A Story Without a Moral, A Day in Dust

I don’t know why it has taken me a year and a half to write this account of how I spent the day of September 11, 2001. And I don’t know why I finally decided to write it down today. But here it is:

* * * * *

For months before September 11, 2001, the date had already been a significant one for me. This was the projected release date for Bob Dylan’s new album, "Love and Theft", and I was the technical director of Dylan’s official website, BobDylan.com. Since mid-summer, we had been planning to launch a brand new version of his website on that Tuesday.

I am a very experienced web designer and Java programmer, but I sometimes let deadlines get too close. By the last week of August, the project was going badly and I was starting to worry that I was in over my head. I was responsible for programming some new interactive features for the website, including a new community area devoted to Bob Dylan and a search engine for his lyrics. Two weeks before launch date, the message board installation was a mess, I couldn’t get the search engine to work, and I was starting to panic.

My business partner, Dan, had been expecting a full working preview of the site on September 7. It wasn’t ready, but I didn’t want him to know how far behind I was, so I started avoiding his calls. My kids stay with me on weekends, so I got almost no work done Saturday or Sunday. I brought them back to my ex-wife early on Sunday, and began digging in for an all-nighter. I spent Sunday evening staring in dismay at oblique error messages, wondering what would happen if Tuesday rolled around and the site was still not ready. The "bobdylan.com" URL was going to appear on the CD’s liner notes, and Sony Music was certainly not going to hold off the release of the CD because Levi Asher was getting Java runtime errors. I felt like I was facing one of the worst and most visible deadline fuckups of my life.

On Monday morning, September 10, I finally had a breakthrough and solved the error that had been plaguing the system. But I now had a ridiculous amount of catchup design work to do before the site could be launched. Monday the 10th was a no-leave-the-apartment day, a caffiene frenzy, eat-with-one-hand and type-with-the-other day. By the time midnight rolled around, it was Tuesday and I was officially late. I IM’d Dan to hang in there, because I was almost ready to launch. He told me to keep working, and said he’d check in with me in the morning. I plugged and plugged away, and by 4 a.m. on the morning of September 11 the site seemed to be operating. Except that I was too exhausted to be able to tell if it was really working or not. I had a long list of corrections I still needed to work on — broken graphics, typos, bad links — but there was no way I could apply my brain to them now. The site was live, and I decided to get a few hours sleep before I got back to work. I set my alarm clock for 8 am, left my computer running, and lay back on my bed to fall asleep.

I woke up at 8 a.m., feeling tremendously good. The site hadn’t crashed during my four hours of sleep, which felt like a minor miracle. I wandered into the kitchen, half tired but energized by the fact that I had managed to just barely hit the deadline, and made coffee. I usually read the Times in the morning but today I had to shut out the world and get right to work. I brought my cup of coffee back to my desk and put a shuffle mode of three Dylan CD’s into my cd player (I like to listen to Dylan in shuffle-mode when I work on his website). I picked up my hand-scribbled list of final changes and corrections, most of them cosmetic items of the time-consuming but not mentally-challenging variety, and started tearing through them one by one. I felt totally "in the zone".

My TV was off, and I’d also left my IM window off because I didn’t want Dan to pop on and find out how many errors I was still fixing. If he asked, I’d have to be honest and tell him, but if he didn’t ask, I figured it was unlikely he’d find them all himself. Since I was using my apartment’s single phone line for my dial-up internet connection, I was completely cut off from the outside world.

My small Manhattan one-bedroom was on the sixth floor of an old converted hotel on 47th Street between 6th and 7th, above a cheap Turkish restaurant and next door to the Palace Theatre. I usually heard a lot of street sounds — cabs honking, panhandlers panhandling, tourists talking — and I heard nothing unusual this morning. I pounded away on my bugs list, enjoying my shuffle-mode, completely oblivious to what was going on in the city outside my window. At 8:47, I might have been listening to "On A Night Like This" from "Planet Waves". At 9:03, maybe I was listening to "What Good Am I?" from "Oh Mercy". At 9:38, it could have been "New Pony" from "Street-Legal". I worked and worked. By 10:30 the site was looking pretty good and I started my final review of all the pages to make sure it was all good. At 11 I was ready to tell Dan that the site, as far as I could see, was in perfect condition. I knew he would be waiting for me online, so I popped up my IM window to tell him the good news. But Dan wasn’t on IM. Instead, two friends quickly greeted me with the same message: "Are you okay?"

