Sunday, July 09, 2006

No Guarantee of a Tomorrow

I used to take the MTA Express bus in from Staten Island in order to get to work on time at 7 A.M. in Manhattan. The Ferry schedules that early and the transition from the night schedules to the day’s rush hour schedules did not quite gel with me and my particular needs. I do not like to get to work with two minutes to spare or run over by five minutes. I am from the old school of workers and work ethics. I want to get in and enjoy a cup of coffee and quietly in my mind arrange the priorities of the day ahead. So I took the express to get to work at least a half an hour ahead of time.

That September morning was not much different. The bus driver said his usual hello to me and since I was the first passenger on his route, he shared some of his personals with me: what highly regarded technical highschool his son was going to Brooklyn, where he shopped at on the south shore, his large home equity loan payments etc. And I shared some of my life stuff in five minutes of private time before the bus started to fill with passengers along the way.
Some of the regulars stand out even now. A woman with a thick German accent was always complaining about having missed his bus by seconds the day before or something similar before the chubby middle aged blond woman, who was always looking at her watch, would wonder aloud why she was late every day to her downtown HMO clerical job which started at 6:00 A.M.

The bus never got through the battery tunnel before 6:05 A.M. and her complaints to her usual seating companion never seemed to take responsibility for her own lateness. It was the bus and the bus driver on the first run of the day that was always late. There was one interesting guy in his early seventies still working for the sack of health benefits for his wife who had apparently been in Hiroshima after the war and one incredible story seemed to get told several times and me an avid listener to history loved hearing the story every time of the grunt GIs having to empty out an underground bunker of mummified Japanese soldiers’ bodies a year after the bomb hit. Etc.

The bus was unusually early that day. Good traffic over the Verrazano Bridge and a swift trip, no accidents, on the Brooklyn highway from the bridge to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel into downtown Manhattan. New York is a series of islands and waterways that have to be gotten around. Everyday is a goulish traffic situation on any day at any time and without rush hour traffic to complicate things on the rusty potholed infrastructure. Only St. Louis had more pot holes on its ring highways I would often ponder to myself remembering my cross country road trip from Arizona to New York some two odd years before.

Early. Too early. Wanted to kill time. Those in a rush to get uptown would discharge at the R train Rector St. subway entrance and take advantage of the free transfer option. The German lady and the middled aged blond always got off at Dey Street and if there was a red light, I would see them cross the street and walk toward the giant World Trade Center complex of buildings. I decided to kill some time. I would get off at the WTC stop and walk across the street to buy donuts for the office from that fancy Atlanta donut franchise. I would then take the R train uptown and be on time for work.

I found the transformation of Manhattan quite strange when I had arrived back in New York some two years earlier and having spent eight years in Arizona in the hiatus. The city had changed dramatically. You could no longer go into office buildings without a guard asking you your business, every cheap bar that had seemed to be on every corner of downtown seemed to have been replaced by that Seattle coffee franchise. The once blue-collar nature of people working in warehouses all through and around downtown was gone. The warehouses were now living lofts and many former office buildings had converted to this condo trend. So it was that the Krispy Kreme was now located in what used to be a major Hong Kong banking concern. This was in one of the lower buildings that wrapped itself around the sterile plaza in front of number One and Two WTC.

Had stopped off maybe a year before on a Saturday and I got a donut and a cup of coffee and sat in that sterile plaza. They had added loose chairs and tables about the plaza to give it some organic flow but it never was a warm place to sit and meditate. Not enough green or nature I suppose.

The strangest thing happened to me when I was about to get off the bus around 6:05 A.M. I had changed my mind. I would buy donuts tomorrow. I stayed on the bus and would do another time killing exercise further uptown.

(A year later I would tell this story to the COO of my company in the conference room where the first anniversary ceremonies were being show on the large TV screen. I told the story about how I was going to get off the bus at the World Trade Center that fateful day and buy Krispy Kreme donuts and decided to do it tomorrow instead. The moral of the story is that tomorrow is not guaranteed to anybody. )

I got off the bus around twenty first street before the bus would turn on twenty third and go over to Madison before going north again. I would transfer to the local M6 bus and ride to the front door of my office building near Rockefeller Center. I stood and waited.

