Guest Column: New York City on 9/11

I was living in midtown Manhattan on 9/11, a few miles uptown from the World Trade Center. As a pulp fiction novelist, I sat at my computer early that fateful morning and wrote my latest extravaganza.

I heard a low-flying jet, but shrugged and returned to plot development. Newark Airport was across the Hudson River, and frequently I heard jets, but never that low. A short while later, I heard another low-flying jet. I wondered what was going on, but was too focused on character conflict to give it much thought. I couldn’t imagine two hijacked jets on their descent paths to the Twin Towers, and afterward, Air Force jets zooming above Manhattan.

I thought I heard explosions, but my neighborhood had become the site of massive construction such as the AOL Time-Warner Building going up on Columbus Circle. Foundations for these enormous edifices required blasting deep into rock layers beneath Manhattan Island. Sometimes, my entire building trembled.

Then, I heard sirens, not unusual due to commonplace midtown crime, fires and people undergoing medical emergencies. My sixth-floor window faced a gloomy back alley; I couldn’t see sidewalks or the street.

Around 11 a.m., my son-in-law, Dan, called from Illinois. He and my daughter, Debbie, had been trying to get through for hours—was I all right? Then, he described unbelievable disaster. It sounded like the latest Tom Clancy novel.

I went outside. Armed soldiers in combat fatigues and cops in riot gear stood guard on street corners. Many intersections were barricaded with military vehicles and huge cement blocks. I’ll never forget the sense of shock among New Yorkers, who are normally quite blasé.

The stink of burning materials blew uptown and lingered for about a week. You could smell it in apartments, restaurants, just about everywhere—you couldn’t escape it. I discovered that nearly every New Yorker knew somebody, or knew somebody connected to somebody, who’d worked in the Twin Towers. Meanwhile, Muslim hordes celebrated gleefully on the streets of their cities, according to TV broadcasts.

Several days later, civilians were permitted near the catastrophe. I stood among somber crowds on lower Broadway, gazing at twisted, smoking wreckage one block away.

The horror was difficult to digest because the World Trade Center had become part of my life. I was living in Manhattan when construction began. The Twin Towers climbed into the sky before my eyes. After their completion, I visited the plaza many times and stared awestruck at those iconic structures extending into the clouds. On clear days, I rode up to the observation deck, where I became transfixed by vast expanses of New York State, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Sometimes, I descended to the underground city beneath the towers, which featured the Gap, Banana Republic, Eddie Bauer and numerous other retailers in addition to banks, restaurants, airline ticket counters, a commuter train station called PATH and a major subway terminal. I especially loved the Borders book store.

It was rubble. I felt sick and disoriented. Somehow, I made my way to the New York City Administration for Children’s Services four short blocks away at 150 William St. I’d been employed there as caseworker 1997-2000, following one of my periodic literary career crashes. Caseworker friends told me they’d stood at windows on the 11th floor, watching people leap from the Twin Towers. One caseworker said she suffered from recurring nightmares.

As a result of the above, I’m not especially sympathetic concerning the alleged grievances of Muslims. What we Americans theoretically did to them seems relatively minor compared to what they’ve actually done to us.

Antiwar activists preach that we must turn the other cheek and hope Muslim fanatics don’t whack us again. Mainstream liberals believe that sophisticated diplomacy can persuade suicide bombers and head-choppers to become nice guys. The Bush administration wants to fight militarily and diplomatically for something that looks like victory in Iraq. Take your pick.

Lenny Levinson lived in New York City from age 26 to 68. He’s been in Mt. Morris for two years and is coping fairly well with culture shock.

From the Dec. 6 – Dec. 12, 2006, issue

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