9/11 – a remembrance

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It was a beautiful day: That’s what I remember thinking. And it’s probably the first thing anyone who is old enough to remember it will tell you about it.  

Seamless sky, what pilots call severe clear. Had to be. The men who brought those buildings down didn’t know how to pilot a plane beyond flying straight, so conditions had to be optimal. The day before, Sept. 10, it had rained. The next was a different story.

It had started promisingly enough. I was working on a piece about the 75th anniversary of the Chrysler Building – the favorite landmark of New Yorkers – and had a 7:30 a.m. interview with William Ivey Long, costume designer for the Broadway hit “The Producers,” whose designs for the show included a gown inspired by the building’s diadem top. Long was a terrific interview but soon excused himself for what he said was a busy day. Delighted with his remarks, I wished him joy of it.

It looked only to get better. I have always detested September – end of summer, start of school, harbinger of a fall that can only lead to hated winter – but this day it was impossible not to revel. It was 72 degrees, and I relished the cloudless warmth – blue as far as the eye could see – as I walked up the hill from the parking lot to my job at Gannett. I was wearing a yellow, pink-floral dress and matching yellow sweater, which I no longer have.

When I entered the newsroom, I saw a crowd around one of the TV sets, never a good sign. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. How inept was that pilot, I thought.

Then the second plane crashed, the buildings fell and all hell broke loose. It was now apparent to us in suburban New York that we were under some kind of attack, although we couldn’t reach our Washington office. We couldn’t reach our Manhattan office either. So we just randomly started calling contacts in the Midwest and on the West Coast, who often worked early hours to accommodate East Coast deadlines. One reporter managed to glean that there may have been as many as seven planes ready to attack key targets. The president, George W. Bush, seemed to be momentarily off the radar.

“We’re on our own,” this reporter said.  “And you know what? We’ll be fine.”

The editors decided to put out a special edition in 15 minutes with whatever we had. I had covered the loss of the transmission signals, located atop the North Tower, in the first bombing of the buildings, Feb. 26, 1993. Now I was told to get out those notes and start writing. The North Tower – the businessy tower, unlike the sociable South Tower, with its observation deck – was gone. They both were. Those signals weren’t coming back anytime soon.

Like a lot of people who are terrible at small things and in calm times – then New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani is one example – I’m terrific in a crisis. I remember thinking that my mind was never as clear as in those moments – banging out the story, answering phones that were now ringing off the hook with calls from people who were driving along the highways and witnessed the attacks, people who thought the press would need eyewitnesses or just wanted to talk.

The mail had arrived. In the pile was a tape of a new A & E documentary – on the first World Trade Center bombing. You can’t make this stuff up. I called my hairdresser, remembering that my beloved Aunt Mary was on her way there after grocery shopping.

“Tell her gently that I am fine,” I stressed. “But there’s been a terrorist attack in the city.”

I remembered the letter in my pocketbook, which I normally would’ve waltzed to the mailroom first thing. Now I paused to consider it. I’m going to mail this letter, I thought. I’m going to mail it, because mailing a letter is an act of belief in the future. I’m going to mail it, and everything will flow from this one act.

And it did even if for weeks after I had to sleep with the TV on and kept dreaming about escaping. But for the foreseeable future, I put my life as an arts writer on hold and became in effect a correspondent in wartime New York. I went to the Chrysler Building to complete that assignment, accompanied by aunt, who told me stories of New York in World War II amid the acrid smoke that permeated everything.

“Just breathe,” she said, as we rose in the elevator to meet an oral surgeon who’d been a tenant in the Chrysler Building forever and knew its juicy history.

Are you scared of another attack? I asked. Not at all, he said. But what if the Chrysler Building is hit? I persisted. The plane would just stick out of the concrete and steel structure, he said.

Unlike the Towers, whose weight was borne by its exoskeleton, the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings have a central core. The surgeon took me into the fireproof spiral stairwell that wound all the way down to the street. I remember thinking that the sound of the heavy door clanging shut was as final as the tomb.

I wrote about the Chrysler Building and the character of a place that could take it on the chin and throw it back at you, like the Morgan Bank that still bore the scars of a 1920s bombing on its façade, like the city’s  late goddess, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who had refused to take off the famous pink suit patterned with blood. “I want them to see what they’ve done,” she said.

I wrote about the toughness of New York and Ric Burns’ “New York:  A Documentary Film,” which now contained a 9/11 coda that featured the city in evening set to Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ “The Way You Look Tonight.” And ultimately I wrote about the building that would replace it – the building that would find its place in the hearts of a future generation – as One World Trade certainly has – for skyscrapers never belong to the generation that builds them. They’re always meant for the ones who come after.

And I read – Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” which a reporter at our sister paper in Oklahoma City – site of the worst attack of domestic terrorism on U.S. soil – sent as part of a care package to our newsroom. And Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” which seeks to find a meaningful pattern in senseless tragedy. It ends with these words, which I quoted at my aunt’s funeral:

"But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

The only meaning: I read Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove. I had rarely thought about the Towers and had only visited them once with a friend from India. Now they seemed like James’ doomed, tubercular New York heiress – an afterthought to her faithless lover until her death makes her beloved.

The Towers:  I have all kinds of books on them now. From a postcard on a bookcase in my sun porch they gleam in the dying light. Someday, I thought, when Osama bin Laden is dead and the site has been rebuilt, when we come full circle, I will go there and weep. That day was a long time coming but still I didn’t weep.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum is beautiful and heartbreaking. The water in the reflecting pools that mark the former Towers’ footprints flows like so many tears. And you can read the inscribed names of the dead with your fingers.

Their remains lie behind a wall of the museum that bears this inscription from Virgil’s “The Aeneid”:  “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”

There are those who think the quote unworthy, alluding as it does to gay warrior lovers, lacking the sensibility of an Ecclesiastes. What bunk. It’s the perfect quote – succinct and true.

At the museum, I bought a stone with the inscription. I placed it before my aunt’s reliquary.

No day shall erase her, shall erase them, from the memory of time.

It’s a thought I pray every day as I will on Sunday, the 15th anniversary of 9/11.