A Sad Song Made Better: My 9/11 Account

ASTORIA, N.Y.-

We moved on the first of September. Left our 400-square-foot fifth-floor walk-up on East 7th Street in Manhattan’s East Village — an apartment that cost a staggering $1,800 a month — for a bigger, cheaper, cleaner, safer one-bedroom in Astoria, the part of Queens comprising the westernmost extremity of Long Island, directly across the East River from Yorkville.

Astoria is known for its heavy Greek population. There are more Greeks in Astoria than any other city in the world except Athens. But Astoria, I’ve noticed, is also home to a large number of Arabs. Men in long white shirts, women in veils, bevies of children, crowding outside the mosques beneath the elevated train.

We haven’t even been here two weeks. The cable hasn’t been turned on yet. The guy from Time Warner is supposed to come tomorrow — Wednesday, September 12, 2001.

I leave for work a few minutes after eight. Stephanie, my fiancée, comes with me. She’s dressed in her workout clothes. She’s meeting her friend and erstwhile roommate Kim in the East Village for a morning run.

It’s perfect weather for jogging. Mid-seventies, zero humidity, cloudless sky. A gorgeous end-of-summer day.

The N train is approaching Broadway Station when we turn the corner, so we break into a run. We hit the metal stairs at full speed, clanging our way up two flights, and slide our Metrocards through the readers. We burst through the turnstile and onto the train just as the announcement comes on: Stand clear of the closing doors. We settle into our seats, laughing, almost giddy.

I leave Stephanie on the subway at the 49th Street station stop. I stride through Rockefeller Center, weaving my way through the slow-moving, camera-wielding tourists, to 50 Rockefeller Plaza, the global headquarters of The Associated Press, the world’s largest newsgathering agency and my employer.

I don’t write for AP. I work in human resources. I’m a recruiter. “Staffing Manager” is my official title. I post jobs and hire temps and attend job fairs and crack jokes at the new employee orientation.

When I get off the elevator on the seventh floor, the receptionist, Michelle, hits me with the news: “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.” Initial reports have the plane as a Cessna, she says, the kind John Denver was flying when he crashed and died.

“What kind of idiot,” I say, “doesn’t see the World Trade Center coming at him?”

She laughs. All over the city, people are making the same joke.

Pictures of the damage are available online. A small black hole near the top of the tower, black smoke billowing out, its trail a black scar against the perfect blue sky.

Not a big deal, is my initial assessment. There will be scaffolding for a few months while they fix it. Minimal casualties. Could have been worse.

I go inside, sit at my desk. I drink my coffee, eat my marble pound cake. The phone rings. It’s Stephanie. She’s frantic. She’d been trying to get through for awhile. “I couldn’t get downtown,” she says. “They stopped the subway at 8th Street.”

The driver, she says, made this announcement, in the same monotone he would use to announce the next station stop: “The N train is not going past Eighth Street because a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.” Jaws dropped, she told me, and silence fell upon the riders as they filed out.

“I want you to leave,” she says. “I want to see you. I want you to meet me at Kim’s.”

I don’t understand her panic. It’s just an accident — an unusual accident, to be sure, but an accident. These things happen. I sip my coffee. I take another bite of marble pound cake. “I can’t just leave,” I tell her. “I’m at work.” I tell her I love her and hang up.

And then the second plane hits.

Everyone piles into the office of the Director of Human Resources, where there is a television. No one knows what to think. It’s not shock, not yet, nor is it sadness. We’re all trying to piece it together.

“It’s terrorists,” says Jessica, my friend and the deputy director of the department. “Has to be.”

“Assholes,” I yell, punching the wall with the ball of my fist. The others look at me grimly.

Reports on CNN come rapid-fire, with little time to verify authenticity: The two planes were hijacked. They were commercial airliners. There were many passengers on board. The passengers are all dead. There are six planes unaccounted for in the skies right now. They’re headed to the White House, to the Senate, to the Sears Tower, to LAX. They’ve closed the Golden Gate Bridge and the Arch in St. Louis. They’ve closed Disney World. They’ve closed all the river crossings to and from Manhattan.

NARAL issues an order: All planes in the air must land immediately. This order has never been issued before.

