Thursday, November 8, 2007
The 103rd Floor
My desk was a mess on the morning of September 11th. That is the reason I came in early. To be precise, my desk was a mess on the evening of September 10th when I left my cubby at around 6:30 P.M. I worked in an investment firm. There were three companies on the 103rd floor of Two World Trade Center, but the firm I worked for had the entire northern face of the floor. The President of my employer believed in open spaces. This resulted in all his employees having cubbies separated by shoulder high partitions with little desks and computers. My desk faced west and to my right was a narrow tall window, one of dozens that were portholes to a view of the entire island of Manhattan. The largest object in that view was One World Trade Center. I could lean out with outstretched arm,. And with a little strain, touch the glass of the window. It was always a source of concern that the window was cold, a constant reminder that the air outside affected the inside of my protected space.
With a slight turn of my head to the left I would see little push pins sticking from the cork that formed the face of my side of the partition, colored in red and yellow and green, holding telephone messages and various lists. I had several lists reminding me of things to do. I even had lists of lists. The lists of lists had the red push pins. I was very organized, not only here in my office space, but also at home in Hoboken, New Jersey. And when things are not organized, either here or in my studio apartment, I feel uneasy, like I am floating without direction, like things are out of control. So I got up early this morning, around 5:00 A.M., emptied the dishwasher of clean dishes and glasses and coffees mugs, placing them in the kitchen cabinets, and then filled the dishwasher with the pile of dishes and assorted other utensils that had built up in the sink. I wrapped the bulging garbage bag that had overflowed from the small plastic wastebasket, and replaced it with a fresh new one. I then I was off for the PATH train to lower Manhattan.
I arrived at my cubby around 7:10 A.M after taking the very fast and rather cavernous elevator cars that whisk you up at speeds that approach thirty miles per hour. I was the only one on the elevator. This is unusual. Afterall, when you rise 106 floors, there is likely to be someone who has to go to one of the floors below. But for some reason, the elevator was empty for my ride that morning, and it seemed to pick up speed like no other elevator I had ever been on. The bell rang, and the green digital display showing the floors flashed “103.” The doors opened with a whish should, and I alighted and walked into an office with few others at their posts. I had my paper bag with jumbo-sized black coffee and a plastic bottle of Vitamin Water. I try to not eat in breakfast in the morning despite the admonishments of my mother. And I always pour my morning deli coffee into my ceramic mug I got several years ago at Killington.
I called my mother at about 8:05 A.M. I had not called in a few days, but since my desk was retuning to its superlative state of organization faster than I had anticipated, I thought of Mom and gave her a call. She lives on Long Island and was of course happy to hear from me. She asked me how I was doing, the standard but heartfelt question that always comes. I said fine, the standard but heartfelt answer I always give. I asked the same of her. My mother, though, was more forthcoming with her complaints. Mostly that of loneliness and the troubles she experiences due to the onset of Parkinson’s. My mother’s complaints a few years back were a source of mild annoyance. But now, or should I say back then on the morning of September 11th, I found her honesty refreshing. We talked briefly, and I promised to call her again by the end of the day.
My cubby-mate arrived at 8:20 A.M. This surprised me. She usually arrived late, and I asked what brought her in so early. She seemed to react negatively to the question, as if I was accusing her being typically tardy. She said that she had to leave early today because her father was ill and she was going to Newark Airport to catch a plane back to Michigan. She said her father did not have long, and she wanted to be there with her mother. I apologized for any subtext she might have heard in my question (none was intended), and she said “nah, it doesn’t matter.” Her cubby faced east, opposite mine, and she enjoyed the same view of Manhattan as me, just over her left shoulder rather than her right.
My computer was on. We leave the computers on 24 hours a day, permitting them to be accessed from home. This convenience is something I never did. We had a T-1 connection on our floor, so I double clicked on Microsoft Explorer and was immediately brought to my start page which is Yahoo. I poked around, checking out my email, and responded to a few messages, one form an old high school friend who was encouraging me to come to the tenth-year reunion which was being planned for the week before Thanksgiving. Just as I pressed the send button responding to the reunion message, I heard a muffled but distinctly low boom which shook me. I have only one ear that works well and so have difficulty discerning the direction of sounds, but then there was a very loud clacking sound, like hail hitting the windshield of a car. I looked up and saw One World Trade Center on fire. The hail-like clacking lasted for about ten seconds, and then ceased.