I didn’t expect my friends to be so concerned about my Dylan deadline. I wrote back "Sure" to one of them, and asked the other one "Yeah — why not?". The second friend replied, "Don’t be funny with me". I replied "What’s going on?", grabbed my zapper and turned on CNN. I saw something about the Pentagon on fire. Then I heard something about airplanes hitting the World Trade Center. Since the towers are visible in the distance from my street corner, I IM’d "I’ll be right back" to both of my friends, logged off, and scrambled to put my shoes on, intending to go outside and see what was going on. By logging off I had freed my phone line, and at that very moment my phone rang. It was my friend Lauren, who worked at an advertising agency a few blocks from where I lived. "I’m right downstairs," she said. I said "What’s going on?" I told her I’d meet her outside, threw some clothes on and left.

Lauren began filling me in, but I couldn’t comprehend what she was saying. She said that both towers had collapsed. "Collapsed?" I said. "What do you mean, collapsed?" There was no such thing. We were in the street, and we walked to the busy corner of 47th and Broadway, the TKTS booth corner, where we saw a strange site: a bunch of people had climbed into the back of a large truck and were standing up in the trailer as somebody rolled the back door closed on them. Where were they going? When do you ever see people standing up in the trailer of a truck and driving away? "What the fuck is going on?" I said. Lauren had trouble understanding that I was really completely in the dark, that I was the only one in New York City, or maybe the only one in the world, who had not seen it on TV or heard it on the radio. She started explaining but I kept questioning her. She described the TV footage of the airplane crashing into the south tower, and demonstrated to me with her hands how it had sliced right through the walls. My only reaction was denial. It didn’t seem believable, and I made her repeat her words several times.

We had instinctively begun walking south, towards the towers. "Where are we going?" she asked. My only instinct was to go down there, to see how we could help. As we walked I got my first glimpse — since I hadn’t seen it on the news — of the gigantic cloud of pure white smoke that hung lazily over the southern tip of Manhattan island. The cloud seemed to encompass the towers, and was easily as tall,
so that it was easy for me to believe that the towers were still somehow there, inside that gentle ball of smoke. I had an image in my mind of towers with broken tops, a few floors fallen in.

Many New Yorkers who remember this day talk about how beautiful the weather was. What they say is true. It was a perfect and rare September day, the sky blue as a painting, the air crisp and pleasingly cool with just a touch of a warm, welcoming breeze. There was no chaos around us, just a lot of dazed faces of Times Square tourists and regulars, and a few scenes of confused attempts to organize relief efforts (like that truck bizarrely filled with people). It was impossible to connect the scene of normality around me with the words Lauren was saying. We kept walking.

Lauren was dressed for a day at work — a flowered white dress and high-heeled shoes. She asked again "Where are we going?" I answered that, naturally, I wanted to go to the towers. She said this was a bad idea and suggested we stop in at a bar or restaurant to watch what was happening on TV. I stubbornly insisted that we keep walking. The World Trade Center was about 80 blocks away, but I knew that the West Side Highway promenade would get us there fast without stopping for street traffic, and I led Lauren westward towards the highway.

Streams of people were on the West Side promenade. A few, like us, were walking towards the round white cloud of smoke, but many more were walking away from it. Lauren suggested that this was probably a hint that we should take, but I wouldn’t listen. As we walked I made her tell me yet again what she had seen on the TV news. She had only watched it from a storefront window after leaving work and wandering the streets, so her knowledge was limited. She had no idea who was believed to be responsible. There were no well-known enemies of the USA, at least as far as we knew on that morning.

I tried to use my cell phone to call my ex-wife in Queens to check in with the kids. The calls wouldn’t go through. We walked on, and around 23rd Street we saw a sight that made us begin to realize what exactly we were were walking towards. It was a burly, older fireman in full uniform, completely covered in dust and dirt. His face was streaked, his hair and walrus moustache caked in gray ash. He was walking quickly uptown, and did not look like he wanted anybody to say a word to him. Lauren and I looked at each other. This was really happening.

We began to ponder how many deaths might have taken place. We discussed the horrific idea of airplanes full of passengers smashing into buildings, and what this must have been like for the innocent victims. We talked with some relief about the fact that many New Yorkers typically arrive at work a few minutes late, so that most offices would not have been even half full by 9 in the morning. Neither Lauren nor I had friends who worked in the towers, so we did not feel the personal agony of fear that many other New Yorkers were feeling that morning. I told her as we walked about the one time I had gone to a business meeting in one of the towers. I had been working for a banking software company and we’d been on a sales call to Fuji Bank. I told her about the incredible cleanliness of the Fuji Bank offices, the rock-garden Japanese perfection, so unlike offices of American banks, which tended to look professional but hectic. I remembered the faces of the two Japanese businessmen we had met with. It had been the only time in my life I had ever been called upon to execute a polite Japanese bow, which I remember I only performed very slightly and without much enthusiasm — bowing is not my style. I had also been instructed to carefully study each business card I received, instead of shoving it carelessly into my pocket as Americans do with each other’s business cards.

