I. Fire and Bone: July, 2006
I was hurrying home, deep in thought and not paying attention, when I walked right into his sign, accidentally tearing it with my boot as I plowed through the cardboard.
I looked down at the torn sign and snapped back to reality. “Oh god, I’m so sorry,” I blurted to the man sitting a few feet away as I started to bend over to pick it up.
“Only Need $20 More For Bus Ticket Home” the sign said. Next to the sign was a collection of objects presumably for sale. There were a few tattered romance novels, some antique Coke bottles, and what looked like a piece of antler.
I picked up the antler and examined it. Part of it was broken off with a small stump remaining, but it was a beautiful piece, and I realized that if I sanded the broken stump down it would make a nice wand.
“Where is home?” I asked.
“Milwaukee”, he answered. “I left years ago and swore I’d never return, but over the time I’ve decided that maybe one actually can go home again.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out $20. “Sorry again about your sign, but hopefully now you don’t need it,” I said as I handed him the money.
He broke into a wide smile. “Oh thank you, thank you so much.” He got up to shake my hand. “I hope that piece treats you well.”
I thanked him again and continued home, waving the antler around like a wand as I neared my corner. I went through the front door of the building and up the stairs, leaving the antler outside my door by the landing on the second floor before going inside.
A few days later, I dug out my dremel and went out on the landing with the intention of sanding off the stump on the antler in order to give it the right shape. I had done some bone carvings some years back, and didn’t think much of it as I put on my goggles and turned on the dremel.
I held the sanding tip to the antler and made contact, and within a second or two I started to suddenly panic and uncontrollably shake. I quickly put down the dremel, and before I could understand what was happening my body went into full panic attack mode. I started to hyperventilate and I lowered myself into a seated position as my heart started to race and I started to sweat.
Terrified, I put my hands over my head and closed my eyes, and all I could see and feel and taste and smell was fire. Visions and sensations poured through my head; a fiery inferno, the screams of the dead, the stench of burning flesh. I felt myself being pulled down into myself and I briefly opened my eyes, but the visions and the smell did not immediately cease and I felt myself tightening into the fetal position as I closed my eyes again and reminded myself to breathe.
My heart was pounding ever faster, and it took me several minutes of slow breathing before whatever had come over me faded and I was able to uncurl myself and sit back up. As I felt myself come back, I stared at the antler in horror, utterly confused and terrified at what had just transpired. What had flashed through my mind was familiar, all too familiar, and yet so deeply buried and deliberately forgotten. But…what? How did the…
At that moment, my upstairs neighbor bounded up the stairs towards the landing, and as he got within a few steps of me he suddenly froze and sniffed the air. He looked at me, wide-eyed.
“That smell. Holy Mother of God, that smell. What the…?” he said, his voice shaking slightly.
I pointed to the antler and the dremel and tried to summon the proper words, but he had no interest in what I was actually pointing to. I looked down again where I was pointing and the objects suddenly read out to me as a solved riddle: friction and antler. Fire and bone. I looked up at him again but he spoke before I could.
“That smell,” he said again, his voice barely above a whisper. “It smells like when the Twin Towers were burning.”
II. Lessons in Capitalism and Imperialism: February, 1993
Our fifth-grade class had spent all month learning about the stock exchange, and it seemed fitting to wrap up the unit with a day trip to the Financial District. We piled into a big yellow bus and rode into Manhattan along with the morning traffic, eventually inching our way downtown towards Wall Street right at the peak of the AM rush hour.
We started out with a guided tour of the New York Stock Exchange, had lunch at a Burger King near Wall Street and, afterward, we walked over in a group to the headquarters of Solomon Brothers, located in the World Trade Center complex.
One our way into Building 7, one of the guards wanted to check one of the bags that our teacher was carrying. We stood back as she was searched, all of us quite confused as to why there were security guards in the first place, let alone why our teacher had to open her bag up for them. After she was waved along by security, a few of us immediately wanted to know what that had been all about.
