Journal by Jacques Menasche
September 11, 2001. A spectacular morning. 72 degrees Fahrenheit,
cloudless. The air crisp, clean. The kind of day that blesses New
York maybe thirty times a year. The sky like blue steel, a bold sky,
a sky good for bold architecture. A day to show off the brazen lines
of New York City's modern apogee, the streaking explosion of the Sixties
and Seventies, the spirited gust that blew the JFK Airport terminal
into its low-slung take-off sweep -- and mostly, perfectly, a day
made for the sleek metal glass heaven-touching spires of the Twin
blocks north, at the corner of Jay and Greenwich, a southward glance
offers up the full vertical vista of the Centers' proud elegance.
The eye is drawn down a thickening canyon of buildings; the space
between them bisected by the silver towers soaring up, up, up. So
clean, so stark, the gleaming columns seem to have been cut out
of a magazine and pasted on the sky. It must have been for a day
like this, for a street like this, they were raised.
where we were, 8:45 AM on Tuesday, me and my six year-old. We were
there because we were late for school. We are always late for school.
Emanuel can't be rushed. Despite constant entreaties to "get a move
on," along the way he insists on playing "mind games" -- inventing
more of the Pokemon creatures that have been battling in his brain
all summer. Greenwich street is our Rubicon; when we gain the street
we see the school and the game stops; hand-in-hand we wait for a
break in the south-moving traffic to cross. Yesterday, Emanuel climbed
onto a brown metal riser on the corner, his head rising nearly to
my shoulder. That's when we heard the crack of what sounded like
a sonic boom and looked up.
happened quickly. Later, after, time would bend and twist like the
wreckage itself; seconds becoming minutes, minutes seconds, and
hours swept and snapped into different time signatures like modern
jazz. But in that first instant, it was fast. A glimpse. A speeding
black projectile, maybe two, shooting from left to right into the
side of World Trade Center One. An instant later the sonic noise
crescendoing in an enraged screaming roar of explosion. An orange
plume bursting from the face of the tower like the blossom of a
carnation. The bloom did not last; it grew slowly into its fullness,
then passed out of the world like an expired breath.
was beautiful, you know, heartachingly beautiful. The exquisite
orange fireball laced with black, so perfectly toned against the
blue sky, the silver tower. A fireworks show. Emanuel was smiling
nervously, his cartoon fantasies come suddenly true. Only after
the bloom depleted itself, when the gaping wound in the tower began
to belch ugly black smoke, when it was certain that this was no
ultra-expensive film shoot, did what had happened become clear.
"They blew it up!" someone from the faceless crowd shouted.
it comes back to me every few minutes; the black projectile, the
impact, the roar, the explosion, this first shock cutting me deeper
than anything else I saw, this instant of execution, the noise,
the plane slicing through the neck of the tower like it was a stick
of butter. The fireball. Nevertheless, the next fifteen minutes
still held the possibility of containment. I counted ten destroyed
all still somehow manageable. The insistence on life-as-normal
is overwhelming. How else to explain grabbing Emanuel's hand and
taking him across the street into his class? I met his principal
on the stairs. She affirmed my decision. "This is the safest place
for them," she said.
I think I didn't want to look at him. He had become hard to look
at, his face become somehow unrecognizable, gripped by an emotion
I'd never seen him wear before. An unease. A stunned, hollow, unease.
"This is like a movie that's too scary," he said quietly.
two or three minutes, I returned outside and stood on the sidewalk
in front of the school with some other parents staring up at the
top of the burning Trade Center. A steady flood of people streamed
past us moving northbound, away from the explosion. The parents
expressed an array of reactions -- shock, disbelief, gallows humor.
Simon's mother was holding her head and weeping. Quinn's mother
stood silent and determined. Oliver's father dryly asked if Mayor
Guiliani didn't have his security headquarters up there -- but to
my ears it all sounded banal, all the words already used up on lesser
tragedies. Many people were holding their hands to their mouths.