This is it, I say to myself. This is the end. The Visigoths sacking Rome, the coup de grace before a thousand years of darkness. And for a moment, in spite of myself, I feel a frisson of thrill. Who doesn’t want to bear witness to the Apocalypse?

Stephanie is on the stretch of Broadway near NYU. From this vantage point she can see the WTC, the black holes like sarcoma, burning in the spires. She’s staring at the towers, and as she’s staring at them, one of them collapses. Now you see it, now you don’t. Gone in a cloud of smoke and earsplitting noise.

The vibrations register at Columbia University’s geological observatory in Palisades, twenty-five miles away.

Back in my office, the phone rings. My mother, who has been trying to get through for half an hour. (By now, cell phones are useless — the unprecedented volume of calls has overwhelmed the system). Am I okay, she wants to know. My uncle in California called, an uncle we rarely speak to. He wanted to know if I was okay.

“I’m fine,” I tell her. Then I add, somewhat indignantly: “I’m in Midtown.”

Also, this is the global headquarters of the world’s largest newsgathering agency. Whoever did this heinous thing wants press, needs press. You don’t blow up your free publicity department.

Jessica, who has remained cool as the proverbial cucumber, pops her head in my office. “All nonessential employees can leave,” she says. I point to myself. She nods.

This happens everywhere in the city. The workers are sent home. Everyone spills onto the sidewalks at the same time. No one knows where to go. The subways don’t work. The streets are jammed with cars, and none of them can leave Manhattan.

People gather outside, around cars, around taxicabs, to listen to the radio. They convene with strangers. Everybody — everybody — is nice. People are angry, but not at each other. The gruff exterior of New York has peeled away, revealing the softness within. At its core, the Big Apple is all mush.

Everyone is trapped here, and we are no exception. We can’t take the subway to Astoria, and besides, we don’t have cable. We need to watch CNN. We need to know what’s going on. We need to stay connected. We don’t know anyone in Queens yet, not really. Just our friend Rus, who lives in Long Island City, and we have no way of getting in touch with him.

The plan is to get to the East Village, to Kim’s, and wait it out. By this afternoon, maybe the subways will be running, and we can get home, to our new co-op of strangers.

There are now two clouds of smoke at the tip of the island, and the stench — incinerated metal, jet fuel, human remains, and God only knows what else — has already reached Rockefeller Plaza. I should be running in the opposite direction. High-tailing it to Harlem, to Washington Heights, to Inwood. I should head north and not stop until I hit Montreal.

And yet I am drawn downtown. Like in The Stand. I need to get down there. I need to see. To bear witness. To help, if I can. To do something. To take action. Even if I weren’t meeting my fiancée at Kim’s apartment, I would be going downtown, toward the WTC.

This is pervasive, this pull downtown. All over the city, people feel this way. The ones who are far enough uptown not to be running for their lives, that is.

As I begin my brisk 40-block walk to the East Village, my friend Mike, whom I’ve known since kindergarten, is evacuating the World Financial Center, where he works, not far from what is already being called Ground Zero. He is with a sea of people, all covered in soot, moving as fast as he can, trying to avoid being stampeded. The throng moves south, away from the World Trade Center, toward Battery Park. Eventually, it will loop around the tip of the island and trek across the Brooklyn Bridge.

“I thought I was going to get trampled,” he tells me later. “I almost jumped into the river. At least there weren’t any people in there.”

But on Fifth Avenue in Midtown, I’m not scared. Not at all. I feel like this is a movie, a movie in which many people will die, but not me, I’ll be one of the survivors, one of the few who will make it to the final frame, it says so in the script, so there’s nothing to worry about.

In this mind-movie, I’m a spy, an operative of some sort. I’m meeting my contact in Astor Place. I have a different agenda than everyone else. I’m James Bond, who doesn’t flinch when the bomb goes off, just calmly sips his dry martini.

On every corner, people remain gather in small groups, listening to the news, trading rumors. I hear an almost continuous newscast as I walk — carefully, to avoid injury. Don’t want to get hurt today.

I pass a beauty salon on Fifth Avenue, and through the window I see someone getting a haircut. Street vendors are hocking hot dogs. Some stores have tables set up out front, owners handing out free water to people on the street. “Do you need to use the bathroom?” I hear on every block. “Come right in.” All those little stores have bathrooms, but they are usually guarded like bank vaults. No admittance. No public restroom. Lavatory for employees only.