We reached the Chelsea Piers, where a sports center had recently opened and where I often took my kids for golf swings or batting practice. We asked a parking lot owner if we could use a restroom and he let us in. Everybody we talked to had a look in their eyes that I could only describe as crazed calm. We were crazed because of what was happening, but we were calm because we knew that we were not the victims, we were the observers, and that it would not be helpful for any of us to require attention when others needed it more. I guess you could say the crazed aspect was real, the calm aspect necessary.

I kept dialing my ex-wife and kids but couldn’t get through. Around Franklin Street, only about ten blocks north of the Trade Center, I finally got through to my 10 year old son. He was confused, hyper, not upset or scared but definitely shocked. I asked him what the TV news was saying and he said something about Afghanistan being responsible. It was a shaky phone connection and we were cut off after about thirty seconds.

At Franklin Street we were looking directly up at the enormous white cloud, close enough to see a haze of tan dust hanging over the ground directly in front of us. We now were regularly seeing pedestrians with their skin and clothes covered in this tan dust, the same kind of dust that had covered the fireman walking north on the West Side Highway. A police van was blocking off pedestrians to allow emergency vehicles to get through, and it was clear that we could not walk any further down this street. We were in front of the Tribeca Grand Hotel, and a deli was open on the opposite corner. We went in but realized there was nothing either of us could think of eating or drinking, so we stepped back outside. At the southern corner near the police van, a few people were organizing an impromptu volunteer’s brigade. But there were about fifty people wanting to volunteer, and nobody apparently needing their help. Days later, we would hear about the vast waves of medical emergency volunteers who were at this moment rushing into Manhattan from all over New Jersey, Long Island, upstate New York and Connecticut, bringing with them the best medical equipment in the world, only to find out that there were no survivors to save.

Lauren and I stood with the volunteer brigade for a minute or two. But it seemed pointless, and I wanted to keep walking. I don’t know why I was so insistent on going directly to the site of the disaster, except that this was my city, these were buildings I knew intimately, and like many New Yorkers, walking is what I do when I’m not standing still. It wasn’t that I had any reason to continue; it was more like I had no reason not to. Lauren didn’t want to go any further and considered going back alone to her apartment in Greenwich Village, not far from where we were standing now, but she begrudgingly agreed to keep walking with me, for no reason that either of us could explain.

I used to work on Wall Street in lower Manhattan, and knew every street of this dense and ancient neighborhood. Downtown Manhattan was the original site of New York City itself (midtown Manhattan, with its Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center and Times Square, was a later creation), and most of the streets, unlike the broad boulevards of midtown, were tight and crooked. We circled southeast, towards the Brooklyn Bridge and the old Five Points area. We crossed Mulberry Street and stopped at a Church in Chinatown where the neighborhood residents had set up a relief center for victims. We saw quite a few people covered in dust who had obviously been in or near the towers when the airplanes had hit. We stopped to listen to one young Hispanic man tell the story, in a feverish but steady voice, of how he had walked down the south tower’s stairs to safety. He wore a white shirt, covered with dust, and his tie hung loosely around his collar. An impromptu crowd had gathered to listen to him.

Fulton Street, near the entrance to South Street Seaport, was where the dust cloud began. Lauren, who is a professional singer (she had been a member of the popular 80’s band "The Washing
ton Squares" and still performs torch songs in nightclubs), said there was no way she was going to breathe that dust. Irrationally, I told her that we could not stop. I now think back about my actions and realize they made no sense, but somehow I convinced Lauren to keep walking with me, and we stepped into the tan haze.

A few others were also wandering aimlessly on these deserted streets. Many of them held napkins or handkerchiefs in front of their mouths, and Lauren briefly did the same before she decided it wasn’t worth the bother. We walked through the tan haze down Pearl Street, a wide and modern avenue on the east side of Manhattan’s southern tip. On both sides of Pearl Street were parked cars literally caked in fallen dust, about half an inch thick. I scooped up some of the dust with my hand and examined it. It seemed to be a mixture of two substances — a woolly fiberglass and a fine, moist powder. Everywhere you scooped it up, it seemed to have the same odd composition of these two substances.

