by Allison Gustavson
Ascending from the Wall Street subway station a few steps ahead of me, a woman’s heels click-clacked purposefully up to street level. Channeling an entire way of life through those pointytoed, patent leather accessories, she was the embodiment of “places to go, people to meet”—even the curves of her calves meant business.
For several days, I had been engrossed in a horrifying book about the Bosnian War. Following her up the stairs, I silently excoriated the woman for her self-absorption. She obviously wasn’t thinking about places like Bosnia. As she tapped on her Palm Pilot, I flushed with an indignation that wasn’t altogether unpleasant; never mind that, for all I knew, the poor woman was a human rights advocate working to eradicate genocide from the African continent.
I had been working at Omni “Freaking” Fine Art, as I unaffectionately referred to it, for nearly three months. While supposedly constructing elaborate spreadsheets forecasting the sale of dramatically overpriced reproductions of Smithsonian art, I kept boredom at bay with novellalength emails to friends at similar desks scattered around the city. I honestly had no clue how to sell our products, but neither, apparently, did anyone else in the company. That morning, as my alarm clock raised its voice above the general din of Red Hook, Brooklyn at 6:30 a.m., a dull headache reminded me of the bottle of wine I’d polished off with a childhood friend in a little East Village trattoria the night before. I figured that I’d been with the firm long enough to establish myself as a reliable individual but not long enough to have become a disappointment, and that one late arrival wasn’t going to rock the boat. I hit the snooze button.
As my group of commuters spilled onto Broadway, the brilliant morning sky came rushing into view. I glanced at my watch: it was only a minute or so past nine. Amazing— I’d taken my time, and was still barely late enough to be considered late. Following the high-heeled lady a few steps down the block, I began devising an excuse for my slight tardiness. It wasn’t until I nearly collided with a man standing in the middle of the sidewalk, shielding his eyes as he looked upward, that I noticed that something was wrong.
When I first saw it, I thought that the ring of fire around the circumference of the Twin Tower was a hallucination. Had I been reading too much about the war? Was I actually capable of that kind of morbid projection? I looked around, noticing that all faces were turned upward in the same direction.
And then: right over my head and impossibly close, as though it was just floating up there on the end of a balloon string in my hand, the plane. I can still hear my voice declaring the obvious to nobody in particular: “Holy shit! That plane is going to hit the World Trade Center!” And then it did. As it pierced the tower in slow motion, the mesmerizing neatness of the slice was betrayed by the ear-shattering wail of glass and metal; like so many others around me, I thrust my hands up to the side of my head in a futile gesture of self-protection and, purse banging into the side of my neck, began to run.
A young woman grabbed my arm in her own southward sprint down Broadway. I stumbled to catch up with her, somehow registering a black business suit, swinging ponytail, and shiny black heels. I turned my head and looked up at the swirling mass of paper and debris. Although it couldn’t have actually been this way, I remember that moment, running with the girl, as though someone had pressed the “mute” button on lower Manhattan, and we were all trapped inside of a silent, macabre snow globe. Everything was falling. I found myself being pulled into the Bank of New York building; a security guard, trying to keep order in the mounting chaos, blocked the entrance when he saw that I wore no ID. The young woman begged him to let me in, but when he waved his arms insisting, “She cannot come in here! She has to go! She has no ID, I cannot let her in!”, she met my eyes one last time before stepping into the revolving door.
I was thrust back into the wild street, twice as alone for having lost my friend. Glancing over my shoulder at the burning towers, I reached into my purse, clasped the familiar contours of my cell phone, and dialed my mom before taking off again. Busy signal.
I had worked in this neighborhood for three years, but had become entirely and hopelessly disoriented. People were running in all directions at breakneck speed, with bleeding wounds and debris-coated hair; but I passed, too, countless others, visible through shop windows and heard on street corners, who were talking and speculating as they craned to gape at the impossible vision that loomed over all of us. Shopkeepers in aprons stood in their doorways, smoking and discussing the goings-on with businessmen whose suits were peppered with dust.
