FALL PRINT EDITION 2021

9/11: A Childhood Fractured By History

The World Trade Center was a city unto itself, like a science fiction dream made real

by

The mood of the city is, in some sense, always retrospective. Once the cataclysm arrives, we have the uncomplicated dividing line of history, everything before and everything after. The sky was blue, many will recall; that day, the sky was a deep and heartfelt blue.

For the first time — the first of a perpetual time — there are young men and women alive who have no memory of September 11. Every generation has a lament like this one — the first not to remember the end of the Great War, the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassinations. Slowly, like glaciers breaking off into a warming sea, the memory-havers depart and those who are left behind must consult books and search engines to build a collective reality of what was. For anyone cradling such a memory, there must be a tingle of exceptionalism: I was there and you weren’t, and you can only know so much.

Yes and no, yes and no. The aging millennials who came of age in New York City, my own cohort, do carry certain realizations from that day that can’t be explained to someone who wasn’t there. On September 11, 2001, I was 11 going on 12, a Brooklyn kid living in a neighborhood of cops and firefighters. Bay Ridge is a 12-minute-or-so drive to Lower Manhattan if traffic vanishes—you have to wait until late at night for that to happen—or a one-seat ride to Ground Zero, if you want to endure the creaking R train. There are Bay Ridge side streets named for the dead; a number of them died on that one day.

The attack was, for me and many others, the shattering of a childhood. If the 1990s, to older Americans, feels in retrospect like a kind of extended revelry, the dot-com bubble taking us to the End of History, that decade was equally halcyon for middle-class kids like me. This is one reason, I think, that the ’90s remain so fetishized today, what the ’50s were from the vantage point of the anxious ’70s. The 1990s knew nothing of 9/11, and would’ve treated the concept as fodder for a summertime blockbuster. The Independence Day aliens never blew up the Twin Towers, but they easily could have. 

Like the more than one million other New York City kids on a Tuesday in early September, I headed off to school, just a short bus ride away from the apartment where I grew up. My parents went to work, and unlike a decent chunk of the neighborhood, they were not Irish- or Italian-Catholic cops and firefighters. They were Jewish employees of the federal government. My mother, then as now, worked at the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building, across the street from the courthouse where Law & Order films and just a brief, wending walk to the World Trade Center. My father, now retired, worked out of Six World Trade Center, a squat eight-story building in the shadow of the behemoths. Sometimes he would take me rocketing up the elevator to the famous observation deck of the WTC, never venturing toward the edge. When my mother turned 50, we celebrated, like many New York families, at Windows on the World. 

On that Tuesday, my father had a breakfast meeting scheduled at the restaurant with a man named Neil Levin, the executive director of the Port Authority. They knew each other well, and were going to discuss a job opportunity for my father. The meeting, overlooking the vast city, was something of a formality.

The World Trade Center, it must be remembered, had a daily population of 130,000 people: the tenants, the businesspeople, the tourists. It was a city unto itself, like a science fiction dream made real just in time for the fiscal calamity of the ’70s. One-hundred-and-ninety-two-thousand tons of structural steel, 3,000 miles of electrical wiring, 43,600 windows, 4,000 doors, 198 elevators, and 50,000 telephones. It was an accumulation of sums, a testament to the extreme reaches of engineering.

In 1976, the Port Authority agreed to allow a limited number of diners into Windows’ exclusive luncheon club on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower. Up to 120 nonmembers were admitted to any of the club’s dining or bar areas, with a surcharge of $10 for the host and $3 for each of the host’s guests. The Liquor Authority had originally denied the permit, because the Port Authority wanted to make Windows on the World a private club at lunchtime and a public restaurant for dinner. But state law, according to the Liquor Authority, required that any establishment with a restaurant license must always admit the public. And so the doors were opened.

Port Authority leadership battled with Twin Towers architect Minoru Yamasaki over the fact that the restaurant’s vertical windows were extremely narrow, and convinced Yamasaki to widen them by a half-foot each before Windows on the World opened. But the architect insisted on symmetry, so the corresponding windows on the South Tower also had to be widened, where there was no restaurant, only offices. The idea behind including an elite luncheon spot had been to sell prospective office tenants on the two monoliths that now occupied New York City, dramatically and permanently blotting out the skyline. A multinational corporation would rent a floor, perhaps, with the promise of access to a multi-floor restaurant and catering hall — the power breakfasts, lunches, and dinners always on tap. And those not bound so directly to capitalism’s onward slog would spring for a night so high in the air, cocktails making their heads light, the ocean of dark sky pressed against the tall, thick glass. Yet during the long years of construction, my parents, particularly my father, remembered the endless array of cranes and scaffolding and deep digs and minor explosions, and a steel skeleton surging into the clouds. The Twin Towers, at the time, were a great intrusion.

