Sunday, September 11, 2005

Remembrance


It was four years ago today that I looked straight into hell.

Four years since I heard the first jetliner hit the north tower over my head, and then, a little while later, ran for my life when the second jetliner struck the south tower.

It was my father's 80th birthday and my buddy Hank was playing a set somewhere in the Village. My mother was at Lutheran Medical Center being treated for the lung disease that would take her life 10 months later.

Four years since I sought refuge in the lobby of a senior citizen's home near the Brooklyn Bridge, while the towers and the world as we knew collapsed in a heap of dust and ash.

I remember that terrifying walk over the Manhattan Bridge, where I felt like a sitting duck in the middle of the sky, with jets screeching overhead. Only later did I find out that those were American fighters, scrambled much too late.

I was walking with a woman from Long Island, Eva, who is an attorney from Long Island. After the attacks she didn't know how to get to the LIRR, so I walked her to the Atlantic Avenue train station.

I write to her every year on the anniversary and tell what I've been up to, how I'm doing and she does the same. (Her dog, Cody, died and her husband is working in the same building that she is) She considers me a hero for walking to the train station with her and I don't know whether to laugh or cry about that, but I guess I should take it and be grateful. Doesn't happen too often.

LIVE EVERY MOMENT

I try to recall my thoughts on that day before attacks began and the whole world changed forever, how, early that morning, I was bitching about someone taking one of my towels at the health club while I was in the shower. And then the planes hit.

After the attack, I swore I'd never complain about anything again, I'd be happy with my life, even if I never did become famous, or rich, or meet scores of fabulous babes, because all I wanted to do is live.

Haven't done such a great job of keeping that promise, but the anniversary of 9/11 helps reinforce the message.

My mother never came home from the hospital. She died in July of 2002. I remember on Sept. 11 my sister and I had decided not to tell her about what had happened, so as not to upset her.

We didn't know my father already had told her when he gone to see her earlier that day. She was unable to speak because of the tube in her throat, so she made a gesture with her hands indicating the collapse of the towers. It told the whole story in a very chilling, concise way.

My dad has Alzheimer's disease now and he is looking so frail. I hate the fact that his birthday and this horrible moment in the nation's history are linked, even though it's just a coincidence.

I'm out of Goldman, but I'm still on Wall Street and I think about how the city in general and the finacial district in particular are still targets. Not much I can do about it, unless I want to go back to living in small towns. And maybe I will.

Since 9/11, we've had the Lie in Iraq, the tsunami, bombings in Bali, Madrid, and London, and now the flooding of New Orleans. You can drive yourself crazy looking for patterns or curses or vicious design. Maybe the message is just the simple one about living every day because it just might be your last.

Rest in peace, all 9/11 victims. Comfort to your loved ones and may God be with us all.

(Editor's Note: I wrote about my 9/11 experiences for my old paper, the Pocono Record, a month after the attacks happened. The link no longer works, so here is the text of that story:

Wall St. a month after

Editor's note: Rob Lenihan, a Brooklyn native and former Pocono Record writer, works for Goldman Sachs in lower Manhattan. He submitted this reflection on life in New York City's financial district.

It doesn't take much to draw you back to Sept. 11.

Wall Street seems to be back to normal little more than a month after terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center. People come to work, complain about their bosses over lunch and long for the weekend.

With a little effort, you can almost convince yourself that you've moved on and put the atrocity behind you. Then you spot the awful gap in the sky, or look down the block and see National Guardsmen in camouflaged uniforms standing at the corner.

Or you just inhale and, even after all this time, the burning, acrid odor emanating from the wreckage hits you like a wave of dirty water. And then you're sliding right back to that first terrible day.

Loud noises, typically ignored in the past, make heads turn now. Sirens, such a basic element of the city's rumbling soundtrack, can halt conversations and freeze people where they stand.

I was about to enter my office across the street from the trade center on the morning the planes slammed into the city's tallest buildings and changed the course of our lives. Everyone on Church Street looked up in disbelief as the first tower burned. We all thought it was over — until another plane streaked out of the sky and hit the second tower.

It seems like a century ago that people ran screaming through the streets, first to escape the explosions and then to flee from the crumbling buildings and the huge debris cloud that roared through the manmade canyons like a demon bursting out of hell.

After the dust finally settled, I joined the throng of sudden refugees who hiked back to Brooklyn across the Manhattan Bridge as fighter jets shrieked over our heads.