Behind them, the loop of news anchors and attack footage had begun to flatten the three-dimensional world around me onto the television screens mounted throughout downtown Manhattan. It was from one of those televisions that I first saw the word “terrorist” flash across the screen; a moment later, the heel of my shoe broke off. My cell phone had been attempting to automatically redial my mom; with each try, fresh hopes of hearing her voice were slashed by a violent and soulless busy signal. Oh, God, I thought, I need to hear my mother’s voice. Please, God, let me get through to her.
“Get away from this building! It is a terrorist target! I repeat! Get away from this building! It is a terrorist target!” I was in front of the unmistakable facade of the New York Stock Exchange, where a police officer was shrieking into a megaphone to clear the area. Before I even had a chance to change course, a graying middle-aged man, clutching a briefcase under the crook of his arm, grabbed my hand. He didn’t say much—only, “Brooklyn Bridge.” It was enough. As we set off toward the East River, I turned, for what must have been the thousandth time, to make sure the buildings were still standing; their tips were burning like the ends of a pair of lit cigarettes, and they seemed to be swaying. I quickened my pace, allowing my new guide to lead me toward Brooklyn and—maybe—home. The Brooklyn Bridge. It hadn’t even occurred to me.
We made our way through winding streets until the bridge swept into view, its suspension cables like bones threaded through a pair of enormous wings. And then I saw the mayhem. Hundreds of thousands of people, jammed like Alaskan salmon, desperate for Brooklyn. The lines to enter the bridge stretched as far as we could see, back into the heart of downtown; there was no way we were going to be able to get on, at least not within the next few hours. Looking at my companion for guidance, I saw that he was paralyzed with indecision.
Then I noticed that people were being hoisted over the side of the ramp leading onto the bridge. A moment’s pause over the ethical dilemma of “cutting in line” was replaced by a searing desire to get the hell off of the island of Manhattan; I let go of my guy’s hand, gestured for him to follow, approached the bridge, and started to climb. Almost immediately, a muscular black arm reached over from above and, grabbing hold of my hand, pulled me up and over the side of the bridge before disappearing into the streaming crowd. I leaned over to help my companion, still clutching his briefcase, do the same. With a wordless expression of gratitude, he, too, was swallowed into the thronging, desperate mob on the bridge.
“America is under attack!” “They’ve hit the Sears Tower in Chicago! LA! Boston!” “The Brooklyn Bridge is next! We have to get off!” People shoved and screamed, and rumors circulated like an airborne virus, sending waves of panic through the crowd and causing mini-stampedes to erupt like seismic events. I was pushed to the ground by one of these stampedes, trampled until two guys swept me up and half-carried me until I had steadied myself enough to just continue hobbling along on my broken shoe, my arms linked through theirs. I was wiping my nose on my shoulder, but I’m pretty sure neither of them noticed. Some people were climbing up the railing of the bridge, clearly debating whether they’d survive jumping into the water, while others pulled them back down and dragged them forward.
And then, by some miracle, my phone rang. My call had finally gotten through to my mom. I was nearly halfway across the bridge, and, hearing the pronouncements of everyone around me, had little reason to believe that I was going to make it to the other side: either a building was about to fall on us or a plane would soon be bombing us. America had been pitched into a thundercloud of terrorists.
“Mom? Mom?” I wailed at the sound of her voice. “Mom!? I was walking to work and the plane hit the Towers! They are going to fall—the plane hit the Towers! Oh, Mom…”
“What? Allison, what? I can’t hear you. You’re crying too hard. What are you saying?”
“They are hitting the buildings! I’m on the bridge and—” My mom, at that moment, had to be one of the last people not to know what was going on. She’d been tucked away in her gym class, entirely disconnected from the rest of the planet. She clearly assumed that this was yet another in a long and illustrious line of semi-hysterical phone calls about my inability to choose a professional direction. She interrupted my sobs. “Allison, I think you need to take a minute and calm down and call me back when I can—”
The line went dead.
A rumbling crescendo from behind wrenched my attention away from the phone. We were a sea of faces, suspended over the East River and momentarily suspended, too, between being utterly transfixed by the spectacle of the tower beginning to collapse and physically aware of our own imminent demise. We were stuck, and would be crushed by a skyscraper. A tidal wave of humanity swept over the bridge, the herd willing itself toward Brooklyn. And then, impossibly, the tower seemed to dissolve into itself. A great billow of dust and smoke, like the impact of a gargantuan octopus on the sandy ocean floor, unfurled in all directions. The once-glistening skyline was shrouded in darkness.
