History

Vertiginous Cityscape Panorama 09.11.2001

The thin plastic mattress swirls into existence, pale in the box grated daylight of the window grill. Blue fluorescent laptop whirring, doors slamming, edgy voices in the hall shouting, muttering, I wake. 172 Instant Message windows are flashing on the screen. Bubbles1984: U OK? Irishfan919: Just found out. Are you there? I open the door in time to see a girl running full tilt in the direction of the common room.

“One of the twin towers just fell…” Her vocal pitch dopplers downward as she flees. Next door Joanna is frantically trying to call her mother, alternating between cellular and landlines. All circuits are busy. A news anchor stutters, unable to process the words on the teleprompter. I climb out on the windowsill at the end of the the 15th floor hallway. A few people are outside, reclining on the vaulted roof, sunbathers soaking up the Armageddon.

A curtain of smoke engulfs the remaining tower. Helicopters swarm in all directions. The tower is gone.

10 AM Logic & Rhetoric: The myth of logic seems finally and permanently put to rest. They didn’t even cancel classes. The sidewalk is a sea of homeless eyes, sputtering pilot lights of hope refracted through four inches of bulletproof airplane glass. Also, who is this girl sitting in front of me in the sarong? Holy hand grenade of Antioch, I guess it stands to reason that I meet the girl of my dreams about the same time the world ends. The professor fast skims her book, creating a rainbow arc of translucent page markers.

“Listen,” she says, “I’m going downtown tonight, because I’m a historian, and I need to document what may be the most important historical event of my life. If any of you would like to join me, we’ll meet at the subway entrance by the front gate at nine o’ clock. This is not a school sanctioned activity. It will not affect your performance in my class if you do not go. That being said, if you are afraid, confused, angry, or dumbfounded as I am, this might help you sort through some of those feelings. In any case, we’ll deal with MLA format next week.”

The blue sawhorses of the police barricade are unattended. No one challenges them. The rescue operation continues, concrete dust blown uptown in the catabatic wind, a ghost blizzard of ash illuminated by searchlights. Jagged metal stumps of iron cut twisted black silhouettes into the sky, giant splintered bones. Every kiosk and utility box is freshly wallpapered with thousands of copies of photographs of men and women missing since the morning of the 11th. If you have any information please call this number.

The taggers have painted feeble attempts at retaliation on the sidewalk in corpuscle red. WHY? THIS MEANS WAR! Votive candles have sprung up on the lawns of Union Square park. Mourners, searchers, neighbors, and pilgrims from other boroughs gather in the square. Young men hide behind guitars. Old women hide behind silk scarves. A street vendor is selling coffee. The bricks surrounding his cart are a dance lesson in chalky footprints. He has a photo of his missing son taped over the laminated menu.

The four of us march east, from one end of the barricade to the other. We peer into the darkness, into the empty sockets of windows shattered by the concussive force of the collapse. That beautiful girl loses one of her sandals crossing the avenue. I am following her without realizing it, and I pick it up for her. It is woven out of natural fibers and covered with pulverized asbestos. She reaches out and steadies herself on my arm as she aligns her toes with the sandal straps.

The professor sends us on the wrong uptown train. We end up in east Harlem. Everyone is wearing New York jerseys. Tonight we are soldiers in a city under siege, comrades in arms. No one knows it yet, but the subway will never be the same. The specter of commuter rage has been dealt a mortal blow. Suddenly the train is a safe place we all share, a labyrinth of bridges that connect us.

We navigate the subway map ourselves, liberated. The struggle for survival makes sense. The city is ours to keep or to surrender to the encroaching fear. We backtrack to 96th street and wait for the local. A man on the platform talks loudly about evacuating the George Washington Bridge after his CB radio, tuned to the Army band, reports a van filled with explosives on the New Jersey Turnpike and a truck filled with explosives on King street between 6th and 7th. The truck is painted with a mural of an airplane exploding as it collides with a tall building.

That beautiful girl lives in the same dormitory, four flights up from my room. As the rickety elevator hesitates, beginning its onerous climb, we are silent in the low watt gloom and heavier than normal gravity. I want to protect her from psychopathic killers and shadowy insurgence operations. I want to give her my telephone number and tell her to call me anytime of day or night. Is it wrong to be in love while the world is mourning? I say nothing. As we arrive on my floor she asks whether I like clam chowder. I have never tasted it.

I dream that I run up the twisting fire stairs to her floor, only it isn’t there. I search through the loose mortar and drywall, reeling at the vertiginous cityscape panorama, clambering through the plumbing that shoots into the azure sky like copper bamboo. Dream logic holds me responsible for this devastation. Suddenly I am awake. It is never dark in my room. The neon grapefruit streetlights filter through the paper shade along with the sound of churning diesel engines. There is a soft knock at the door. I open it. She stands there in the hallway holding a paper cup, and a spoon.

Joshua William Booth witnessed the World Trade Center attacks firsthand while studying English and creative writing at Columbia University. His first book, Support Our Drones, is available through Amazon.com.

2 replies »

  1. After all the blustering and cacophonous oratory associated with this sad anniversary, how wonderful to read something about what it means to be human in the midst of nearly unfathomable tragedy. Beautifully dripping with truth…

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