simply as the FDR. West Street is a wide boulevard connecting Manhattan's West Side piers. Normally it's clogged with traffic, with the center lanes zipping along fast enough to qualify for a grand prix. But on that day it was almost empty. The few vehicles were official, principally ambulances on their way to the medical staging area set up at the Chelsea Piers sports and entertainment complex. 

Ambulances and EMS units from all over the New York metropolitan area were parked for blocks around what resembled a gigantic MASH unit. Doctors and nurses wandered around or drank coffee, wearing scrubs and masks upon which someone had placed large labels made from surgical tape. Most of the labels read either "ALS" or "BLS," for advanced or basic life support. Such labels also decorated the windshields of ambulances. Many of the medical professionals seemed at a loss for something to do; so many bodies ... up to 50,000 people normally work in the World Trade Center ... presumably remained buried in the 12-story-high pile of debris that were was a shortage of patients to work on. Yet amidst the disaster-movie look of the West Side waterfront were clear reminders that this was, after all, New York--mixing among the docs and rescue guys were dog walkers, couples in arms, and the occasional half-naked roller blader. Imagine Roller Girl in Boogie Nights slipping silently through the set of M*A*S*H.

The West Side piers had become a contemporary Dunkirk. It seemed that everything that could float had been pressed into service ferrying people from Manhattan to New Jersey. I saw the Amberjack V, a luxury dinner cruise ship, taking on refugees, as was the entire fleet of Spirit of New York Cruises. Further up the harbor, Circle Line cruise boats joined Weehawken ferries in making the evacuation. A line snaked around the pier to get into the Spirit of New Jersey. I joined the line ... becoming number 280 to step onto that yacht, and stood aft as the majestic white ship pulled out into the Hudson. The interior of the ship was a full-service restaurant designed to take maximum advantage of a New York City skyline view that had forever been changed. Tables were set for the lunch cruise, but now offered only free water for the refugees who, I learned, could get free water just about everywhere. Eager young people handed cups of the stuff to you as you trudged here and there looking increasingly lost, much as they did for marathon runners. 

The Spirit of New Jersey crossed the Hudson, slipping between two battered brown Army Corps of Engineers tugboats that were chugging downtown. The setting sun lit up the smoke and dust cloud over the financial capital of America, making it glow and, for a moment, radiate. 

A fighter jet flew overhead, flying east. A young man, pale skinned with a small mustache, said, "nuke Mecca" 

A thirtyish woman looked at him without expression, then made a cell phone call during which she described the view from the river to the folks at home. When the ship docked in Weehawken, site of the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the sun was dipping toward the horizon. Another single-file line took me through another M*A*S*H-type scene, past portable tables covered with yet more free water, and to a staging area where dozens of buses were ready to shuttle the weary to the train terminal in Hoboken for the duration of the trip home. The wait for the buses was two hours, I was told. Despite the amount of walking I had done already, I decided to walk the mile and three quarters. I joined another line of refugees, and what seemed like an hour later got a seat in an ancient train car that New Jersey Transit found somewhere, most likely in a museum. Trains were running on a load-and-go basis, of course for free. Forty-five minutes later I debarked, weary and sullen, in the pretty little suburban town, twenty minutes from the still-closed George Washington Bridge and noble, battered Manhattan, where I have lived in recent years.

A kid had erected a seven-foot flagpole in the back of his black pickup and from it flew a large American flag. He was driving around, looking pleased with himself.

Ellen drove me to the convenience store, the one in which I had joined the owner in considerable Taliban-bashing over the past few years. He was watching TV like everyone else, but looking edgy. After waiting for all other American-born customers to leave, I said, "you know who's going to get blamed for this, don't you?" He jumped into a rant more excited that the ones the subject of the Taliban gets him into, and said, "bin Laden is a madman! You cannot blame Afghanistan! This is not the fault of the people of Afghanistan!"

"Nonetheless," I said.

He was so excited that his English began to fade, and I lost track of what he was saying.

"Take care," I said, and went home to put my feet up.


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