She gently tried to explain that the security guards check bags because they were worried about people potentially sneaking in “bad things”, which only piqued our curiosity further. She then told us that it was hard to explain in a few words but it was something we could discuss the next day, and then quickly led us toward the elevator while changing the subject. Within moments, the incident was forgotten.
In school the next morning, we talked extensively about our trip and what we learned, what the good parts were and what we didn’t enjoy so much. I was still wondering about the security guard and hoping that our teacher would talk about it, but nobody else brought it up and I was too shy to do so.
The following afternoon, we came in after recess to learn that a bomb had ripped through the garage of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, with reports of both deaths and injuries. We looked around at each other, both terrified and confused. Why, we asked. Why would someone do that?
Our teacher had no answer that afternoon, telling us only as much as the media knew at the time. Over the next few weeks, however, it became apparent that the bombing was an act of terrorism, which eventually facilitated the discussion around bombs and security guards and bag searching that our teacher had evaded during the field trip.
“But why do bad people want to hurt us?’ one student asked.
“Because we are the most powerful country in the world, and sometimes that means that we do things that anger people who do not have power,” she answered.
Nobody asked anything after that, but I stewed on her words long after the subject had been exhausted. I wrote them down in a journal and thought about them often, especially when watching the nightly news. Between my own personal awestruck experience with the Twin Towers in and of itself and having been on that land in their presence only 48 hours before the bombing, my attention was suddenly aimed towards subjects like terrorism and empire in a way that would never have occurred had we not gone on that field trip.
III. Of Boxes and Blemished Skylines: Summer 1996
I remember the very first time I heard the joke.
I was with a friend, in the backseat of her parents’ station wagon, on our way into Manhattan to see Les Miserables. As we approached the Holland Tunnel, with the skyline clear-as-day in front of us, her father turned around to face us.
“You girls know that the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are the two tallest buildings in Manhattan, right?” he asked us with a grin.
“But….” I started to immediately correct him, as everyone knew that the Twin Towers were the tallest.
He interrupted me with a laugh. “Yeah, the two boxes that they came in were dumped way down by Wall Street …”
We laughed along with him, immediately getting the joke. It was an understood and unspoken truth that for all their impressiveness in terms of height, the Twin Towers did look like two big ugly boxes, especially in comparison to buildings such as the Chrysler and the Empire State. While I had a strange fondness for them, even I had to admit that while they were otherworldly, they were otherworldly eyesores.
“You know, I was about the same age as you two are now when those towers first went up, and I’ll never forget how much folks hated ‘em at first. They called ‘em a blemish on the skyline, complained that they ruined the view of Lower Manhattan. And now a generation later, everyone’s buying tchotchkes with the Twin Towers on ‘em, and nobody can imagine what the skyline would look like without the towers. Funny how that works…” he said, drifting off into his thoughts.
I thought about what he has said as we came out of the tunnel. One of my neighbors had expressed a similar sentiment recently, and as I got a brief glimpse of the towers out the back window, for a moment I tried to imagine the skyline without the Twin Towers.
And while it was hard to imagine that those buildings actually existed in the first place, it was even harder to imagine what it would look like without them.
IV. Land, Once Water: Spring, 1999
“And it was right at this spot, at the base of a buttonwood tree, that the contract that became known as the Buttonwood Agreement was signed in 1792, marking the beginnings of what was to eventually become the New York Stock Exchange…”
‘This spot’ was in front of a hot-dog stand on Wall Street near the corner of Pearl Street. I was on a guided tour of the Financial District, having been dragged along by a friend from the West Coast who had never been to New York before. At that point, I had been taking the bus into city once or twice a week and I knew most of Manhattan like the back of my hand, but as I looked around I realized that I hadn’t been down near Wall Street since the school field trip six years earlier. I looked around, down the dark narrow street tucked within the oldest and deepest depths of Manhattan’s concrete jungle, and it was nearly impossible to imagine any sort of tree, buttonwood or otherwise, ever having grown in that spot.
We started walking eastward again behind out tour guide, who continued talking as we ambled along.