Improbably, a corner deli was open on Pearl Street, and we walked inside to got a break from the air outside. About a dozen people were gathered there, all with the same poignant faces — crazed calm — that we had been seeing all day. I bought a Tigers Milk bar from the sad-looking young Asian man at the cash register, who managed a calm and polite smile.

We walked on, down Pearl Street. We made a right turn onto Wall Street, the street where I had worked for two and a half years as a computer programmer at JP Morgan. By the time I’d left Wall Street to become a "Silicon Alley" dot-commer in midtown, I’d hated the bureaucratic, Dilbert-like job with a passion, and up until this moment I still regarded Wall Street and the whole financial-oriented downtown neighborhood with some amount of derision and contempt. Now, this famous street was transformed into a scene from the planet Mars. The dust covered everything. We were now closer to the site of the towers, and papers and debris fluttered in the breeze around us. I picked up a few pieces of paper, financial documents and import records, burned neatly at the edges. I found a manila folder and placed the papers inside (I still have these papers as my only relic of the day). Outside the classical-columned Citibank building I picked up a women’s high-heeled shoe. "Do you think this came off somebody?" I asked Lauren, trying to wrap my brain around the horrible thought that the owner of the shoes had just died. Lauren told me that women often kept extra shoes in their desk, so maybe the worst hadn’t happened to the shoe’s owner. Or, we both thought, maybe it had.

We walked by JP Morgan’s front doors at 60 Wall Street, the brass revolving doors I used to use every day. The company and the building I had until recently hated now seemed beaten, buried, lost. For the first time since I’d left the job years ago, I felt affection for the building. I also remembered how, at the old JP Morgan building on the corner of Wall and Broad Street, there were pockmarks visible in the wall from a 1930’s anarchist bomber. It seemed relevant now to look at these pockmarks, and I guided Lauren to them and pointed them out — part of the standard Levi Asher tour of New York City history trivia, now covered in the dust of a different kind of anarchy.

Alongside other pedestrians at the unreal corner of Wall Street and Broad Street, we stood helplessly, wondering what to do next. There was a peaceful silence in the air, and still that beautiful clear blue sky visible over our heads, above the cloud of dust. We now stood very close to the Trade Center site, but emergency vehicles were blocking our way on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, so I led Lauren south on Broad Street. We exited the dust cloud temporarily on Water Street, and were glad to breathe fresh air again. Lauren had by now tired of asking me if we could turn back. We walked on, into the quaint small Battery Park at the very southern tip of the city. We had now completely circled the site of the disaster, and because we were at the southern tip of Manhattan there were no emergency vehicles or roadblocks cutting off our access. We only had to re-enter the dust haze and walk north through Battery Park to reach the site itself.

I’m not sure if we walked up Greenwich Street or West Street. I only remember the horror as we stepped closer to the site itself and finally stopped at a scene that looked like the scene that is now memorialized in many photos: dust-blanketed firemen working in teams, lugging hoses, lifting, moving, organizing, calling to each other for help, their stern and sad faces overwhelmed. We stood and stared in horrible awe. Clearly we were too close to the activity, and we weren’t helping anything by standing there looking, but nobody was going to pause to tell us to go away. Cars were overturned and violently crushed on all sides. We were now so close to the white cloud of smoke that I could see details inside it, and I finally studied it enough to see what I had been unable to see all afternoon. On the south corner, barely visible through the white smoke, stood the outline of the broken skeleton of the south tower. Or at least I think that’s what it was. Later I would try to return to this same corner and try to figure out what I might have been looking at. Maybe it was the wall of the fallen Marriot Hotel. I’m not sure, but I know that it was only at this moment that I understood what Lauren had meant when she said that the towers had collapsed. In retrospect, I’m sure this sounds stupid. But I hadn’t seen it on TV and I had been unwilling to comprehend. I now stared directly into the white cloud and realized there were no buildings left, just air, wisps of breeze merging with the thick white smoke.

I don’t know why we decided to step away from this primal scene. I guess it was too much to take. We both needed to breathe fresh air, and we walked westward into the Battery Park City complex. I was pretty much in shock at what I had only now begun to understand. As soon as we reached the Hudson River waterfront, a policeman stepped politely up to us. "We’re evacuating," he said, and asked us to walk down the riverfront walkway to where an old tugboat was loading passengers.