To stifle screams? To pat down nausea? Or just to keep from speaking?
When anyone spoke, a spell dissolved. The emotions were real; the
words phony. At the intersection, a queasy impossibility.
the second explosion. This time, I didn't see the plane; the impact
took place much lower, which gave it the appearance of being less
severe. But it was then, that moment, that emotions became unhinged.
For a second blast couldn't help but imply the possibility of a
third, a fourth. A great and terrible unknown yowled open. The mind
stopped trying to fold the event into itself, to confine it, and
released hold of its sanity to allow for the idea that anything
might happen. People might be transformed into birds, cars might
fly. At the same moment our kids were having "meeting time," people
began to leap from the right side of the burning tower. Black silhouetted
figures tumbling off the steel side of the structure like lemmings,
like part of the debris that continued to blow around the building.
With each jump, a sickening groan going up from the crowd.
came running past our position, some screaming and crying, others
laughing, telling jokes, still others with stereotypical New Yorker
aplomb, as if to say "Well, that's the Big Apple." Pride mingled
with idiocy. A crush of bodies, cell phones, each with its own personal
response, a crush of emotions, an emotional Babel, the first suggestion
of hell as Dante might have seen it -- not a static mourning and
tragedy, but an endless parade of disparity, a nightmare of diversity.
cameras -- video, digital, point-and-shoot -- were everywhere. One
young woman, face puffed into a red ball, walked about dazed with
a Leica taking photos and crying at the same time. Weirdly, I had
the sudden vision of her as a surreal advertisement -- "Leica: Our
the second explosion, I felt a growing, gnawing need to get the
kid out of school. I wanted to talk with him, but a school administrator
wouldn't let me upstairs to the class. He could be brought down,
but I couldn't go up. Incensed, I waited. Then, after a few long
minutes, I saw him come down the stairs and we sat on the bench
in the school lobby surrounded by the kids drawings tacked up on
the wall, turtles and self-portraits and bright crayola colors.
He was giddy seeing me, a strange treat this being called out of
class, taken downstairs to see your dad. I asked if he wanted to
go home. He asked -- trying to tailor the new situation to his specific
needs -- if we could go home together a little later. "Why, is there
something fun you want to do first?" "Yeah. recess," he said. I
told him that I didn't think there would be a recess today.
it now seems dangerously late, I was -- minus those who upon the
first explosion immediately panicked and literally ran down Greenwich
Street with their kids in their arms -- one of the first to leave.
I held his hand and we walked down the steps and emerged onto the
street where the once beautiful south-looking vista was now billowing
smoke. Quickly I angled his body away from the view, wanting to
shield him. But it was impossible. Every time I turned back to look,
so would he. Every time I ran into some parent, some friend, he
would turn around. He was asking questions. Six years old. No sense
of loss of life. He wanted to know how long it would take to fix
the building. "Oh, a long time," I said. "Maybe a year." He wanted
to know why they didn't make buildings out of a stronger metal.
Educated from Pokemon in metallurgy, he suggested titanium. "Yeah,
that's a really good idea," I said brightly. He asked why the pilot
hit the buildings, why he didn't turn the plane and crash it someplace
safer. "Well, I think he did it on purpose," I said. This seemed
not to register with him. Didn't the pilot know he would get hurt?
I suggested the man was "crazy," but as the whole idea of crazy
is what is beyond understanding, he didn't get it.
then the first tower collapsed behind us. I spun around and watched
World Trade Center One melt sickeningly into the earth. Earlier,
I'd wanted to get the kid home, finding the area vaguely unsafe;
it had occurred to me that the tower might topple over, and
if it did, it might hit us -- but I never really believed it. Now
I lurched forward, my body mimicking the collapse, air sucked from
my guts like a deflated balloon. Horror mixed with a desire to protect
my son from seeing it. Greenwich Street a one-way thoroughfare,
a street of exodus. We quickened our step. A feeling of vulnerability,
of panic had to be held down. In every direction, people, police
cars, sirens. I promised to buy Emanuel an ice cream. He didn't
want to look back. His belly hurt, he said. His belly was scared.
walked, a march that usually takes thirty minutes, but now might
have lasted two minutes or two weeks. Even when we got as far as
West Houston and entered that safe zone of our own neighborhood,
Greenwich Village, Leroy street park, Nanny's bar on the corner,
it didn't feel secure. When I opened the door to our apartment,
my wife let out a kind of animal yelp. Tears burst from her eyes.