“Wall Street itself was named after an actual wall which once protected the settlement of New Amsterdam from both the British and the local tribes. The wall was built in the mid-1600’s, and originally stretched from Pearl Street to what is now called Church Street, which were the original shorelines of Manhattan over three-hundred years ago.”
Wait, what? I said to myself. The original shorelines of Manhattan are Pearl Street and Church Street? The present-day Manhattan extended three blocks east past Pearl and at least as many blocks west of Church. I thought of the Twin Towers, which I knew were just west of Church Street. If the tour guide was correct, that would mean that the entire WTC complex was standing in what was once the Hudson River.
“By the time the Buttonwood Agreement was signed, landfill had extended Wall Street out an extra block east, and the next year the Tontine Coffee House was built here at the corner of Wall and Water, which was to serve as the headquarters of the New York Stock and Exchange Board until the mid-1800s….”
I looked down where I was standing, suddenly aware that I was standing on an invisible border between bedrock and landfill, between the original boundaries of Manhattan Island and a man-made extension of “land” that was created from refuse. I looked eastward at the blocks and buildings, stretching towards the waterfront, buildings that I now knew stood where fish swam for millennia. I tried to imagine what the shoreline might have looked like around the time that the Dutch first fortified New Amsterdam with a wall, but once again the concrete got in the way.
The tour guide headed back in the other direction, still pointing out landmarks, but I was only partially paying attention at that point, still hung up on the idea that the lower half of Manhattan Island was once only half as wide as it was in the present day. As we approached the New York Stock Exchange, I tuned in to the tour guide again for a moment and quickly couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“And it was right here that on September 16, 1920, that a bomb went off in front of 23 Wall Street, at the height of the lunch hour on a busy weekday. 38 people were killed and over 100 were injured in what was at that time the deadliest attack on American soil. It was suspected that the bombing was carried out by Italian anarchists, but nobody was ever convicted, and it remains an unsolved case to this day.”
Wait, what again? A bomb? Here? My thoughts immediately drifted back to the WTC garage bombing, and then back to the tour guide’s words about Wall Street as a fortified wall that was built as a means of defense. The guide made no mention of the events that led to the need for a fortified wall in the first place, but I understood enough about history and empire at that point to sense a general pattern of cause and effect.
I looked around; the block itself felt like a fortress, holding itself in tension, in constant defensive posture against anything that may try to attack it. It felt nervous and guarded, and I felt the same as I continued down the narrow concrete corridor.
V. Fate and Foreshadowing: Late July, 2001
“You don’t have a fear of heights, do you?” he asked me at one point while giving me a tour of the main dining area. I had been looking out the window for a moment, temporarily paralyzed by the realization of how high up I was, and the look on his face was one of slight concern.
“Oh, no, not at all,” I lied. “I’ve worked in skyscrapers before,” I added nervously. That part wasn’t an outright lie, but I left out the fact that while I had actually worked in a few skyscrapers, I had never been higher up than the 29th floor.
“Uh-huh,” he said, sounding unconvinced. “New hires always tell me that they’re not afraid of heights, but then I’ve had some go and quit on me after a few weeks because they realize they can’t deal with it,” he said to me.
For the money I’ll make here, I’ll learn to deal with it, I thought to myself.
“This is as high up as you get in this town,” he continued, as if I needed any more reminders that I was on the 107th floor of the tallest building in Manhattan.
I nodded and smiled. “I know. I’m OK,” I said again, trying my hardest to project an air of confidence.
He smiled back and waved me over as he walked towards the back of the restaurant.
Other than the awkward exchange around heights, the interview went smoothly. I got along well with the interviewer, he seemed satisfied with my resume despite my relative lack of fine dining experience, and he was pleased at my willingness to take any shift that was available. I left there very hopeful that I had the job.
“I’ll give you a call in a few days”, he told me as I walked out.
But a few days came and went without a call, and by the end of the week I realized that I didn’t have the job after all. For some reason, that time I had really gotten my hopes up, and I took it very hard and very personally. Those around me noticed, and tried in their own little ways to cheer me up.
