Fifteen years ago I was on the phone with my then boyfriend, when he said, “Hold on, I think the boiler just exploded,” and put the phone down. After a few moments, he picked up again. “I gotta go. There’s body parts and plane parts all over. I gotta go.” I was still saying What they hell are you talking about when the phone went dead. He worked at the Marriott Hotel opposite the World Trade Center and it was early and the story hadn’t hit the news yet.
Then we heard. And it still didn’t make sense.
Then we heard that a plane had crashed at the Pentagon, and I didn’t believe it.
When the towers started coming down, crumbling, and imploding everyone started leaving work. Everyone in the whole city was leaving work and going home or leaving their homes and going somewhere else. Everyone was just leaving. People had barely started their day when they left.
Except me. I stayed. I didn’t want to be on the streets with thousands of frightened people. I didn’t want to be trapped underground, crushed in a subway car filled with people who were panicking. I stayed and listened to and watched to report sand videos online, all day. I sat in an empty office for seven or eight hours and when I finally walked out at 5:30 pm I walked out into an empty city.
I walked across midtown Manhattan via 34th Street, up Broadway through Times Square, into Hells Kitchen. Like an abandoned movie set of NYC, traffic lights still blinked red, yellow, and green; walk or don’t walk. And there were no cars to care. The light of neon signs already starting to be obscured by ash. I don’t remember seeing anyone on the street at all, although I’m sure were a few.
I walked until I got to the west side men’s shelter where I had a speaking commitment for the 12-step group I was in. It had never occurred to me not to go – I had nowhere else TO go. Here was a room full of men waiting to welcome me, to listen to my experience and hope and my fears, and then to share theirs. And I did, and they did, and I don’t think we talked about the attack at all, we talked about ourselves because no matter what was happening we all wanted to keep whatever sobriety we had. We held hands and I walked out into the empty streets and down into the now empty subway and rode home.