Emanuel was behind me and I secretly shushed her. The boy was quickly
sent into a room to watch cartoons. Tal and I paced around our four
hundred square foot apartment like animals in a cage. People called.
Friends came by. Laini called looking for Rick. Rachel called looking
for Keely. All the faces in our lives needed to be accounted for.
After a few hours, when most of them were, the walls grew too confining,
the apartment suffocating,
the others in this field I have a desire to see. At its worst,
it's a prurient thing, something obscene about it, gazing into things
that at base you know nothing about, cannot apprehend, inevitably
fail to fully appreciate and convey. At its best, and I see this
especially in the photographers I work with -- its a noble
trade. Full of brave men and women, a strange race elected to scour
the world and bring back its stories for everyone else to see. At
moments it feels important.
have no idea which sentiment was driving me as I crossed the first
barricade. All I really knew for sure is that I went. That I weaved
downtown, south and east, wading among the firemen and police who
moved about like gods. The catastrophe, the sudden tremendous
failure of law enforcement combined with the loss of their own,
gave their eyes an enraged glint of impotence.
passing the last line, I reached City Hall. The streets turned gray.
The entire park and everything down Broadway was covered with a
film of soot and shreds of papers. The Canyon of Heroes looked like
the site of a grim ticker-tape parade on the morning after a Yankees
World Series coronation. In fact, parked just in front of the Hall
a van was done up in Yankee pinstripes, ridiculous and dusty.
crossed the park, turned down Broadway, and headed further south.
At the corner of Liberty Street it began to get dark, even though
it was only four in the afternoon. The atmosphere suddenly changed,
too, the air thick with haze, stinking of burning. The streets were
mostly deserted, only solitary figures in white surgical masks scuttling
over the debris, kicking up trails of dust as they walked. For a
few blocks I attached myself to a couple who moved purposelessly
south. They gave me a mask. The air was thick with smoke. Staring
down the side streets to where the World Trade Centers used to be,
St. Peter's Church the tombstones in the cemetery abutting Broadway
were blanketed with a thick coat of debris. All around another world,
the new world, an emptied, apocalyptic, smoldering world; broken
glass, an unimaginable tour through city land marks: the Post Office,
Wall Street, the bronze bull, symbol of capitalist enterprise, now
sooty, wasted. One woman emerged from a gargantuan office building
and I watched her fumble with the front door, the last to leave,
locking up as if it was her house.
as Dante's hell can only be gained through circular descent, so
I had to make a circle around the tip of the island. I curved with
Battery Park to where the air became lighter and cleaner. When I
reached the water, I headed back north along the river. Just south
of the World Financial Center I met Lori Grinker, a photographer.
She'd been on the site of the devastation all day and was covered
head to toe in ash. I followed her across what used to be the plaza
of the World Financial Center, but which now looked like Mt. St.
Helen's. Some months before I had come here to see a Vietnamese
me," Lori said. I trailed behind her into Two World Financial Center.
Inside, a hushed quiet, the interior colorless, bombed out, a shell,
reduced to its most simple elements: stairs, round walls, shattered
windows, dust. Only the ceiling, the blue copula, was intact. The
escalators were stilled, covered with fragments of plaster and glass.
We took the stairs. On the second floor broken remaining shards
of the wrap around windows opened a jagged vista onto the thing
itself. Ground Zero.
the windows I saw three large spiky remnants of the towers that
remained standing, stuck into the mound of rubble helter skelter,
tilted askew, surrounded on all sides by charred lonely buildings.