“You know, I have dreams of that building sometimes,” my partner said to me a few weeks after the interview. “In the dream, I’m standing against the windows on one of the top floors, and all of a sudden the building starts to sway violently back and forth.”
I thought back to when I looked out the window from the dining area of the 107th floor, that terrifying, paralyzing rush that the manager picked up on, and I nodded.
“Frankly, you’re better off with a job closer to the ground,” he said after a while. “Personally, I don’t know if I could handle being that high up all the time. That building always made me a little nervous.”
“Everything happens for a reason. I’ll find a better job,” I concluded.
After dinner, we walked through Midtown down to Lower Manhattan. The sun was setting, illuminating the skyline, and I stared down at the southern tip for a moment, thinking about the job I didn’t get. The job in the buildings that stood where the river once flowed, the buildings that swayed back and forth in my partner’s dreams. I suddenly felt a strangely unexplainable relief that I wasn’t going to be working in that building.
The manager probably made the right call, I admitted to myself as walked through the shadows of the towers towards the Brooklyn Bridge. I probably wouldn’t have been able to deal with being that high up.
VI. Consequence of Empire: September 11, 2001
I opened my eyes just a crack, immediately closing them again as the bright sunshine streaking through my windows temporarily blinded me. I knew it was already mid-morning, and I also knew that I wasn’t ready to wake up quite yet. I had spent the night before out late drinking with friends, and I hadn’t gotten back to my place until close to sunrise. I had only been asleep for three or four hours at that point.
But something had just woken me up out of a sound sleep, and I shifted my head slightly and slowly tried to open my eyes again to see if it was anything that I needed to worry about. The head of my mattress was up against a large bay window, and as I squinted my eyes open again all I saw was blue. The sky was an amazing, brilliant blue, not a cloud in the sky, a rarity that late in the season. I turned my ear towards the open window for a moment, heard nothing but birds and traffic, and rolled over back to sleep.
A little while later, I heard a similar noise again. That time I sat up, again my vision fixated on the sky, wondering if what I heard was the demolition project from a few blocks away. Again I listened for a minute, looked out the window again, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But as I lowered myself back into bed, an unsettling and creeping feeling came over me.
I tried to get back to sleep but failed, eventually settling for lying in bed while staring at the sky, too anxious to fall back asleep yet too exhausted to actually get up.
Out of the silence the phone rang. I jumped at the sound, then slowly reached over and picked it up.
“APLANEAPLANEHITTHETWINTOWERSTURNONYOURTVWEAREUNDERATTACK” was all I heard on the other end of the line.
I recognized the voice of a friend but thought I had misheard what he said. “What?” I asked. “Can you say that again?”
“TURNONYOURTVJUSTTURNONYOURTV’ was the reply.
I stayed on the phone and reached for the remote. I turned on the TV and saw the Twin Towers engulfed in flames.
I threw some clothes on and ran downstairs, flung open the front door, ran down to the end of the block, and looked northwards towards Manhattan. I could see what looked like smoke and fire in the distance, and the air was sooty and acrid. I looked around. My block was mostly empty, and the few faces I saw looked as ashen as the sky in the distance.
I stood, frozen, staring at the smoke in the distance. As I stood there, an older man walked past me, walking with a cane and wearing a hat that proclaimed his status as a Vietnam vet. He stopped next to me for a moment, and then looked me in the eye and motioned towards the smoke with his cane.
“That there,” he said, his voice cracking as he spoke, “that there is the consequence of empire.”
I nodded, repeating his words to myself quietly. The consequence of empire.
My thoughts started flashing, from the bombing of the WTC garage nine years earlier, to the 1920 bombing of Wall Street, to the original fortification from which Wall Street bears its name. The consequence of empire indeed – 350 years of colonialism that led us to this very moment.
I ran back to the house and stood in front of the TV for the next several hours, taking in as many vital details as I could bear. I reflected for a moment on the job that I ended up not getting a few months prior and a knot immediately formed in my stomach.