My cubby-mate stood, I could see her shoulders, her short black hair cut to chin, and her perfectly petite up-turned nose. I wondered whether she had a nose job, but she does not seem the type to concern herself with such things. She uttered to herself “holy shit.”
“What do you think happened?” I asked, remaining seated, too stunned to rise, yet not really taking in the enormity of the situation.
“Looks like a bomb went off,” said my cubby-mate.
“I don’t hear a thing,” I said.
It was true. Except for the initial hail-like clatter, most of the fire and the smoke was playing itself out in silence. The sounds we were listening to were our fellow employees.
“The windows are more sound proof than we think,” she said. She turned to look at me. “You spilled your coffee.”
She was right. I had not even noticed. I had coffee all over my white shirt and paisley tie. I was holding my Killington Ski Resort ceramic coffee mug and did not notice that the jolt of the initial blast must have caused me to jostle the hot brew on me. I now realized I was in pain from the heat of the coffee. I placed the coffee mug down and grabbed the few napkins I had left over from yesterday’s lunch. I felt embarrassed by this mess, and I felt like going home and changing. I wiped the wet stains, but this did no good at removing the mess. As I said earlier, I dislike “mess,” and this was just further humiliation in front of my cubby mate.
I am sorry that I keep referring to her as my cubby mate rather than by her name. I am not permitted to use names in this report from where I am writing, and I shall explain this predicament all later. Needless to say, I was beginning to find my cubby mate a woman I might be interested in.
“Here.” She handed me a towel. “I keep these around for such things,” she said.
“What should we do?” she asked.
This is the longest conversation I had ever had with her. She was looking right at me, her arms crossed under her breasts. She was wearing a pale blue blouse with white pearl earrings. She had a Timex runner’s watch on her right wrist. Was she left-handed? Her hair was Magic Marker black and stick straight, with one side pulled behind her right ear.
“I guess we should ask….” I mentioned the name of the office manager. But he hadn’t arrived yet. In fact, my cubby mate and I and three other employees were the only ones there. Everyone was standing and looking out the windows, I being the only one remaining seated. At that moment, some man walked in and announced that an airplane had rammed into One World Trade. The firm down the hall had a satellite feed from a dish they shared on the roof with several other firms in the building. Our office, though, had no television connection. The others were watching CNN. “Can we come in and watch what’s going on through your windows?” he asked.
“Sure” one of my fellow employees answered. With that remark, a rush of about a dozen or so people came in to look out the windows, a view that was apparently superior to CNN’s video coverage.
“An airplane?” said my cubby mate to herself.
In retrospect, I find it odd that we were all so calm. The drama outside the windows was so astonishing, that we on some level felt special to be so close to the action.
“What are they saying on CNN?” I asked.
“It was a jet, a 757 or 767, I think.”
A jet! I thought it might have been a small airplane like a Cessna gone astray caused by a heart attack or something. I had no idea that a commercial jumbo jet slammed into One World Trade. In fact, I was surprised the building was still standing. I was in wonder at the marvel of how solid the Trade Towers were, that they could remain standing after being hit by a jumbo jet.
“Do you think we should leave?” asked my cubby mate.
“Why, this is the best seat in the world,” he said.
I had to agree.
“I think we should leave,” she said.
I immediately returned to Yahoo and noticed that there was a small report on my Yahoo’s personal page about One World Trade. This was cool, I thought. But then, it dawned on me that many people must have died over in the other building. The fire seemed to be getting worse, and the smoke darker. Our view of the other building was not obscured because a swift wind was carrying the billowing smoke east, over Brooklyn. Only our view of northern Manhattan was affected.
My cubby mate left her post without announcing where she was going. But she returned quickly.
“A building maintenance guy said there is nothing to worry about,” my cubby mate said. She placed her left hand on my right shoulder as she said this, staring out the window. “That does not look good.”
Yeah, well her hand felt good. She wore a pinky ring, a small gold ring without embellishment. Her fingernails were short, no polish, just clean and manicured. I don’t think she meant anything by the hand on my shoulder. As I glanced up at her sharp chin line we felt the floor shake. My Bic pen rolled off the desk, and my cubby mate’s hand tightened on my shoulder.
“What the hell,” she said. One person screamed. A few from the other offices ran out. The floor continued to rumble, like a jack hammer was working on it somewhere nearby. And then the sound came. It was an awful sound. Not a blast-like sound or a boom, but the sound of twisting metal combined with a screetch. This lasted for almost a minute. It seemed like a minute. Then there was silence. My cubby mate and I froze. We waited. We listened. Many moments passed, and then from the hallway, someone screamed “A plane has hit our building.”
