A View From The Roof

Sunday, September 11, 2011


It's impossible to believe it's been ten years.  A lifetime gone in the blink of an eye.  But, like everyone I know, the events of 9-11 remain real and tangible in my mind, as if that Tuesday morning and everything that followed happened only last week.

Also like you, I have my "where-I-was-when-it-happened story."  I've told it dozens of times over the years, when over a few beers or dinner the conversation turns to 9-11 and everyone feels the need to unburden themselves.  (Don't worry.  I won't be retelling it today.)  No matter how many times we tell and retell these tales, I think one thing is inevitable: the further we get from 9-11, the harder it will be to conjure the true feelings of that day.

Still, "never forget" is an idea we hear repeatedly, and one I believe in.  I think we must keep looking back, trying to wrap our head around what it all meant, if we are to remain ever vigilant and maintain the way of life and freedoms to which we have become accustomed.

In that buzz of community in the hours and days after 9-11, the phone calls, the emails, the countless online articles detailing survivors' stories and accounts honoring the sacrifices of all those who perished, the strange silence in the sky, the sudden shared understanding we all had of our own mortality, it's hard to pick out any one moment or idea as representative of the whole.

But for me, one thing stands out: the email below, forwarded two days after the attack, written by a friend of a friend, someone who was in New York City on 9-11.  Like all good writing, it captures those moments in a unique, visceral way, and transports the reader back to that day.  I've kept the text all these years, re-read it now and again.  It became my own little way of never forgetting--and on this 10-year anniversary of September 11th, it seemed an appropriate story to share with all of you.

Thanks Brad for letting me use it.

A View From The Roof
by Bradley Spinelli

September 11, 2001:

"The sky looked wrong this morning.  The washed out color of it, not baby blue enough, not shocking the way it has been all summer, but a washed out, faded denim look of a September sky, dirty and used up, like the bleach has taken out the last bit of life and its only blue out of sheer habit.  No relation to indigo whatsoever.  Impossible to believe that it turned this color.  How was it ever dark?  Where did this color seep in from?  Some navy blue terry cloth towel in the wash that suddenly decided to bleed?"

My next thought was, "someone¹s going to die today," but immediately after that I thought, "don¹t be so maudlin.  People die every day."  So I got up, even though it was only 6 or 6:30 in the morning, and I did some writing until about 8.  Then I did some yoga, and my roommate was running out to drive a friend of ours into the city on an errand.  He was planning on coming back and taking the subway in to work himself.  I hit the can and got in the shower; I was determined to get to work by 9 as I had a lot to do today. 

When I got out of the shower I said aloud, "the eternal question:  do I have time to shave?"  It was already 9.  Fuck it, I¹ll shave.  How silly it all seems now, how completely unrelated, how banal, how petty and useless and completely asinine.  So I shaved and was struggling into my clothes when my upstairs neighbor rang the bell and told me that a couple planes had hit the World Trade Center.  "Look out your window," she said, but I knew I couldn't see from my window.  She didn't know what was going on.  I kept asking, "what about the planes?  Where is the rest of the planes?"  I was imagining fuselage shrapnel all over downtown.  Then the phone rang:  My friend Martin in London, calling to ask if I was watching the TV.  I couldn't get a signal; the TV was all fuzz.  He was the one who answered my question:  "The planes are IN those buildings."  I went up to the roof and watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center, burning.  I was trying to imagine this as my new skyline for the next few months, those twin towers with twin holes, the reconstruction.

I went downstairs and Martin called again from London, feeding me more tidbits.  It seemed I could only use the phone when it rang.  I couldn¹t get a call out.  My cell phone had messages on it but all I could get was, "network busy, please try again."  I finally got a dial tone and called work but no one was picking up the phone.  I still thought I was going in.  I was trying to figure if I could get a car across the Queensboro bridge.  I figured a 4 5 uptown would be no dice if downtown was fucked.  I couldn't get a call through to my roommate.  Finally he came in the door.

"Man, I'm so glad to see you."
"Why?  What's up?"
I told him.  He had tried to drive across the Willliamsburg bridge but it was closed; he saw smoke but thought it was clouds.  He had no idea.  He had put our friend on a train to the city.  Before the day was over she would walk from 41st street down to the Williamsburg Bridge and walk across it.  Not across the pedestrian walkway; across the BRIDGE.

