Sunday, September 11, 2011
Songs That Voices Never Share
A very quick excerpt from my book, Dead Star Twilight -- one that attempts to relate the chaos, fear and overwhelming heartache that permeated New York City in those first hours and days following the 9/11 attack.
September 13th, 2001
I have a song echoing through my head. I know it’s from Moby. I think it’s called My Weakness. I’m not sure. I’m not sure of much of anything at this moment. I’m simply forcing myself to pay attention to what’s happening around me, because I know that someday someone will ask me to describe this and just shaking my head in overwhelmed silence won’t do it all justice—even though it will seem the most appropriate response. I’m surrounded by people. There’s sound everywhere and yet for some reason there’s no sound at all. It’s almost dead quiet to me—as if each individual noise has merged into the other at some sub-atomic level, creating one punishing, dull drone. It’s constant. I want to scream but I already know that it would simply disappear—consumed in the vacuum created by the sudden disappearance of so many lives. This is not the world I know. This is a hole punched in the fabric of reality created by more human suffering than is imaginable.
One particular sound finally slices through the deep thrum. I recognize it immediately and my brain quickly categorizes the possible sources of it. I look up to the sky. As I do, I catch a glimpse of hundreds of other people doing the same, many with looks of fear and confusion on their faces. They’ve heard this sound before—and the last time, it brought with it terror and death. I wasn’t here for that. For me the sound of a jet still qualifies as nothing more than routine. Now, though, it’s the sight that shocks me back to whatever is left of reality: Three fighters, in tight formation. They streak by—the shockwave of sound deafening. For a moment the entire crowd at the corner of 25th Street and Lexington Avenue is stunned into absolute silence. It is an eerie and frightening moment. The jets are visible for only a few seconds. From my perspective on the ground, they appear almost directly overhead, clearing the horizon created by the top of one building—screaming diagonally across the open sky and leaving vapor trails like dark scars—then disappearing behind the top of the giant building on the other side of the street. The sound lingers long after the spectacle that created it has disappeared from view. My mind comprehends it all and finally puts it into impossible words inside my head:
There are fighters flying cover over an American city.
As the artificial thunder of the jets reverberates and retreats through the canyon of structures surrounding the historic National Guard Armory, I stand across the street, taking in the incomprehensible scene playing out all around me. I arrived only a short time ago, taking the PATH train from Hoboken to 33rd, then catching a cab to this location. This is where I’m supposed to meet my crew because this is where hundreds of people have gathered to look for, at best, hope—at least, answers. The Armory at 25th & Lex is the processing area for the families of those still missing less than forty-eight hours after the attack that leveled the World Trade Center. If the Trade Center site itself overwhelms with the sheer size and scope of the recent cataclysm, this place overwhelms with the inescapable anguish caused by it.
I’m moving through the crowd now, trying to push the fragile figures in my path aside as gently as I can. Some are crying loudly. Many are implosively silent, their—figuratively, literally—ashen faces proof enough of their pain. In the confusion, I feel someone grab my shoulder.
“Are you from the TV?”
I spin around and I’m face-to-face with a young Hispanic woman—probably in her early twenties—and an older woman who I immediately assume is her mother. The old woman is shouting something in Spanish. I’m confused over the odd phrasing of the question for a moment, then I realize that yes, I guess I am from the TV.
“As of about an hour ago—yeah,” I answer, noticing that the young woman has reached down and is holding the MSNBC ID dangling from around my neck.
“Can you put us on TV? We’re looking for my husband. He worked in One World Trade,” she says, as the elder suddenly produces a white piece of photocopied paper from somewhere and hands it my way. On it is a dark reproduction of a wedding photo: The woman standing in front of me and the man she’s now trying to find. Above the picture are his name and a telephone number. If I pull my eyes away and look in any direction, I’ll see hundreds of similar fliers being carried by hundreds of different people. The format will be the same: Picture, name and phone number. The desperation will be the same—some say, “please help us,” or “we miss you.” Some will even have the gut-wrenching augmentation, “I love you daddy.” Only the names and faces will be different. People are walking around with these things. They’re taped to walls and public telephones. They’re everywhere—an endless, collective cry for help.
