We watched cartoons for what felt like hours. The stunned and sooty World Trade Center refugee who’d wandered across the bridge and ended up in our Brooklyn neighborhood, and then our apartment, couldn’t take any more TV news coverage of the attacks. She had barely escaped after climbing down 20-odd floors from her World Trade Center office (where she worked, ironically, for developer Larry Silverstein). So, for a while, we watched cartoons with her.
My wife worked near the United Nations and had left a short while earler. Between jobs at the time, I was at home in our first-floor brownstone apartment in Park Slope, ready for another day of housework and desultory job hunting. Idly I flipped on NY1, the 24-hour New York City cable TV news channel. Apparently a “small plane” had struck one of the Twin Towers. Unfortunate but hardly shocking, considering how much air traffic came through New York, how big and blocky those buildings were, and how big and blocky in time they were too, having been up for a few decades already.
The TV showed a lot of smoke. I walked outside to Flatbush Avenue. Looking northwest up that main drag provided a direct view of the World Trade Center. There was smoke coming towards us. Looked bad. But nothing yet to suggest it hadn’t been an accident.
Back inside to the TV. Worse and worse. A second plane had hit, and one tower had collapsed in a nightmarish deluge of smoke and debris, falling in upon itself as if the earth were swallowing it up.
Shock descending over the city.
Outside again to Flatbush Avenue: smoke completely obscures the towers now. Inside again to the TV. Flames. Outside: nothing to see, just smoke filling the sky. Inside.
As the newscaster speaks, there’s a live shot of the second tower behind him – collapsing before my eyes, but not his. A moment passes before he realizes what has happened.
Phone lines were jammed, but not down. I got through to my wife after a while. I can’t remember whether she reached me or I reached her. Like pretty much all businesses around town, hers was closing, but the subways weren’t running so she was going to have to try to make her way home from Manhattan to Brooklyn some other way, however long it took.
A phone call. A friend who works in the WTC neighborhood is out on the street, lives in Queens but there’s no way to get to Queens now. Can she come over and wait at our place? With a friend from work? Sure. Come on over. I’m not going anywhere. Another phone call. My aunt, who worked at a clinic near me. Could she, and her co-worker, and a woman who’d come out of the World Trade Center and had no way of getting home, all come over? Of course.
I’ve forgotten the refugee’s name, but she was one of the many who were able to flee the towers before they collapsed, then find her way along across one of the bridges to Brooklyn on foot. There, she just kept walking, and wound up at the center where my aunt worked. Closing up shop, my aunt and her co-worker brought their guest along to my place, where we sat and waited, watched and waited, paced and waited, snacked and waited. After a while the onslaught of TV coverage – thousands dead, the attack on the Pentagon, a fourth plane down in Pennsylvania, terror, intimations of a new World War or some kind of hell on Earth – became too much for the woman and we were happy to change the channel to one of the only non-news options: The Cartoon Network. And so, for a while, we watched children’s cartoons.
Hours later my exhausted wife made it home. She’d walked from the East Side of Manhattan all the way downtown and across one of the bridges and eventually made her way home.
We’d closed all the windows to try to keep out the foul-smelling smoke, but were directly downwind of what shortly afterwards everyone started to call Ground Zero. If you’ve seen those aerial photos with the long plume of thick smoke pointing East from the WTC, you’ve seen what we were under. And the 1880s house we lived in lacked modern windows. “Smoke” I call it but it was a nasty miasma of mystery particles.
When it finally cleared, it was a brand new world we were living in.