I had a plan on September 10th, 2001. It was a rough plan, just broad strokes, really. But it was a plan. You can’t build a bridge or pull off a bank heist or rescue a hostage without a plan. So I had a plan to get my life in order. A three-part plan:
Part one: Lose weight. Part two: Get rich. Part three: Quit smoking.
On the night of the 10th, I resolved to, at the very least, begin with part three. I would throw away my cigarettes. I had just finished talking to my dad who was dying of lung cancer. As I listened to him wheeze over the phone, I could smell the nicotine on my fingers and the smoke in my hair. I could stop smoking, I thought. Soon, I would become thin and brilliant and rich and my life would be nothing but one long gravy Slip ‘N Slide.
I woke up on the morning of September 11th and stuffed a donut into my mouth instead of a cigarette. This was a minor setback to the first part of my plan, I know.
When I watched the south tower of the World Trade Center collapse on television, I ran out of the conference room in the building near 23rd Street and Broadway in Manhattan where I was freelancing. I ran down the stairs and outside onto Broadway, and though I was miles away from the carnage, I could see smoke billowing up from where the World Trade Center had been.
When I had first moved to New York five years earlier, I had used the Twin Towers as my compass to navigate the city. The towers were at the southernmost tip of Manhattan. I knew the police cars and ambulances were hurtling south, but all I could see in the distance was a cloud pushing itself above buildings and towards a cloudless sky.
At that instant, I knew the television wasn’t lying. The comforting box wasn’t going to pause to tell me a story about how the right detergent would make me happy. I glanced downtown once more and thought, Thank God, I’m not down there. Thank God, I’m not down there. Thank God…
In the subsequent days and weeks, I talked to enough people who were down there. A friend who vomited ash. An ex-girlfriend who retreated from the battle across the Brooklyn Bridge. A firefighter who told me about the jumpers and a dream he had where he was strong enough to catch one. I remember buying him a drink and drunkenly telling him how I wish I could have helped. They’d sealed off 14th Street pretty quickly and I couldn’t get through. I told him how much I regretted not being able to go down there, but it was all a lie. I even confessed that I had given blood. I had not. I am a coward.
I ran back into my building. The security guard at the desk was shouting, “My son is a firefighter! He’s going to save those people!” He repeated it, loudly, to himself. His little transistor radio was nothing but static and hissing.
By the time I reached my office, I was told all of the news. The second tower collapsed. The rumors started circulating. An unstoppable tsunami of fire and debris was thundering uptown. There were other planes. Planes heading towards the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. The white ash that had engulfed downtown was anthrax. There was looting and the Capitol had been destroyed in Washington and there were bombs going off. I then came to the most logical, rational conclusion I could come to: the world was ending. The world was ending and I needed a plan.
I examined my options. I could 1.) fight or 2.) flee. In retrospect, I think I pulled off hysteria pretty well. I didn’t shriek and run in circles. What I did was calmly walk to the bathroom, close the stall door, and get sick. Once my stomach was empty, I decided against fleeing, which I imagined involved me screaming and running all the way to the Hudson, diving into it, and swimming to Canada.
No. I had to stay and fight, which primarily consisted of fighting the urge to vomit.
I told [my girlfriend] not to worry. We were going to be okay. This is the sort of lie you don’t really think is a lie when you tell it.
I made a new plan that morning. Part one: call my dad. I managed to get through after numerous attempts, and he choked back tears and I swallowed snot and I told him I was alright. He told me in a hoarse voice to keep it together, to get home, and then his voice cracked and he told me we’d get them. We’d get those bastards. I didn’t know who we’d get, but we’d get them.
We would, he and I. The lung the surgeons removed would grow back and his shoulders wouldn’t hunch over and he’d be strong and I’d sit on his shoulders and my fingers would be laser guns. That’s how we fought Darth Vader once, in a park. I assured him I was okay — a-okay! — and hung up the phone. The inside of my cheek was bleeding from where I had chewed it.
Part two of my new plan: Call my girlfriend and tell her an equidistant point to meet between my office and Columbia University, where she was going to school. I picked a bar we drank at frequently. I was going to be her hero, by golly. I made sure my voice was firm and commanding. I told her not to worry. We were going to be okay. This is the sort of lie you don’t really think is a lie when you tell it.
In some ways, hope is just a lie in a prom dress. I told her we would be okay even though we would never, ever be okay again. In a few months, I would be unemployed. A few months after that, my dad would be dead. A few months after that, my girlfriend would move out of our apartment because I cheated on her.
