After the Fall
A former New Yorker remembers stepping out of a subway on 9/11 into a changed world
By Laura Hutson
I was a 21-year-old NYU student and worked in an office part time in 2001. I'd been taking the same route to work and school for years. My morning routine was such a habitual thing, I didn't even think about it.
That morning was no different. I sat in a subway car full of strangers, possibly reading a book but more likely just staring blankly ahead, making a plan for the day. All of a sudden the subway car filled with a weird nervous energy. I can't explain how it happened, but it felt similar to the way that you can subconsciously sense when someone's looking at you, and it makes you look up. That's all it felt like at first.
There was a man sitting across from me who had just gotten onto the train at the last stop. He told the rest of us he'd heard that a plane had flown into one of the Twin Towers. He said it casually, half-smiling, like isn't that weird, isn't that a strange story. My immediate reaction was to shrug it off, maybe even find it a little comical — a cartoon plane flying around a skyscraper like in King Kong, but ramming into the side of it instead.
The train went right through the heart of the financial district, right below what would be known 24 hours later as Ground Zero. When I got off the train, people may have been panicking, but it was in a self-contained way. There were a few people rushing to use the payphones, which was a rare sight. They seemed frenzied, and in hindsight it was so obvious that something was terribly wrong, but at the time it felt like I was just observing an accident, not giving much thought to its gravity.
I got out of the train at the West Fourth Street stop. Tall buildings prevented me from seeing the towers right away. As I walked down the street toward Washington Square Park, a middle-aged woman holding a small dog was walking toward me, in a sort of panicked sob that looked less like sadness and more like shock —clear-eyed but blubbering, sounding like a maniac but disconcertingly normal-looking. She said, "It's those goddamn terrorists!" And I immediately thought of domestic terrorists, like kids playing a prank. I also thought that maybe this woman was crazy. Then I walked past the buildings that had obstructed my view — and all at once there were the towers.
The towers. I fell to my knees. I had never had to hold that much fear in my head before. I felt so unprepared.
I went to work, but would walk outside pretty frequently to smoke cigarettes, and to look. It was such a spectacle, all that smoke billowing across the otherwise perfect sky. I was just about two miles north of Lower Manhattan. That's where I happened to be, indoors, halfway working, when both towers fell.
I went outside between falls, but not during. When I heard the first tower had fallen, I admit to thinking, "Thank God, that means I don't have to see it anymore." It was just a moment's thought, but how callous. So much selfishness comes out of fear.
I went to buy another pack of cigarettes from the tobacco shop down the street. The tobacconist told me he'd sold more cigarettes that morning than he had in years. Lots of people started smoking that day, or picked the habit back up. We had a short conversation about what the hell was going on. Our exchange lasted maybe five minutes. But for years after, every time I saw him, he greeted me like an old friend.
That afternoon I walked back across the Manhattan Bridge to get to my apartment in Brooklyn. I was smoking, and I remember walking past an anti-smoking billboard. It was just a photograph of a huge coffin with some statistics about how smoking will kill you, and I felt ashamed to be doing this to my healthy body. A train passed underfoot, and it shook the pavement, and I really thought I was going to die. Volunteers were handing out water on the Brooklyn side of the bridge, and they asked if I was OK, and I was, sort of.
At home my roommate and I got a couple of six-packs and called everyone we knew. We sat on the fire escape and watched the ashes fall overhead. Sometimes the pieces of ash were practically half-sheets of paper, business files from whomever's office had just collapsed. I wondered if they'd jumped. We tried to decide what it smelled like, because it did smell, there was a smell in the air that lasted a couple of days, until the dust and ash all settled. We finally decided it smelled the most like flea collars, and that sweet chemical smell that rubs off on animal fur was all around.
The towers were where New York's TV signal towers had been, so our television wouldn't pick up anything but static. A few days later the signals were rerouted to the top of the Empire State Building, but for some reason our TV only picked up UPN. I watched hours and hours of The Steve Harvey Show, The Jamie Foxx Show and Moesha to escape. I feel a closeness to those shows, still. I watched only reruns, taped and broadcast before any of this had happened, and I would watch them and think about how none of the actors could have imagined what was really going on right now, how the people on the laugh tracks had no idea. It felt like going back in time.
After the attacks I developed a weird fear of pigeons. I was afraid they'd fly into me like little dive-bombers, and I would flinch whenever they flew past — and walking through Washington Square Park a few times a day, it was almost guaranteed that this would occur several times. I had nightmares about pigeons smacking into towers, turning to blood and guts and feathers. I became so embarrassed by my scaredy-cat cowering at every single flying bird that I got into the habit of keeping my head down and looking straight at the ground so I wouldn't see them coming. It seems obvious now, but somehow I didn't make the connection between the birds and the attacks until years later.
After that, the subway seemed different. The Britney Spears! Live From Las Vegasshow announcements that had lined the subway cars and platforms in Lower Manhattan since before the attacks were now all covered with graffiti. I saw the defaced pictures and understood that it was about vindication and anger, and embarrassment at the things that were so important just a day earlier, before everything changed.
Trains had to be rerouted around the Cortlandt Street stop — the one that had been part of my daily route, the one directly under the WTC site — for months while the rubble was cleared up. There was fear that the vibrations of the trains could shake loose debris, and that perhaps people who'd been trapped underneath would be crushed. After a while, the hope of finding more of those people seemed fruitless.
I remember the slow roll that the train made by that stop months later, when they finally allowed trains to pass through. A car full of aloof New Yorkers stared out the windows like little kids, horrified at the dust that remained, at the subway platform ghost town beyond. Yet one of the passengers started clapping, as if he were proud that we'd finally cleaned up all that rubble. As if any moment the doors would open, and we would step out into the space and open air, and we'd rub our eyes and find that things were back to how they were.
But the train didn't stop.
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 2011 issue of the Nashville Scene