BY CHRIS BRENNAN
The bar is dim and not crowded. Grayish white soot is tracked across the white tile floor. It coats my black shoes and the bottoms of my pant legs. Noel, the bartender with the brogue, sets a pint of Harp in front of me. I tip it back, the cool lager sluicing away the soot that coats my throat. “Crazy day,” Noel says, both asking and telling.
The Killarney Rose on Pearl Street, around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange, is the only business open in the neighborhood. Outside on the street, there are food carts – hot dogs and bagels and fruit salad – covered with the soot. The carts look like they have been abandoned in a freak September snowstorm.
Mixed in with the soot are reams and reams and reams of office paper, an overwhelming flurry of memos and expense reports and letters. The paper swirls in the wind. The soot comes along for the ride. One breath and my throat is caked again.
Jim is afraid of rats. They gather in the middle of the alley, maybe eight or ten. These are big city rats, sturdy and unafraid that the streetlights at each mouth of the alley reveal the meeting spot by a line of Dumpsters. The alley is our only route past the cops that block our way at nearby intersections.
I walk into the alley before Jim can argue. He follows. The rats, unmoving, watch us approach. But there is movement here. Low along the walls of the buildings on each side, the shadows are scurrying. There are hundreds of rats here, agitated by the day’s explosions, driven above ground into the space we are now crossing.
They close in on us at the halfway mark, so close to our feet that we could kick them with little effort. Would that scare them back or anger them forward? We press ahead briskly. A pick-up truck is abandoned at the end of the alley. We will have to squeeze by one side. The rats squeeze in with us. I can feel them brush my ankles, titter across my shoes. And then we are out of the alley, in the open, clear.
My cell phone is not working. I can’t call the office or check my messages. I am out of touch. Then the radio makes me think I should turn around and head home. A newsreader just said that an airplane has slammed into Jenkintown. Jenkintown? Why?
The pay phone at a North Jersey McDonald’s is working so I call an editor. “We’re sorry, due to a plane crash in your area, your call can not be completed. Please hang up and try your call again.” Which area? New York or Jenkintown? Does the phone company really keep this as a recorded message? I call again. The editor answers. Jenkintown is fine. Keep heading toward New York, she urges.
On Wednesday, on my way back out, the cell phone starts to work again, giving me messages from the previous day. One is from my sister: “Please, don’t go to New York,” she tells me. The other is from my chiropractor in Philadelphia: “We’re going to have to cancel your appointment. We’re closing early, in case of terrorism.”
I start the day on foot, running home from the gym. In a taxi, I learn from the radio news that the trains running to New York are at a dead stop. We change course, from the train station to the newspaper to meet a car with a waiting photographer.
The New Jersey Turnpike is pandemonium, but that is not normally news. We get off and use back roads across the state to reach the river bank in Jersey City. Our first view of it. A ferry captain agrees to take us back across with him. But the FBI has other ideas on the far bank. “Back on the boat,” an agent yells as I step off.
We drive north to a bridge still open, far north of the city. “You going to Manhattan?” the toll taker asks. “It’s closed.” In New York, we race the car down the other bank on a highway closed to traffic. When the road ends, we are still 50 blocks from where we need to be. Back on foot.
In Jersey City, there is chaos. Long in the shadow of the big time, the blue-collar burg watches evacuees cross the river for its safe shores. The police, overwhelmed, shout contradictory instructions and then do not wait to see if they are followed.
Across the river, there is an odd calm in the city. Cops stop us and look at our press credentials and then tell us we can’t head south. They do not argue when we walk east as they direct us north. East and south, east and south, we walk, flanking the cops, smiling and joking when possible, moving quickly when watched closely.
As we draw closer, the attention on us drops noticeably. Cops point the way. We are inside now and too insignificant to worry about.
My feet ache and my shoulder is sore from lugging the laptop computer around. It is very early in the morning and I have been on the go for 19 hours. Firefighters doze in dusty office chairs, dragged from the ruins and set up in lines on the sidewalk.
I worry about sleeping – about missing something and taking up space where a firefighter could crash. I’m swaying on my feet. Several chairs open up. Jim and I sit down and try to nod off.
The bulldozer pulls steel girders from the pile and then drags them along the street. The girders slice screeching, sparking scars into the asphalt. Another machine with a huge mechanical claw grips these girders, pivots and lumps them together. The heap is a few feet from the office chairs. Each time my head drops, a load of girders slams down, jolting me awake.
The soot and papers cover just about everything inside the office building next door. A first-floor gym has all its windows blown out, the shards of glass mixed into the powder. Weights and towels rest where the exercisers dropped them.
Jim snaps pictures through the frame of a former window while I root around in the paperwork, looking at the expense report of a man who spends $10,000 a month on dinners and flowers. Emergency medical teams are setting up in some of this space but there are no survivors to treat or comfort.
A firefighter starts talking about the many missing bodies. I had seen some parts, a torso in a uniform, a woman’s hand with a wedding ring still on her finger. The firefighter holds up a handful of soot, letting it sift through his fingers. “You know where they went? They were vaporized. They’re right here.”
The paper looks like a movie prop, perfectly singed by flame around all sides. The typed writing remains, telling of a bank in Madrid, established in 1869 that has a credit line of $10 million and is being approved for an upgrade to $100 million. This memo came from Cantor Fitzgerald, a bond firm I had never heard of until today.
The airplane wheel sits in the middle of the street. It is massive, round black rubber on a rim connected to the appendage used to lift and lower it. It looks like a limb wrenched from its body and dumped here among the parked cars.
