This is worth another look. One year ago today, I had Damon Suede on my blog. Please take the time to read it or re-read as we remember 9/11
September 11th, 2001 changed my life. Of course, it changed many things, but in the ten years since the attacks on the World Trade Center the reverberations of that day transformed the city where I live and the way I live in the city. So strange… I wasn’t downtown and I wasn’t injured but its impact was devastating.
That morning I was due at a meeting downtown at 9:30am at my lawyers in the financial district. I remember it was a Tuesday and I had just gone through a terrible breakup the week before so I was sleeping like hell and still had a “pit of your stomach” feeling I couldn’t shake. So for purely personal reasons, nothing seemed right with the world even with the gleaming, blinding, perfect late-summer day shaping up outside. The day before had been a patchwork of crazed phone calls from my ex and a persistent nausea that made me feel like I would yack at any moment.
I live in midtown Manhattan and in terms of transit that means I can get pretty much anywhere in about twenty minutes. In the foggy breakup aftermath, I remember I woke up feeling like a truck had run over me and NOT wanting to schlep down to Wall Street to my lawyer’s office to discuss the contracts on a script I was just wrapping up for a producer I didn’t fully trust.
I showered, dressed, and made a couple calls before I headed out. I don’t watch TV at all, so I didn’t have the news or anything on. I remember that I kept stalling because I dreaded the meeting and the negotiation that would follow. The day outside baked under one of those endless, unclouded cerulean skies that NYC unfurls now and again. I wanted to hurl.
Around 9am, about five minutes before I left, my phone rang; it was my mom calling from Texas. I figured I’d call her back that afternoon and let it ring through. Then she called again and I knew something was up. I grabbed the phone.
“Thank God. Thank God you’re home. There was a plane crash in New York!” She sounded hysterical and she didn’t let me speak. “Don’t leave your apartment. We just heard. Turn on your TV!”
Now I have to confess, I thought she was just being paranoid. There really isn’t room for a crash in Manhattan, and I figured she must’ve misheard some report from upstate New York… people who don’t live in New York City often have a funky sense of Manhattan geography.
But then I saw. On NY1, cameras showed smoke billowing out of World Trade 2. The second plane had just hit and my mom kept saying, “It can’t be an accident. It can’t be an accident.” For some reason I started crying. All those people. I’m not really sentimental, but the idea of ALL those human beings trapped in a burning tower seemed like a Brothers Grimm nightmare. The cameras showing the fires were jerky and handheld; civilians risking their lives to film the impossible. This was happening right now as I stood there watching it on TV. As many people would remark that day, the sight and sounds felt unreal, like a disaster movie happening around us.
Now… I live by the Empire State and my mom seemed convinced that a plane would be crashing into that next. She kept insisting I rent a car and flee the island now-now-now while I could, but of course, by then I could see the pandemonium in the streets below me on Fifth Avenue. I promised my mom I’d be fine and that I wouldn’t be going anywhere and immediately called my best friend who lived right over the bridge in Brooklyn.
She answered before the first ring ended. “Don’t go out. Don’t leave. You’re okay?!”
I assured her I was. Of course at this point we didn’t know anything, we didn’t know how many people were inside or who was responsible, or if it would happen again. The news kept saying tens of thousands were likely to have died. After all, it was start of business in those massive buildings. The cameras showed people flooding the streets. My friend was panicking because she could see the firetrucks and she had been dating firefighters exclusively (well into the double digits) for a number of years. She knew a lot of these guys, knew them well. She kept naming guys she knew on the trucks they were showing.
I remember I kept thinking about how long it would take to repair the damage. I knew people had died in the crashes, but I just assumed that (like the 1993 bombing) the World Trade would survive with a couple scars. The call waiting phone kept beeping and I kept clicking over to reassure people in other cities that I was fine, that I was staying put, that I lived far away from the World Trade Center. My best friend and I stayed on the phone together and talked about what we were seeing, about what the first responders would be doing, about which of her ex-boyfriends were inside right then. Mainly I calmed her down and hoped my lawyer had gotten out… that all the people I knew in the financial district were elsewhere. My own ex called a couple times, wanting to come over and use a tragedy to rewrite our romantic history. Gross; No thanks. I hung up on him.
When I clicked back over, my best friend was screaming on the phone. “Look! Oh my god. Oh my god!” I went back to the TV and watched in disbelief as the south Tower melted like wax and the newscasters went berserk trying to keep from being killed by debris. Bodies falling from above. A blizzard of burning paper. One camera went dead and all you could hear was NY1 reporter Kristen Shaughnessy screaming over a dark snowed-out screen: either because the camera was dead or because of the ash and smoke.
My face was wet again and my legs gave out suddenly. I sat down on the floor, thinking repairs may take a little longer than I thought.