Six or seven stories high, they looked like giant sepulchral hands
reaching out of the ground. The buildings to the north and south
were burning. Chunks were missing from others. I lost all sense
of scale. In the funereal mound one could pick out nine or ten fire
and rescue vehicles, the first on the scene, blown upside down,
looking somewhat shameful with their tires in the air, strewn about
like a kid's Tonka toys.
dozen firemen were standing to my right. A single yellow crane worked
listlessly. There was no major effort in progress. It was over.
It was all gone. Orange jumpsuits crawled grotesquely at the edges
of the debris like ants. I moved left to right, from window to window,
scanning the wreckage. The floor we were on was deserted. Only two
or three photographers, a fireman. No one spoke. The site was holy.
The sound of muffled footfalls on the dust, crunching over broken
glass, a church on the edge of the abyss, a church of apocalyptic
vision, a church of incomprehensible death and darkness. A church
on the edge of an instantaneous, monumental grave, pulsating, radiating
with all our thousands of friends.
were no bodies to be seen, no injured. The devastation was complete.
A hole where last week Emanuel and I had watched the Mambo spectacular
after reading in Borders bookstore. It occurred to me that my first
job in New York had been here, 1982, in a Kelly film lab in the
mall beneath the towers. I remembered rush hour, the wave of bodies
pouring out of the buildings toward the subway, making it impossible
to cross from one side of the mall to the other.
photographers looking for pictures, there were pictures everywhere:
a flag raised by firemen over the ruins, an overturned car with
its blinkers still on -- but the entirety no camera could capture,
no lens was wide enough to see.
the reverent hush of the inner sanctum was shattered by the shout
of the fireman. "It's coming down! Everybody out! Run!"
coming down. What goes through your mind? Nothing goes through
your mind. You do what you are told. You run. The service is over,
the church condemned.
we exited the building, the firemen were falling back. Two policemen
were interrogating a Latino kid who was holding a twisted bit of
steel in his hand. "What are you, souvenir hunting?" one asked aggressively.
"You know that's against the law, that's evidence. You're tampering
claim seemed preposterous. There were billion of fragments of evidence,
blown all over town, evidence rained from the sky like hail. We
were walking in it, covered in it, breathing it in.
next morning I left my apartment around eight AM. At the corner
of Bleecker Street and Sixth Avenue I stared down at where the towers
used to faithfully appear. The smoke was gone and I realized that
even the smoke, that wisping, ghostly approximation of the towers,
was preferable to what I now saw, which was nothing. Nothing at
the stores on Bleecker Street were closed. Scattered souls moved
about with grim phantom faces. Out before all others, they had come
like priests to christen the new day, to sanctify the new life.
Serious and ashen, they glided over the altar of Father Demo Square,
their cameras swinging from their sides like censers, dancing a
choreography of despair, a waltz of death.
can a New Yorker describe the feeling? A good friend of mine said
to me with embarrassment, "You know, I know about the people, all
the death, the suffering of it, but the thing that I can't handle
is that the towers are gone. I can't look out the window anymore."
I forget which streets they could be seen down. Now, like an abandoned
lover I think I picture them at the end of all streets, rising
up in majesty, glinting in the sunshine. But then they don't; they're
invisible, withdrawn, dead, buried. The moment of the first impact
unwanted plays in my mind, plays whenever it chooses, the knife
of a plane thrusting through the side of the tower, bursting out
the front, the roar and fireball. Every thirty minutes or so I break
into tears. My hands shake. I tried to watch cartoons with Emanuel,
who has been doing little else since, but the attack insinuated
itself into the show, every cartoon bang or boom mapped onto our
downtown. It becomes unbearable. He breaks a glass, knocks down
his plastic leopard with a rubber snake and it's more than I can
stand. There's a hole in my heart that looks like the pit I saw,
surrounded on all sides by collapsing buildings.