Not today.

I pass a table on the street, where someone is passing out literature on Lyndon LaRouche. He looks delighted that New York is burning, as if this will be good for his candidate.

When I get to the cordoned-off Empire State Building — which today has reclaimed its crown as the tallest building in New York — I realize that, despite my staunch belief that I will not be the victim of collateral damage, it’s probably not prudent to be so close to an obvious terrorist target.

Speaking of collateral damage, there are posters plastered all over the city advertising the new Arnold Schwartzenegger flick of that name. The film is about a firefighter whose family was killed in a terrorist attack, and his subsequent revenge. Art imitates life, life imitates crappy movies. It is supposed to be released next month. The release will be pushed back.

I head east, picking up the pace until I hit First Avenue. Twenty blocks uptown, to my left, the blue windows of the gaudy United Nations building glint in the gorgeous sun. Another terrorist target. I bang a right.

A newspaper blows by my feet. Michael Jordan on the back page, dressed in his Washington Wizards uniform. Attempting a comeback. Yesterday’s paper, yesterday’s indulgent excuse for news. Today, no one gives a shit. Jordan is once again a country in the Middle East.

When I get to 14th Street I stop at a bodega and buy a six-pack of Pilsner Urqell. Business is brisk. The cashier is busy. He may not be thrilled with his lot in life, with his minimum-wage job, but unlike me, he is an essential employee.

I get to Kim’s, a third-floor walk-up on East Ninth Street, half a block from Veselka, the landmark Ukrainian eatery. Kim is one of Stephanie’s best friends, from college. They lived together until last year, when Stephanie and I moved in together. Now she lives with a random roommate, a kid just out of school, a wannabe actor, who in the months to come will use his day job — giving tours at the fireman’s museum — to pass himself off as an actual fireman, in order to woo women.

(In the coming weeks, when I will hear the wail of bagpipes from St. Patrick’s every day as yet another FDNY funeral passes by, women across the tri-state area will give themselves to firemen in a profound and cathartic way that is at once sexual and nurturing — a show of collective physical love reminiscent of some pagan fertility rite, quite unprecedented in my lifetime).

Stephanie, Kim and I exchange hugs, kisses, reports. We watch CNN. We drink the beers. The beers have no effect.

Someone buzzes the intercom. It’s Taylor, Kim’s ex-boyfriend. “I was in the neighborhood,” he says, coming in. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

That sounds like a line. It’s not a line. This sort of thing is happening all over the city. Reconnections. Unannounced calls. The hard shell, the gruff exterior, has been eaten away. Burned off by jet fuel.

Taylor stays for half an hour. When he leaves, Kim says, “I haven’t seen him in over a year. Haven’t even heard from him.”

We finish the beers and we eat and they announce that the subways are running again. Stephanie and I take the N train to Queens. It’s a bumpy ride, lots of stops and starts. The train stops for good at Queensboro Plaza, a good three miles from our apartment. But at least we’re on the other side of the river.

On the hour-long walk home, we stop at a Walgreen’s and buy a clock radio. We need to listen to the news, and what are the chances that the cable guy will come tomorrow?

We have dinner at the Sanford Diner, one of our haunts, on the Astoria version of Broadway. Our friend Rus, whom we’ve managed to contact, joins us. We don’t talk much. There isn’t anything to say.

The President, too, has been silent. We don’t know why; the story keeps shifting. He’s on Air Force One. He’s flying away from a missile strike. He’s in an underground bunker. His whereabouts are unknown. For all we know he’s dead. Later, we will find out the truth — like Gene Hackman in Unforgiven, he wasn’t dead, he was only in Nebraska.

The only voices belong to the newscasters, none of whom know what’s really happening. Rumors swirl: Dick Cheney is in an underground bunker. All of Capitol Hill has been whisked to an installation somewhere in West Virginia. Donald Rumsfeld ran outside the Pentagon to help people who might be buried in the rubble. The Pennsylvania plane was headed to the White House. Osama Bin Laden masterminded the attacks.

