This is the way the world changed
By IAN BROWN
Wednesday, September 12, 2001
The day before yesterday, IAN BROWN was in New York, strolling down Wall Street's expanse of luxury and leisure, so summery he was tempted to stay. But then he would have seen the Street burnt ash-grey, bloodied and unreal. This is his diary of New York's last good day, and of the day after - of near-misses, time warps, and stories told through tears
On the last complete day of the world as we had always known it, the sun rose in the east as it always had, and slanted in the window of our hotel room from the left. It was 5 a.m. and clear. It had been that way all weekend in New York -- golden, hot for September. It was our anniversary.
We were staying at the Marriott on Wall Street, because the hotel we had planned to stay at was full. It was one of those coincidences. In fact, we'd had a choice: The Marriott World Trade Center Hotel, or the smaller Marriott Wall Street a block south of the towers of the World Trade Center. We chose the smaller one, even though it was being renovated.
The whole financial district was spectacular that day, the day before everything changed. My wife kept looking up at all the new buildings that have been built in recent years on Manhattan's southern tip and saying, "You know, I could live down here." From our hotel room on the 29th floor, I could see into the apartments of the building across the street, a gorgeous, golden deco dragon of a building, with lion's heads across the lintels and blue and yellow deco tiling along its parapets.
That was just like New Yorkers, we said, to decorate the tops of their tall buildings, in the certain knowledge that one day another building higher still would look down upon the older, smaller one, and still the older building would give the new residents pleasure. It was a hopeful detail. Everywhere we looked we could see leisure, and money, and pleasure, and all the luxuries that I now associate with the other world, that old world, the world before yesterday.
A woman in a white blouse was having breakfast on her balcony with another woman. A youngish man in a white bathing suit was tanning. In the morning, we left the hotel in search of food, like explorers certain they would find glories everywhere, and passed Trinity Church, the first church in Manhattan (Alexander Hamilton, the first treasurer of the United States, is buried there); the Woolworth Building, which had been the tallest building in New York for its time, still sat up like an old queen behind us. There was a fantastic two-for-one shoe sale across the street. I actually thought about staying an extra day, so I could be there on Tuesday morning when the store opened again.
All in all, to a visitor on the morning of the last day of the world as we had always known it, Manhattan seemed like a place anyone would want to be, as long as you were guaranteed some comfort.
The world as it had never been before, on the other hand, seemed to be obsessed with time, told in shorter and shorter intervals. My brother called from Boston at 9:15 a.m., as I walked in the door from dropping my daughter at school. She'd been a little embarrassed by my kiss in the school yard, as usual. "Turn on the TV," he said. "You need to see this. I mean it, you need to watch the TV right now." Then he hung up.
Two minutes earlier, at 9:13, the second plane had run into the second tower. At 9:18, the TV reported that all flights had been suspended. (That was frightening: I mean, really, to suspend all flights? They had to know something.) At 9:20, Bush came on looking like a kid who hadn't done his homework, in that school house in Florida; at 9:40, domestic flights were grounded (now I realize the Federal Aviation Administration knew about the hijackings by then).
At 9:45, the news about the Pentagon came over the TV. I kept thinking: How much more can these bastards pack into a day? At 10, the White House was evacuated. That was when the whole thing started to slide for me, started to try to slip under my consciousness, when my mind began to start to try to get out of the way of the world. At 10:05, my wife walked into the room and said "What's this?" -- to which I replied, "This is the start of the third World War."
"Is that why they've grounded all the planes?" she said. "To make way for the missiles?" If you are reading this in the newspaper the next morning, it turns out she was being alarmist. At the time, though, it was as good a guess as any.
I called my brother back when I got to work. "Okay," I said. "You've managed to get my attention."
By then he was doing the Ping-Pong thing that people seemed to do all day. He was still in his office in the financial district in Boston, albeit in a small building he deemed unbombworthy. He's already called his boss, to ask about the business, and his boss had said the Toronto head office was moving to its secret location the next day.
