Tiny Revolutions №78: 9/11 - The View from Uptown
20 years ago in a very tall building
I’m changing gears a bit this issue, and publishing an essay I initially wrote in 2011, around the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. I dusted it off this summer and made some minor edits, but it still feels like a time capsule. It’s a longer read than usual, but I hope you enjoy this bit of background on how I became who I am.
On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was a 24-year-old office drone, an assistant to the assistant of the chairman of the Sony Corporation. I worked at the top of the Sony building in midtown Manhattan, in a palatial suite of offices overlooking Central Park that were only used when Japanese executives came into town for board meetings a few times a year. I’d ended up getting hired full time after working as a temp, an unexpected turn of events after moving to NYC from Atlanta that spring. I sat in the anteroom, at a long wooden desk within earshot of the doors to all four of the attached offices.
The phone rang and my boss, a tiny but terrifying Japanese woman, answered and started speaking in rapid Japanese, which was not unusual. A minute or so later she called me into her office, which was. Although I was a staff member in the highest office of the company, my status was clear: I was the help, only there to exist in the background unless otherwise directed. Her TV showed the shocking image of the North Tower of the World Trade Center with a fiery hole from an airplane crashing into it. That’s weird, I thought. My best guess was that some navigation system had gone awry, which seems wildly naive now but was then the most plausible option I could come up with.
I went back to my desk. The atmosphere in our office was formal. To stick around seemed likely to invite a sharp remark, and I was careful to avoid those.
I heard my boss gasp a few minutes later when another plane flew into the South Tower as she watched the live broadcast. This time I walked into the office uninvited and stayed. My mind spun as I tried to make sense of it — as far as I understood it, our country was both prosperous and secure. A minute after that, my cell phone rang. It was my brother in Los Angeles. He was mid-scream when I answered, something about terrorism. Terrorism? It hadn’t even occurred to me. I got another call from my dad, or maybe it was my mom. I don’t remember. Yes, I was O.K. My building was about five miles uptown.
I still didn’t know whether to keep working or what. I wandered in and out of my boss’s office to gawk at the TV. I hit refresh on CNN.com. No more calls came in on my cell phone — I later learned that the cellular networks were overwhelmed and would stay that way for days. I had an errand to run, something I had to bring down to the other side of the building where the head of Sony’s U.S. operations sat. His office faced south and had a wall of windows, and people had congregated there to watch the buildings burn. It was a clear day and you could see them perfectly, even from that distance. I returned to my office. I must have emailed with my friends, made sure they were O.K., too.
Drawn back to the scene, I reached the south side of the building just in time to see the South Tower fall. There were about fifteen of us watching. There were gasps and cries, but no one said a word — the magnitude of shock and horror was so great that it defied response. We could see in each others’ eyes that we were deeply disturbed and terrified, but it was beyond anything words could express. Not only that, we were still technically on the clock in what was a very old-school, formal environment. As a 24-year-old newcomer, I did not know how to act, what to say, or what to do, so I said nothing. I didn’t know these people and I was in an unfamiliar place with customs and culture that were foreign to me. I turned around and hurried back to my office, where my boss kindly, finally dismissed me. “Please take care,” she said.
Life in a posh office in Manhattan was completely novel to me. Like most New Yorkers I knew, part of the reason I moved there was to escape my childhood and make something of myself — money, of course, but I also wanted to make a difference. To be someone of consequence and value. I’d moved to New York City that April, fresh off my adolescence in suburban Atlanta, my college years in Athens, Georgia, and a couple of booze-soaked post-college years in Atlanta. Although I’d progressively moved into larger and more urban environments, they in no way prepared me for life in what was the king of all cities, as far as I was concerned.
I’d moved there with the intention of getting a job in publishing, but I’d ended up temping, first at an advertising agency, and then at a beauty company, where a sweet co-worker had given me his number and told me to call him if I ever needed anything (I never did). I landed, finally, at Sony, where I was assigned to the office of the chairman, working for Ms. Hiroko Otogawa. Ms. Otogawa was the original assistant to the founder of Sony, and had been running the executive operation in the states since the company’s early days in the late 60’s. I’d started temping for her in May, and came on officially on August 15.
I did my best to play the part of aspiring young corporate executive by dressing in separates from fast fashion stores and nicer things I’d plucked from the mess of Loehmann’s and Century 21, New York’s discount retail standbys. I lived on the north side of Chelsea in a fifth floor walkup with two guys from my hometown, and since our living room was a long, skinny windowless box with one couch that didn’t fit us all comfortably, two or three nights a week we’d end up at the Westside Tavern, a classic divey Irish pub a few blocks away, playing pool and drinking pints of Stella. On nights I wasn’t out with my roommates I’d hang out with one of the handful of other people I knew in the city. Abbie, the college roommate of my best friend from high school, who was working in publishing. Julia, a friend of Abbie’s, who was applying to grad school but mostly just shopping, going out, and living rent-free in her parents' pied-a-terre at the Trump Tower, which was notorious even then for its opulence, long before it would become notorious for other reasons.
