Twelve years ago.
It was drier that day, the sky just as blue. I marveled at its cloudless clarity on my walk to 475 Riverside Drive, weaving my way through morning sidewalk traffic, newly arrived Columbia and Barnard students still discovering what's required of pedestrians in New York City. Picked up an iced coffee from the Halal cart at Broadway and 112th St., wondered whether it would be my last of the season. "Have a good day, boss." He always called me boss.
"Did you hear what happened?" our receptionist asked as I walked in. "What?" Plane hit the World Trade Center. "They say it was small." Terrible, but not impossible. Impossible was coming. I set my coffee next to Commonweal's one web-connected computer, and dialed into MSN. The New York Times website wouldn't loading. Neither would other domestic news sites. But BBC worked, and as it came up my stomach dropped: "World Trade Center Hit." The headline came in before the photo. Smoke billowing out of one of the towers. The gash was too big for a small plane. "Oh no."
The staff gathered around the computer as I refreshed the page. Few spoke. Looked like terrorism. We were a week from press day. There were corrections to be made. Headlines to be written. The editors met in the conference room, or tried to. Halfway through, a couple of us returned to the web-connected computer. Meeting concluded. I couldn't peel myself away from the news. The second tower was hit. I tried to call my mom, but the phones had stopped working.
I don't remember eating. I remember the fear. The Pentagon, a downed plane in Pennsylvania. Another unaccounted for, rumor had it. Those who lived outside Manhattan headed home as soon as possible. They didn't want to be trapped on the island. But I lived on the island, thirteen blocks south, and I didn't want to leave, even after the office cleared out. E-mail was working. I'd send notes to loved ones and friends. Man the front desk just in case. In case what, I couldn't say. I considered the location of the building I was in, its height. The soundness of the structure: Eisenhower-era, concrete clad steel.
By six o'clock, the paranoia had worn off. I had to go home. Turn off the lights, make sure the door was locked. The halls were silent. I said goodnight to the maintenance man at the front desk. Security had long left. A reflex I wish I'd stifled as soon as I heard myself speak. Outside, the air had changed. It smelled sharper. Took me a moment to realize what I was inhaling.
Broadway was strangely quiet. Car traffic diminished. Pedestrians walked more slowly. Restaurants and bars were packed. Customers huddled in front of televisions. The Halal carts were gone. I needed money, I was sure, just in case. A man approached me on the way out of Citibank. "Excuse me, sir." I moved past him. He followed me, got in front of me, forcing me to stop. "Can you help me out? I'm trying to get a bus ticket back to New Jersey, and I just need five more dollars." I didn't speak. We watched one another for maybe half a minute. Then his face fell. "I'm sorry," he sighed, leaned in, and embraced me. "It's OK," I replied.
The Church of the Ascension at 107th Street was nearly vacant. There were five of us. Two men and three women. I slipped into a pew in back, knelt, tried to pray, but couldn't find the words. Stifled weeping was all I could hear. Defeated, I left in pursuit of food.
Soup would be easy, comfortable. Split pea. Thanking the soup man, I handed over three dollars. "Have a good night," he urged. I almost dropped the bag as I left the shop. Everyone looked up as a fighter jet tore through the sky, perfect blueness marred only by the plane's contrails. I remember feeling the soup's warmth in my hands as I walked home. I remember sitting at my desk, flattening the bag to use as a placemat. I remember the generous pour the soup man had given me, as my dinner overflowed onto the bag. I remember the plastic spoon's sharp edges against my lips. But I don't remember eating. I remember the fear.