"Where are you evacuating us to?" Lauren asked him. He shrugged; he didn’t know. At that moment another cop came over with a bicyclist who was refusing to be evacuated. By listening to the transaction between the bicyclist and the two cops, Lauren and I quickly understood that we had no choice but to do as instructed. The bicyclist was arguing with the cop, who calmly told him, "Either you are getting on that boat or we are putting you on that boat." They were as nice as they could be about it. One of them explained that they’d had reports that more buildings nearby might collapse any minute, and this was why we could not stay there

We had to step up onto an impromptu stepladder and balance precariously on the top step to make it onto the tugboat without falling into the Hudson River. The deck of the boat was completely bare, devoid of equipment, but the entire surface — every wall, every inch of deck — was covered in a thick coating of industrial grease. Lauren, in her flowery white dress, demurely stood without touching anything. She started talking to other passengers but I didn’t feel like talking.

Finally the boat began to cross the Hudson River. Nobody told us where we were going, but it was clear we were heading for the piers at Jersey City, a ride that would only take a few minutes. We all stared silently back at the disaster scene as we travelled. I looked at the broken ruins of the Winter Garden, a glass atrium which had been connected by a pedestrian bridge to the Trade Center. The glass roof was visibly smashed in. The sides of the Merrill Lynch and American Express buildings in the Battery Park City office complex l
ooked as if they’d been ripped of a layer of skin.

The boat let us off at the Jersey City piers, where Lauren and I were embarrassed to be greeted by a kindly woman in a blue dress who stood behind a table of dixie cups filled with water. She handed us each a cup of water and a white towel to wipe the dust off our faces with. We smiled and thanked her, feeling guilty because we were not victims but just helpless bystanders. As we walked off, Lauren said "That was wrong, I feel bad." But now, as I think back to it, I am not sorry I took a cup of water and a towel. This woman had a table filled with dixie cups and a basket of clean towels, with barely anybody to take them. Maybe we helped her think she had done something to help. And maybe in some way she really had.

Now that we were in New Jersey, it was pretty clear that our journey had been pointless and that it was time to find our way back to Manhattan and go home. Lauren and I discussed what to do next. Strangely, when I look back on it now, it strikes me how neither of us understood how major an event this was. Lauren had had a date for an off-Broadway play that evening, and she kept trying to call her date or the theatre on her cell phone to see if the play was cancelled. I said to Lauren, "I think it will be cancelled". But it is a sign of how clueless we both were at this moment that this obvious fact was not completely clear to either of us.

The Jersey City waterfront was crowded with silent people staring over the river at the burning white cloud. Lauren and I stood with them for a few moments, and noticed that people were looking at us as if we were survivors, since our clothes were covered in dust. As we watched, we noticed a building just north of the white cloud that seemed to be pouring a new thick spout of black smoke. There was an audible gasp from the crowd and we saw that the building had just collapsed, and a new, darker cloud of dust billowed evenly out under the larger white cloud. So the cop who had evacuated us had been right when he’d explained that more buildings were collapsing.

We asked around about how to get back to Manhattan, and somebody told us how to walk to the PATH train station nearby. We didn’t know if the PATH trains would be operable, but when we reached the station we found that they were. In fact, to the credit of the New York and New Jersey public transportation systems, all trains and subways continued to operate through the disaster. Lauren and I found the train and headed towards Penn Station, in midtown Manhattan — back where we had started from.

I think Lauren was sick of me by now, and was glad for the chance to catch a train down to Greenwich Village and say goodbye.

I walked back to my apartment, got in, called my kids and spoke longer to them. They sounded fine, less upset than I was, at least as far as I could tell on the phone. I remember feeling how glad I was that I had already made plans to move back to Queens so I could live closer to them (my two-year lease at the Times Square apartment was over in September). The timing on this was good.

I turned on CNN and only now saw the video footage the rest of the world had already seen. I think this is a measure of how screwed up my thinking was, but I was honestly surprised how much coverage the event was getting on the news. I wasn’t used to the rest of America caring about anything bad that happened in New York City. I saw George Bush say that America was now in a state of war. I thought, "We are?" I did not feel capable of any analysis greater than that.

On Wednesday morning I went back downtown again. I remember walking on Sixth Avenue and reading the hundreds of missing person posters that covered many walls. I remember stopping at the Empire State Building, on the morning of September 12th, and looking up with love and gratitude for the skyscraper we hadn’t lost. I then looked around me and saw a few others staring up at it in the same revery.

This is a story without a moral. I don’t think I had an original thought or idea during the entire day of September 11. I spent a lot of it in a state of denial.

Maybe it was the next day that I started to understand what this day meant for the future of the world. Or maybe I don’t understand it still.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!