The morning form was calm. There was no touch of autumn in the air yet. It wasn’t humid. No breeze. Then I noticed something rare in Manhattan on anything but an early Sunday morning.

Where was the usual traffic? I had done this routine in the past and the density and frequency of traffic was always busy even at six A.M. on a weekday morning. I waited a few minutes. The morning traffic reminded me of those days when there was a public school holiday. I got onto the arriving local bus and went to work.

Work was no different. I work in a closed off secured area behind glass. The security is to handle checks and securities for this small brokerage firm.

About nine o’clock, there were phone calls. People where moving about outside the glass panels. Then the news hit us about a plane hitting one of the World Trade Center. I scrambled to try and get CNN on the Internet. No response. I kept trying and then a hit. Surprisingly there was a picture of the wounded tower and a few unconfirmed lines of news. Not much to go on but at least it was something of a confirmation of the verbal rumors.

I wanted to call my wife working downtown but had to wait in line at what we called the single"jailhouse" phone for external employee use. I finally got through to her. She was standing at a 32nd floor window looking north three blocks to the smoking tower. All sorts of stories and rumors seemed to abound at that very moment. In my mind and in memory, it seems something of a blur until the main story laid itself out. I remember a lot of things now through the prism of the official party line about that day five years ago.

We could go into the main conference room and watch events on an eight feet movie projector screen. I looked briefly and went back to my desk. I guess that I was waiting for some sort of definitive orders or gameplan. The supervisor instead of huddling with the managers and supervisors outside the room began to lock up the express mail deliveries and then unlock and redistribute them.

The second tower was hit and nobody seemed to be quite sure what to do. Rumors of Rockefeller Center being the next logical target from this now evident terrorist attack abounded. I got through to my wife again on the phone. She saw the second hit outside her window. Her company was evacuating their premises. With at least the knowledge that my wife was on her way home, the only thing was for myself to figure how I was going to get home. The subways were shutdown for fear of explosions or gas in some wider plot.

People said that the tower had collapsed. I didn’t want to see that. My imagination pictured it falling into a horizontal position and hitting other building etc. I finally went into the conference room and sat down for a replay of the destruction. To my shock the collapse of the first tower looked like an implosion. I stated so aloud. Others in the room said nothing. They either did not hear me or were absorbed in their own little shock bubbles. Down it went like a house of cards. I went back to my desk.

Finally after the second collapse, it was announced that we were to leave the building and make our way home, most of us on foot, and that would be a lot of miles for some of us. They opened up the cafeteria for a free lunch, carb up, and we were on our individual ways. You’re on your own.

I had been strangely calm through this whole scenario. Innately, I knew that I was not going to die that day. I could stand by and witness the events so much so like I had done all my life in front of a TV.

I decided to walk down Sixth Avenue also awkwardly known and renamed as Avenue of the Americas.

I could see smoke in the distance. It was so much less smoke than if I had decided to walk down Fifth Avenue. Parts of the Twin Towers were once visible directly in line of sight down that avenue. No doubt to avoid more stress than the moment could produce I walked slowly in the crowds down Sixth Avenue.

The narrow bottom of Manhattan, the downtown area, the old Dutch town, spreads out into a wider area about Canal Street. Trinity Place behind Trinity Church on Wall Street, changes to Church Street, feeds into the beginning of Sixth Avenue at Canal Street. As I walked there were some displays of emotion. Some young man in a yarmulke was wrapped in an Israeli Flag. There was somebody yelling from across the street. A fight developed between this yelling man who crossed over the street and the fight was with companions of the young man in the flag.
Below Fourteenth Street I pushed over a street or two toward Fifth Avenue. The crowds were getting thicker as we approached Canal Street and I still did not know how I was going to get to the safety of home and my family.

