Social Security and Identity Theft
Elders For the Common Good

Five Years On

category_bug_journal2.gif In the late 1950s, there was an excellent television drama titled The Naked City set, of course, in New York. The show's tagline was, "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This is one of them." And so it is today on Time Goes By, one small story among millions:

In the late summer of 2001, I was 60 years old, unemployed since the overnight demise, 13 months earlier, of the dotcom where I had been vice president of editorial and interactive.

The stack of printouts and folders on my desk had reached a height of two inches – more than a year’s worth of email and snailmail job applications, cover letters, lists of potential employment contacts, headhunters, notes of telephone conversations, rejection letters, follow-up schedules and spreadsheets tracking it all.

As everyone in the world would soon know, the morning of 11 September dawned gloriously cool, bright and sunny - a good day, if you were not working, to go to the park or bicycle down the urban path toward the World Trade Center or just walk the city. But not for me. The wolf had been scratching at my door for many weeks and on top of that stack of job search detritus was a list of contacts I intended to call as soon as offices opened.

By shortly after 8AM, I had been at my desk for a couple of hours working on a design for what would, before long, become my first blog (not this one). I only half listened to CBS News Radio88 in the background, the usual litany of national and local politics, deliberate and accidental death, and celebrity stories to fill in the blanks between commercials.

Then the breaking-news alert sounded. I remember groaning; it would be just another fender bender or commuter traffic snarl breathlessly reported as though it were the start of World War III. But instead, the news reader said something about an airplane and the World Trade Center. I dashed to the bedroom to turn on the television and saw to my horror that perhaps it was, this time, World War III.

It’s the little things in life that can turn me into a crazed harridan. When the big things happen, I am calm and rational, running potential next steps through my mind and then taking action, if any is needed. My lifelong broadcast career training kicked in; I needed to get to the office right away to help cover the story. But I had no office to go to. So, I phoned a journalist friend who was recently retired from full-time work.

“It’s like the Empire State Building years ago,” he said. “Some pilot lost his way.” “No way,” said I. For three years, I had worked in an office on 11th Avenue overlooking the Hudson where I had watched planes large and small move up and down the river all day. I knew that 1: no planes are allowed to fly over Manhattan and 2: pilots are taught to ditch, when something goes wrong, in water and there is plenty of that around Manhattan. “It’s a terrorist attack,” I told my friend.

As soon as we hung up, the phone rang - my upstairs neighbor. His wife took the two boys to school in Brooklyn each day by subway and then returned home. She was late, he said. He just knew she had stopped to shop, as was her habit a couple of times a week, at Century 21 across the street from the World Trade Center. She didn’t have a cell phone with her. He was terrified.

My Greenwich Village apartment was half a block from the intersection of Sixth Avenue, a major north/south artery, and Houston Street. For 20 years, it had been my private ritual, as I left home each morning, to check north for a view of the Empire State Building and then south to check the twin towers of the World Trade Center. If they were there then all was right, I believed, with my world.

A second, less uplifting ritual – mental exercise, really - that began following the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, was my now-and-then attempt to calculate, should a Trade Center building fall over northward, whether the top of it would crash into my townhouse. My conclusion had been that it didn’t matter. Even if it didn’t reach as far as my block, the concussion would probably kill me. You shrug in the face of such potential catastrophe you can't control and get on with life. But my mind wandered back to it from time to time.

On that morning five years ago, my upstairs neighbor and I sat watching television near his phone waiting, hoping, silently praying to all the gods the world has ever worshipped to let us hear from his wife. We took turns joining neighbors at the corner of Sixth and Houston, staring south to the fire and smoke and, before long, the collapse of the buildings.

Within an hour or so, my neighbor’s wife telephoned from a friend’s house in SoHo and soon, sitting on our stoop together, we saw her, covered in soot, walking toward us. Later, she told her story:

Yes, she had been shopping at Century 21 and was just entering the stairs to the subway in the lower concourse of the World Trade Center when there was a tremendous noise above, which shook the entire building. Debris was raining down as she and everyone raced out and away, not looking back. She hadn’t known what had happened until she reached her friend’s house.

I heard many more stories that day. I spent much of it sitting on my stoop and as thousands of survivors walked north on Sixth Avenue toward their homes, some turned into my street. The first time, I was surprised when a stranger in a dusty business suit, carrying a briefcase plopped himself down beside me and wept on my shoulder as he told me his story. When he had collected himself enough to head home, another stopped, and another, sometimes two and three at a time. We wept together for the dead, for ourselves and for our city.

That evening, the journalist friend I had spoken with in the morning came by and we walked Greenwich Village looking for a place to eat dinner. Hardly any restaurants were open and those that were, were crammed with people, most of them strangers to one another just wanting to be with other people. We joined them and then wandered over to Washington Square Park where thousands of others had gathered too.

The next morning, I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital to give blood, but by then, sadly, it wasn’t necessary and I was turned away. Home-made posters with photos of the missing were posted on many buildings in the neighborhood. Spontaneous memorials with American flags, candles, flowers, prayer cards and notes had appeared on many street corners.