Abbie and Julia were much more at ease in New York than I was — they’d met in college in Washington D.C., and had already spent a fair amount of time in the city. You want food, you call for delivery. Too tired to walk, just hail a cab. Need a pick-me-up, run over to Bendel’s and buy a new lipstick. I found the ease with which one dispatched money in New York astonishing. I was used to pinching pennies, but I figured that someday my finances would catch up to my lifestyle. I had a cell phone and charge card, and I used them.
When I left the building after the towers fell, I decamped to Julia’s parents’ condo at the Trump Tower, on the southeast corner of Central Park. Even as I walked over, it felt like an incredibly stupid move. I had evacuated one high-profile high-rise building only to go to another one. We didn’t know much about the terrorists or their motives at the time, but either one could have been a target as far as we knew. The unthinkable had already happened once this morning – who was to say it wouldn’t again? But there I was, making myself comfortable on Julia’s couch. We glued ourselves to the TV, CNN playing footage of the burning buildings and the second plane crashing into the South Tower over and over. Abbie, who also worked nearby in midtown, joined us at some point as well.
I didn’t mention my fear that we were in a potentially vulnerable position. I don’t know if Julia or Abbie thought it too, or if that was just my own paranoia and guilt about being in a luxurious setting while an unprecedented tragedy unfolded only a few miles south. Yet some part of me knew that I would be glad to casually tell people later that I’d spent that day in one of the most prestigious buildings in the city. It sounds vulgar now, but a big part of why I’d moved to New York was precisely because I wanted to be the kind of person who lounged around in luxurious settings, the kind I’d read about in books and seen in movies since childhood. Besides, it made for a better story to tell my friends and family back home.
After hours of TV watching and no new news after a certain point, we decided to head out for something to eat. We needed to get off the couch and away from the images being replayed over and over again on the TV. I needed some distance from Julia, who, while shocked by the day’s events, didn’t seem to be processing them in any serious way. I felt like this was just another day to her. She was a stereotypical bubbly blonde type who talked like a valley girl, and every single item of clothing she wore seemed to cost more than my entire wardrobe. I had never interacted with people who had this kind of money before, and I viewed her as a curiosity — were people who carried $2,000 handbags and didn’t need to work like the rest of us? It was fun to go out drinking with Julia, but in the light of the tragedy, the novelty of her spoiled rich girl schtick wore off, revealing her as feckless and sheltered. Was it the money? I wondered. Does it mess with your empathy, keep you from feeling sadness, from feeling fear? Abbie, for her part, just seemed stunned. A native New Yorker, I think she was struggling to process the enormity of what had happened.
I felt better once we got back on the streets. They were crowded with every type of New Yorker, many of which were marooned and far from home due the subway having shut down that morning. As usual, people were moving around with purpose, but something was different, darker. I could see an undercurrent of horror on the faces of the other pedestrians. Julia and Abbie and I headed east on 57th and north on Madison, and as we came up to an intersection, I noticed a small figure stopped at the edge of the block, even though the light was green and the WALK signal showed.
Once on the corner, I looked down at a very old woman. She had her hand out, as though waiting for someone to take it. I watched her as we approached, expecting someone to come get her, only no one came. I asked, “Do you need help crossing the street?” She looked up at me and smiled. “Yes, could you?” She was just waiting there for someone, anyone, and for who knew how long. I grabbed her hand and it was soft and papery and warm, and it moved me. It was the first time all day that I’d felt like a person — a thinking, feeling human with a place and a purpose in the world. It made me embarrassed for the way I’d spent the afternoon, wrapped up in that tower of privilege, doing nothing at all to help.
When we got to the other side of the street, I asked the old woman if she wanted me to keep walking with her, but she thanked me and went slowly on her way. Abbie and Julia and I proceeded to dinner at a neighborhood place called Serafina, where we were surrounded by the low tones of conversations between well-heeled Upper East Siders eating thin crust pizzas from the wood-fired grill and drinking big glasses of red wine. They were, as far as I could tell, people who paid other people to take care of things for them. Things like making their food, cleaning their homes, rearing their children, and now, it seemed, dealing with their catastrophes. I’d heard about and envied people like these all my life, but now I looked around and thought, these aren’t my people. I don’t know who I am, but I know this isn’t it.
That night I walked back to my building in Chelsea and met up with roommates at the Westside Tavern for a beer. There we watched CNN in silence, shaken to our core but united, at least, in our desire to be of use to the world. As it turned out, there wasn’t much any of us could do to help at all by then, but it was a relief to be with others who wanted to be in the mix instead of above it.
20 years later what stands out most to me about how I was feeling on that day is how incredibly important it is to be among people who are on your wavelength. No matter where you are in life or what challenges you’re facing, being with people who get it and will stand beside you is how you get through it. Or at least, that’s what has always been true for me. It always comes back to your people. Thanks for being one of mine!
And thanks for reading, as always. I’m aiming to get back to my regular weekly cadence now that summer’s over. See you soon.
p.s. Many friends and editors helped me shape this essay into something intelligible over the years. Thanks to Chris Daley, Stephanie Ross, Joey Campbell, Cameron Zargar, Lyle McKeany, DJ McCauley, Rajat Mittal, Ryan Williams, and the rest of the crew at Foster for your thoughtful feedback and encouragement.