As I stood there, I slowly took in what this meant in actuality. Subways were shut down. Bridges and tunnels shut down. Flights grounded. Cell phone networks hopelessly jammed. ATM networks down. Stock exchange shut down. Traffic suspended throughout all of Manhattan for the first time in the city’s history. An entire ‘way of life’, shut down in an instant.
And out my bay window, only a few miles away, a fiery pit steadily burned, with television cameras catching every detail save for the one things that I knew could not be transmitted through sight or sound: the stench of fire, of metal and soot, of burning flesh and bone. The news was calling it a “rescue mission”, but my senses and my gut both told me otherwise. I could smell death in the air, and I could hear and feel the dead as well.
VII. City of the Dead: September 12-15, 2001
The morning after, I cracked my eyes open in the identical manner as I had the day before, and it only took a split second of staring at the blue sky to remember what had transpired over the past 24 hours. I lay there for a moment, my dreams still fresh in my mind, dreams filled with fire and horror and the screams of the dead.
I needed to check on a friend who lived downtown, and I couldn’t ignore the pull that I was feeling from the other side of the river, so I grabbed my camera and a few other items and set out on foot towards Lower Manhattan. It was around three miles between my apartment in Brooklyn and the Manhattan Bridge, and with every block the smell in the air increased along with the tension of the land and the unmistakable screaming that shook through every bone of my body.
At the base of the bridge, an officer with a military rifle guarded the walkway. “Residents only,” he barked as I approached.
“I live on Warren Street,” I lied, and gave the address of my friend.
“ID?” he asked.
“Its in my wallet which is in my apartment on Warren Street.” I answered calmly. These aren’t the droids you’re looking for, I thought to myself.
He scowled for a moment, not sure whether to believe me, then relented and let me through.
I walked across the bridge, straight through Lower and Midtown Manhattan right up towards Central Park, walking in a city that other than the sound of emergency vehicles had gone completely silent. Not a single store was open, not a single car was driving through the streets, and there were very few people on the sidewalks. Birds eerily chirped as I made my way uptown, briefly pausing near 14th Street to take in the totality of the silence. It was a literal ghost town, in more ways than one, with the surreal nature only increasing when a military vehicle rolled right by me as though it was the most normal, everyday thing.
I continued uptown, taking pictures as I went. By the time I got to Rockefeller Center, I paused and looked around and for a moment was in utter terror. There was nobody in sight. No cars, no people, no sounds other than the shrill shrieks of sirens and the screaming that I couldn’t tune out. I stood across from Radio City, the only person in a 360 degree radius, and was so taken in and paralyzed by the emptiness around me that it took me a few minutes to realize that I was standing right in the middle of Sixth Avenue. A group of people walked by on the sidewalk and I was so surprised by their presence that without even thinking I pulled my camera out and took their picture.
I then laid down in the middle of the street and did a log roll straight across to the other side. I didn’t know why, but in that moment I needed contact with the land, with the concrete and ashes that I had been walking upon for miles. I lay still in the street next to the sidewalk for a moment, and the screaming I was hearing suddenly became a roar. When I got up, I looked over at the people on the other side and realized that they had been taking pictures of what I had just done. They waved, I waved back.
Remembering that I had a friend that I was checking on, I quickly made my way back downtown. As I approached Union Square, I quickly saw that makeshift memorials were already being erected in the park, and flyers with pictures of the missing were taped to nearly every street-pole.
It brought me back to what I couldn’t tune out, the screaming. The dead. I wanted to stop and pay tribute, but I was still on a mission, and I continued on until I arrived at my friend’s apartment four blocks north of the disaster. As I rang the bell, I could feel the heat of the fire, and the stench had become overwhelming.
“I haven’t seen a thing yet, I haven’t left the house and I don’t want to,” he said to me we sat down on the couch.
“I don’t blame you,” I replied. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get that smell out of my mind.”