I’ve got my hand on the woman’s shoulder now and I notice I’m shouting above the crowd.
“What’s your name?”
“Okay, Alicia, who’s this?” I say, motioning toward the older woman.
“This is my husband’s mother.”
Guess I was wrong.
“Alright, listen to me—” I’m trying to be as authoritative as I can. “I’m gonna get you some help. Come with me.”
She acknowledges and says something to her mother-in-law. What I neglect to tell her of course is that I have no idea how I’m going to get her some help. I just arrived and don’t have the slightest idea where the hell my crew is. As I push through the throng, with the two women in my wake, I’m simply trying to get a handle on the fact that someone actually asked to be put on camera. Normally, news people are looked upon as vultures, and when you see one of them coming, you run like a scared four-year-old. But that was before everything everyone knew to be true was turned upside down by some very pissed-off Arabs with control of four commercial planes. Now as I glance around I pick out dozens of news crews—each with a line of people waiting patiently, fliers in hand, ready to make their pain public in the hope that someone, somewhere can make it stop.
I’m still not spotting my own crew among the crush of journalists, so I reach behind me, grab Alicia’s hand and begin moving off the street and toward the sidewalk along Lexington. Somewhere in the middle of all the chaos, I spot one reporter and photographer who look as if they’ve just finished setting up. So far no one seems to have noticed them. Perfect. I direct the two women toward the reporter. As I get closer, I see that his photographer is wearing an ID around his neck: WWOR—Channel 9 in New York. Locals.
Oh well—beats the Travel Channel, I suppose.
I move Alicia up onto the sidewalk, with her mother-in-law right behind her, and ask them to stand next to the photographer. Hopefully, given the situation, any amount of ass-kissing on my part should be painlessly minimal.
“Hey—can you talk to these two?” I say to the reporter, thumbing over my shoulder. “The young one’s looking for her husband.”
“Her and about a thousand other people here,” he says, forcing a look that he doubtlessly hopes will scream sympathetic nice-guy. Unfortunately, from where I’m standing it comes off more like irritated asshole. “Giuliani’s supposed to come through here in a minute. I’ve got to finish setting-up.”
Okay, look you arrogant prick—talk to these people or I’ll pull that tape out of your camera and smoke it on a piece of tin foil, and believe me, I COULD RIGHT NOW.
“Look, man,” I say, choosing to be sweetness-and-light for the sake of the two women standing nearby. Now I lower my voice—speaking just loud enough for the reporter to hear me above the surrounding noise. “September 11th was their third wedding anniversary. She just had a baby—he’s a month old. He probably doesn’t have a father now.”
I’m not trying to appeal to his humanity. I’m simply piling it on thick—baiting him with the kinds of angles sure to elevate a story from good TV to Emmy-assured TV. He punches his fists into his hips, one hand holding his microphone. He looks off into the distance, craning his neck above the crowd—probably to see if hizzoner is coming.
“Please. They need help,” I say quietly. Now I am appealing to his humanity.
He lets out a loud sigh.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
As he moves them in front of the camera, Alicia gives me a joyless smile and mouths a quiet thank you. It’s not hard to grasp that this will likely be the first of countless times over the next few months that someone else’s searing pain and loss puts my own into perspective. For a moment, everything goes quiet and everyone else disappears. I look at Alicia and return her sad smile, mouthing back a silent good luck.
On a corner, one avenue over from Lexington, I’ve found a relatively calm place to make a cell phone call to my elusive photographer and reporter. I’m appreciating the irony of standing under the awning of an Afghan restaurant, one which chose to close its doors today—probably wisely. A handwritten sign on the door reads: Our hearts and prayers are with our fellow New Yorkers during this terrible tragedy. May God bless us all. As the line rings, I lift my eyes from the sidewalk and look across the street to where a WABC news van is parked, surrounded by the constantly shifting mass of people. The engineer inside the truck has his feet up on the dashboard. He’s asleep.
Download Dead Star Twilight Here
(The physical copy of the book, unfortunately, is still in the proofing stages, so it won't be available for another couple of days.)