In the early hours of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was asleep on Amtrak, traveling down the Hudson after a long weekend at my parents’ place near Albany, going back to my home in New York.
That morning I was headed straight to work, toting my duffel bag from the weekend, hoping my boss wouldn’t chew me out for calling in sick the day before. Verma, a grim-lipped, frosted blonde woman of indeterminate age, ran a tight ship at Periwinkle Publishing, where I was an editorial assistant, one of three hired fresh out of NYU, my first real full-time job.
I actually edited all day, which I was proud of, and enjoyed. What I didn’t enjoy was that Verma had all three assistants working on the same manuscript, a boring self-help book for computer programmers. Gregory, a slightly higher-up editor, had the job of merging our edits. He took most of them out – I know because I sat behind him, reading his screen over his shoulder; all day, as I put in my edits, I watched him take out our edits from the day before. Pretty Sissyphean.
Perhaps because it felt like busywork, I was constitutionally incapable of showing up at the required 9:30 am, arriving five to fifteen minutes late each morning no matter when I woke up or left the apartment. I lived alone in Kensington, Brooklyn, or at least I kept my stuff there. I didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood and I was never home. Most weekends I spent with my parents – my mom was sick with breast cancer – and most evenings I worked late at the Indypendent, a collective progressive newspaper where I did basically the same work as during the day, except that at the Indy my work was respected, though unpaid: no one took out my edits, nor cared what time I came in as long as the work got done.
Still, I tried. So when the Amtrak stopped short, jolting me awake, I immediately checked my watch. It was just before 9 am. We were stopped for no apparent reason just south of Yonkers, across from the Palisades. We stayed put for about ten minutes – without announcement or explanation – before finally starting up again, going in and out of tunnels, playing hide and seek with the river and the light. It was a gorgeous day, a shame to spend indoors.
We pulled into Penn Station at exactly 9:30. The station was its usual cranked-up insanity, people running everywhere. I jumped on an A train downtown, leaping to a seat on the bench beside a blonde woman loaded with shopping bags. The doors closed, we took off into the dark tunnel – and then this train, too, jerked on the brakes and screeched to a stop, one of the woman’s bags skidding off her lap. We sat in the dark tunnel, again without announcement or explanation, staring at each other in confusion as the minutes added up.
Around 10 am, we jerked into motion again, finally pulling into 14th Street, my stop. I was definitely late, later than I had ever been; I ran down Hudson Street. The sidewalks were crowded and people seemed frantic. All the pay phones had lines halfway down the block. People were frozen in place, staring southward, and I stopped to look.
From here you could see all the way down Hudson Street, to the tip of the island, the twin towers of the World Trade Center. But there seemed to be only one tower, with thick grey smoke billowing from its tip, flickers of orange flame. I know it’s a cliche, but I honestly didn’t believe my eyes. This had to be some sort of special effect, some new Schwarzenegger movie, creating the illusion of the tower on fire.
And then the tower fell. It didn’t fall over, as you might imagine; it fell down onto itself, like a collapsible ladder, like a person with buckled knees, releasing a mushroom cloud of smoke. We all gasped, a collective gasp, a collective experience.
I had to get to work. At least that would be normal. I walked down to 12th Street, over to Greenwich Avenue, to the office. The secretary buzzed me in. I walked up the two flights slowly, almost looking forward to Verma’s lecture.
When I opened the door, everyone was standing there: the two secretaries, the other two editorial assistants, Gregory who took out my edits, and of course Verma. I opened my mouth to start my explanation – the trains, the towers – but Verma cut me short, stepping forward and squeezing me in a vigorous embrace. “Oh, thank God you’re okay!” she exclaimed.
That’s when I got scared.
We sat like zombies at our computers, pretending to work but straining to hear Verma’s radio. She finally freed us around 1 pm. I picked up my duffle bag and headed straight back to Penn Station.
A train to Albany was boarding, and I jumped on. The conductor said it was the first train out all day; I was surprised it wasn’t more crowded. Once we were safely north of the city, headed back up the Hudson, I borrowed a woman’s cell phone (this was before everybody had one).
Mom, I was just calling to let you know I’m okay. I’m on a train, I’m on my way back up to see you.
Why? You just got there. You can’t afford to miss any more work.
I wouldn’t worry about that. I don’t think there’s going to be any work tomorrow.
You don’t know that.
Trust me. Um, have you turned on the TV today?
Go turn on the TV.
Any channel, mom.
Well, I don’t see what this has to do with you. I’m making chicken tonight. I don’t know what you’ll eat.
I’ll have cereal, okay? Listen, I have to go. I have to give this woman back her phone.
I stared at the river, shocked by my mother’s closed-off reaction — so unlike her, who always wanted me close.
Now I wonder if she just couldn’t bear to let it in.
I got laid off from Periwinkle Publishing two months later. Apparently Velma had hired three editorial assistants to see which one of us she wanted to keep. She chose Paul, here on a work visa. If he were laid off he might be deported; the rest of us would just get unemployment.
My mother died just over a year later, in February 2003. And yet her death and 9/11 have become folded together in my memory, the same experience in feeling if not in truth. The unimaginable becoming real. Life no longer safe.