The third part of my plan: prepare for the apocalypse and fight my way to my girlfriend. Because, obviously, anarchy was going to break out. The streets would be full of lawless biker gangs and cannibals and warlords commanding small armies of hockey-mask-wearing barbarians.
I ran into the office kitchen and immediately began soaking a dishtowel, as that tidal wave of destruction should have reached the Flatiron Building a few miles north of the Financial District by now. I would wrap that dishtowel across my face to help me breathe, and to make me look like a ninja badass. I started looking for a weapon to help me slash and cleave my way through hostile hordes of humans on my way to rescue my girlfriend.
But there were no weapons. I paused and seriously considered affixing, with tape, the fork and knife in the sink to a broom handle to fashion a makeshift spear. I could stab my way to my girlfriend using a spear made out of a broom handle and a fork and knife. I thought I was MacGyver’s little brother.
I laughed. I laughed at myself. I laughed at the fear I would instill in villains everywhere with my mighty homemade spear. It would be the only time for days that I would laugh.
It’s funny how you don’t know you’re crying until you can taste the salt in your mouth.
Of course, there was no anarchy. Just funeral parlor silence. I walked up the middle of Sixth Avenue with hundreds of people. There was no traffic. Jet fighters zoomed above our heads. I remembered the Greek myth of Orpheus and tried not to turn back toward downtown. He was allowed to escort his great love out of the underworld on one condition: that he did not look back to make sure she was behind him as they ascended out of the darkness. I didn’t look back. I walked. I met my girlfriend. We kissed and I was rescued.
The bar was a dark party of stunned office workers who decided that the end of the world was happy hour and that happy hour lasted for years. The trains weren’t running to Queens, so I knocked back two or five.
My girlfriend was quiet. I could hear my dad tell me that we’d get those bastards. Out of nowhere, I looked at her and told her, “We’ll get those bastards.” She asked who. I sputtered. I tried to come up with an answer. By that point, everyone in the city knew that the city had suffered a massive terrorist attack.
“The terrorists. We’ll get them back!”
A guy at the bar staring at the television with giant wet eyes overheard me and weakly gargled an agreement.
She asked “who” again.
“The terrorists. We’ll get them back. We’ll f**k them up. We’ll nuke them. Wipe them off the f**king planet. It’s got to be the Iranians, right? Well, let’s nuke Islamabad!”
“John, Islamabad is in Pakistan,” she whispered. She should know. She was getting a graduate degree in international studies. I got angry at her and stormed outside. The streets were full of hot-blooded zombies. It’s funny how you don’t know you’re crying until you can taste the salt in your mouth. I tried to man up and not look like I was sobbing, but trying to look like you’re not sobbing only increases the production of mucus.
We caught the first train back to Queens. It was crowded. Everyone stood shoulder to shoulder, but no one shuffled. We were tight like a Tetris game. Near the front of the car, a man groaned like he was wounded, but he wasn’t.
On the way back to our apartment, I stopped at a deli for a pack of cigarettes. The owner of the deli was startled to see me walk in. I later learned that the man who sold me the cigarettes was from Bangladesh. But as I paid him, I wondered if he was from Islamabad, Iran, the capital of an imaginary nation of terror. I felt ashamed and asked him how he was doing. He begged me to leave. He was afraid and pleading with me, “Please, go, leave. Please.” He closed his shop later that night and didn’t reopen until the next week.
There was the smell — the smell of burning plastic, concrete, steel, bones, and the lead from thousands and thousands of computers.
I smoked my first cigarette on the roof of my apartment as my girlfriend passed out. We barely did anything but sleep for the next few months. Sleep and drink and shake and pretend to work.
I could see the plume of smoke snaking heavenward from across the river. I was safe, far from the carnage. But there was the smell — the smell of burning plastic, concrete, steel, bones, and the lead from thousands and thousands of computers. The smell was part of the smoke that settled like a blanket over the entire city.
I lit my cigarette and exhaled. The smoke spilled out of my nose and mixed with the smoke that polluted the crisp autumn air. The smoke clung to my hair and my clothes, my skin, teeth, and dreams. I can still smell it, right now, as I write this. I lit a new cigarette with the glowing red end of the old cigarette, and I inhaled and exhaled more smoke.
I wished that with every drag, I could pull myself into the cigarette and through the cigarette and transform myself one suck at a time into smoke that finally escapes out the other end. I wanted to be smoke. I wanted to twirl and float on the breeze and disappear.
Plans burn, and I still smoke.