The city held its breath and the streets below me stopped moving. Sirens everywhere. The smoke was a black tower. But we were safe when so many people were not. My friend kept trying to track the engine and ladder numbers to determine who of her ex-boyfriends and compadres was battling which part of the disaster. When the second Tower went we weren’t even shocked anymore. The streets were jam-packed and deadly silent. Military aircraft moved into position preparing for another suicide attack, I guess. Cops in riot gear. Tanks in the streets. New Yorkers lucky enough to be inside and elsewhere scrambled to find out who they’d lost. As folks emailed and phoned each other rumors proliferated… about victims trapped under the rubble, about food shortages and conspiracy theories, about the unknown perpetrators, about our chances trapped on an island, because after all Manhattan IS cut off from the world more than any other major city.
Everything had changed. Ten years later I can still remember wondering what the world would look like in ten years.
Well, I spent the rest of that day glued to the news trying to keep track of what was happening. Many cellphone towers had gone down in the WTC collapse. Local calls were impossible to make and only long distance seemed to work. I didn’t hang up with my best friend because she was afraid we wouldn’t be able to reconnect if we terminated the call. I put her on speaker and just talked to her throughout the day as if she was in the room. We still didn’t know how many people were missing. In the next 24 hours, the news began to focus on the citywide searches for missing loved ones, the shrines and vigils springing up like mushrooms.
The bridges and tunnels froze as crowds fled the island and then officials locked down the streets for everyone’s safety: Manhattan became a militarized ghost town. We kept hearing low flying planes and helicopters, which turned out to be military equipment patrolling the airspace. I hunkered down, prepared to wait it out.
The first bomb threat against the Empire State came in the night of the 11th and with it the first emergency evacuation from my building: a skinny teenaged marine banging on our doors and rushing us down the stairs and into the street. Folks carrying dogs and kids with grim faces.
During that first evacuation they didn’t have anywhere to direct us, because there were likely targets all around us: United Nations, Penn Station, Grand Central. Down in the street the soldiers were waving us towards Broadway “West and North! West and North!” But not too far West or North of other likely targets. “Up Broadway!” someone said and we all nodded. Law enforcement had set up a massive perimeter around the Empire State and needed to clear EVERYONE out of one of the busiest neighborhoods on the planet.
Jogging silently up towards a freaky empty Times Square, I realized I’d forgotten by cellphone and became convinced I needed to let someone know where I was in case I died so they could find my body. In the 50s I stopped at a payphone and dialed-dialed-dialed until I got an operator who let me make a call. I couldn’t reach anyone locally, but I finally managed to leave a voicemail for my family telling them what direction I was headed and where they could find me “in case” something happened. That seems so melodramatic now, but with tanks rolling past and sirens in 360 degrees and hundreds of people jogging silently up Broadway it seemed very logical.
Of course, nothing happened, and I made it home safe and sound. Over the next 96 hours my building evacuated similarly 4 or 5 more times. My neighbors and I got extremely good at the drill. The streets remained barren and silent for three days almost. Military helicopters flying low, and supply trucks trundling south slowly. Soldiers trying to help AND politicians everywhere trying to milk the misery for publicity. Firefighters working 72 hour shifts to rescue their relatives. Every day I heard about another friend who’d died. Every day another missing person turned up in a hospital somewhere injured but alive. One of my dearest amigos had been temping on the 64th floor that day and only survived because she walked barefoot and blind through the rubble… six miles home into Brooklyn. Another colleague had left a meeting in World Trade 2 for a cigarette and almost got decapitated by falling masonry. The fires at Ground Zero took forever to kill. The air smelled like burning hair and aluminum for more than a month… and the horrible smoke hovered almost as long.
No one knew anything that first week. Our evil moron puppet of a non-president eventually swooped into non-action while the FDNY and Rudy Giuliani kept their shit together and pulled NYC out of the toilet. Lots of stupid saber-rattling from the politicos and the media morons, and a tidal wave of volunteers poured into the city that first 24 hours. My ex-girlfriend from high school who works as a triage nurse on the west coast flew in to work Ground Zero and then Bellevue. One of my college buddies finishing a surgical rotation at Yale Medical School drove down to pitch in at the tents. Cops and doctors and firefighters and cooks all over the country came to offer whatever they could. Construction workers and garbagemen volunteered to dig through the Pit looking for survivors and the less fortunate. The entire planet wanted to help, did help, and we were so grateful.
On the Saturday following, my stir craziness began to get the better of me. The city had calmed down, businesses had reopened, and I decided to go two-stepping because I didn’t know who had died out of that group of my friends and no other way to find out. A small crowd turned up that night to dance, hesitant but very relieved. We had all dodged a bullet and we knew it. About twenty minutes into the evening, the DJ played a song for a sweet line dance called the “Circle Jerk” which happens in a ring with folks dancing shoulder to shoulder sort of braiding with each other in a knot that expands and contracts as it rotates… As the song got going, this enormous circle kept expanding to absorb more and more people, until the whole club was dancing together arms over each other’s shoulders. Then I realized that I could see everyone’s faces: a couple injuries, exhausted eyes, but I could tell that people were okay; I knew we were gonna be fine, New York would be fine. To this day, when I go to a rodeo and “Circle Jerk” on a dance floor, I cry.
Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to M/M, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. You can get in touch with him at: