On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I left home on the Upper West Side, boarded the 1/2/3 train at 96th and Broadway and headed to work downtown. I had a 9-to-5 job on Lafayette Street north of East 4th, just under two miles from WTC. It was the kind of job where no one looked twice if you stumbled in at 9:30. I transferred at Times Square and got the N/R, and by the time I emerged onto Broadway and 8th, both towers were on fire.
Things seemed normal at first. I saw a big plume of dark smoke at a distance and thought, “Wow, really big fire.” But it was NYC, these things happen, and there were too many buildings blocking the view further downtown for anyone to see what it was.
I crossed over to Lafayette and started walking south. Fewer tall buildings. Better view. Wow, that is a lot of smoke. The energy on the street changed. People stopped walking and started staring. I got to the office lobby and the doorman said something about a plane hitting the towers. I only heard, or chose to hear, a reference to one plane, one tower. And even then, it was NYC, not out of the realm of possibility.
I got upstairs and it was pretty much pandemonium. TVs were tuned to news channels and the picture started to emerge. After a while a bunch of us went up to the roof. It was a six-story building with an unobstructed view of the towers. I believe by the time we got up there it was after 10:05 and the South Tower had already collapsed. I vaguely remember someone next to me saying, “Where’s the other tower?” “I think it’s gone,” I muttered. I knew what I was seeing but I couldn’t process it. No one could.
People on the roof were crying. There was chatter, Why is this happening? Who would do this? Some were angry, yelling. One coworker had a brother at Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower, which was still standing. I didn’t know her and didn’t speak with her but I saw her watching in terror and total helplessness, with her friends gathered around her.
I went back downstairs, sat in front of a TV and watched the North Tower collapse, live in real time. I remember the silence as the newscasters were struck dumb. “There are no words,” one of them said, several seconds after the tower vanished. Pretty soon after that my boss told me to go home, and I joined a sea of pedestrians heading north on Lafayette, streaming out of the area.
Over the next three hours I walked all the way home to 98th and Riverside. I bumped into guitarist Rez Abassi on 6th Avenue and we talked for a few minutes. I couldn’t get through to anyone, cell networks were down. Around Penn Station on 8th Avenue I finally reached a friend and checked in. I walked through Columbus Circle, up Broadway and finally opened the door to my apartment, where my two male tuxedo cats were serenely waiting to greet me.
I called my parents. They’d been fairly sure I was out of danger but were glad to have that confirmed. I called Jennie, who was away at vet school up at Cornell. It was her apartment that I was (illegally) subletting. (I proposed to her about a year later.) Unlike me she’s a native New Yorker. Being far from home on 9/11 felt pretty surreal.
The day was traumatic, but I made it out easy. Soon I heard stories from friends who were caught in the ash and debris cloud downtown. My ex-girlfriend was underground on the 2 train when it suspended service at the Wall Street station and announced a total evacuation. She ran up the stairs and straight into a blinding, choking apocalypse with no idea what was happening. Ten years later she died of leukemia — I don’t know for sure if there was a link, but possibly.
My extended relative Charles Magee died in the towers. His name is inscribed on the memorial. My father (z”l) had walked his cousin Janet, Charles’ bride, down the aisle at their wedding.
In 2012, I was teaching an undergrad course in jazz history at Queens College. One student, a freshman, turned in a short paper about Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” To my surprise, the paper focused on 9/11. This young woman was in 3rd grade on 9/11. Her father worked downtown and was unable to contact the family throughout his entire trek on foot back to deep outer-borough Queens. She and her family spent hours in panic and grief, thinking he was gone.
This young student wrote that she was changed by the experience, and it awakened in her a passion for justice and an interest in law. But up until that point, she had always been entirely uninterested in music. Never even turned on the radio. Then she heard Nina Simone sing “Mississippi Goddam” in my class, and once again, she was changed. Now she understood the power of music to speak to our deepest lived experience, and she would never think of it the same way again.
I stared into space after reading this paper. So much came flooding back. Those of us out of harm’s way were still deeply impacted, and the reverberations continue to be felt. Those who literally had to run for their lives, even more so. And the victims, the thousands who could not escape, those in the towers and in the planes and on the ground, all went through something too terrifying for any of us to even imagine. May they all rest in peace.