"Why don't you leave?" I said.
"I can't," he said. "The garage of the building is jammed."
"Why? Because people are fleeing the city," he said. "Fleeing. Because this is a war. People leave war-torn areas, don't they?" He sounded slightly irritated. "They left Sarajevo, they left Beirut, and now they're leaving Boston." All the markets were closed, and Europe was down three-and-a-half per cent. Rosemary, his secretary, had come and gone that morning; her son worked in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., and was planning on walking the 15 miles home.
"Why?" I said.
"Well, how else is he going to get home?" Again the irritation. I heard it all day long.
After the irritation, came the anger. "I hope the Americans bomb the hell out of whoever did this. They're fucking animals. This is thousands and thousands of people dead," he said. "Thousands and thousands."
There was a pause, and that was when the Ping-Pong, the brain jumping back and forth from the practical and the selfish to the conceptual and a view of all mankind. It was strange how it kept swimming into view. Everything was different. "Suburban real estate," he said.
I didn't know what he meant, it came out so suddenly. I made a noise.
"Suburban real estate. Buy some. Because no one is going to want to live in the city anymore. Lodging stocks, short them."
"Lodging stocks?" This time, I actually managed to say the words.
"Hotels!" he said. "Get rid of them. Americans are going to stop travelling. Oil."
"Oil? What do you mean, oil?"
And he paused again, as if he'd caught himself in his own tracks, the way the whole day had caught us all -- all day long, saying what came to mind and then thinking about it, because there were suddenly all new rules in place.
"That may add a new variable, the oil equation. This is why the Americans can't just bomb the shit out of the Arabs. Because they need the oil." Another pause.
"My whole perception is changing," he said, and it was then that I realized he was speaking in real time, that he was living now in the continuous present. "I just went to get a cup of coffee, and people were standing in the street, crying. In mourning, I suppose. You thought Oklahoma was shocking. But that was 350 people. I don't feel safe. I went to get a coffee. But I keep looking behind me."
After that I said I had to go. I told him to take care. But he was ponging back now. "I have to go to Austin on Thursday," he said. "Business."
"Never happen," I said.
"Really," he said, "you think so?"
If people weren't Ponging, they were crying. I called Charlotte, in Arlington, Mass. It didn't seem to matter that I hadn't called her in 10 years; time had disappeared. In Arlington, Charlotte had been walking up the street with her daughter Lilly to the sing-along at the local library -- did you get that? to the singalong at the local library -- when she saw some housepainters sitting around a radio in a window. "The sun was shining, birds were singing," she said. When she heard about the attacks she walked home again.
"Then I started crying right here in the kitchen," she said, and by then she was crying on the phone as well. "I mean, my God, I have kids. And all those people in those buildings, and their kids -- and just, these endless generational, centuries-old conflicts, they way they can come down and fester wherever you are."
She was talking steadily now, crying but talking calmly, as if tears would always from now on be a part of her conversational style, and she was already adapting well to its gasps and sputters. "I mean, assuming that it's terrorism. You would think that another human being would know what they were doing, that they couldn't these things, like flying a plane full of people into these buildings." She paused, sniffed. "I was just thinking too, that we take American Airlines all the time."
Then I looked over at the TV, and told her that the two towers had just collapsed. "Collapsed?" she said. And then she started crying again, though differently now, so I didn't mention that all of lower Manhattan was being evacuated. She sobbed for a while then, stopped, started up again. Finally, she spoke. "And I don't know what I'm going to say to Aiden, my son. He just went up the stairs in tears about his homework. What do I do about that?"
In all, I heard five people sobbing on the telephone in the course of the day. For me, at least, that's quite a lot. I even saw it in newsrooms, which I have never seen before. At first I thought it was because so many things we had all relied on and trusted as dependable had fallen apart that morning, but I have since decided it was just plain fear. Every conversation I heard in the street was about the attacks, bar none, and every one was full of the words hijacked, and dead, and unreal.