The fire truck is there in front of me but, mixed in with the debris, I don’t see it for several minutes. In the jagged lines of girders and rebar and crushed cars and office furniture, my eye follows the truck’s lines. Here are the doors, flung open, where emergency gear is stored. There are the ladders. It is otherwise empty.
They are striking, three sections of façade stabbing into the debris, standing erect in the middle of so much that has fallen. At first, I think they are lower sections of the buildings that somehow kept standing. Looking closer, I see that they fell from a thousand feet above, shattered faces still 50 feet tall.
Things are quickly given nicknames. The debris is called “the pile.” The three sections of façade become “the flower.” The buildings are simply “one,” “two” and “seven.” Every now and then, a firefighter or cop stops and turns his back. A buddy with a camera snaps a quick picture. No smiles. The look is grim determination.
The soot sticks to walls, and searchers on break write messages with their fingers. “God bless the brothers of the FDNY” is left on a marble column. “Kill those bastards” is fingered on a wall outside.
The little guy with shifty eyes keeps coming back to us. He claims to be an emergency volunteer. He offers to take a camera deep into the pile for us to take pictures of broken bodies. We say no thanks and, when he turns away, we lose him.
He’s back, now drinking a can of Heineken. It seems strange, a beer in the middle of all this, even though my Harp was not that long ago. There is more beer down in the boats at a nearby harbor, he tells us. I think he is a looter. We duck him again. The last time I see him, two cops are holding him by his t-shirt, lifting him so that his work boots brush the ground.
We find the boundaries by accident. Firefighters bellow when we get too close as they carry out a fallen comrade. A man in a blue windbreaker emblazoned with the words “Mayor’s Office” throws temper tantrums when things slow down. He eyes Jim and me. “You can’t be here,” he screeches, looking around. “You have to stay back by that tree.” The tree, its branches twisted and tangled with paperwork, is just 10 feet from where we stand now. We go and stand by the tree for a while and then move again.
I stand ankle deep in a slush of soot and firehose water. Fires are burning on the high floors of buildings on each side of the street. Ambulances, crushed by large pieces of falling building or melted in the cascade of burning jet fuel, line the street. We walk up, not realizing exactly where we are until we are standing on top of it.
It all smells familiar, like a house that has caught on fire. Something explodes, high and to my right. I flinch as others, who have been here all day, don’t bother to lift their heads. The fire grows larger.
Most people are friendly. Ask for directions and they’ll walk a ways with you. I am not sure where the buildings had been. A firefighter takes my notepad and draws me a map. A paramedic gives me a white mask with a rubber strap to cover my mouth. I can feel the soot line my lungs.
We make our way out along the river. The sun is up now. It is Wednesday. Manhattan is still on hold everywhere else. We pass closed businesses and abandoned apartments. Stuyvesant High School sits empty of students and teachers. Three New York photographers watch us approach. “Is it worth trying to get in?” they ask.
We marvel at the question, not knowing there are new rules in play. Along the highway that lips the riverbank, lines of trucks and bulldozers and cranes and a fleet of ambulances sit parked, waiting for action. National Guardsmen block access the other way at the intersections, M-16s slung loosely over their shoulders.
My phone is working. I call the office, getting the editor who a day ago asked me to head toward New York. I tell her where I’ve been and where I am now. Go back, she says, stay longer, get more. I turn around.
Who knows how to dress for this? A white short-sleeve Oxford shirt and khakis seems sensible as I quickly pull them on, holding a phone between my ear and shoulder, watching CNN.
As night falls, the temperature drops and I shiver there, smudges across my shirt and pants. Night turns to day and night again. The clothes remain the same, collecting more soot. My black shoes soak in slush, dry and soak again.
My wife brings me fresh clothes 48 hours later. If feels strange to change, almost like shedding a skin of something past. My black shoes leak the soot from the crevice between the leather and soles. I cannot bring myself to throw them away.
Jim is now satisfied that we walked with the rats. Some places should be hard to reach. He thinks we passed some sort of gate in that alley. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Jim talks about it more than I do, thinking aloud.
In a hotel room on Times Square, I yell on the phone at an editor in Philadelphia. Computer problems have caused another story of mine to vanish. I feel unhinged, telling him I am working my ass off so that good work can meet a pathetic death far away. I argue loudly. I know I should temper my anger. I cannot.
I write more stories ¬¬– the reopening of Broadway shows, the work of Philadelphia firefighters in New York, fear among office workers in trademark skyscrapers – but I feel something slipping away. This may be as big as it ever gets for me and I can’t stand the words I have written about it all.
Almost a year later, Jim and I are out drinking. I have spoken at times about that day but worry about what I say. I fear talking too much will in some way diminish the events of that day. I can’t explain why I feel that way.
I toss back bourbon and Jim starts remembering things aloud again. That gets me going. And we are talking about it all: the sights and sounds and smells and sensations, the fears and worries and sadness and anger.
I am drunk when Jim drops me off at home. My wife wakes as I sit on our bed. Then I am crying, telling her it is all just so horrible. She comforts me and then heads to the bathroom to get me a tissue. I am sleeping peacefully when she returns.
Back at home, I wake many nights aware – but wrong – about where I am. I am still there in my waking dream. This has the vividness of a nightmare but not the feeling of horror. I get up and look out my window, looking for the heavy equipment and piles of concrete. I wander around my bedroom, looking at familiar shapes and objects.
I am home. That long day has passed. I can relax. I should relax. Back in bed, I remember the day as I slip back to sleep. The next night, the dream wakes me again. I am up, wandering.
And then the dream is gone. I don’t notice its absence right away. It takes weeks. But then I know. I sleep through the night, knowing somehow the whole time that I am still home in my bed.
A version of this story appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News on Sept. 9, 2011.