With our backs to unimaginable catastrophe, those two men held onto me the rest of the way across the bridge. When we finally plunged into Brooklyn, it felt as sweet and innocent and green as an Alpine village. We started walking downtown. Now that there was space for talking, none of us knew what to say. So we asked each other where we were heading, and wondered aloud if the buses were still running.
We reached Atlantic Avenue just as my bus was pulling up to the stop, and my friends helped me on. We hugged, smiling ambiguously and without any real meaning, just appreciating each other. As the doors closed behind me, I felt a relief so profound it was as though I was actually dissolving. I was fine. I was safe. I was on the bus that would bring me home. I looked around at the people on the full bus—all looking at my tear-stained face and debris-covered clothes—and felt their wonder and curiosity and sadness. They knew that I had “been there”, and that compassion punctured whatever bubble I had constructed to get me through the last hour. I tried to stifle a sob, barely able to stand and keep my grip on the swinging handle. A man got up from his seat and motioned for me to sit down next to an enormous old Hispanic woman riding in the handicapped chair, and I gratefully took a seat.
As soon as I sat down, tears streaming down my face, the woman pulled me to her breast and stroked my hair as though I was her very own granddaughter. I can still feel the billowy softness of her bosom, her breasts like two queen-sized pillows filling a Downy-white cotton blouse. She was practically Mother Earth herself, and her soft hands on my forehead are one of the most memorable moments of human contact I have ever experienced. I looked up at her with a mixture of gratitude and despair; she simply nodded and pulled my head closer.
I found a declaration welling up in my throat, and needed to tell this woman. “I am never, ever going to bring a…” and then my voice trailed off as I saw a woman, deeply pregnant, sitting in the row of seats across from me. “…child into this world,” had been the end of my sentence, but I couldn’t say that, not now. I looked beyond her, through the window, to where the sky was dazzlingly, deceptively blue.
I write these stories with a beginning, middle, and end, because that’s how I was taught to do it in middle school. Don’t stories need an arc? Shouldn’t they be tidy? I also write them this way because it at least gives me the feeling that I am somehow making progress towards making sense of my life; that, if I unearth the right structure, its pieces will somehow learn to behave and fall into a cohesive narrative with sufficiently meaningful themes and at least some discernible symbolism. Of course, the longer I beat my head against the wall of this exercise, the more futile it reveals itself to be; the more I try to wrestle these stories into pretty blue Tiffany boxes with pretty white satin bows (even the very-far-from-pretty ones, like this one), the more they continue to leak into the present and recolor the past, like some sort of shapeshifting inkblot.
Of course my 9/11 story did not end with me looking off into the distance at the dazzling and deceptively blue sky. My bus kept going, and I got off, and then a lot of stuff happened after that, including a very real panic attack after getting very wasted with my Red Hook friends that night, during which I can only remember my friends encircling and containing me in a net of arms and legs and words. I’ve always been predisposed to archetypal, mythological thinking, and I was raised on fairy tales. I never really wondered, until more recently than I’d care to admit, what happened after the happily-ever-after parts, after the story was over. I was just always left with a good feeling. But after Will Hunting drove off to “see about a girl”, did he have to stop for gas? Did they have kids? Did he ever have a shitty meal at a restaurant or spend too long on hold with a cable provider? I recognize that these questions are tired and that stories are not meant to include such details, but I also feel a bit fooled by stories, because I thought life would be more like one than it actually is and I have tried for a long time, perhaps I’m still trying here, to fit myself into those too-tight slippers.
I’m not sure which details are pertinent—which ones move the story along, and which ones impede it. It’s all in how you tell it. Which, when you’re writing about yourself (for some unknown reason, because you know that you are not famous or noteworthy in any way, and that there is objectively no reason whatsoever that people would be even remotely interested to read about your very particular experience of being a person) becomes very tricky, because then you find yourself only wanting to take up the reader’s time with the really outlandish stories, like the one with the heroin-shooting dwarf, because you feel obligated to justify the time, ink, and trees that were given both to the production of the work and the reading of it.