I began to notice a crowd mixed with office workers on their way home and curiosity seekers. I got behind two or three people discussing how to get some sellable film footage on a large TV type video camera one of them was carrying. And the price of one hundred dollars was promised by the would be producer and organizer of this trek downtown. "How are we going to get in? The radio says everything below Canal Street is closed and off limits. Only police, rescue workers and national guard allowed into what is now being called a war zone…" Without a radio I heard a sliver of this and a inkling of that. The old verbal communications network was alive without means of total dependence on any electricity.

Curiously enough, all the outdoor cafes that I passed in Greenwich Village were doing a brisk business. I had no way of gauging the mentality of the people sipping on wine and eating linguini. I just didn’t know or really care as much as mentally plotting an escape route from the city.

I got down to Canal Street and sure enough there were road blocks and police everywhere. I kept moving east. At Broadway, I asked a cop how could I get to the Staten Island Ferry. Even if I walked over one of the bridges to Brooklyn and over Brooklyn, there was no foot traffic allowed over the Verazano Bridge connecting Brooklyn with Staten Island. Well anyway, like most NYC cops, they're human too, and this one told me that he didn’t know if the ferries were still working but I could walk downtown under the FDR Drive all the way over by the East River. If nothing else, I could probably walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. I was familiar with Brooklyn from there all the way to Bay Ridge where if nothing else I might share a cab ride to Staten Island. Anyway, it was a game plan. I was on my own in a war zone. New York had changed that day. America had changed too as well.

The crowds on the sidewalks were thick making their way to the Manhattan Bridge just off Chinatown. It was hot and then I remembered that I did not have enough cash to take a cab should I find one. Had to find an ATM. I think that one or two banks were off line and I could not get any money. The third bank, one of the biggest in the city was still operational.

I got my cash and began to realize how all those pictures of years past from a Yugoslavia in civil war were no longer distant, how close even New York City could descend into chaos at any given moment. As a student of history, I knew that it was the loss of the aqueducts that turned ancient Rome into a ghost town for over a thousand years. How fragile civilization is and totally interconnected we are these days. It is this concept of interdependence in a shrinking world of land and resources that butts up against chosen and regional life styles that was one of the remote cause this day of this attack on the world’s premier global city.

I separated from the crowd and started to make my way down along and under FDR drive. The sky downtown was filled with a mixture of smoke and a gritty gray stuff blowing in the air. The ground had at least an inch of this gray stuff and it was piled up higher in places like small snowdrifts. I had to wet a paper towel and hold it to my nose most of the way of my walk. Emergency vehicles passing by stirred up the gray stuff and the darkness under the highway structure only added to the gloom of the day.

I had not seen the sun since Canal Street. Then, there it was fully in view just as I passed the Brooklyn Bridge, the steaming caldron of what was left of the World Trade Center. The verbal chatter on the street from the radio or the TV news said that the immediate rescue workers and fireman trying to put out the fire, they were calling it "The Pit". And indeed passing by and occasionally looking at it I half imagined some sci-fi movie and lightning bolts emanating from the smoke and fire illuminated on the smoke rising up to a godless heaven.

As I analyzed a few of the facts or rumors already presenting themselves as fact, I looked at The Pit from a safe but close distance and could not imagine how many people were lost so far, I calculated thousands, much more the true factual number. I looked at the distant horror and although I thought myself modern and thought that the concept of Satan was a medieval myth, on that day and on that spot, I knew that Satan was a very real entity whether of one source or of all the uncaring, evil persons in the world would could turn their back on members of their own species in such a Godless manner.

How lucky we Americans have been for so long, hiding amongst our laws, and being spared so many raw aspects of the terrible reality of man’s human nature.

I suppose there was a smell of the fire but I do not remember it. The fire in the pit would burn another three months of so. I only remember the dust.

I passed a few individuals coming and going. Saw one man in civilian dress in a very properly fitted filter mask and wondered where he got it. The heat, and I now lacked water, was getting to me. It had been something like two and one half hours coming the seven or so miles from 50th Street down to the Battery.

There was a ferryboat docked at the terminal. I quickly walked the remaining distance not wanting to miss the boat. No sooner had I stepped on the boat, that they gated up and the old car boat was on its way. The car boats appeared to be being used to transport emergency vehicles and fire trucks back and forth. If it had not been for the vehicle transport, I do not think that the ferry would be taking on any passengers.

