September 11, 2001

I am so sorry.

From a boat ride in August.

I am so sorry. I wish I was there, so I could help.

I used to be there every day, for at least a year, often at 8:30 in the morning, taking the PATH train from New Jersey into the basement of the WTC, then switching to the 1/9 train to go to work on the Upper West Side. The E also stopped there, and you could switch to the A/C/E underground, among other trains.

I would go to Century 21 with my then-girlfriend, across the street, to help her pick out dresses. I took friends for coffee in the WTC's overpriced basement cafes. I drank in the top-floor bar - Windows on the World - for someone's birthday.

I picked up my tickets to Israel there, for my first trip, and I couldn't find the ticket counter, so I went all over the buildings, asking security people as people streamed by me, thousands upon thousands moving in and out. The twin towers breathed people, in and out, in and out, before they were struck by airplanes. They breathed a last great breath felt around the world, after a gut-punch.

From a boat ride in August.

The buildings symbolized global finance, but like every NYC skyscraper, most of the people in the tower were middle-class, serving the needs of relatively few very rich. Sikh programmers and Asian financiers worked there, with thousands of Black and White Americans in thousands of different roles, and a mix of everyone else. Hundreds of companies and thousands of people, a mix of skins, all with photo nametags around their necks so they could be identified by various security and administrative systems; those laminated nametags will be used, I'm sure, to sort the bodies.

They were ugly buildings, totally out of keeping with the rest of Manhattan's architecture, but they were also compass, an anchor, and when you were lost you could find your way back by following them, triangulating between the Empire State Building and the two towers. I was lost in Red Hook and Williamsburg and they guided me home. They brought me through Chinatown. They appeared off the Brooklyn Bridge. They tilted Manhattan towards the Hudson, back towards the rest of America.

I called my neighbor, 6000 miles away in Brooklyn, and he said, “I bought my copy of Noam Chomsky's The Fateful Triangle at the Borders Books on the first floor.” He gets off at the Chambers Street WTC stop, and I was worried, but he doesn't get to work until 10, so he was turned around on the train and sent back to Brooklyn. His girlfriend was nearby at Morgan, and was evacuated. My friend who works on 40 Wall sent an email from his PDA that it had been much too close, but he was safe. I called Steve, whose apartment building has a view of the buldings, and he said he'd been on 5th Avenue walking south when it happened and he saw people vomiting and weeping when it went down, and when he got to 20th St. he saw people covered in ash. “It is a beautiful day,” he said. “Gorgeous, and these awful plumes of smoke....”

In addition to being coated by ash, pieces of paper were flying in the air in Brooklyn. Ash everywhere. Steve read to me from a pieces of paper - legal briefs, floating over the East River, settling a full mile away. Maria wrote me that she'd walked by my apartment on 9th St., that all there was fine, but dust everywhere, "ash all over me and the camera." Ken wrote that the gangbangers put their bandanas over their mouths to filter the dust, downtown. Natalie wrote me that Columbia was business as usual, people walking around, living their lives.

I am lucky that my friends - save for 2, but I think they are safe - are all accounted for, via phone and email chat. I know many people who work within 2-3 blocks of those buildings. The buildings were so tall, with such deep basements.

I recognized every street shown on CNN; I felt agonizingly homesick with every interview. My mother told me she had asked some friends in Turkey to put me up if Israel went into a real state of war, as some unlikely consequence of this mess. It's not likely I'll need to leave, though. “I was so worried about you in Israel,” she said. “And you were safer there than New York.” But still I want to go home, to sit on the bed and watch TV and hold hands and sob and make awful jokes.

There are a lot of politics now, bombs aching for release in their bays, a lot of men - almost all men - with an inner smile and an outer frown, waiting to push buttons. People on the left and right are figuring it out for us. This will mean the loss of liberties, this will mean a more military state, this is the beginning of a new warrior state, the state which hosts these terrorist organizations is responsible, and on and on.

From a boat ride in August.

When I began crying I thought, “Bury the dead. Bury the dead and tell each one of their mundane American stories, all with the same ending, and make everyone read all 10,000 or 30,000 or whatever, and see if that makes people thirst for more blood, when it's all told out, when they've heard the stories of all the dead, and when they understand that America will go and put the ending on tens of thousands of other stories, in Afghanistan or wherever we decide, then ask if they want that to happen, or if they want to figure out some way around it.”

There was a sudden shock; a network of millions of human connections just had its center ripped out. When I read, and watchm I think we prefer systems to sympathy, which is why any of this - the idiot American foreign policy, the idiot response today - happened in the first place. We elevate our systems as we bury our dead, eulogizing with our eyes on a target.

What will emerge is likely a lot of jingoistic rage, a lot of racism and hatred. Possibly war, possibly a long recession, possibly erosion of civil liberties. These are words which represent theories and concepts, but barely represent what actually happens, which is that people - who look like you and I, and have families and hopes - people who repair computer networks and push paper and want to make sure their kids get good educations, some with enormous net wealth and some with none - die. African- and European- and Arab- and Asian- Americans, all turned the same gray with ash.

Easily, it could have been me, given variance in time. That's what millions were thinking yesterday. I've been thinking about terrorism constantly, being in Israel, reading about death after death, and so it was a sort of familiar shock to the act - at some level, it was not surprising at all. People here reacted in a variety of ways, mostly quite sympathetic, all of them understanding ther sort of sad-numb-scared feeling.

It could have been my friends, any of them. It may have been, and I don't know it yet, and it will certainly be friends-of-friends - you can't work in media and advertising without ending up meeting in those buildings sooner or later; the downtown finance industry has a gravity over New York, and the twin towers are the center of the orbit.

They are turning away volunteers, turning away blood donors, because there are so many. I knew that would happen. That is why I want to live there, why I love it, why I have been pining for New York City and why I pine for it even as it is coated in ash, with papers swirling in the air. Not the buildings but the people, the bodies, the voices.

I am so sorry. There are politics, and war to be waged, and counteropinions to be registered on the farthest of left and right. Racism will out in great quantities. More civilians will almost definitely die. We will pave Afghanistan, or some other nation.

Most of all I think of someone getting their coffee and starting to gossip with the person sitting at the computer terminal to their left, flirting a little, making some cynical crack about the boring work they were going to do today, and then the sound, the unimaginable groan of steel, the shuddering, and then I really can't imagine what it was like.




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


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