I wrote this for a column that was published shortly after Sepember 11, 2001. With the anniversary coming up, I thought I'd re-publish it here.
She always smoked with the door closed, choking me in the jazz-club air of her tiny bedroom. Her mom bought cigarettes for her by the carton, so Julie wasn’t trying to keep telltale smoke in. She shut the door to prevent our secret escape plan from billowing out.
Two little girls of 17, bellies flopped down on Julie’s futon. Her stubby fingers tracing a map, plotting our trajectory from Southern California suburbs to Real Life. First, off to college – me in Chicago, her in Santa Cruz. Then New York. Manhattan. A giant, crowded city of possibilities. We’ll be roommates.
We have it all planned out. Inexplicable wealth. Amazing clothes. Successful careers in theater and journalism. Our favorite fantasy projects 10 years into the future, New Year’s Eve 2000, to be spent on the rooftop deck of our apartment overlooking Times Square. Me. Julie. A couple of bottles of champagne and a few men lucky enough to share our company. Manhattan glittering around us like a chorus line.
She drops the map, and I grab it to get a better look. It’s strange. Manhattan looks so small relative to anything in California. It’s not what I expected.
Eleven years have gone by, and we’re behind a closed door again. But this time, it’s shut to keep the smoke out. From the windows of the Marriott Marquis Room 3656, we can see a plume so big and unmoving it looks solid. A solid stack of smoke standing firm over the ruins of the World Trade Center, watching us as blankly as we watch it.
Julie’s talking. She says she watched the second tower come down. Four long days before, when she was just standing on the street outside her acupuncture school. Down it went. She was dumbfounded and wouldn’t have moved had a classmate not ushered her off the street. She just couldn’t believe what she was seeing.
Julie’s talking, but I’m thinking. Her hair hasn’t been this long since high school, and she’s wearing it in a strange way so that her ears seem to stick out of the middle of her thick tresses. It’s the same style she wore when she played Peaseblossom in our junior year production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I remember the glitter makeup she wore. The tights and the flowers.
“You look beautiful,” I say, interrupting her story.
I look at her again. The dark circles under her eyes sag down to her cheeks. She has the haggard, empty look of all the people I’d seen on the subway this morning. She’s not Peaseblossom. She’s a three-year resident of New York. A New Yorker at a time when all New Yorkers are family. And I’m the underfoot houseguest from Orange County arriving in the middle of the family’s biggest crisis.
Why am I having trouble listening to Julie talk? I’d spent the day hearing out random strangers’ tales of woe, scribbling down every word they’d said. But I can’t get through Julie’s story without losing focus. Maybe I just can’t believe what I’m hearing. This happened to Julie. I can’t get my mind around it.
On Sept. 11, I was in LAX, writing about airport chaos and trying frantically to reach Julie. I didn’t get her on the phone until late in the day. She told me she was all right, and I told her I was going to do everything I could to get out to New York. I wasn’t going to spend the biggest story of my life around a deserted baggage carousel in El Segundo.
As long as I knew she was safe, I could think of the attack as a news story, something I could approach as a job. But to her it was a personal affront. She tried to tell me that she was in shock, but she couldn’t come up with the words.
Now, looking at her in the dim light of Room 3656, I can see she’s not the same.
“I guess you look tired.”
Julie drags her acupuncture books into the bathroom, and I go back to writing a news story about a nurse from Orange who has come to New York as a Red Cross volunteer. The assignment has kept me stationed across the bridge in Brooklyn during the day, and smoke is all I have yet seen of the actual destruction. I look out the hotel window and wonder if I’m strong enough to handle a closer view.
When I called Julie earlier, I had casually mentioned that she could crash at the hotel, couching the offer as an appeal to convenience: Her school is downtown and her studio apartment is uptown, so she’d be closer to class in the morning. I didn’t want to tell her that the idea of being alone right now makes me sick.
She came over as soon as I finished interviewing the nurse, bearing a bag of Hershey’s Kisses and a change of clothes. She chose one of the two double beds and said she’d pick up a toothbrush later tonight.
Now she’s holed up with her books in the bathroom, and I’m typing away at my computer. It’s not what we’d envisioned, but I guess we’ve become roommates in New York.