The authorities shut down traffic except for emergency vehicles below 14th Street for the next four days, and we used the winding Greenwich Village streets as the cowpaths they once were, ignoring street lights and crosswalks, walking where whim took us.

During those days, knots of people – sometimes neighbors, sometimes strangers – gathered here and there. The first question, carefully worded, was always, “Is everyone you know okay?” Sometimes they were; sometimes they weren’t. Often we just stood together silently for awhile, stunned still by the events of that terrible day.

Three weeks later, at last, I was offered a job and a week after that, I was on a plane to Florida for a conference. Planes approaching New York travel up the Hudson River and then turn toward LaGuardia Airport. On my return from Florida, I deliberately chose a window seat on the Manhattan side of the plane because although I had seen the aerial photos of Ground Zero, I wanted to see it "for real".

The size of the devastation was shocking. I'd had no idea that much of downtown was gone. A big, ugly, open sore on the city, much larger than any photo or video had conveyed.

The first anniversary of 9/11 hit me as hard as the first anniversary of the deaths of loved ones I’ve buried. I mourned for the dead, for the kind of world we had come to live in now, and for the damage done to my city.

It disturbs me still that from the day of the attack – and still – when I have stood at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Houston Street, I can’t remember which buildings the World Trade Center towered above when I looked south each morning. It feels as though my lack of attention all those years to their exact location in the sky is a betrayal and I am sorry for that.

Today, it is five years later and now we, the American people have been betrayed. The president used the tragedy of 9/11 as an excuse to launch a war with lies that have been proved to be so beyond doubt. Nearly as many American soldiers have died now as died that day at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Almost 20 thousand more have suffered injuries they will live with until the end of their days.

And what have we gained?

Columnist Frank Rich summed it up yesterday in The New York Times [subscription required]:

“…so here we are five year later. Fearmongering remains unceasing. So do tax cuts. So does the war against a country that did not attack us on 9/11. We have moved on, but no one can argue that we have moved ahead.”

Comments

This is your best kind of writing--your ability to share an exceedingly personal and painful experience in a way that makes it universally felt, in a way that reflects our own unarticulated feelings.

And, yes, sadly no one can argue that we have moved ahead.

Thank you, Ronni.

Yes, we each have stories.

9/11 is my birthday, and five years ago I was a comfortably retired lady pottering through my days happily learning a new craft. Today, thanks to the market collapse, I am back at work doing something small I can handle with my stroke addled brain....just so I can pay my bills.

Today I haul an old friend to the doctor with the certainty that life as he knew it has ended. He is so confused he can do nothing.....but he has no money. Will they warehouse him today? Tomorrow? His 9/11 is just as earthshaking.

9/11 isn't just a terrorist attack and a movement into a war no one wants, it's also the small stories of many of us as we fade into our own histories.

Thanks for being here.

You wrote a powerful column and put this all in perspective. Thank you.

Thanks Ronni. This was more powerful and emotional for me than anything else remembering that day 5 years ago. Here on the West Coast we went around forever with our hearts and minds in New York. My friendly little neighborhood where neighbors were out every evening talking and chatting stopped doing that for months. It seemed everyone came home and went straight to TV. If people did visit outside it was never with smiles the way it used to be. We were all so depressed for so long after.

Thank you for sharing your gift of writing with all of us. Today, has brought back so many painful memories.

I like what M Sinclair said - so I will stand on that as well. It is very interesting to read about the atack from someone who was in the vicinity at the time, and not from a 500 mile vantage point - as I was.

My next door neighbor's son lived in the the financial district when it happened, and I heard his view of it through his mom. It was chilling and unfathomable to those of us seeing it unfold on TV. I cannot imagine the horror of being so near to it - especially when we had no idea where or if it would stop. Thank you for sharing, Ronni.

Out of all of the wonderful pieces you've posted on Time Goes By...this is one of your best Ronni.... Brilliant! Thank you.

Your story touches so many thoughts and memories of my own that fateful day. Your words connect with me in special ways.

Here on the West Coast it was three hours earlier than in the east. I was awakened by a phone call from my daughter in Va. whose anxious voice told me to turn on the TV because one of the NYC twin towers had been hit by a plane.

We were on the phone together for many hours that morning. We had various phone interruptions, then would reconnect. We witnessed on TV, on opposite coasts, the nightmarish events of the rest of that day, not only in NYC but tragic events moving closer to her as reports came about the Pentagon, the flight over PA.

Family in NYC, from whose window the Twin Towers could be seen had gone about their usual business that day, so fortunately were not home and were all safe I finally learned later that day.

As I read in current news reports of the respiratory problems firefighters, volunteers, some residents are experiencing, I realize how much more healing we have yet to come.

My heart continues to be heavy knowing the tragedy of 9/11 has been compounded by this ill-conceived, poorly waged war foisted on to our nation for all the misguided reasons described above by Ronni and Frank Rich's quote.

