We slept in that day. Our shades, pulled tight after a late night out in lower Manhattan, a flimsy buttress against the creep of crisp air and cracking blue sky on that perfect almost-Fall morning. I don’t know when the phone first broke our sleep. There was a call, then silence; a second call, a third, and then, “Fuck it, I’m getting up.” There were four voicemails waiting and additional missed calls — three from relatives, one from a neighbor. At first they were unhurried. “Just checking in, making sure you’re ok…” But then, fully insistent. “Please call when you can.” Sensing something I turned on the television in time to watch in silent, lurching shock as the North Tower of the World Trade Center buckled and fell. And continued to fall. Television Images looped and looped, an apocalyptic highlight reel of ash-covered survivors and blurry airplanes, exploding on impact. All of this played to a live soundtrack of upheaval from the parochial school gym across our street. Children’s voices, screaming at each flyover pass of fighter jet patrols.
Thinking we might help support rescue crews in some way we made our way as far south as 14th street before all traffic, except rescue vehicles, met barricades. The acrid smoke plume and fire smell choked its way up avenue canyons, greeting us with full proof of the reality that existed only a few blocks beyond. We stood in silence as ambulances sped down the West Side Highway and returned empty, unlit. There was no rescue. No large voids in the layers of stacked floors holding huddled survivors. No miracle hundred-count of emergency workers were found in a rigid stairwell, no waiters safe in backstations or traders under phone banks. Only loss, piled upon loss, piled upon loss.
I’d worked in those towers — the sheer scale, from subway tunnel foundations to cloud-high towers and views, all of it now bent and compressed into waste. So many images from a day which had a single date but somehow managed to be longer, as every second milked every tick of pain possible. I remember a ladder truck passing, flying an American flag. It was full of firefighters, headed downtown. That gesture of selflessness and hope…I closed my throat to push down tears, my chest began to pump. Grief. And tears. This part, I understood.
Six weeks before the planes hit, my wife and I had lost our first child during pregnancy. There were complications in the second trimester which were thought to have resolved. But, in the end they proved insurmountable and she gave birth to our stillborn son at daybreak in a bland hospital room, high above mid-town. We held him for a morning, memorizing details; his perfect hands, replicas of my own; his eyelids, long lashes, thin red lips and tiny toes. The lifetime of parenting we had hoped for would now be crammed into a few short hours in a rocking chair, in a shower of tears. Our boy, the child who should have grown into layettes knit by his grandmother and great-grandmother, was gone. And so went hope. Potential and wished-for, expected and wanted, planned and future. It all went. Gone. Denied. Taken. Once given up and carried from the room he would never be found or returned. I didn’t hold him long enough to grow accustomed to his name, Huck Rainey.
It was in this place, with my heart so raw over Huck that 9/11 happened. The alienation of loss that we had felt, the inability to make small talk in such difficult times was now everywhere. Our black garb of mourning was now standard issue. We were all reduced, all drowning on the same island. No explanation required.
Days like those are for surviving. One foot, one step, one foot, another step; time, the only salve. And in time cabbies return to honking — routines restart. My routine was work on the operations side of an Investment Bank. It wasn’t a job I chose so much as one I needed. My background and education is in classical music — I went to Oberlin Conservatory and majored in Vocal Performance. Like many others, I eventually landed in New York City. But, student loans, a lack of healthcare, and years of dealing with poor solvency as a singer led me to corporate work. And, in spite of my efforts, from dressing the part to walking the talk, and making the money, I didn’t fit in.
I planned my daily commute so that I could pass through Union Square and walk the Farmer’s Market stalls. These people, and I don’t mean the ones buying things, I mean the people behind the tables, the ones with muck boots, homemade haircuts and tans, were my people. The bankers — the MBAs, the guy who worked on his M & A pitchbook while his wife gave birth to their healthy child — I wanted to kick his ass for being so lame. At night, from my office, I would stare downtown at the work lights and smoke from fires that wouldn’t die — a daily reminder of everything. It was here that I bottomed out and also saw the top, meaning, I had clarity which sometimes comes at waking, a lightning bolt, an understanding. A clear awareness that life is goddamned short. In two mornings, weeks apart, I had lived life’s quick exit. And that was all I needed to know that I could waste no more time in this disconnected place, out of love with my path, my life.
I grew up in the Ozark Mountains amid the handwork and trade of my mother and grandmother. Their making and handcraft were daily activities whether stirring biscuits, making bread, knitting, gardening, or spanking a child. Each a sextant of sorts, a way through seasons of everything under the sun. As I grew, the rituals, the details and memories I held closest were those which related to baking and communion.
And so it was here that I looked to heal and renew myself. I began to bake. And as I did so, I also grew my heart, connecting my hands, my soul, my mouth, and my heritage all in a single mixing bowl. It was a way to begin again — or at least to try. From small seed out of hurting ground grew a bonafide passion and eventually, real skills. On another incredible morning in May of 2006, my wife and the two sweet children that came along during the years in between, loaded the car and began the long drive toward Vermont and my new job, as a professional baker.