Monday, September 19, 2011

The Memory of Telling

There are certain recollections which, when recounted enough times, come to occupy a more significant place in the recollector's mind than the recalled events themselves. The telling and retelling of a tale can change how we remember that tale, which can change the tale itself - sometimes in small ways, such as through a shift of emphasis, and other times in larger ones, such as through the addition or subtraction of perceived facts. This is not an intentional distortion. It is simply how our minds work. Memory is not precise by nature. We may truly believe we remember things that never happened or remember things quite differently than the historical record shows.

The recent ten year anniversary of 9/11 has me thinking about this, as that day contains a number of such memories for me. I can no longer separate the factual events of that day from the innumerable recountations I have made of them. My own experiences of that day have now become scrambled in my mind with not only my own retellings of them, but with the news reports and media images. I can no longer confidently state exactly which things I saw with my own eyes and which things I saw later on a screen.

Therefore, I cannot vouch for the objective truth of what follows, but I will say that it is as true as my memory is.

I do know that I was there, at the World Trade Center. I can remember my thoughts and impressions. I sat at my desk on the concourse level, and there was a loud boom. I thought it was the escalator just over my head breaking down yet again. It happened often enough, and it always shook my desk. But something was a little off. I must have felt it, because I looked at Marina, who sat at the desk next to me, and she looked at me.

Within a minute or so, there were people running, pouring into the lower level of the store from the concourse. They looked terrified. We thought maybe it was a fire in the subway, which had forced us from our desks once before, but I heard someone say something about gunfire and figured it would be best not to stay put. I followed the crowd up the (non-broken) escalator, leaving behind a backpack filled with personal affects (including my wallet) and the various photos and items I had around my desk. I was oblivious to the fact that I would never see any of them again.

When we got out the door above and stepped onto the sidewalk at the corner of Church and Vesey Streets, I could see that everyone was turned around, facing the building, and looking up. In my memory, I turned around in slow motion. That literal physical pivot was one of the biggest turning points in my life as well. My mind could not immediately make sense of what it saw when I saw the north tower. A gaping, black hole. Thick smoke pouring from it, and paper raining down everywhere. It was absurd, impossible. My first thought was that it looked so much like a specia effect from some Hollywood confection. I had a moment of admiration for Industrial Light & Magic and other such masters of the craft. My second thought, as I remember it, was that it was going to take a very long time to fix that hole.

Of course I immediately assumed it was a bomb. Someone had obviously gotten up to the upper levels with a bomb strapped to them and detonated it there. The World Trade Center had been the target of attacks before, and we all knew somewhere in our minds that it was likely to happen again at some point.

It was then that I saw something up in that hole that brought the reality of the situation more to my mind: movement. A desperate person appareed to be trying to climb out of the hole to somehow get down the side of the building. Only then did I realize the horror of the situation. And when that desperate person lost his grip and fell hundreds of feet, behind the shorter buildings and out of sight, the crowd let out a groan of desperate hopelessness that shook me at least as deeply as anything else that day. I was watching someone die. And then came another.

Still stunned, I can remember asking a policeman making a valiant attempt at organizing things if I could go back inside to get my things. He told me I couldn't. Looking up again, I remember seeing a pane of glass fall, and I thought to myself that I should move away from the site in order to avoid falling debris.

At Park Row, by J&R, I turned back and just stared at the billowing smoke. A street vendor or store clerk told me it was a plane. He said he could read "American Airlines" on it. This brought me some relief. It was more comforting to think that this was a terrible tragedy than a deliberate attack.

I was looking right at the north tower when, suddenly, a ball of flame burst from the south tower. That changed everything. I ran. I had to get back to Astoria, where I lived with two friends. It occurred to me that the N train, which I would normally take, was probably not running because it went under the WTC, so I ran for the 6 train. There was a payphone there. I thought about using it to call someone, but the train pulled in. I think it was the 6 train, but I really don't remember. At 59th and Lexington I got off and transferred. A Queensbound R train rolled in, so I took it. It wasn't really my train, but it would at least get me out of Manhattan.

I got out at Queens Plaza and walked up to my place just of 36th Ave. I tried the phone, but it was dead. I hadn't seen anyone I knew since Marina, and I didn't even know what had happened to her. I desperately wanted to talk to somebody.

I packed a bag with some clothes and left. I had a girlfriend in Brooklyn, and I determined that I'd get there via the G train - the only train that completely avoided Manhattan. I could see the black smoke in the otherwise clear blue sky. It seemed even thicker now. I did not know that at least one of the towers had fallen by that time.

I found a working payphone near the train station. I called my girlfriend, who was thrilled to know I was alive. I tried to call my mother, but she wasn't there so I left a message.

I did make it to the G train, but when it got to Greenpoint, subway service stopped. I tried the bus, but it wasn't long before it stopped as well.

What followed was one of the most surreal walks of my life. I was exhausted at dehydrated at the beginning of it. I walked from wherever I was - somewhere near Greenpoint - through Bedford-Stuyvesant, to my girlfriend's apartment in Brownsville. These were pretty rough neighborhoods, but it didn't matter that day. I wasn't even thinking about it. I was just focused on getting there. When I arrived, I collapsed onto the futon there and she gave me something to drink. Eventually we caught a LIRR train out to my parents' place on Long Island and stayed there for a few days. Even from way out near the border of Suffolk County you could see the plume of smoke.

The events of that day set my life on a completely different path from where it had been headed. I can't imagine where I'd be now if 9/11 hadn't happened. Yet, I have to admit that I don't know how accurate my memories of the event itself are anymore. It seems like some nightmare I had a long time ago now.

1 comment:

  1. You are one of a handful of people I was very worried about that morning. I'm so happy you're still here to recount your version. So very happy, Chris.