A Factory with a View
September 11, 2001
The five-building factory complex sat at the Brooklyn end of the Brooklyn Bridge, and was surrounded by the cobblestone industrial alleys of the Dumbo neighborhood, a place where one could imagine Al Pacino filming his Scent of a Woman Ferrari test-drive scene, or buy a quart-sized styrofoam cup full of rice and beans for a dollar from the small Caribbean kitchen (“Abichuelas rojas o negras!?” they would bark, Dominican soup-nazi style, and you’d better know if you wanted red or black beans).
Every morning, after attending breakfast and Morning Worship in the subterranean dining rooms of the Home Complex in Brooklyn Heights I would walk the half-mile across Cadman Plaza Park, along with hundreds of other factory workers, until we reached the tan buildings with the green windows and all-caps, painted slogan (“READ GOD’S WORD THE HOLY BIBLE DAILY”), the place where we worked for fifty hours a week, sweating over bindery machinery to make the books and brochures — propaganda in a hundred languages — to be shipped all over the world.
The day before, my brother had turned 23. But we didn’t celebrate birthdays. He worked in a different building, a mile south along the waterfront, a legendary building with literally a million square feet of industrial space, including the in-house laundry department where every week his team laundered and pressed the tens of thousands of dress shirts we were required to wear in the lobbies, dining rooms, and Kingdom Halls.
When I got to work, I went to the locker room and changed into my dirty factory clothes: an old grease-stained t-shirt and chinos from the donation center — chinos that kept getting baggier every week (I lost sixty pounds in my first year in the factory, in spite of shoveling down as much food as I possibly could in the twenty-minute windows they allotted for us at mealtimes in the dining rooms). Then I went to my machine, a well-maintained, decades-old embosser. On a good day, the machine and I would apply gold foil lettering to forty-thousand book covers. But this day would not be a good day.
An hour into work, my overseer called me over and asked if I could give a factory tour to a visiting family who were waiting down in the lobby. (“Bethel,” the name for the factory, office, and home complexes and the three-thousand worker-residents, was a Mecca for Jehovah’s Witness families — every day dozens of families made their pilgrimage, took tours of the buildings, and oohed and aahed over the competent efficiency of the workers as we rapid-packed boxes of books or rubber-thumbed through stacks of embossed covers, machine-gun fast, in search of a misprint.)
I changed out of my dirty factory clothes and into my dress clothes, combed my hair, put on a tie, and reported to the lobby. I was glad to have a couple-hour break from work. It made this Tuesday feel more like a Saturday, when we worked half-days.
As was my routine when I was selected to guide a tour, I took the visiting family around various floors of the factory, and showed them the entire binding process. When we arrived on my floor (which was called “3–8” because it was the 8th floor of “Building 3” of the five-building complex) we saw the Manhattan skyline, including the prominent twin towers, through the fifteen-foot tall west-facing windows
A couple people from the tour group pointed out a fiery spot on the side of one of the world trade center buildings. I looked and told them not to panic. It looked like a small aircraft to me, and I told them that I was sure they would be taking care of the fire soon. I assumed it was an accident. Still, to be cautious, I wrapped up the tour early and took the family back to the lobby. When I returned to 3–8, the fire was growing and smoke billowed out of the side of the building.
When I changed back into my factory clothes and came out of the locker room, I saw a group of factory workers lined up in front of the windows. I joined them, and we watched with mouths agape as another plane, impossibly low and large, came into view. There were disbelieving murmurs of “no!” followed by guttural expressions of anguish as the plane slammed into the building. In an instant, the more naïve among us realized that today was no accident.
Factory overseers weren’t sure what to do. They evacuated everyone from the factory into the basement dining room for a half-hour to make sure the two planes weren’t a harbinger of an all-out air attack, then they sent us back to our floors. Soon, floor overseers were telling everyone to close all the windows. We didn’t know why, until, a few moments later, we watched in disbelief as the building began to disintegrate right before our eyes. Within seconds, a cloud of dust and debris swarmed across the river and enveloped us. We could see nothing. It wasn’t until after the dust cleared, hours later, that we could see that the second building had collapsed.
Survivors streamed from lower Manhattan, over the Brooklyn Bridge, and into the factory lobby, since it was the nearest building.
After work I walked home to my dorm-style room back at the Home Complex. The air was hazy and acrid with the smell of burning plastic. It hurt my throat.
My brother was ok. My friends were ok. A few had stories of appointments at the World Trade Center that day, but by sheer stroke of luck they had overslept or had something else come up.
Over the next few days and weeks, I began to notice a contrast between the Bethelites and the other New Yorkers. Outside of the factory, people responded to each other with compassion. I heard about all the people volunteering to help out. Inside the factory walls, though, we were told that should get back to work, and not be too shaken up about the events of this world (everything was going to be destroyed in Armageddon any day now, after all, they said). At Morning Worship, an old Bethelite made a joke about the year “starting off with a bang,” and I was so indignant I cried. My tears were burning hot.
Soon, my brother told me he had stopped believing in the religion, and that Bethel was no longer a place where he wanted to be. When the burning smell left the city a couple months later, he left too.
I left in the spring.