(my) 9 11 01.
I never bothered to scan these. Haven’t looked at them except in passing, on the way to trying to find some other photos. and most of them I can’t find. It also seemed redundant — both to share them and for myself to reflect on them — since these grainy snapshots paled against the stark relief of visceral recollection.
But as that day recedes further into my own personal history and becomes even more fossilized into the mythology of the country’s, it seems apropos to try and resurrect my experience — as this day, before and beyond anything else, was composed of so many individual perspectives and experiences before history and politics co-opted it.
I had moved to New York in the summer prior to do what would be a short lived television show, The Street. But really I felt I was moving to New York to finally fulfill a delayed dream to live in New York City, finally and for real, as my twenties were drawing to a close. It had been a dream of mine since I was a kid, New York posters up on the wall, one Scorcese movie or another on the VCR, pilgrimages to downtown LA which served as a temporary surrogate for my aesthetic lust. And indeed I sort of moved there briefly when I spent my Freshman and only year at college, just north of the city at Sarah Lawrence college, where I had what I colloquially refer to as my nervous breakdown. I ironically was immersing myself in LA crime fiction, Roman Noir, by the likes of Raymond Chandler and James Cain, as well as aping the writing style of Bukowski in my creative writing class, and suddenly find myself appreciating the city I had only just escaped, that I had deemed vacant for so long. If only I could unlock its subterranean cool…. But finally, on the precipice of turning 30, and with an excuse to move to there (woefully, my travels have been largely dictated by my work) , I felt ready to sever any residential ties to LA and commit to NY. In fact, and while I’m not proud of how I handled this, I also severed ties with my then girlfriend as I had met someone new in LA (let’s call her L.) but who resided in NY… And I felt now I had every reason to be there, felt rejuvinated and inspired, was making a living, writing again for the first time in a while (I’d write my feature I Love Your Work in the early days of having moved there), had several friends also uprooted their lives elsewhere and were living there, and had fallen in love. I’d live what would feel like several years in the year which commenced in the sexy muggy swelter of August, 2000.
13 months later….
I had been barely asleep, a couple hours maybe, when Adrian, my friend, writing partner, and roommate while living at my first apartment a year prior, on 17th St, before The Street got cancelled and I had a bit more to splurge, called me from his home in England, and was barking about something on my answering machine, something about something hitting the Trade Center. Through the cobwebs of too little sleep, too much to drink, and too much arguing with L., passed out beside me, the result of a woozy all night affair that was becoming too familiar, our new love now reduced to the drunken melodrama of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, minus the pith. I remember feeling annoyed. I remember thinking it was probably just a news copter or something (as though this wouldn’t be horrific and tragic enough).
I wrestled myself from the floor mattress and stumbled through my fairly shitty railroad loft on Bowery and 4th street to turn on the television. Sobriety came quick and I called out to my girlfriend to wake up and join me. We were probably going to split up that day. Either that or maybe we’d go one more round, one more week. but this day would put a crimp in our divorce and we wouldn’t split up for about another six weeks — which would segueway into the longest, loneliest, and most surreal winter i had known…and to my eventual departure from new york, where i had only been living for about a year when the planes hit.
It wouldn’t be long before and I were arguing about whether to stay indoors or go to her apartment 12 blocks north on 3rd avenue where she had access to a roof deck from which we could get a better perspective. I was hoping the sickening sobriety of what was occurring would mollify our acrimony for at least an hour, but we resumed where we had left off in some regard, now arguing about whether to traverse the city or, as I insisted, stay the fuck inside.. I was feebly documenting the activity just outside my apartment with my camera— where people bustled up from downtown, spilling out of my bodega across the street, waiting in line for water. I suppose i too wanted to see “it.” It felt bizarre — and would continue to be bizarre for the following days and nights — to see all the activity, to smell the burning which seeped through the a/c vent, to see trucks filled with refuse driving north past my building — but be watching it on television right by the same window, as though it were somehow happening in some fictional far off place. I too was curious but I also insisted we were under attack and probably running around the city wasn’t the best idea. Eventually, after the second tower fell, I acquiesced and we walked up bowery as it turned into 3rd ave, up to 16th, and up to her roof from where I had only just shot those ubiquitous monoliths jutting from the skyline months before and now shot the iconic thick mass of smoke that stood in their stead — that had been so photographed that my photos have never felt as though I had taken them, and so they have been dismissed, buried in a box.
I was supposed to fly that day. I had been offered a guest star on Will and Grace, just a day prior. Just another NY day before, guitar shopping with my friend Eric. I remember being ambivalent, annoyed even, by the offer probably because I didn’t want to fly to L.A., because I hate to fly. On the night of September 10th I had been begging my agent to make sure it was a big plane, a 767, because i couldn’t stand the confines and turbulence of smaller planes. I was annoyed. I didn’t feel like flying or doing a sitcom, but as always I felt I was in no position to turn anything down. And this was — supposed to be — a several episode arc on a popular tv show. There was no plan for me to leave in the morning, because the deal wasn’t yet closed; it was meant to close that day and I’d take a later flight. Of course I morbidly reflected on how I could have been on one of those planes, had the deal closed the night before. But that was disingenuous and typically dramatic of me, since I would never have taken a flight that early.