He looked up at me. “My grandmother’s been in a constant anxious state since yesterday, and nothing I can say or do will calm her down,” he said, motioning towards the back room. “She says the smell reminds her of Poland when she was a child, and she’s been in a terrible state. She’s terrified. I mean, we’re all terrified, but I don’t even know how to begin to comfort her.”
I didn’t know what to say, and we both sat there in silence for a while with our tea and cigarettes as I tried desperately to tune out the screaming that had hit a deafening pitch.
For the rest of the week, I spent my afternoons in Union Square, praying and making offerings for the dead. The screaming only started to fade a few months later as the fire finally went out, but I heard the screams in traces for the next several years.
VIII. Fear of a Blue Sky: July 2010
“When you were a kid, did you ever hear that joke about the Twin Towers?”
I paused for a minute, trying to access a file in my brain that had been long since tucked away. “You mean the one about how they’re just the boxes that the Empire State and the Chrysler Building came in?”
She nodded, poured herself another glass of wine, and then continued.
“Isn’t it weird how one day the world has suddenly changed and you just can’t say things anymore? Like, my mother would go on and on about those buildings when I was a kid, about how ugly they were and how she wished that they had never been built, on and on. And even remembering and recalling that just feels so weird and inappropriate now. I mean, obviously telling any jokes about the Twin Towers nowadays doesn’t seem right, but even remembering that we used to make jokes feels funny, like we did something bad retroactively or something. Its weird, I almost feel guilty about it.”
“Yes,” I said. I knew just what she was talking about. “I think we all carry around much more baggage around that event and our relationship with those buildings in general than we’d ever want to admit or even conceive of,” I said.
“For example, I’ll give you one,” I continued. “I can remember years ago being in the back of a friend’s car driving into the city from Jersey as her father was telling me how there were no Twin Towers when he was a kid. And when I heard him say that, I stared out at them and tried to picture what it would be like if they weren’t there. I shudder when I think about that now, it just freaks me out. And I swear, its like I’m almost afraid to even put words to it, to say it out loud. Somewhere in my head I seem to think that it never actually happened if I don’t speak of it. “
She nodded. “Can I tell you a secret?” she asked me.
“Of course,” I answered.
“I mean, its weird and messed up. I feel like I’m just crazy or this was just some crazy thing that happened in my head, but I really just need to tell somebody and you’re good with crazy stuff.” She looked at me for affirmation and I nodded.
She took a deep breath. “Okay. So, a few years ago I was having a cavity filled, and I should preface this by saying that I hadn’t gotten any work done on my teeth since before 9/11. But I’m in the chair, and as the dentist started to drill, all of a sudden the smell just jolted something seriously deep and I suddenly started panicking and remembering the towers and the aftermath in this vivid and intense way that felt like I was on psychedelics or something. Its like it was right there for a moment, it was real and in front of me again. I had to get the dentist to stop, and it took me a while to calm down after that.”
I nodded vigorously and I told her about my experience with the antler and the dremel. “It was one quick and hardcore lesson in how deeply scent and trauma are linked in the brain, and the degree to which trauma is retained long after you think you’ve gotten over it,” I said to her. “It felt like an out-of-body experience, like I had completely lost control.”
Her expression suddenly turned to sadness. “There was a part of that experience, the part where your stomach clenches so tight you think you’ll choke…. I’ll tell ya, sometimes that happens to me for absolutely no reason at the most innocent times. Like last week, I was lying on my back in the park and there was something about the color of the sky that just threw my stomach in knots. It was that same blue, something about that shade…”
“I mean, listen to me,” she continued after a moment. “ Fear of a blue sky? It’s just absurd. But its also very real and I don’t know if I’ll ever rid myself of it.”
I just stared at her for a moment. as not only did her experiences so precisely mirror my own, but she had the courage to vocalize something that I couldn’t ever bear to acknowledge to myself up until that moment.
“Yes, the fear of a blue sky,” I said after a while. “It’s very real indeed.”
Minor details were changed for privacy reasons.
(Note: I wrote this a year ago and it was originally published on The Wild Hunt. I’m reposting it here as this set of experiences have only become more relevant from the time between when I wrote it and the present day.)