I wasn’t in New York for 9/11. I grew up here, and attended high school in Manhattan, but I wasn’t living in New York when the towers fell. Actually, I was on vacation with a bunch of New York City schoolteachers in Tuscany.
Part of me wanted to be here, in all of its horror, although most everyone I know tells me I should be happy I was not. But being stuck an ocean away made me feel helpless.
This Saturday, I accompanied my wife and kids to the 9/11 Memorial, where we met her upstate New York cousins, who were eager to see it. We were not, but this happens if you live here. Someone comes into town, not from here, someone you love. They want to make a pilgrimage to the site. You make excuses about how you’ll meet them later, or you reluctantly go along.
Also, I have two young daughters and I really don’t feel like explaining about how some assholes crashed two jumbo jets into two of the largest buildings on Earth, killing thousands, and creating in the process a festering pile of toxic plastic and metal which still kills people today…
Anyway, we try not to go, though I know someday I’ll have to tell it to my daughters straight. Evil exists. Life goes on. Something like that.
That conversation didn’t come up during the day. My seven-year-old didn’t seem interested in why we were there, why there were two enormous black holes in the ground with shimmering fountains. She ran around and played with her little sister under the trees.
After, the cousins wanted to visit the Museum but the line was still and long, the day was hot, and the cost was high. Forget it.
We meandered over to the Hudson, followed the idyllic path down past the marina, into Battery Park, grabbed ice creams and beer, rode the Seaglass carousel, chatted, and forgot. The day was crystal blue. “Just like on 9/11,” someone remarked, and then we forgot again.
It was my idea to have dinner at the Half King, which has fine burgers and is right next to the Highline. We rode a crowded 1 train to 23rd Street, put in for an outside table for six and then people-watched on the Highline for an hour, playing “tourist / not tourist.”
Then burgers on the Half King’s outside patio as the sun set and a breeze whipped up from the Hudson. Saturday night was beginning to hop. Cars honking, ladies dolled up for a night out, guys shoes still freshly shined. We were showing out-of-towners around, and we were making a great success of it, we thought. The cousins still showed their greenness, I thought. “What if a car hops the curb and plows into us here,” one asked, idly. I shrugged: “Fate.”
At about 8:15 we paid the tab, and walked east on 23rd. We planned to separate at 6th Avenue. The cousins would walk up to their hotel on 57th Street. We would take the F train back to Park Slope.
The walk was exquisite. The night was alive. The neon of the shops was extra bright, and people walked with a spring in their step. “We are never out in Manhattan at this hour,” my wife and I laughed, remembering dimly when we did not have children and such an event was a possibility. I talked up the city to the cousins, and felt like a legitimate ambassador.
We hugged outside a Dunkin Donuts at about 8:28pm. The cousins turned the corner and left. My daughter had to go to the bathroom. In and out of the Dunkin we went, where they of course did not have a public one. Try Best Buy, they said. We saw a burrito place across the way. It seemed divey but enough of a restaurant to have a toilet.
We took a step.
A thunderclap on Earth is not supposed to happen, I thought, and I watched the rear window of an SUV on the street bubble outward, and disintegrate. The air seemed to curve, sonically, and dust and leaves blew down the street on a breeze not of the night’s making. The ground shook and I felt the wave in my chest. The buildings across 23rd Street seemed to shake.
What was happening? My wife’s eyes were dinner plates, and the girls were like statues. The second we stood there felt to like ten minutes. Then people started to run toward us, screaming. I might have said, “Go that way!” pointing up Sixth, or my wife might have already grabbed the two most important things in our lives and started that way. In a flash, we were running up Sixth Avenue. We weren’t alone.
Sixth Avenue, seconds after the blast, felt like Sixth Avenue on any other night. Cars were moving or barely moving, and it looked eerily normal. We ducked briefly onto 24th Street, thinking that if there was another blast in the same location we would be safe behind a city block. I kept saying, “Slow, slow, calm down, calm down,” because I didn’t want to panic ourselves into oncoming traffic, or be victims in a crush of people ahead.
Was that a bomb? I thought. Or a firework, or what? I had heard about the pipe bombs on the Jersey Shore earlier in the day, and it came to mind, along with visions of car bombs I’d seen explode on the news in Iraq and Syria and I knew it couldn’t have been that. My family and wouldn’t be together, intact, if that’s what it was.
So I knew, instinctively, that the bomb wasn’t enormous. I’ve had a grisly habit of imagining, wherever I am in a city, what a nuclear air burst would feel like from where I was. I’ve been doing that since I saw The Day After as a kid. The day the nukes drop, I always tell myself, I’ll at least be prepared. I feel like I have some instinctive idea about bomb strength. It’s probably flawed, but it is something I obsess about a bit.
So for a second we were on 24th Street, and while I was still lost in thinking and planning mode, my wife ran for a cab, all action. A young club kid was about to step in. “I have a family! Sorry!” she said. He looked dazed; perhaps he had been closer to the bomb than we were. My family hopped in. I went around the back, to throw our monstrous double stroller into the trunk. I was clutching a leftover milk from the restaurant. I threw it into the middle of the street behind the cab, almost gleefully, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to litter with abandon all the time.
We drove off. The cab driver had felt the blast also. He was stopped at 22nd Street and 6th Avenue when it happened. The driver of the car in front of him had gotten out and accused him of rear-ending him. The driver protested, “It wasn’t me! It was an explosion!” We bonded with the driver all the way home to Park Slope. We still had no idea what had happened, but the speculation was all over my Twitter feed. A bomb. Or maybe a gas explosion. My family was safe.
Later I found out we were about 225 feet away from the bomb, four buildings down. I had pushed a stroller past the detonation point about four minutes before.
I tucked my girls into bed, and kissed them both on their foreheads. “You are the bravest girls in all the city tonight. No one in the city tonight is braver than you two.”
My oldest daughter went back into Manhattan to see Matilda on Broadway with her grandmother on Sunday, as planned. There was never a question about whether she would go. We’re not a fearful people, and we refuse to live in fear. We’re brave. The whole country looks to us to be brave.
We’re New Yorkers. Leave fear to the fearmongers and terrorists. Not our bag.