There were a couple of firemen on board, covering in grime; their faces blackened like coal miners. I heard them talking to a ferryboat deck hand. They had just been relieved. They were going over to Staten Island to clean up, get a few hours rest and would be back on duty in a matter of hours.

I stood briefly on the back deck of the boat and looked at the horrible site shrouded in smoke. The image began to shrink as we left the dock. I tried to remember from memory exactly where the two towers had stood. The whole thing was academic. It didn’t matter. The grand complex of buildings were gone and in total ruins and an eternal footnote in history.

I went to the concession stand in the hope of getting a bottle of water. The concession stand was empty of personnel. I heard someone tell me I could take water from the tap. I decided not to drink any water for the moment. As I walked toward the front of the boat, I realized that there were life preservers all scattered here and there on the floor.

My wife would tell me later of being on one of the last boats to leave Manhattan in the morning after her flight down thirty two flights of steps in the dark, electricity had failed in her building shortly after the second plane crash. The ferry was filled to capacity with passengers and was shoving off the dock when the first tower fell and the "black cloud" descended over everything. I could well imagine a scene out of Dante’s Inferno.

In the panic and confusion of things happening, people at the terminal and at the dock started to jump into the water as the boat was leaving. No doubt, this had been that same boat with so many life preservers scattered about. My wife could not give me any figure as to how many people jumped into the water and we never heard any follow up story on any of the Anglo speaking channels on TV that night. We did watch some of the Spanish speaking channels briefly. Their content was much more graphic and uncensored than mainstream media coverage. Like watching events earlier in the day at work on TV, a few minutes of gore and blood reality was more than I chose to view that night.

The ferry arrived on the other side. The bus that would take me home did not charge us refugees anything for the trip. The bus traveled up Victory Boulevard to where it crosses Forrest Avenue. This is a high spot along the waterfront toward Manhattan. From a distance the column of smoke from the former WTC looked so small. This was a spot where on some occasions, the water and optical illusion might bring the World Trade Towers close and up into your face with the illusion like a full moon much larger than life on the horizon than at any other time. Today it seemed good that everything looked so small and far away.

That night listening to TV, no images being allowed from downtown, we heard voices describe the collapse of number seven WTC and the possibility that the seventy story Liberty Plaza Building was in danger of collapse at well, which thank God, did not happen.

It was a dark world that night. No clarity or certainty coming from the magic box of TV that I had been watching for all my life. The ferryboats were suspended for the next three to four days. There were no phone calls from work as to what to do.

I did not go into work next day. The following day I managed to take two buses over to Brooklyn and make a connection on two subways that were operating outside of the war zone and got to work.

When the express bus was operating for the first time on Friday I did not opt to take it. I told the bus driver, not the regular guy, that I had changed my mind. I was too frightened to go through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel into Manhattan. Claustrophobia and extreme anxiety overtook me, perhaps delayed stress of sorts. I took the regular buses to Brooklyn and the subways instead that day.

On Monday I bit the bullet, I took the express bus and it snagged this way and that way along unfamiliar streets toward the FDR Drive, the quickest way out of the war zone after the Battery Tunnel. Electricity was only partially available downtown. The New York Stock Exchange was going to make it appearance that day having been shut down for four days the previous week. As the express bus took this street or that to connect to the FDR Drive, one could see the distant column of smoke still burning.

On every street corner there were military vehicles and soldiers with gas masks at the ready and weapons, weapons, weapons. The Stock Market was going to open that day and do business no matter what.

The regular express bus driver had returned in the next few days. Some of the regular passengers like the German lady or the blonde lady no longer got on that bus. I only hoped that they had made it out of the World Trade Center that day and were merely collecting unemployment and were not dead.

It was maybe two weeks later when I took a few days off from work, that I began to make phone calls to distant relatives and also to friends in Arizona. I guess, like a lot of New Yorkers, I had been shell-shocked.

I judged what was most important in the interim. What was most important was going home straight from work to the illusion of safety in one’s home and with one’s family. No overtime please, the important things in life are far, far away from work.

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