When the world turns upside down in an instant, where do you go from there?
As recent times have continued to be rough on many levels, I wanted to bring back a story of survival and time: ten years after 9-11 in NYC.
To be clear, I wasn’t in any of the buildings that were struck. I was not one of the rescue workers. I don’t know anyone who was. But I did work only blocks from the World Trade Center.
The Day of the Attacks
On that September morning, the announcement in the subway that smoke had closed my usual exit, the Cortlandt Street station, didn’t bother me. Subway fires aren’t that unusual—just trash on the tracks.
Instead, I got off a station early. Then I topped the stairs and looked up.
This was The Canyon of Heroes, all tall buildings and narrow streets. The slice of sky I saw was not the clear blue it had been when l descended into the subway in Brooklyn. It was filled with a column of smoke, which glinted like broken glass on a beach. People stood and stared.
Very annoying. Had they never seen a fire before?
Then l heard that two planes had hit the World Trade Center towers. Was it an accident? An attack?
I hurried to my office at 11 Broadway, near the bronze sculpture of the Charging Bull of Wall Street, to check the Internet for news.
Near my building, I ran into a co-worker.
“You couldn’t believe it,” he said. “When the plane hit, you could feel the heat. It was more spectacular than any movie … ”
As I turned on my computer, I felt my office building rattling like an earthquake had hit. Truly scared for the first time, I ran down the stairs. In the lobby, I saw the owner of my company covered in dust. When he told me that one of the towers had fallen, l realized that something enormous was happening—something that would change not only my life but New York City, the United States, and the world.
The 21st Century Actually Started that Day
In the same way, the 30s started with the market crash on Black Monday, Oct. 29, 1929, and the 60s with Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963.
The Days and Months Afterward
The days and months afterward were strange. Everyone was fearful: Where and when would they strike next? There was talk of war. Uniformed military personnel with automatic weapons patrolled the subways and the streets of Lower Manhattan. I had to show a special ID card just to walk on the part of Broadway where I worked.
The armed troops and the ID cards are gone now, but low-flying planes are still unnerving.
“Another attack?” flashes through my mind when something bad happens: like in the first hour of the blackout in 2003 and when news came in about the U.S. Airways flight landing in the Hudson River in 2009. Signs on the subway still remind riders: “If you see something, say something. Alert a police officer, train or bus operator, station personnel, or call (888) NYC- SAFE.”
The only time I had ever made it to the top of the World Trade Center was years before, on a late-evening lark. A friend suggested we have a cocktail at Windows on the World. We drank. Looked around. And left. The towers are always going to be here. I can come back anytime…
Plans unraveled. Monster, Inc. was to have bought my company on Sept. 12. We were all going to become dot-com rich on a small scale. Instead, the deal vanished, and several months later, so did my job.
What few dot-com jobs there were at the time were going to workers with more experience. So, with 20 years already in the restaurant industry, l reluctantly returned to it.
Restaurants in New York were in a slump: businesses stopped spending, and tourists stayed away.
Happenstance and Moving Forward
I got certified as a sommelier and started writing a wine column for the old Vino .com, which helped me get a job managing Brasserie Julien, a French restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The owner, Philippe Feret, had opened Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the World Trade Center, as executive chef but had lost his job because the restaurant never earned a second star from the New York Times.
Not getting that star may well have saved his life.
One night, my friend Marian came to Brasserie Julien with one of her friends Karina: they had wanted to practice their French. Weeks later, I met Karina again at a party, and l asked her out. We got engaged a few months later and were married just under two years after that. Today we have an eighteen-year-old son, Max†.
Not long after Max was born, Marian recommended me to The City College of New York, where I taught writing for a number of years.
Sometimes, I do think about what might have been.
From the perspective of 10 years on, I have seen that the world can change in a moment.
And I’ve seen it’s not merely an end. Not always. Possibly, it’s a new beginning.
It’s been a long, ugly couple of years, starting with a Pandemic. Followed by polarized elections, both of which still roil the headlines. Now, wars in Ukraine and Gaza.
We must not forget this city made it back from 9-11. The country also recovered from 1861, 1918, and 1929, the divisions erupting from Brown v. Board of Education in ’54, and overcame the assassinations of ’63, ’65, and ’68, and the Kent State shooting in ‘70, Watergate, and Vietnam. And the expected political chaos of our experiment in Democracy.
For e Pluribus Unum: If we let it.
† Max was 6 at the time of the photo above and is now a Freshman at SUNY Binghamton, majoring in biochemistry with prelaw as a possibility.
Adapted from the SEPT· OCT· 2011 issue of the OSU Alumni Magazine