Sunday, September 11, 2011

In the Apocalyptic City

I wrote this text in Spanish on September 11, 2001. It was published in Reforma on September of that year.

I have lived, for almost 10 years, about 20 blocks north of the Twin Towers. If you take my street and walk south, you arrive directly at their doors. Today, Tuesday, September 11, a splendid day, I left my house at 8:35 am, earlier than usual. I walked, as I do every day, on the east side of Washington Square Park. Suddenly, something made me look up. I saw the belly of a plane flying among the buildings, right above me. I was alarmed at how low it was flying. It was a commercial passenger airplane. I could clearly see the details on the fuselage. I feared it was going to crash against the thirty-story building I live in. It seemed to be heading straight towards it. I saw it tilt and correct course and I thought it probably had a mechanical failure and it would never make it to La Guardia or Newark, the nearest airports. 
I had a feeling something was very wrong.

I felt like making sure nothing had happened to my building, so I turned around and started walking towards it. To judge from the oblivious people on the street, I decided I was paranoid. No more than two minutes later, I heard a loud metallic noise. My heart skipped a beat when I saw people looking up and south. I approached the growing crowd and saw that the plane had caved a giant hole in the upper floors of one of the towers. People on the street were talking frantically on cell phones and on public phones and we were all asking each other what had happened, who had seen it happen. I decided to go home, because the Polish lady who cleans my house speaks almost no English, and I wanted to make sure she was fine. She hadn’t even noticed.
I decided to walk back to work. As all of us on the street gaped in amazement at the burning tower, an enormous ball of fire bloomed and exploded on the side of the second tower. At first we thought it had been caused by the fire on the first tower. Someone, with a cell phone on one hand and a Walkman radio on the other, said it was a second plane that crashed against the second tower. Up until then I assumed it had all been an accident, but now the possibility that it had been a terrorist act made me nauseous. I felt terror.

I don’t know why I went to my office. Perhaps to get as far as I could from there. People were clustering on the streets that had a view towards the World Trade Center. There were no screams nor panic, just incredulity, anxiety and a certain citizen solidarity. Some people turned on their car radios at full volume so we could all hear the news. People who probably don’t look at each other at the subway: office workers, homeless people, Blacks, whites, were sharing rumors and impressions. It was like being in a Godzilla or Hollywood disaster movie, with particularly spectacular special effects.

I stopped to greet my friendly Bangladeshi fruit vendor. He reminds me of the market vendors in Mexico because he always gives me a piece of fruit to taste. He told me he had seen the plane crash against the tower with his own eyes. He was devastated next to his fruit cart.
At the office, many of my colleagues were at the cubicle next to mine, which had a view of the conflagration. Everyone was somber and scared, although someone joked that “they” had made a mistake, the attack should have been meant for our building. Rumors were flying: a fire in the Pentagon, other hijacked planes, people are jumping out the windows of the towers. Then I heard my colleagues scream, and in a matter of seconds, only one tower was standing. Thick clouds of gray ash rose with a magnitude similar only to scenes of bombardments at war. To see only one Twin Tower in the New York skyline is almost like seeing someone lose a limb in front of you. An amputated city. More radio reports: closed airports, closed subways, closed bridges; the island, incommunicado. My stomach ached. From the bathroom I heard people running. When I came out, there were no more Twin Towers. Only a giant crater, from which rose monstrous clouds of ash and thick black smoke.
The accuracy of the destruction and its sadistic progression were unreal. Like people don’t tire of repeating, it was a situation comparable, at least visually, to the moronic, improbable things that happen in action movies. My friends conjectured even worse scenarios: panic on the streets, bombs in the tunnels that connect the island, biological warfare. But the great majority tried to articulate their shock and find a coherent motivation to explain an evil of such magnitude.
 We were sent home. Most people who work in Manhattan, come from outside the island: Brooklyn, or Queens, or New Jersey. Many were stranded in their offices or on the streets. Others crossed some of the bridges that were open only for pedestrians. From Brooklyn, my boss told me that his neighborhood was covered in ash and scraps of printing paper.
Walking back home, I had never seen so many people on the streets of New York. From the tip of the island masses of people advanced north. I was struck by the silence. By the absence of cars. The absence of horns, engines, the daily insults that make this one of the world’s noisiest cities. I went by an ATM and I was the only one there. The machines worked and they were loaded with money. I was comforted by the citizens’ absolute lack of hysteria. Supermarkets and delis were full of people, but they were calmly buying their lunch or groceries. I stopped by my Bangladeshi pal. People were buying fruit from him. I bought figs, strawberries and bananas. He gave me a discount and a free plum. The only thing he said to me was: “War”.
I refused to participate in the massive consumption of groceries, until a friend insisted I should at least buy bottled water, cans of food and candles. At the supermarket there was no bottled water or powdered milk left, but there was plenty of everything else. People whispered, as if we were ashamed of being alive and shopping. A guy used the opportunity to buy four tubs of ice cream. I also thought that the apocalypse is a good pretext to stuff yourself on potato chips, which is what I felt like doing, although I restrained myself and only bought water, basic staples and a ridiculous packet of instant ramen.
It’s now 6 pm, and the streets belong to the pedestrians and to the trucks and cranes at the ready to clean up the extensive wreckage. Some people use the unheard of circumstances to live their fantasy: they glide on their rollerblades or bicycles on the empty streets. Others take pictures and videos for posterity. Below my apartment, kids play ball just like in any other Summer afternoon, and the coffee shop in the corner is open. Some minutes ago, people on the corner watched one more building of the WTC complex collapse. 
Like Mayor Giuliani’s, the common sense of New Yorkers greatly moved me. This is the capital of the world. Not because it hosts Wall Street or because it concentrates some of the most important multinational corporations, but because of the people who live and work here. We come from every corner of the globe, we speak every language, we come in every color and have every religious belief. This magnificent city has adopted us all. To attack New York is not to attack the United States, it is to attack the entire world.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:27 PM

    Me encanta leerte. Lo disfruto muchísimo M. Un beso grande.