Mayor Giuliani resurfaces. Literally. He’s a media whore, so it’s strange that he’s been absent all afternoon. Not that we care what he has to say. His approval ratings are in the toilet. He’s on his way out. Everyone in New York hates him.

But here he is, covered in dust, a handkerchief in his hand. He was in Building Seven when it collapsed. He was with some police- and firemen. He was stuck in the rubble. That’s why we hadn’t seen him on TV. He had to be rescued. Dug out of the ground.

Into the leadership void created by the president’s vanishing steps Rudy Giuliani. He doesn’t say anything earthshattering. He just repeats what the newscasters are reporting. He reassures people that the air is safe to breathe, that it’s safe to go back to work. He doesn’t sound like a politician. He sounds like someone who knows how to handle a crisis. His is a voice of authority, the only one to have uttered a word since the day began. And it has the ability to put us at ease. For all his myriad flaws, Rudy understands what it means to be a New Yorker.

Months later, after Giuliani’s meteoric rise from history’s trash heap, a colleague at AP, a bureau chief who has decades of experience covering politics, will remark to me that Giuliani has engineered the biggest political turnaround in American history. A complete 180. A direct result of his handling of the crisis. His sweeping popularity will help Mike Bloomberg defeat Democrat Mark Green in the mayoral election in November.

Back at home, the TV is all static. We plug in the clock radio. It’s frustrating to only listen to the news. I want to see the images. I want to watch the smoke billowing from Ground Zero.

On the phone with my brother, and then my cousin, I hear more rumors. A Palestinian enclave in Passaic, N.J., upon hearing the news, began celebrating; rival street gangs joined forces and stabbed them all to death. Someone survived the WTC collapse by skating down the rubble as the building fell, like he was snowboarding. Police officers looted the buildings in lower Manhattan. Massive quantities of gold were stolen from the vaults beneath the towers. Mossad was behind it. The Saudis were behind it.

My brother is a registered nurse. He works in the emergency room in a hospital in the Jersey suburbs. They kept staffers there, cleared beds, preparing for fallout, for the wounded arriving from lower Manhattan. There were no wounded, no one to attend to. Everyone was dead.

Stephanie and I fall asleep, clutching each other tighter than usual.

The cable guy shows up first thing in the morning and installs the cable. He is an essential employee.

I go to work. There is nothing to do at the office but read news reports and exchange how-did-you-get-home stories. The people in Jersey had the most difficult journeys. Ferries deposited them in Weehawken, miles away from their cars. Many New Jerseyans stayed in the city, slept on couches, on floors.

That evening, I meet some friends at McHale’s, a bar on Eighth Avenue frequented by actors — a dark, loud place, with big booths and cold pitchers of beer. Mike, my friend who escaped from the World Financial Center, is there. Stephanie joins us, as does Kim and her boyfriend, Chris.

Chris gets into a debate with a close friend of mine, also named Chris, that goes on for hours. Everyone else listens to them argue. It’s like watching TV, our own Crossfire. We listen so we don’t have to participate. We’re not ready to talk. We’re still numb.

Later, I will remember that the Chris/Chris debate was engaging, but will not be able to recall what it was they were arguing about.

We notice the actor Ian McKellen sitting at a table by the window. He’s in a play on Broadway, which performance was canceled tonight (along with every Major League Baseball game). He’s with some teenagers who appear to be relations. Family members. Loved ones. He looks just as sullen and numb as everyone else. Magneto and Gandalf the Grey, just as powerless as everyone else. I recall the line from Richard III, which eponymous role he played so well: A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!

The next day, Thursday the 13th, I don’t go to work. The magnitude of the event — the sheer evil of it — is starting to seep into me, poisoning any sense of ease. There is a nagging pain in the pit of my stomach that won’t go away. The evil has settled there, gnawing at my gut. My head aches from the toxic fumes that will pollute the air for weeks. Fumes that are alleged to be safe, although no one really believes that.

I talk to a friend of mine who lives by herself near the U.N. She’s been having nightmares. She and her sister are on a plane, they’re holding hands, the plane crashes into the World Trade Center. She can see the tower through the window. In her dream she feels the impact.

She is not the only one to have dreams like this.