I leave before Julie wakes in the morning. Orange County Register photographer Michael Goulding and I wait in Brooklyn for the nurse to get an assignment, but after a few hours it is clear there will be no assignment. New York is keeping the nation’s do-gooders at arms’ length, hoping to rebuild on its own.
It’s hard to watch. People like the nurse came here to help in grand and valiant ways, but there’s nothing grand or valiant to be done.
So Mike and I head back to Manhattan, stopping first at the Armory. The proliferation of fliers for “missing” people had been well-reported, and I knew to expect them. But I am not prepared for how many I see. Imagine the Anaheim Pond and all the shops, restaurants and homes around it covered with pleas for help. Cop cars, bicycles, television news vans – anything parked more than 20 minutes is now part of this enormous community bulletin board bearing wilting roses and eulogies disguised as missing-people posters.
The hope that went into these fliers makes my eyes sting.
“Timothy O’Sullivan. Has a cardiac scar on chest.”
“Isaias Rivera. Black mole on left cheek.”
“Manuel ‘Manny’ Lopez,” whose loved ones – in a moment of heartbreaking faith – thought to picture him both with glasses and without.
After studying these faces and talking through tears with people who have lost friends in the attack, I return to 3656, bubbling over with stories. I am telling Julie everything I saw and smelled. But she’s staring at me dully. I don’t think she even hears me.
I babble and she finally breaks her silence and tells me that a kid on the subway today clung to his mother and – trying hard to put on a brave face – asked at each stop whether they could get off the train. The fear of biological warfare and bombs have gripped the city. Nobody knows what to expect next.
We stand in silence for a moment as she folds a pink silk sweater. I own the exact same one.
“I’m afraid,” she says. “But I don’t even know what to be afraid of.”
January 1991. “The 11th hour” is passing as Julie and I are parked in my Honda Civic atop a hill in Calabasas. We are listening on the radio to President George Herbert Walker Bush transform Operation Desert Shield into Operation Desert Storm, declaring the first U.S. war of my lifetime. We don’t look at each other, and I’m trying so, so hard not to cry.
Chaparral lines the gully below us. It’s cold outside. I am terrified. I worry about the welfare of my family in Israel, of my older friends who joined the military after graduating. I never, not for a second, question my own safety.
It’s Monday night and I’m trying not to let it bother me that I’m working on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. The High Holy Day is a time for personal reckoning, and here I am trying to fool myself.
I’d spent the day getting kicked about the acrid perimeter of Ground Zero and talking with tearful locals who lost upward of 50 colleagues. I’m so tired.
I meet Julie in the hotel bar. She’s drinking sambuca and watching a CNN segment on bioterrorism. She tells me she watched a businessman in a suit throw up on himself today in Union Square. And another man there told her she was beautiful but ugly because she didn’t appreciate her beauty. All Julie had been trying to do was sit quietly on a bench.
Back in 3656, room service delivers apples and honey, traditional food eaten on Rosh Hashana to usher in a sweet new year. Mike comes over to talk shop, and I cut up the apples and pour honey on a teacup saucer and insist everyone partake.
Julie sits on one chair, Mike on the other. I am flopped down on my stomach on the edge of one of the beds. It’s New Year’s Eve, 5762, and Julie and I are overlooking Times Square slurping honey off apples with a man lucky enough to share our company. We’ve had about five hours of sleep this week among the three of us.
Outside, thin crowds gather around theaters and restaurants. The smoke looks like a bruise in the night sky. Manhattan fails to glitter. Given the tragedy, it’s so petty to feel disappointed in this somber celebration. But I can’t help it. This is New Year’s Eve.
Without much of a segue, Julie starts quizzing us about bioterrorism, about Osama bin Laden and the potential arsenal at his disposal. I realize after a minute that Mike and I are both trying to bat these questions away, offering little insight. I’m not quite sure why.
It’s been a week since it happened, and New Yorkers are being urged to go through the motions of their everyday life. This is as difficult emotionally as it is logistically.
To get to a doctor’s appointment, Julie has to argue with a National Guardsman – armed and in military fatigues – who finally lets her through police lines. The streets are teeming with military vehicles and police cars from every borough. Red Cross workers stand on street corners passing out face masks and fliers about mental health services. Then there are those ever-present posters bearing smiling faces, photos of the dead.
This is New York.