When the subject of September 11th arises in conversation, I rarely tell my story, unless to real friends, who hear the story as having happened specifically to me, and all that entails for me, rather than just as an interesting anecdote. It’s kind of a lose-lose situation, really: first, people start discussing “where they were”, and I listen while they gravely describe calling their child’s preschool in Des Moines, or wherever, because they saw the footage online at work and panicked, because nobody knew what was happening or could have been happening across the country. It’s our generation’s Kennedy moment, and everyone (rightfully) has a frozen-in-time image of where she was, what she was doing, how she felt, and what she did next. It’s kind of a similar phenomenon to dreams, though: people love to tell their own, but rarely care to probe deeply into others’, which is why I can usually get away with not telling mine. Unless you offer, nobody asks.
I have realized, over time, that I prefer not to offer for several reasons: first, because it feels like a case of one-upmanship. I am never the one to bring up 9/11, which means that, once I moved out of New York City, almost every other person’s story that I’ve encountered is more distant from the attacks than my own; it feels both awkward and rude to make their heartfelt accounts seem insignificant or somehow foolish when I say, “Well, actually…”.
Secondly, it feels like capitalizing on tragedy for a moment in the spotlight; even though my experience was deeply frightening, and has had a lasting impact, it was, by comparison, really not all that much. There’s something of an ego trip derived from people’s genuinely fascinated responses that feels ugly and cheap, riding upon the back of so much grief and sorrow from which I was very much spared. I also choose to not tell my 9/11 story because the telling feels canned. I know the details, I know the plot points, and I always feel as though I’m telling the story from a million miles away, and am thus disconnected both from the story itself and the listener. The hollowness is enough to make my eyes water as I watch myself and don’t like what I see, so now I usually don’t even consider it.
Aside from the generally inherent drama of the incident, though, there exist a couple of pretty much incontrovertible truths: if I hadn’t been slightly hungover from those drinks the night before, I wouldn’t have been late to work. And if I hadn’t been late to work, I probably would not have lived, because my desk was not only facing but directly pushed up against a set of windows that were blown out with the force of tons of high-flying debris in the explosion. After several out-of-body days wandering around Brooklyn, drinking beers, splurging on sushi, and lazing with my friends on the Red Hook waterfront lawn while we watched and smelled the smoke from Lower Manhattan as the Statue of Liberty raised her torch stoically in the foreground, I re-entered the office and discovered that my desk and new window provided a direct view of Ground Zero cleanup. Needless to say, my productivity did not increase. Which leads to the second incontrovertible truth: if this tragedy had not occurred, my boss would not have decided to send me back to Maryland to work from home for the summer and try to enter the DC art market with our wares, which means that I would never have decided to simultaneously enter an elementary education certification program wherein I met Mark, my future husband, who had also started on the path to becoming a teacher. It is very uncomfortable to contemplate the fact that my beautiful family is in no small part built on the foundation of a terrorist attack.
On the day I left New York for that supposedly brief sabbatical, I took the newly re-routed green line to Penn Station. The subway car was, as it had been since that blue-skied morning, almost completely silent and very palpably full of feeling, although there were two teenagers flirting loudly and in almost endearingly complete obliviousness to the emotional tone of their surroundings. We pulled into Bowling Green, and a man stepped onto the train wearing a NYFD jacket and an expression of grief and exhaustion on his face under a mop of tousled red hair. He was carrying a small American flag. Trying not to stare, I looked down at my purse and felt the sting of tears at the corners of my eyes, imagining what he’d seen and lost. I looked up again, just because I had to, and his eyes met mine. I tried to communicate something akin to “I’m sorry” before looking down again, but knew that my face was probably more akin to some kind of visual gibberish. Just as I felt myself flush in embarrassment, the conductor announced over the loudspeaker, “Now approaching Cortlandt Street, World Tr-” and cut himself off, who-knows-how-many-years of habit suddenly crashing into our new reality.
I got out at Penn Station, and so did the fireman. As I hoisted my duffel bag higher onto my shoulder, I felt a light touch on the elbow.
“Are you ok?” he asked, as people streamed ahead on both sides of us.