I got Dougie on the phone finally and held on while he tried to get his TV working, and his phone seemed somewhat stable as well.  My roommate, Robert, and I got in the car and drove over.  We were on North 10th street, heading under the BQE, avoiding people standing in the street and staring, when he saw it in his rear view mirror finally and hit the brakes and looked over his shoulder, swearing.  He was still rolling and almost hit a parked car when someone yelled at us.

We met Dougie at Phoebe's Café and got coffee, went back to his place and spent the next several hours watching the news.  By the time we sat down one of the towers had already collapsed.  As we watched in horror, the second one went down. 

No more World Trade Center.

No more World Trade Center.

The word on the tip of my mind was: permanence.  What a lie is that word.

We took turns making calls on Dougie's phone and answering his roommate's phone:  he was still MIA and family and friends were calling his cell, which he'd left at home.  He eventually walked home from FIT.  I was leaving the same message for all of my friends:  "Just call my house and leave a message, tell me you're cool."  That's all I wanted to hear:  that you're cool.  I had to call information to get my mother's number at work in Texas.  I knew she'd be worried.  The minute she got on the phone she broke wide open into tears, totally hysterical.  She said later that she'd kept it together until she heard my voice.  "You didn't go to Manhattan today?"  "No, mom, thank god I'm always late."  A lot of people are alive today because of being late.  I'll never think of punctuality in the same way.

Because someone was on time September 11.

September 11.

9-1-1.

There were two things I couldn't shake:  The first was the strange feeling I had had that morning that woke me up at such an ungodly hour.  Even the woman I was with that morning had asked, "What¹s wrong?"  "Nothing,"  I said.  "Just the sky doesn¹t look right."  The second was that I was currently trying to sell a book about a disaster in New York City.  I had done a ton of research as to what would happen if a sudden catastrophe hit the city and all of it was coming to pass.  I was bizarrely educated.  It was all happening, one thing after another:  all subway service in New York suspended; mobilization of all emergency services; FEMA is brought in; the national guard is brought in; everyone encouraged to stay at home. 

When we went out into Dougie¹s backyard to smoke we heard the fighter jets screaming overhead, the only air traffic in the sky.  Giuliani¹s words:  "secure New York City."  The meaning of that word:  "secure."  Military presence.  And the unprecedented:  all air traffic suspended in the entire country.  Canadian and Mexican borders closed.  New York State sealed off.  Dougie's original comment became meaningless, as did my response:  "Fuck this, I'm going back to Seattle."

"You think you¹re safe in Seattle?"

Because that¹s the true power of a symbolic statement like this one:  it doesn¹t matter where you are.  I live less than 2 miles from the World Trade Center.

I finally couldn't take the television anymore and wanted to go home to check messages.  We went back to my place and listened to the 15 messages on my machine, all friends wanting to know if I was all right or friends calling me back to say they were safely home.  Suz wasn¹t working downtown that day.  Tamsen finally called back to say she had caught a bus across town and walked from the FDR back to the Williamsburg Bridge and eventually home.  Dave Lozano and Sean O'Dea calling from Dallas to make sure I was alright.  A year ago, I was working at Wall Street and Broadway.  I called them back and felt the relief in their voice, the same relief in my voice upon hearing a friend calling from home.  When I had Sean on the phone I said, "So, I was on a plane a week ago.  American.  What about you?"  "Yeah," he said.  "About a week ago."

For those who travel as much as we do the shock of this will never wear off.  Hungover, sleep-deprived, handing over my boarding pass and getting on the plane and leaning against the window, getting comfortable for the takeoff that never fails to lure me right to sleep.  It's a routine for me, no stranger than getting on a subway car.  How can I ever do it again?  A highjacking doesn't mean demands and hostages anymore.  Those people were all dead the minute they left the ground.  How can I ever do it again?