Ronni You make us feel as if we were there with you.

Thanks

ronni, this post was just right. thank you. -naomi

Ronni, powerful and insightful writing. An event that changed the world, and every single person's life forever, with equal importance. Thank you for giving your story wings. Let us hope that the tide will soon turn and the wrong-headed thinking that followed will be replaced by reason and compassion.

A powerful and poignant story that was beautifully and caringly told. Thank you, Ronni...

What a wonderful gift you have...the ability to write in such a way that people can see. I was thinking just yesterday that the number of our soldiers who have died as a result of Bush's folly was just about equal to those killed on 9/11. So sad.

The unspeakable pain of 9/11 is simultaneously compounded and diminished by the monumental blundering of the Bush administration. It boggles my mind! Thanks for putting my thoughts into words.

Ahh. I have always wondered where and what you were doing on that day five years ago.

Much like when Kennedy was shot, I will always remember this day as well, only more so. I was just a child when Kennedy died, so the memory is faded and not sharp and painful as 9/11.

Thank you for this thought-provoking piece. It stayed with me all yesterday. My elderly mother still cannot understand 9/11. I was glad my father passed away in 1999 and did not have to witness the change in the America he so loved. It already upset him to see us moving backwards. As for me, I worry about the world my new grand-daughter will inherit, but I am jumping ahead to what you wrote today. Thank you for this blog and for making us all think.

My thanks, too. I've avoided the TV stuff, but two writings have moved me tremendously: this one of yours and the short poem called 'No Adequage Words' at http://tinyurl.com/h2mka
Thank you, Ronni.

What can I add to the insightful comments already posted? I am sitting here, emotins raw, from your powerful article. Thank you for sharing. And to compound our grief we have the knowledge that a ideological and bungling administration has used this tragedy to emboil us in another tragedy -- the war in Iraq. It is sad for our country; it is sad for us all.

Thank you Ronni for sharing - those of us not in New York City on 9/11 cannot fanthom the true horrors of that day, and your brilliant writing conveyed the unthinkable for us.

We were all New Yorkers on that day, and my respect for the heroism and and strength of the city's people will never change. The killing of so many innocents and causing such terrible grief to so many families by fanatical religionists who want all Americans dead; I will never understand.

I was working at the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, a few blocks from the White House, when it all was happening, and saw the black smoke coming from the Pentagon through my window....and I remember the chaos and fear of that day as everyone tried to get out of DC for we all knew another attack was imminent. (Thank you forever dear souls of Flight 93, who gave their lives to stop that 4th attack from reaching the Capitol or the White House.) The horror of that day is still fresh in my memory.

In the fall of 2004, before I left the East Coast, I visited New York City with my cousin, and we went to "Ground Zero" - and we walked around the entire perimeter of the "sacred ground" where the towers once stood and where so many people died. I cried many tears for the victims that day, and I'll always remember them - May their souls rest in peace.

This is the only 9/11 blog mention that I could bring myself to read. We were already back in the UK then. I can't even think I know how other people felt that day.

My daughter was supposed to be in a class in the WTC and my dil was leaving Newark for CA that very day. It took hours to get through to my grandchildren and they were going mad worring about their mommy. I finally found out that my dil was due to leave just an hour after it happened. My daughter had her classes posponed for two months and had forgotten to tell me.

Well done kiddo, ya did good!

Thanks for a beautifully written post, Ronni. I had never actually thought how close you must have been to the WTC on that terrible day. Your post tells a very personal version of events, but the emotions it evokes are universal.

Today 9/10/ is my 73rd birthday. I no longer look forward 9/11 as I did in the past, a day that is still filled with horror after 10 years. Maybe next year will be better. God Bless America.

Ronni, so glad I read every column every day, never would have seen this..your piece is wonderful, so many of my friends live/ed right around where you did, one had the best snapshot of the WTC from his bathroom window, those little l'x 3'old law tenement types..am sure all the bldg that has gone on since 200l has erased any view today...I have a Sept llth story, but have never stopped to write it down because it didn't happen until Dec 4th and it seemed so unconnected to the event..thanks for the prod..You are a great reporter, even your quick jots when you are off somewhere else are great..so happy New York City had some part of your life..it is my little town since the l870s at least, love it when others love it too...Ten years have gone by, sometimes seems like a long week, and in the next minute it is ten, long years...As we get on in years, we get to understand all the "oldsters" we have become in their need to talk about their histories..I am so glad I was always wanting to hear those stories, am sure that comes of losing my parents so young and never knowing grandparents, etc..my Aunts especially were wonderful in sharing so much that I know about "the old days." Thanks for this wonderful view of the day from your neighborhood that was so close to the site..Life Goes By dear friends, doesn't it!

Thank you so....much. I grew up in NYC and you gave me a piece of HOME...something the newscasts cannot do. It was the missing piece to all of this sorrow. I'm giving my kids a tour of my youth over a weekend in October and now I can include the Twin Towers as a part instead of an also ran.

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