In New York, in the last days before all this happened, we walked everywhere. We saw Proof, a brilliant Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It was the last performance for Mary-Louise Parker in the lead, and she started to cry on the stage when it was over. Then her co-star, Johanna Hay, started to cry as well, and then Hay bonked foreheads with Parker, and then everyone laughed.
It's a play about geniuses and mathematics and love, and how only one of those is provable. As I left the play, I had one of those thoughts you can have after you see a great play, one of those thoughts that goes, yes, art lasts. Today, that thought doesn't seem wrong. But it no longer seems to matter.
On television, the worst part to watch was the streets of the financial district after the towers collapsed. My wife and I had walked up those streets the day before. They were new, black with fresh asphalt, and clean. But on the TV they looked dreadful -- that grey-white dust, the deadly spoor of a modern city, people struggling through it in slo-mo, too bewildered to run, white rags across their mouths, the sign of their words' surrender.
People in a dream, and yet people in the all-too-real world: How could people in the real world be in that dream? That was just a dream, a dream on the screens of the world. It was just a dream but now it was real. This is the way the thought went through my mind all day.
"I keep waiting for Bruce Willis or Denzel Washington to show up on the TV," a producer friend from Los Angeles said on the telephone. He'd been in New York, too, the day before, to unveil his mother's gravestone, and had been tempted by the fine weather to stay over another day, to yesterday. That would have been fatal: As it was, the flight he'd taken the day before was one of the flights that was lost the next day.
Lost. That was the word next to the flight number on the blue screen. Again and again, lost, lost, lost,like a rubber stamp. He could have been lost too. But he wasn't. The whole day was full of coincidences like that.
The thing is, you see, we almost stayed. We wanted to stay. But the kids were in Toronto, and I had some work to do.
So we came back. I might be there still. Or I might be there, but not be there.
The psychologists say speculation like that, these musings about what might have been, are one of the ways we deal with such traumas. What is, what might have been, this side or that of the fence of fate, depending where you're standing.
I spoke to a man who said he woke up to the news on the radio and wanted to throw up. "There are people in the world who aren't people," the would-be puker said. "They're just -- I don't know. Animals, I suppose, but that's not right either."
I spoke to another guy in Manhattan who woke up and discovered his phone didn't work, and so went outside to use the corner pay phone -- the same pay phones my wife and I had tried to use the day before, the same pay phones that never work in Manhattan. He was trying to get it to work when someone said, the way strangers will talk to anyone in New York, "Look up." So he did. Then he saw the smoke.
People had turned up their car radios, and a clerk in his local hardware store had hauled a TV out of the store onto the sidewalk. At 7th Avenue and 21st Street as he walked by a woman started screaming: "Kill the Middle East!" But then, the guy in Manhattan told me, and I could tell he was smiling. "She was whisked off by the Nobel Committee."
It was a joke, of course -- not a bad one, either, referring as it obviously does to the fact that Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a former terrorist and airplane hijacker himself, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, sharing it with Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. That joke, however, was the only one I heard all day. Late in the afternoon, passing an outdoor patio, I saw a man laughing as he told a story, and another man scowled at him.
Again and again, wherever they were, in Toronto or Boston or Los Angeles or Montreal, people reported the same pattern of reactions. (For some reason I take faint comfort in this.) First the mute, slack-jawed watching, and the dawning news. That initial screaming thought: Is this the start of the third World War? Whereupon the brain went local: What does this mean for me? Did Emily ever get back from New York? Why can't I get through?
Then, even more astonishing, rogue relief: I won't have to finish that report by Thursday anymore. And even if I do, I bet I can miss work today.
Then calling, and calling again if you were calling New York, and thinking, of all things: Thank God for redial. And then the wave of shame for thinking something so petty as "thank God for redial." Or how about this one: Maybe it wasn't terrorism, maybe some computer glitch sent those planes careening into buildings.