It’s supposed to be our last night here, but Mike and I get a call to pursue another story. Julie smiles her biggest smile this week. She tells me she feels lucky to have her best friend here while the world falls apart. I’m the one who has robbed her of the last vestige of normalcy – her ability to sleep in her own bed. And she’s thanking me. She tells me she doesn’t think she could have gotten through this time without me, but what have I been able to do?
I’ve been like the nurse stationed at a distance, hoping to help but ultimately too far removed from the situation.
Here, but not really here.
My cell phone rings. It’s Julie. “Um,” I tell her. “I can’t talk.”
I’m at ground zero, having sneaked in with Mike – a move that got at least four other reporters and photographers thrown in jail. I can hear her smile on the other end.
“Oh, my God! Call me back. Be careful.”
Ground Zero, or the “frozen zone,” as cops are calling it, is a smoldering crematorium bordered by West, Chambers, Nassau and Rector streets. It’s enormous. Ash covers everything. Old church tombstones. Food vans. The clothes of firefighters slumped exhaustedly on what had been dainty cafe chairs.
The air smells like a mix of sulfur and sugar. Sickening and sweet. My eyes sting. I’m not sure that I’m smelling death, but I’m certain that I’m looking at it.
I know the ash I see is a macabre mix of incinerated building and cremated human flesh. The people on the “missing” fliers. The guy with the cardiac scar. Manny and his glasses.
I walk around taking note of the more obvious signs of disaster: the bombed-out sandwich shop on Vesey Street. A jewelry store’s metal security windows warped from the heat. The Millennium Hilton on Church Street, riddled with holes as big as cannon balls.
But I keep coming back to the ash. It rests gingerly on parked cars and is piled into sand dunes in some areas. It’s caked onto squad-car tires and has mixed with fire-hose water to form a light-brown, sticky mud on the streets.
It’s on my shoes. In my lungs. Death is on me and in me, but oddly apart from me. I feel empty.
We round a corner and I overhear someone say, “That’s where we found the body.”
They’re talking about a firefighter’s body. FDNY guys are still working on pulling their friend out of the rubble while a few firefighters from Riverside stand guard, ready to relieve them if the work gets too emotionally taxing.
Mike and I stand with them for a while. The Riverside guys are never called. We move on, find the man we’d come to interview and get our story before a New York cop kicks us outsiders out of the “frozen zone.”
I use a hotel washcloth to wipe the dead from my shoes. The ash is gray and looks like silver polish on the white towel. I feel nauseous as I imagine the washcloth mixing with the rest of the hotel’s laundry. The dead dumped out a drain in a mess of soap, sweat, blood and semen.
I wish there were something else I could do, something more respectful, with this towel. But I can’t think of anything, so I leave it on the floor and step into the shower.
Julie doesn’t meet us until late in the evening. Mike and I are at a restaurant called Sam’s, where aspiring Broadway performers come to tend bar and wait tables.
A guy with a loud but mediocre voice sings “What the World Needs Now is Love.” It’s kitschy and horrible, but it puts us all in a light mood. Julie tells us that Mike and I look glowing and healthy. But I know that we don’t. I’m not sure if it’s makeup, or if she just got a good night’s sleep, but Julie is the one who looks rested now.
I don’t know how it happened. I’ve become the shaken friend and she’s regained her composure. Her posture is perfect. She’s laughing and telling funny stories about her family. She has mourned, and now she’s all right. She buys me a crazy-tall sunflower.
At 5 a.m., I say goodbye before tiptoeing out of 3656, out of our warped dream world of New York roommatedom.
She stirs a little, gives me a sleepy smile and tells me again how wonderful it has been to spend this time together. This sounds funny. I feel as though we’ve spent time together, but I’m not sure we’ve quite spent This Time together.
We’d both seen people vomit, cry and scream spontaneously during the week. We’d both smelled the acidic smoke that has hung over Manhattan.
But I could never shake the feeling that I was an outsider meddling in someone else’s problem. And I don’t think the woman looking back at me in the mirror ever looked as devastated as Julie did.
She’s a New Yorker, now more so than ever. And I’m still that girl from California choking on the smoke around her.
I wish my being here really could have made a difference, could have helped, could have prevented any of this from happening.
But I don’t tell her this. It would come out sounding silly anyway.
I just kiss my best friend on the forehead and leave, letting her fall back into her dreams.