The New York Post splashes a mug shot of Mohammed Atta on its front page under the provocative headline THE FACE OF EVIL. I think about the Arabs, my neighbors in Astoria, wonder what they must be feeling right now. Siekh cabdrivers, turbaned Indians often mistaken for Arabs, bear the brunt of the burgeoning anti-Muslim sentiment. Tuesday’s goodwill is starting to slowly dissipate.

In Union Square, the hub of 14th Street, a vigil is held. Every square inch of wall space is given to fliers. Have you seen this person. Help me find my wife. Last seen Tuesday morning. There are candles and music and prayers. The feeling of overwhelming love generated there is palpable, even on TV. But it’s not enough.

Stephanie’s friends are going to Union Square, to the vigil. She wants to go. I refuse. I can’t do it, can’t board the subway, can’t take the risk. The feeling that I had on Tuesday — that I was in a movie, that I was safe, that it was all going to be fine — has evaporated. The serenity of shock has lifted, replaced by a bottomless sense of dread.

I feel isolated, out here in Queens, among the Greeks with their Old World customs, among the Arabs with their mosques and their veils. I don’t belong here. And I feel violated. I didn’t know anybody who died, true, but as the comic that ran in the Voice put it: We are all victims.

That night, we meet Rus — who among his many talents is a musician who performs under the stage name Lance Monotone — at Gibney’s, a bar near the Broadway station stop in Astoria. I feel as low as I’ve felt since Tuesday morning. In addition to the dread, there is tension between me and Stephanie, because she really wanted to meet her friends at Union Square, and she feels like she’s missing out. She is missing out. And it’s my fault.

Rus is not taking it well, either. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days. We are three zombies, hollowed out.

We get our beers and find a table. As soon as we sit down, a familiar song comes on the jukebox:

Hey Jude, don’t make it sad,
Take a sad song and make it better…

It’s never been one of my favorite Beatles tunes, but as soon as the song begins, I find myself singing along. I don’t intend to sing, I didn’t know I knew all the words. But the same irresistible force that drew me to lower Manhattan on Tuesday compels me to sing now. I couldn’t stop myself if I wanted to. But I don’t want to stop.

Hey Jude, don’t be afraid…

Rus and Stephanie are also singing, loudly, oblivious to whoever in the bar might object. The place is crowded — all the bars were crowded in the days after the attacks — but later, I won’t remember anyone else being there.

Then you can start to make it better…

The song structure of “Hey Jude” suggests riding a bicycle up a hill. It starts slow and soft, building as the song gains momentum, as the peak is approached. Our voices, too, crescendo as we sing, slowly but ineluctably getting louder as the verses yield to the choruses, and as we realize that the lyrics could not be more appropriate to our mood:

And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain,
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulder…

The last verse is louder still, with louder harmonies, and as it ends, Paul is practically screaming — in our bicycle metaphor, this is the last few pedals to get to the peak of the hill:

Then you begin to make it better
Better better better better better YAAAAAAAAAA!

And we’re screaming too, as loud as we can while maintaining tune, and never before, for all the times I’ve felt a surge of emotion while listening to a favorite song — never before has music sparked such euphoria in me, moved me to such an extreme degree, reversed my polarity, shifted the tone of every synapse and nerve ending in my body from negative to positive so profoundly, so completely. It’s beyond simple catharsis. It’s a religious experience.

There is a pause, then , as we achieve the acme of the hill, and then the coda, the glorious coda, begins.

Nah, na na, na-na-na nah, na-na-na nah, hey-ey Ju-ude.

Now the bicycle is flying downhill. Now it’s easy. Now we are screaming even louder. Rus and Stephanie take turns doing the vocal riffs. I sing the bass line. The outro goes on for four full minutes, more than half the song, and it could go on forever and should. When the world ends, if the world ends, this is the final piece of music we should hear.

Nah, na na, na-na-na nah, na-na-na nah, hey-ey Ju-ude.

Finally the song fades out. We all take a breath and look at each other, marveling at the impromptu concert we’ve just given. And for the first time since the towers fell, I feel…we all feel — me and Stephanie and Rus, and Jude, too, probably — we all feel…better.

Note: This was originally published at the now-defunct second iteration of The Nervous Breakdown, in I think 2009 or 10.