But the Pentagon bombing scotched that fantasy, and kicked the rest of the day into high fear gear. That was when it started to be frightening, personally threatening. Maybe it was happening all over the United States, maybe all over the world. And this business of rerouting all international flights into Canada -- how smart was that?
Only rarely, I found, did my mind go truly global. Only intermittently did I forget to remember not to think about the next horror: Is this when we go nuclear?
The ironic thing is that such a thought should be a surprise at all. "I mean," my L.A. producer friend told me, "I've read 20 scripts about how vulnerable the U.S. is to a terrorist attack. It's not like any of this is stuff we didn't know. Or that it's impossible for it to happen."
The only difficulty was imagining that anyone would actually do it. And even that shouldn't have been a surprise. After all, there are more than a few historians who now refer to the 20th century as the Age of Extinction, the stretch of history when the once unthinkable possibility that an entire people could be wiped out became a reality again and again. Some of those same historians believe that the 20th century didn't actually begin until 1918, and that it hasn't yet ended.
On the afternoon of the second-to-last day of the world as it was, last Sunday, on the anniversary of our wedding -- the day my wife and I decided to throw our towels in together and make a play for the future, with a house and kids and all the usual hostages to fortune -- we travelled uptown to the museum of the New York Historical Society to see a show called "The Rooftops of New York."
The New York Historical Society devotes itself to recording the history of the city. One day, provided the Society is still around (I wish I could say that was still a definite possibility), it will record the events of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, and people will go to that show too.
The "Rooftops" show was a small one, almost quaint in its scope. "Starved for light and air, New Yorkers have always taken to the rooftops of their buildings," the show's preamble said. In that spirit, the curators had reassembled one of New York's famous wooden rooftop water towers right there on the museum floor. Here were lithographs of laundry thieves and seriographs of sunbathers, quilts of entire families picnicking on tarpaper beaches.
My favorite painting, though, was an obscure 1930s oil in the fashion of the social realist Thomas Hart Benton. In green and red and orangey flesh, it depicted two couples lying on parapets on a New York apartment building, high above the steaming night streets below. The visitors had dressed up a bit, the man in a tie, his wife in high heels. Together, as a faint breeze blew across their rooftop, they listened to the radio.
But I will never be able to go up on the roof of a tall building again without thinking of the last day of the world as it was, and the first day of the world as it will be from now on. Now, suddenly, I don't want to think of my children at my age. I mean it when I say the world seems like a different place. Tall buildings mean different things to me now, and so do men and women walking hand in hand on a September day in those grand canyons of Wall Street where on certain corners you have to crank your head just to see the sky. I'll never see another thriller at the movies without wondering why it doesn't seem realistic, because once again reality turned out to be the most gripping special effect there is.
Worse still, I will never see another devout, turban-wearing Muslim without wondering -- unfairly, I admit, against my better instincts, I realize, but doing so nevertheless -- was he part of it? Or, at least, did he feel remorse?
And I will never know the answer. On Monday this sort of extremism was only a possibility, and I could operate in the daily faith that it would never come to pass. On Tuesday I could only operate in the certainty that it has occurred once and will occur again. And so, just as there is less of New York, there is less of me now: less of me willing to believe in the human project of commonality. I regret this, but cannot help it, not with all the discipline and forbearance I can muster.
I found thinking about the consequences of what had happened impossibly confusing. If the terrorism came out of the Middle East, how could anyone respond, if the Middle East has all the oil? And was retaliation necessary, even possible, given that the perpetrator appeared to be not a country but an amorphous organization? Somewhere in my brain there was an itch for something, but what that something was, I was afraid to imagine. Maybe if you let terrorism occur without striking back, then history becomes irreversible. Retaliation is necessary, but not for revenge and not even for moral instruction. Maybe you retaliate so that you can go back to believing that the world is worth building.
Before I went to bed I turned on the TV a last time. From rail to rail, from end to end, the Manhattan bridge was thronged with people walking home.