The stock market was closed for several days after the attacks, and those first days back to work were something beyond surreal as the smell from Ground Zero dominated the air and humvees rumbled through the streets of my hometown.

It took me a week to walk up to the trade center, to look at the spot where a society roughly equal to the population of Stroudsburg was wiped out in less than two hours.

The trade center was a world unto itself — shops, restaurants, art exhibits, concerts and, of course, people. Name the race, creed or color and you could find it somewhere within those shimmering steel walls, people of all kinds streaming in and out of the huge complex to work, live and play.

I think of the people I stood next to at Border's bookstore, or ate with at the sandwich shop, or walked with on my way to the Cortlandt Street subway station. I wonder how many of them are dead now.

As America heads deeper into war, the fear of reprisal adds to the tension around the financial district.

Mundane decisions take on a new and probably irrational significance in light of the trade center horror stories where the timing of appointments or arrival at the office literally meant the difference between life and death in so many cases.

It's crowded at Ground Zero. Some people walk right by the ruins without even turning their heads. Others push up against the barriers to stare at the devastation and take photographs. I can easily understand why someone would want a record of this spot, but I could no sooner take a photo of this horrible scene than I could of a mutilated body. It just feels wrong.

The smell is still potent here, and you'll spot people wearing facemasks like surgeons on the way to the operating room. Cranes and bulldozers push aside the painfully familiar rubble, and firefighters hose down the hot spots. Your mind tries to undo the destruction, put everything back the way it was.

I can see my old building, Liberty Plaza, where officials commandeered the Brooks Brothers store in the lobby and turned it into a frontline morgue.

Reportedly the building is structurally sound, but now it stands forlorn and empty on the wrong side of the barricades.

A Buddhist monk was here recently, sitting in a folding chair and relentlessly intoning prayers as the crews did their heavy labor. Christian groups came down as well, too, handing out their leaflets promising salvation to passersby.

Street entrepreneurs are always close by, hawking American flags and photos of the twin towers in their glory, proving that nothing can stand in the way of commerce. The other day on Broad Street, a flag lady shared a corner with a man selling watches from a case.

The loss of the Twin Towers is more keenly felt in close quarters. You got so used to having them there. Even if you didn't go into them for days at a time, you knew they were always overhead, standing guard over the neighborhood.

Now my stomach lurches when I look at the old church at Broadway and Vesey Street and see nothing but the sky. Nearby, a makeshift memorial to those lost in the disaster has sprung up in front of a bank.

Years ago as a reporter for the Pocono Record, I traveled to Homestead, Fla., to write about the impact of Hurricane Andrew. I remember the blocks of ruined houses, the shattered trailer parks reduced to mounds of twisted metal.

I felt sorry for the people who lost their lives or their homes, but like most people, I never thought such destruction would strike so close to me. I think about the deaths I covered as a police reporter, the house fires and car wrecks and how all those tragic stories disappear in the shadow of this monstrous crime scene.

The giant American flag still hangs off the New York Stock Exchange, and the posters of the missing — hastily assembled biographies that blend the hard facts of a wanted poster with a loved one's desperate plea for help — are still visible on lampposts. The posters are grim reminders that the hope of anyone being rescued has long since faded.

The attack has led to rapid changes in New York's alphabet soup of a subway system, which has been reworked so many times a lifelong resident can feel like a tourist from Wisconsin. I take a newly created ferry line to South Ferry now, complete with a police boat escort.

I'm working on Water Street at another building and every morning I surrender my shoulder bag over to the X-ray machine, walk by the bomb-sniffing dog and ride the elevator up my office on the 40th floor.

I forget how to breathe for a second when I look up from my desk and see a group of co-workers charging down the hallway. I can relax only when I realize they're running for a meeting and not for their lives.

When a supervisor begins a sentence with the words, "We have an emergency," and I learn he's only talking about work, I want to grab him by the lapels and shake him until he realizes nothing we do in this office could ever constitute an emergency.

I came into my office recently and spotted a suitcase in an empty cubicle.

I did my best to ignore it, asking myself what terrorist would take the trouble to come all the way up here, walk through the maze of desks and plant a bomb right next to me.

But I couldn't take my eyes off it and finally I asked around until a woman sitting near me claimed it.

"Don't worry," she said, smiling. "You're safe."

I can almost believe her. Until I go outside and smell the air.

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