I went back up to the roof and stared vacantly and the gaping, smoking hole that had been two majestic columns of human perseverance only hours before.  No more World Trade Center.  The horizontal column of smoke and dust was stretched along parallel to the Williamsburg bridge, billowing across Brooklyn Heights and beyond.  Downtown was nothing but a smoldering dust cloud.  Television showed scenes that were familiar to me:  Beirut.  Total carnage and devastation.  Absence of people in a part of town usually swarming with suits.  Debris and refuse everywhere.

My roommate talked to a friend of a friend that had been only blocks away when it happened; he spoke of flying, burning metal.  The girlfriend of a friend in the neighborhood walked home covered in pale dust; only one of many.

People kept comparing it to Pearl Harbor and Oklahoma City.  By comparison, Pearl Harbor was a drunk driving incident.  Oklahoma City, a fucking hangnail.  There is nothing to compare to this.  No one can underestimate how many people are dead today.  But like JFK's death in the generation before mine, or Pearl Harbor the generation before, no one will ever forget where they were today when they heard--or saw--the catastrophe.

I put a buster of Old Granddad in my coffee which seemed to help, although my head was crystal clear.  A friend from the neighborhood dropped by; we had gotten word that she'd been home alone watching the television all day.  I met her downstairs and she fell into my arms in tears.  Our friend that my roommate had tried to drive to the city finally made it back with blisters on her feet.  She described for us the bizarre silence, the eerie quiet that haunted the streets of Manhattan.  Hundreds of people walking home, and dead silence.  Quiet, concerned talking in a dozen languages.  No traffic.  No cars on the streets.  And no airplanes overhead save the screaming F-16s.  Just a distant whine of sirens that never seems to stop.

I finally got a call from Will, who lives at Delancey and Essex.  He had spent the night at his girlfriend's place in Brooklyn.  Imagine, I was telling him, using a commercial jet liner as a weapon.  "It's so clever," he said.  "That's what's unbelievable.  It's just so clever."  Absolute demonic genius.

And I finally got in touch with Jason, who was at work at 8 this morning before any of this started and was trying to reach me all day.  He was telling about the rampant fear among the rest of those we work with, and one mid-management idiot who wanted to know where I was and why this work wasn't going to get done today.  This is the only example of such cluelessness I've witnessed so far, and I hope it's the last.  I also hope I don¹t get canned when I call this guy out on it when I finally go back to work, but ultimately I don't care.  Jason and his girlfriend walked home and made plans to give blood.

Then I finally heard from Gabe, who, I had worried, might have been working downtown. Turns out he was SUPPOSED to work at the World Trade Center, but had blown it off to lie in bed with a girl and never heard about the travesty until after noon.  He called our friend Walter to work for him.  "So what about Walter?"  I was far from relieved.  Turns out Walter was running late to work himself--his cab couldn¹t get all the way to the WTC because the planes had already hit.  He was in the neighborhood that devastating hour and one of the people running for it when the first tower collapsed.  But he¹s fine.

Not that everyone is.  As many people as I know in this city, I'm just waiting.  Waiting to hear about who I know who's dead.  The entire city is galvanized, braced, walking around in a lost daze and wondering about friends and loved ones.  I don't have to talk about the fierce, savage force of these events.  If you've so much as walked near a television in the last 24 hours, you know.  But if you could have been standing on my roof, watching those towers burn, those towers that have dominated the skyline for my entire lifetime, that I have looked to as landmarks and objects of looming beauty in my years in New York--I wish you could have been there.  Because there¹s simply nothing like it.

All day, people kept saying, "It was like a movie."  But this is where I have to object.  Surreal, yes.  Unbelievable, yes.  But like a movie?  In a movie, the building is still there and a couple of CG guys get a paycheck.  But climb on my roof--no more World Trade Center.  This is not a movie.

Besides, if it were a movie it would have been the Chrysler Building.  It always gets it first.

People scattered again and I managed to pass out for about a half hour until my parents called me to touch base.  I could feel the fear in their voices; palpable.  Tangible.  The reach of this extends to anyone who knows anyone in New York, and anyone with the imagination to consider that their town could be next. 

As the night dragged on heavily, inundated by news coverage of the nightmare, we invited people over to eat.  By that time, most everyone was home and safe and still, but there seemed to be something simple in this gesture; just cooking, eating.  Keeping it up as best we could.