I immediately looked around to see if there was fire or destrucytion, but there was none.
“Where did it hit our building?” a fellow employee yelled out.
Half up the building, a good thirty or forty floors below us.
Safe, I thought.
I looked back at my computer screen. My internet connection was down. Yahoo was dead…I couldn’t refresh, I couldn’t browse. The lights were still working. We had electricity. I picked up the phone on my desk. I got a dial tone. I dialed my mother, but I could not get through. I have no cell phone, just a pager. This is something I was proud of, but now I wished I had one.
“Let’s get out of here,” my cubby mate said. She walked briskly away, and then turned to face me. “Let’s go.”
I grabbed my olive green canvas Lands’ End bag from the floor, quickly inserted my Coach black leather portfolio, a few papers, and my datebook. My initials were on the Lands’ End bag, something I had recently regretted. Those large initials stitched to the side of the bag became too much of a billboard announcing nothing to anyone except my silly lack of self esteem. I wear the bag with the initials toward my body.
I was ready to turn, but then noticed my Bic pen, the one that fell to the floor. I have a mild obsession with Bic pens, the clear plastic kind, with the clear narrow ink cartridge running up the length. They do not make these Bic pens anymore, where you can see the ink dropping ever so slowly, as one uses the pen’s ink. All the new Bic cartridges are opaque white. But I have fourteen boxes of the old Bics back in my apartment, and I go through each one meticulously until it is completely emptied of ink. I tossed the Bic pen in my bag.
I was standing now. I was surprised to see that my cubby mate waited patiently for me, but that she did not take anything of hers. Her black leather Tumi briefcase remained on the floor next to her desk. I tossed the shoulder strap over my head and joined the rush of people moving quickly toward the elevators.
When we arrived, there was a small grouping of people standing at the end of one of the corridors containing the elevator doors. Everyone was staring. I peaked around the corner and saw black, very black smoke coming out between the cracks of all but one of the elevator doors. The corridor was starting to fill with smoke, which floated to the ceiling. It had a distinct odor, something I cannot place.
I noticed someone on a cell phone. At that moment, my pager beeped. This was exciting. Someone was contacting me. I saw the number. It was my mother. I asked the gentlemen with the cell phone if I could borrow it. He advised me that he can’t get through. I knew he worked in the office that had the television sets. “Can we go to your office and see what CNN is reporting?” I asked.
“We lost the feed as soon as the plane hit. It knocked the dish out of alignment.”
“Then how do you know it’s a plane that hit us?”
“I got a cell phone call. It’s terrorism. They hijacked two planes and crashed into our buildings,” he said with a slight quiver in his voice.
The buttons to the elevators were not lighting up. Someone pulled a Leatherman multi-tool from his pocket, swung open a knife and attempted to use it in prying open the elevator door that was emitting no smoke. Several men grabbed the sides of the doors, or at least attempted to grab them, and they struggled in vane to open the door. Then they all simultaneously pulled their hands away from the door.
“It’s getting hot,” one of them yelped as he examined his hand. “The stairwell,” he said.
There was an initial start toward staircases that none of us knew the location of. Someone pointed to the those signs near elevators that direct you to staircases, signs I never reviewed before. When we reached each of the four stairwell entrances, white smoke was gently rising. It seemd to precede the beginning of darker smoke. There was also a breeze, an odd hot breeze of foul air. We all backed off.
“The roof.” This was the same guy that said “The stairwell.” We started up one flight of stairs, but they were buckling, angled in an outward direction, and they appeared to be trampoline like. This was unsettling. Many of us wanted to get out of the stairwell due to the growing heat, the smell and the smoke. Some went straight on up. The rest of us, including my cubby mate, went back to our desks.
“Maybe this will be like “The Towering Inferno,” I said to my cubby mate, who was standing watching the other building. “The towering what?” she said. At that moment we heard a large bang. I thought that maybe this was another airplane. But when we looked to our left, one of our colleagues what slamming a metal chair against a window on the western side of the building facing the Hudson River.
“What are you doing?” my cubby mate yelled out, trying to reach him over the noise of the metal chair.
“This damn window is like steel. We need fresh air. Those fumes might be toxic.”