But the people eventually came. By the time my mother booked her 50th-birthday party, Windows on the World was the world’s highest-grossing restaurant, bringing in nearly $40 million a year. By most metrics, it was a wild success. Over the decades, there were restaurant critics who disparaged the food and drink, who pronounced its offerings passé, who vowed never to dine there again and urged others to do the same. Like the New York Yankees, Windows on the World had become a city institution with the heft and power to be regularly resented by those who believed they knew better. But the experience could not be argued with — there was majesty in being on top of the world.

As a child, I never hated the Twin Towers, because I only knew a city with them. The vanished Radio Row, felled by eminent domain to make room for the complex, meant nothing to me. I drew pictures of skyscrapers, always starting with the biggest.

In the seventh grade, I took an introductory Latin class. It met in the early morning. We were gathered, ready to begin, when the news began to float through the hallways. This was before cellphones were ubiquitous — I didn’t own one, and smartphones certainly didn’t exist — so it must have been passed in the older, mythic way. A person heard it on the radio, somewhere, and told someone else. None of us were alarmed. A plane hit the World Trade Center. Okay, a Cessna? We were curious and confused. Someone must have taken a wrong turn. Soon, we were summoned to the auditorium. 

The head of the middle school, a bull-shaped man in glasses, misspoke. A plane hit the Eiffel Tower, I mean Twin Towers. The news, as it does, cycled through the large room, a theater for the stage productions I would never act in. Two planes had struck, one at each building.

Bursting through the doors not long afterward was my mother. “Happy birthday, Ross,” a classmate said to me, and I recall being blank-faced. I am almost certain my mother was the first parent to arrive at the school. She was one of the last New Yorkers over the Brooklyn Bridge, in an automobile, before it was shut down.

Unlike me, my mother had seen it. When the first plane hit, she was down in the lobby of her building, talking with coworkers. She went outside, gathering with onlookers further downtown, around Church Street, watching the first tower burn. There was a sliver of time when it all seemed like an awful accident and prayers would have to be murmured for a wayward pilot and a few unlucky office workers.

When the plane crashed into the second tower, she sprinted for her car. She was certain we were at war.

What I remember next is my mother’s bedroom, sitting and watching the television. I watched the towers smolder and collapse. It was then that I began to cry, the horror like nothing I have known since. The pandemic has killed far more people in New York alone, and upended everyday life in a more radical way, but there was no single shock event, no spectacle for it all to cohere around. No day to end one version of history and begin another. Outside, I saw the streak of black smoke across the sky, trailing over Bay Ridge and beyond. There is a biking and walking promenade on the water, and we went there, my mother and I, silently watching the cloud of smoke and fire gain strength. It would stay there, this roiling gap in the city, a cloud hanging for months. That afternoon I was supposed to be excitedly looking forward to the new season of Dragon Ball Z.

“Is Dad okay?” I must have asked. He was. He was not at work. He was not where he was supposed to be. At the last minute — and at the urging of my mother — he had scrapped his meeting with Levin to get a colonoscopy, after his doctor moved his appointment to Tuesday morning. My father didn’t want to disappoint Levin, but my mother insisted he get the colonoscopy because he’d have to wait another month for a new appointment. Levin didn’t mind. Could my father meet him on Thursday instead?

At 8:46 a.m., while my father was at St. Vincent’s Hospital, the first hijacked airplane struck the North Tower. Levin’s obituary states that he died there, though his exact location in the tower at the time of his death was never determined.

I was old enough to understand that the world had changed forever, but young enough not to know the particulars. There was a mayoral primary that was postponed, a little-known Republican billionaire vying to face off against whomever the Democrat would be — the Democrat, most people presumed, would win. The rest of the story is well-worn. Rudy Giuliani, against all evidence and odds, became “America’s Mayor” and endorsed Michael Bloomberg, whose billions buried the liberal Democrat, Mark Green. Months later, we would be in Afghanistan, and in 2003, Iraq.

That day, like so many kids, I began to hurtle away from childhood. The Saturday morning cartoon years had lifted. There was a crackle in the air. Terrorists were coming here, or were here, and we were warned of the imminent explosions, warfare in the streets. None of it arrived, though the fear stuck with you.

My father’s office was obliterated. Gone were his tchotchkes, his plaques, and a photograph with Richard Nixon. None of that, of course, mattered. He could come home to us.   ❖

 

 

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