I was worried about my friend, JP in the moments and hours after the planes hit. JP lived in the financial district and I could not reach him. He would later show up at the apartment and nonchalantly, he’s not like me, tell us how he fled his apartment into that black hole of non-visibility so oft described, only to immediately discover two emergency workers emerging from the darkness. He took them back upstairs from whence he had only just fled, and gave them water and let them wash-up. JP wouldn’t hear or know a thing about these guys for years, until one of them tracked him down and finally got to thank him. JP stayed with us at my apartment for a couple weeks. We shopped — hoarding food with the rest of the city — and cooked dinners for each other. And there was something nice about it. Especially after the vitriol that had infested my relationship with L., before the unspeakable global horror that, narcissistically, I couldn’t help but feel had somehow been born directly from it. The following weeks would bring us closer indeed. Until they no longer could.
The next day my agent in L.A. (who is no longer my agent) told me the will and grace deal closed and i’d be flying out just as soon as the FAA deemed it safe. “Uh…what the fuck are you talking about?” I said or wanted to say as I explained to the man in La La that I was watching and smelling remnants of The World Trade Center drive by my window as we spoke, and, if he thought I had a problem flying before, imagine how I felt now. ”Force majeure, buddy,” I told him. He told me the deal was closed and that I’d be fine. “It’s never been safer to fly,” said the man 3,000 miles away and working in his office on 9/12/01.
After a couple of days L. and I decided to get out of town. She had a friend who lived in Long Island and I rented a car from a place that conveniently located around the corner. but I remember it was strange, something to do with the fact that we were below 14th st, one of the areas that they blocked traffic from I think, so I we had to walk past 14th to pick up the car from another garage. Or something. I don’t know. It felt odd, sort of like relief, sort of like numbness on Long Island. I have photos from this time which out of context appear to be a happy young couple on a beach vacation, the extent to which I’m not even sure they’re from the same period, but I know for a fact they are. There was such cognitive dissonance out there. And by this time, actually by the end of the day on 9/11, all the television coverage already had transitioned from breaking horror to cinematic montage, replete with graphics, titles, theme music. Both of us felt we needed to get back. It felt — many would say this — like “we needed to be there.” So we came back after a couple days and each night a bunch of us would wander around the east village like we were in some post-apocolyptic dream, trying to gain some perspective on what had happened. It seems too early to have considered what remains in some circles taboo and profane: that things couldn’t be as simple as they looked. It never is, why would this be? People don’t simply decide to commit an act of such focused and unfathomable horror out of the complete blue. Yeah it felt too early to talk politics. but a couple of us did, in sort of hushed tones….as a bicycler would ride by, heading south, towards the scene, his camera dangling round his neck, a respirator around his face — a sci-fi image that grew as commonplace as a hipster’s facial hair. We’d go to this bar, Irish bar, downstairs, Scratchers. You could still smoke, we smoked a lot, and we’d talk and drink to all night and it was kind of desolate, not like before. Those weeks seemed to define that bar for us. And though it had been and would continue to be our bar for years, it is remembered by a couple of pals and myself as our 9/11 bar.
About a week later, I think, I flew to L.A. — the first day they allowed air travel, because, after all, “the deal was closed.” It was the stone age of homeland security: “no box cutters….no nail clippers…” and general bullshit riffing to try and instill confidence in fliers. When i opened my bag in los angles I discovered I had accidentally smuggled nail clippers. My confidence in the FAA wained. On the flight to L.A. the captain had us all introduce ourselves to the passengers next to us…but I — and the woman in front of me — were in single seats and neither one of us introduced ourselves. I just felt shy. and she probably thought I was a terrorist. What was the captain trying to achieve? Was he hoping we would bond in case we needed to take down a group of hijackers? Was he tactfully trying to get us to profile our seat mates? Or was he simply saying, love your neighbor? Either way, the last thing he said before we took off was “We’re all in this together.” “Oh fuck,” I thought, “that just sounds ominous.”
Being in L.A. felt wronger than being on Long Island. Being on Will and Grace felt wronger still. (Ultimately the guest star would prove not to be a several episode arc which made the trip feel all the more frivolous.) This week the studios were convinced Al Qaeda’s next target would be their various film studio lots. I fell a bit for this egoism since my own dictated that wherever I was bad things were destined to happen. (I had just gotten off my motorcycle when the ‘94 riverside quake hit and sent transformers lighting up the sky above me, I had been in london when Princess Diana was killed — though strictly speaking, that happened in France….etc..)
L.A.. just didn’t get it and I felt a sort of queasy gladness that I had been in NY when it happened. It made something that felt like history even as as it was occurring — something that might otherwise feel abstract and other — like something that did happen and happened down the street.
And perhaps I could feel just a bit of its incalculable weight, if never fully comprehend it.
POST NOTE: 9/11/16…
What is so striking now is how grotesquely divided the country is today and how necessarily and apolitically we all were united then. This unity obviously pervaded the post apocalyptic landscape in NY but even the rest of the country, and those of us who questioned the legitimacy of our president, stood behind him…until he exploited our generosity. Where is that today?