The views from the kitchen window of the 5th floor apartment I grew up in in Queens were often spectacular. Polluted pink and orange sunsets over Manhattan and the steady flow of nighttime air traffic to JFK and La Guardia were an endless fascination from the day we arrived there when I was four years old.
The second of the Twin Towers was nearly complete and I felt so special, in spite of the cramped space and the roaches to have such a view of the world’s tallest buildings.
On the couch with my dad once, when looking at a magazine spread featuring impressive pictures of the buildings, he said “They shouldn’t have made them so tall…if they fall over they’re gonna fall on everything for a quarter mile in that direction.”. And we both assumed, I assume, that we’d never live to see his theory tested.
On a school trip I remember a few things. The giant Picasso in the lobby. The elevator ride in the oversized chrome box in which we flew skyward, arriving in what seemed like seconds. The day was hazy but the little yellow cars and ants crawling between them all that way below us were fascinating and surreal.
Once when I was around 23 and in bed in my first Long Beach apartment, paralyzed with a broken heart, my friend Matt showed up at my door and harassed me to my feet and we rode trains downtown to 2 WTC and up that speedy elevator and to the observation area where we could see so incredibly far. It changed my day completely.
Every time I’d accompany my parents for Chinese food on Mott St. in Chinatown, or to visit their friends who lived on Grand St. on the Lower East Side, I’d see my dad, looking up through a child’s eyes at the Towers. I enjoyed these moments. These rare glimpses at my dads little boy-ness. He was born in a bathtub on Houston St. in 1923 when the skyline looked nothing like it did today. He’d nod his head slightly and sometimes aloud, sometimes to himself he’d say “If they fall over they’re gonna crush everything for a quarter mile in that direction”.
In a coastal community the prime views are of the ocean. But in Long Beach, the panorama from five stories up and facing north (away from the water) was fine by me. From the barrier island of Jones Beach to the north, and all the antique red roofs of the Long Beach houses below, far off water towers of Nassau and Queens, to the Rockaways to the south and Manhattan Island there in the near distance. When the sun hit the skyscraper’s windows, Manhattan could have been the Emerald City.
On the morning of 9/11/01, before I knew about the attacks, I was already ridden in strife. My brother had been gone for just a month, and I was headed to an elder lawyer to discuss how to handle my terminally ill mom’s and my mentally ill dad’s affairs. Mom was at home on hospice care and dad was a psychiatric patient at L.I.J. after overdosing on my mom’s pain meds. I was to pay them respective visits after my consultation with the lawyer.
I saw a lot of smoke from the Long Beach bridge but didn’t think too much about it.
I stopped off at my job and heard the news on the blaring radio. Jenn said to be careful and I proceeded to Garden City to meet with the lawyer. Denial, I suppose, but I had important work to do.
I could see the smoke rising from the window behind her chair as the lawyer nervously laid out the facts I’d come for. We were interrupted several times by a paralegal coming in and whispering in her ear then excusing him/herself. As with everywhere, people there had people working in the towers. She had someone in the towers.
Cell phone service was jammed on my ride to Queens and the Grand Central Parkway and Long Island Expressway were closed. There were police at almost every intersection. I went the only way traffic moved all the way to Northern Boulevard and turned west and travelled a total of ¼ mile over the next three hours. Everything stopped. Everyone was frantic. Chaos. Confusion. Dread. I looked around for a smoker at the wheel, willing to forgo my abstinence. I needed to get to my parents, but was going nowhere. I finally pulled out of the deadlock into a gas station and reversed the charges to my mom and she was crying, confused and thinking that perhaps my visit that morning was there, in downtown Manhattan, in the Twin Towers. She said “Oh, Seth…something terrible has happened.” I told her I was OK but that there was no way to drive there and said if she needed me I’d walk to her and she said not to worry…to go to Jenn.
I made it back to Long Beach to our friend’s place where our crowd gathered and just watched and watched and watched those horrible moments on TV. We no longer need a TV to see those images, do we….
The next day I was able to take side streets to L.I.J. and when I entered my dad’s room, he was doing what everyone was doing….watching the news, one hand halfway up, pointing. He’d gone through so much with losing his son, his health, his mind, his city, and with the impending loss of his sweetheart. He didn’t take his eyes from the screen as I sat on the bed next to him taking his free hand. He gestured as he said softly, “I always thought they’d fall over this way”.
From our apartment we could see sky where we once saw the towers. Smoke for days, blowing first north. Then south. Then less. Then gone.
Hell is personal space. I’d been feeling those flames for a long time and the isolation associated with family suffering is acute. 9/11 on the other hand was a time when the frivolities of ego…of MY problems…got suspended and all of us got to gasp, to fear, to sob together. Everything was necessarily on hold. For the people. For their animals. For the city. For Josh. For the incomprehensible temporary triumph of darkness.
A thousand times I’ve seen them fall and I’m always surprised that they went straight down.