I don’t like to think about 9/11, especially not on 9/11. Nothing about my life has been the same since that day. I can see it clearly 14 years later as a demarcation point, where my life ceased to be what I thought it was going to be, what I hoped it might be and slowly became–something else.
Not a bad something else, mind you. I have a beautiful family that I might not have had if not for the events of that day and the days immediately after. Everything was going great on 9/11. My band had made a new record that folks seemed to like. We’d been on tour a couple times that year and on 9/12 we were going to head out again to share some dates with a band somewhat more well known than us. It was a good opportunity.
I walked out of the subway that morning looking for my uptown bus, late for work, as usual. A woman screamed. I heard her from the stairwell and when I emerged, she was running south, with a toddler in an umbrella stroller. She looked desperate, precarious. She was hysterical, sprinting down the sidewalk, weaving through the people exiting the Subway station and the child didn’t look safe. That’s what I thought as I watched her pass. I saw a plume of smoke rising above the buildings to the southwest. The plume was large enough that I thought there was a fire somewhere close, maybe a few blocks away, 12th and 2nd Ave, maybe. I got on the bus.
When I got to the office I entered through the mailroom, as I usually did; I never remembered my keycard. Bruce, the mailroom manager, told me a plane had hit one of the Twin Towers. Not long before a baseball player had slammed into a building in a plane. Or did that happen after? I can’t recall. I thought, ‘Another unfortunate accident, but the day goes on.’
It didn’t take long to realize that it was more than an unfortunate accident. There was another plane. And one in DC. And one in Pennsylvania. My office was a couple blocks from the UN. Theresa’s was a couple blocks from the Empire State. I started considering scenarios, dirty bombs, more planes. There was a time when it seemed like any horrible thing could happen. Meanwhile, our bosses told us to stay put. No one could get phone calls out. It wasn’t clear what was happening, so we rolled TVs into the cubicle farm and watched.
Then, one of the towers fell. A collective gasp. The other building fell not long after and a sense of panic set in. The feeling of imminent danger had eased, but panic was there in its place. And it wasn’t panic over what was happening or might happen. It was more like a slow, cold knowledge that everything was different. There was no coming back from something like this.
People started leaving the office. I had been on the phone with Theresa several times and then I couldn’t get her anymore. A lot of the cell towers were on the roofs of the Trade Center towers. I thought about the Empire State, and those other planes in my head. I called and called and there was no answer. Finally, I couldn’t wait anymore. I had to leave, but I was scared. I had no idea what was out there.
It’s hard to explain the fear. I imagine it’s something like dementia. Nothing was as it should have been. Step out the confines of that building and anything could happen. But I had to go. My friend Gerry walked me. Thinking back on that act, it seems so strange, to have one grown man walk another a few city blocks to his wife’s office, but it’s one of the kindest acts anyone has ever blessed me with. So thank you, Mr. Schramm.
Theresa was fine. Walt, the guy who was playing bass for us on the tour, found his way uptown to us. He’d been caught in the plume created by the first tower’s decent. He came up from a Subway station near Wall St carrying a giant computer bag and his bass. As he emerged the debis rolled up the street swallowing people as they ran to escape. Walt wasn’t an athletic guy, but he ran for he life. By the time he made it to us he was covered in Tower 2, exhausted from the more than 50 blocks he walk to get to us.
Slowly, you could make phone calls again. People reconnected and the gauzy fabric of the reality we agree upon started to knit itself back together. We started walking home mid-afternoon. The streets were unlike a NYC I’ve known before or since. Everyone was stunned, damaged, in shock. It was going to be a long walk back to Brooklyn.
As we approached 14th St, there was a homeless guy in the middle of the street singing “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister. His voice was blown out and he stood in the middle of 3rd Ave and just screamed the chorus over and over again. In my mind, our nation has been that guy ever since–damaged, a little crazy, confused, belligerent, grasping for a past only half remembered.
The subway was running somehow. We piled onto the L train and left Manhattan alive. Walt was dusty. He lived outside of Philly and took the train in a few times a week to work as a freelance computer guy. He was going to leave with us on tour the next day, but now he was stranded and needed a place to clean up and stay the night. I can’t remember Walt’s last name.
I wanted to get drunk. Williamsburg was alive in the late afternoon. It was a beautiful September day. We walked down to the riverside and watched the dual plumes of smoke rise and then we went to Muggs Alehouse on Bedford Ave. and ate and drank. A lot. Because we were alive.
The tour was cancelled. The band never recovered. My career as a musician never recovered either. It’s nothing compared to those who lost loved ones on that day, I know, and I don’t mean to conflate my loss with theirs. Many of them spent the next weeks attaching flyers advertising lost family members plastered on the plywood construction barriers outside hospitals, or anywhere else available: Have you seen this person? As the days wore on it was clear: No one had. I often think of the co-worker whose fiancé was a firefighter. He died in one of the towers. When he knew he wasn’t going to get out he called her office phone. She was out in the halls watching TV with the rest of us. He left her a voicemail that said goodbye and that he loved her. My boss bought a tape recorder and recorded it for her.
Everyone has a story from that day. Everyone who lived in New York, everyone across the nation. But now, on this day I think about my day. I think about that woman who ran by me with her child as I came out of the Subway. Who did she lose? Or was her loved one OK? I think about Walt and feel bad that I can't remember his name. How have the last 18 years been for him. Is he even still alive? I think about that person I might have been; maybe I would have been the successful singer/songwriter I thought I was on the way to being, or maybe it would have fallen apart some other way. All that stuff is held together with spiderwebs. It just takes the slightest breeze to pull it all down.
But mostly–and this is what I want people to think of when they hashtag #neverforget and wrap themselves in the flag and platitudes–what I think about is the smell. For weeks afterward the smell of the still-smoldering buildings was everywhere. It got so I knew the patterns of the wind currents on the east side of New York because of where I could smell the smell at what time of day. In the mornings, it was strong in Manhattan and I could smell it as I walked into the office. In the evenings the current shifted and I could smell it outside our apartment or on the street just before I went into a bar. It was the smell of burning plastic, something oily, a hint of woodsmoke, and somewhere in there, though I could never discern it specifically from the other scents, the tang of burning flesh, of those bodies never recovered.
It was there in the city for weeks as the holes in the ground still burned like giant char pits. When we talk about 9/11 now, we don’t think about those gaping holes still churning hate and death. We should think about the people who died, but that’s too hard. We should think about the public servants and volunteers who have sickened and died in the years since. If I could, I would send an envelope to every American containing just a whiff of The Smell every year on that day. Maybe that would help us remember what 9/11 took from us, what we’ll clearly never get back again, that naive sense that everything was ok and nothing could touch us. Now we tear ourselves apart from the inside, which is exactly what the people who perpetrated this act wanted. The knew they couldn’t beat us on a physical field of battle, so they destroyed or sense of safety and that destruction is still ongoing. Sometime I look at the news, the crazy shit that floats across the headline and wonder how we got to this. But today, I remember. Today it all makes sense. No matter where we go as a nation in the coming years, 9/11, The Smell, will be a scar we can look to offer a partial explanation.
On that day 19 years ago I thought to myself, ‘We’re never coming back from this.’ And we haven’t. It’s important, but the why still eludes me. The Smell is everywhere to this day. It’s a part of us now and the cocktail of poison it contains is killing us. The still-optimistic side of me wants to believe we’ll make it back, but as time goes on it’s harder to deny we won’t.