“Me? You! I was just thinking about you! Are you ok?”
“Yeah, I guess I am. You heading up to Penn Station? Traveling somewhere? I’m going there as well, can I help you with your bag?”
“Yes, I’m going home to Maryland for a while. And no, I’m pretty sure you’ve done enough recently. You cannot help me with my bag, don’t be silly. But thank you so much for asking.”
“C’mon, I’d enjoy it. It would truly be my pleasure.” Shrugging in mock-capitulation, I allowed him to take over my duffel and we walked for a while in pleasant silence.
“So, Maryland, huh. Is that where you’re from?”
“Yes—I’m going home for a while. My office is downtown, and my boss thought it might be good for me to work from there for a while.”
“Ah, nice. So you’re heading home to your family. That is just wonderful to hear.”
We introduced ourselves, and chatted the rest of the way into the Amtrak waiting room. He bought us both coffees, and we sat until my platform number was posted. Danny, a former fireman, had been volunteering at Ground Zero and was still, daily, looking for many of his former colleagues and buddies. He did not go into tremendous detail about the ordeal, but of course that wasn’t necessary. What he seemed hungry to discuss, more than anything, were the ordinary, daily details of my life and family; my mom had called while we were still chatting and had told me exactly what we were having for dinner, and those details would certainly have never survived in my memory except for the fact that Danny overheard and smiled broadly at the idea of me, later that evening, eating string beans and flank steak with my parents. He told me a bit about his life growing up in Staten Island, but kept steering the conversation back to me, eager for stories that had nothing to do with, well, pretty much anything.
I told him about the time my family all crowded around my mother’s dinner plate in awe and disgust as one of her spaghetti noodles appeared to be crawling around of its own volition (we later discovered that an almost invisible thread of her hair had attached itself to a noodle and created this grotesque illusion), and he laughed heartily, a belly laugh, when I told him about the time, when my brother was four and I was ten, when we took a family trip to Antigua. My mother had somehow not deemed it necessary or appropriate to bring her passport or, for that matter, even her wallet; we were easily able to leave the US under such conditions, and Antigua similarly welcomed this unidentified-but-paying woman with open arms, but when it came time to board the plane on our return trip to the States we confronted an entirely different set of circumstances. Mom needed identification, and she didn’t have any. In desperation and absolute bewilderment that my mother could be so naive, my dad pulled out an Owings Mills family portrait of the four of us. “Look! Would I really carry around a family photo of a woman who wasn’t my wife?” The airline attendant paused, thinking over what to do as she looked down at Dad’s bushy ‘70s moustache, back up at my father, and then down to the smiling image of my mom in a turtleneck sweater that seemed ready to devour her entire head, and back up to my mom and her anxiety-raised eyebrows.
The woman was obviously our mother, my dad’s wife. The attendant hesitated, and then looked down at my brother and asked, very gently, “Little boy, is this woman your mother?” To which my brother responded, deadpan, “I have never seen this woman in my life.”
When it was time to for me to board my train, Danny and I exchanged numbers and addresses and hugged as if we’d been friends for years, both of us with teary eyes that were neither sad nor happy but just plain emotional, and he gave me his little American flag. He called me later that evening, just to check and see how the flank steak and string beans had been, and we spoke briefly a few times over the next week or so. Although he had volunteered at Ground Zero every day, he and his team had not found any survivors. I received a card in the mail a few weeks later. On the front it simply read “Thank you” in gold script, and bore the image of a single rose. On the inside, it said:
Dear Allison, I just wanted you to know how great it was to meet you and chat with you that day at the train station. I told my friends all about you the next day as we worked at the site, and my story— and your stories— brought a lot of smiles to a lot of people on a real dark day, and for that I will forever be grateful. Wishing you and your family all the best,
Again, this story has no arc. I don’t actually even remember how Danny and I lost touch. But I do feel that the meeting was important for me, and, it seems true, for him. I feel glad, and a little bit proud, when I think about how my ridiculous stories and general demeanor brought a momentary smile to those men in that unthinkable situation. Even though that’s not a lasting achievement, like writing a book or having a career, for that matter, it feels fundamentally anchored in the “this is who I am and how I like to be as I move through the world” department.