I hadn’t thought of that. I guessed that terrorists would think of such a thing. Or maybe burning parts of the building’s structure gave off toxic fumes. The glass started to crack under the relentless pounding, and then it broke. He kept working the small crack for a good fifteen minutes before he had a two foot wide jagged porthole. The rush of cold air came in. It was refreshing, at first, but it also brought in a backdraft of smoke that was coming from the other building.
“Shit, more smoke,” our tenacious colleague said to himself.
I know this may sound odd, but it was not until this point that the first pangs of fear started to hit me. I mentioned “The Towering Inferno” to my cubby mate because in that movie they were able to put skycraper fire out, a circumstance which I somehow felt was going to happen here. But the notion that terrorists did this put a different spin on the matter for me. This was exasperated by my cubby mate’s growing anxiety.
I looked over at the western window with the broken hole and wondered if we could take a running leap into the Hudson River. I knew this was impossible because of the intervention of Battery Park City, a huge complex of office towers between us and river. Although we towered over Battery Park City, the thought was preposterous. I wondered if parachutes should have been standard safety additions to the higher floors of the Trade Towers.
“We have the best view in the world. We can see everybody. Everybody can see us. Yet we can’t talk to anybody. We can’t contact anyone.” My cubby mate said this partially to me and partially to herself in a dreamlike stream of words that appeared empty of emotion. Just bare facts. I wanted to go to her and hug her. Death occurred to me. Is this not time when people are supposed to connect with each other despite differences or lack of interest? I walked over to her and, with hesitation, placed my left arm around her. Her black hair touched my left lower chin. She accepted this overture, and we stood there for the longest while in silence, staring at One World Trade. She then cocked her head and leaned it on my shoulder. This caused me to hug her tighter to me.
“Do you have anyone?” she asked.
“You mean like a girlfriend?”
“Yes. Some guy. He’s a lawyer. We’ve been together for three years.”
This remark made me think I should loosen my grip on her shoulders, but with her remark, she turned her body to face me and place her arms around my midsection, hugging me.
“He works on Park Avenue, way way uptown. He’s probably trying to reach me. He’s been trying to get me to buy one of those Blackberry pagers. I wish I had it now.”
I had no cell phone, no Palm pilot, no pager. I was very behind the digital times except for my computer access to the internet, which was useless at the moment. I liked paper and simple things that felt good in the hand. Things like my cubby mate.
“The floor is getting warm. I feel it through my shoes.”
She was right. The floor, which was covered in a pale blue tightly weaved industrial carpet, was getting very warm. I looked to my right and saw people standing on chairs. Obviously this had been noticed by others.
I mustered a little courage. “How come we never really talked much before?” There. I said it.
“Because there was no reason for us to talk. Now we have a reason.”
“Yeah. What’s that?”
“Because we are going to die.”
What? What are you talking about?” I was a bit shaken by the matter of fact manner in which she uttered these words.
“First, this is not necessarily so. They will put out the fire. I’m certain they are working on it. Look at all the fire and police vehicles down below.”
“What’s second?” she asked
“You said ‘first,’ like you had a second thought coming. What’s second?”
“Well, I guess I was going to ask why the possibility of dying is a reason for us to talk.”
“Because I do not want to die alone.”
“You are not going to die.”
Of course, the moment I say anything of great import in my life, the opposite occurs. The floor started to wave up and down, the heat was flowing up from the floor. It appeared the carpet was starting to singe. I looked to the right again and saw people starting to drop. My cubbymate grabbed me tight and buried her face into my chest. I thought I heard her say “I love you.” But I think I dreamed this. I looked out the window and noticed queerly that we were dropping. We were coming down, as if something was lowering us to the ground. I also noticed that the ceiling was getting closer and closer to us. Our ceiling is a drop ceiling, above which are had always guessed were utility pipes and electrical cables. Now I was given the opportunity to see because the ceiling dropped onto my head, which plunged through one of the panels, pushing it up, thrusting me head up into the utility area. I placed my hands and arms on my cubby mate’s head to protect her. It was dark now. I could barely make out what was above the drop ceiling. My legs and arms felt very hot, like they might have been on fire. All of this happened very quickly, maybe a count of one one thousand two one thousand…up to seven one thousand. At that point, something very heavy and metal hit my head and everything went black. There was a flash of bright light, and it was over.
All I can say now is that I write this from a very special place, a place I am not permitted to describe. And my cubby mate is with me. So are others. There is a lot to get used to here, but it is more than anyone expected and certainly different than anyone expected. I can say it is good, very good. Except I have to used to the Macintosh Operating System. There are no Windows up here.