And this is where I find myself the day after, cooking breakfast for a few friends.  Perhaps it's the Italian in me; times of despair, eat.  But the underlying point, I think, is the helplessness that we all feel.  Countless friends of mine have gone to give blood and been turned away.  Giuliani--and bless him, he has been an absolute champ in all of this, our first view of him walking down a clutter-strewn street in the midst of carnage, himself horrified by the unbelievable sight of people jumping from the WTC, telling us to get "above canal," committed to rising above this, imploring us not to take out our anger on any specific racial or religious group--told us last night that he couldn't use any volunteers.  And all I wanted to do today was get downtown and pick through debris.  I may be untrained, but I have a strong back and I¹m used to heavy lifting.  Anything.  Let me do anything but sit here and wonder in shock, looking at everyone around me wide eyed and wondering.  Let me do anything.  But I live in Brooklyn and have been encouraged to stay at home, so I have to comply in any small way I can--can't become part of the problem by getting in the way.

So here we are, cooking.  Calling people.  Making everyone we know aware that we¹re here if they need anything, if they want to eat.  Slicing vegetables.  Heating up cast iron skillets. It¹s something to focus that energy on.  God knows I can't possibly smoke any more cigarettes.

My humble thanks to everyone that raised a glass to us yesterday, who placed a call to a friend or loved one.  My deepest gratitude to all members of the NYPD, the NYFD, FEMA, all emergency personnel, the New York government and everyone who found themselves in the belly of the beast and stuck their hand out to someone in need.  And my deepest, darkest regrets to everyone who lost someone yesterday, to all those friends and families of innocent people who happened to be travelling yesterday, who happened to have a stupid day gig at the World Trade Center, to all those brave souls who gave their lives trying to save another.

To my friends:  I¹m fine.  How are you?

Pity none of us will ever be the same again.

Pray to what gods there may be.

So, on this of all days, please call a friend or loved one.  Give blood.  Thank a servicemember for his or her service.  Have dessert with dinner.  Give your wife, husband or significant other a hug and tell them you love them.  Take stock.  Reflect.  Remember.  Do something to honor all the sacrifices made ten years ago today, and to remind yourself to be thankful we're still here.

4 bolts from the blue:

Christi Goddard said...

I compulsively collected magazine and newspaper articles during those first weeks, trying to hang on to some record of the horror I could show my too-young children some day. I still have it all stacked on my bookshelf, and I can't conceive of letting any of it go. We should never forget. I will never forget. My oldest is now married to a sergeant in the Army, and my youngest is in JROTC, so I suppose some of my patriotic tendencies have worn off on them. In my opinion, for the better.

I have my own where-I-was story, as we all do, and I can still feel my guts twisting when I think on it all. I was prepared to quit my job and travel to New York just to help, even if it meant sleeping in my car and doing nothing but handing out hot dogs to the relief efforts. But, as we all remember, we were told there was nothing to do and we should all stay out of New York. I pray nothing like this ever happens again, but I have faith in my fellow Americans to band together and get through it.

Jon Paul said...

Chrisi--

Thanks for the note. I wish I had hung on to more magazines and such from that time, but then I was young(er) and single and not really looking toward the future. I realize now that for my kids (and everyone else's probably) the attack will be like Pearl Harbor or JFK's assassination was for me: an event more appropriate to pictures and words in history books--and having that distance that drives a sense of security too.

That's why we have to share these stories, I think, to keep the sacrifices alive, to give credit where it's due, and to stay vigilant. Like you, I have every faith in our national capacity to carry on if faced with similar challenges in the future--but hope we never have to cross that bridge again.

Santo Caridine said...

The 9-11 event is massive and I won't be surprised if it takes a lifetime for people to forget it. The view on your roof is beautiful, in spite of its tragic past. And you have the opportunity to make it more beautiful each waking day. =)

Joanne Barragan said...

There's always sunshine after the rain, as the saying goes. And that photo from your roof somehow represents that quote. It actually entails a lot meaning if you just take a closer look at it. You're right, we're fortunate for being here, enjoying each moment with everyone. We should live according to the purpose of why we're still here.

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