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Offering: A Memory of September 11, 2001
When I moved to New York City in 2001, I was 27. it was February and winter was at its bleakest. But, I went to work every day thrilled to finally be in the Big Apple.
I got a job working for a friend-of-a-friend at a very small branding agency in Chinatown. I was employee number three. There was never a fourth.
In the mornings, I bought my coffee like most working people, from a little cart on Broadway. Every day, a man originally from somewhere far away, but now from Queens, sold me bitter coffee (light & sweet) and a bready bagels. No matter how early I got to work, he was already there.
I worked on Crosby Street where it dead-ends into Howard. We were right on the edge of where SoHo pushes into Chinatown. The area was undeniably cool and in transition as New York City always is. I bought cheap lychee fruit from the Chinese bodega on the corner and got my hair cut next to actresses at the chic salon across the street.
The building was a 5-story, brick warehouse standing stolidly on the cobblestone street. It was almost 200 years old and you could feel the history of hard work in the creaking floorboards, ceilings high enough for large machinery, the confident masonry. It had a small freight elevator—a cage that required a human operator. A Chinese man who seemed like a fixture of the building and spoke no English ferried us to our floors. I wondered about his life outside that 3 x 3 box. Did he have a wife? Kids? Dreams? Was he about my age?
Our office was on the top floor. In I would step, shaking snow off my coat and warming my hands with the paper cup of bad coffee. It didn’t take long for me to stop saying “five.” He knew. The gears would engage and the whole car rattled as we rose. The elevator never stopped on two, but the doors would sometimes open on three and four.
Three was home to a mysterious operation called Bureau Betak, which I learned was a company that staged fashion shows. The signage was modern and minimalist—white letters on a white wall, backlit by white light. Even the floor, was white. The receptionist wore black. It was quiet through the winter, but as spring came, it got busier in anticipation of September fashion week. Then the elevator would fill with designers, their entourages, and young models clutching portfolios. I wondered what it would be like to be fourteen years old, 5’11, and from Idaho. I wondered about their mothers who were always shorter, plumper, and anxious. I wondered what winding path had brought them to my Chinatown elevator with a human operator.
Four was home to another world. The elevator rarely stopped there because the workers on four were prohibited from using it; they were expected to climb the stairs. On the rare occasion when the door opened on four—Accidentally? I wondered—I would suddenly be staring into the reality of a sweatshop. Rows and rows of Chinese women—more than seemed possible for the space—sat hunched at small sewing tables topped with sewing machines, and crowned with hanging neon tubes. The noise was deafening. Scraps of cheap fabrics—denim, elastics, polyester—littered the aged, wooden floor. The women never looked up, not even when the elevator announced it’s metallic presence—clanging cage door sliding open obstinately. I always felt like I’d been exposed to something ominous on that floor. My understanding from the news was that this version of human hell was happening far, far away in China. NOT here in the United States, in hip, happening Chinatown. The irony of the positioning of the sweatshop right on top of Bureau Betak was never lost on me—fashion dreams manufactured on three, the nightmare of knock-offs on four.
I wondered about those women’s lives, too. It was the earliest dawning of a social consciousness in me. There was a sense we were connected; that I might have a responsibility to these women—not simply because we all worked in the same building, but because we are part of the human family…sisters. At that time, I couldn’t imagine a path of action. Maybe it was the first awareness of my privilege and the grave inequities of our system, but I felt impotent in the face of something so complex and seemingly entrenched.
Through the spring and summer of 2001, we all came and went like ants in an ant farm. The branding consultancy I worked for lurched along. We got a client or two. I felt secure-enough with my bi-weekly salary which was just enough to cover rent and a few indulgences. We made client presentations in New Jersey and midtown. Work was a blur, I really had no idea what I was doing or why I was doing it. But, I was compelled to be there by some invisible hand. Youth can be overwhelming. I think I chose a city that could overwhelm that sense of overwhelm. Routine was the stand-in for meaning: wake, coffee + bready bagel, elevator to five, write copy, create presentations, drinks, dinner, out with friends, sleep, repeat…if you can manage that in NYC you are winning.
Of course, the winning is a mirage (actually, it’s the wrong game altogether) and nothing lasts long in NYC. As the end of the summer approached, I began to feel the electricity of a new season. Everything intensifies as the city comes back from the beach and begins to gear up for school, shows, and parties—fashion, arts, culture, social. As September approached, a new collection of models and moms began to crowd the elevator. Even the ladies on four seemed to get busier.
Monday, September 10 was the last day I ever saw any of these people. For months they’d been my “community” and then suddenly, they were gone. That life was gone. I went to work as usual, rode the elevator up with my cup of steaming coffee water, and spent the day writing copy for a new website. After work I took the subway to Union Square, where I met my roommate for a reading by Garrison Keillor at the big Barnes & Noble on 17th Street.
He spoke that night about the difference between the real city and the mythic city. He talked about Paris. There’s daily life in Paris, which has all the frustrations and inanities, ups and downs, of life. And then, there is Mythic Paris, City of Love...symbolized by the Eiffel Tower. He brought it home by talking about our own city—New York City. It’s a bitch on the day-to-day, he said (I can’t recall the exact words), but Mythic NYC, The Big Apple, is why most of us live here. We can’t get enough. It’s a place of possibility—symbolized by Lady Liberty and a skyline of phalluses—everyone looking for their big break.
I thought of the models and their moms, the Chinese elevator operator and the women on four, hunched over their machines. I thought of my co-workers who had become friends in these seven months of life in the Big Apple. I felt the gentle presence of my roommate with whom I would walk home in the dark warmth of that September night to our apartment on Park Avenue South. I looked out the window into the lights of the city and I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. But, not for reasons I would understand until later.
The next morning, on September 11, of course, both Real New York City and Mythic NYC were devastated by an unprecedented act of desperation, act of revenge, act of war, act of terrorism, act of violence (they might say act of heroism, but I cannot abide that kind of heroism). I never made it out of the apartment that morning. We watched the towers burn and fall on TV, though we were just three miles from the epicenter. Soon, we were watching streams of pedestrians silently walking north up the wide boulevard we lived on. There were thousands. No cars, just humans walking north silently with vacant looks—in shock.
I was shocked, too. My body shut down and I fell asleep for an hour without really knowing if we were even safe…kind of sensing we’d never been “safe.” I remember feeling guilty for sleeping at a moment like this, but my body insisted and I collapsed. That afternoon, my roommates and I walked outside and then wandered—together. We wandered around our neighborhood looking for some semblance of normalcy; for the usual overwhelm of the city, not this. Everything smelled of char, embers, and electrical fire. People walked around like ghosts and ghosts were everywhere. I couldn’t think too long about what had burned, who had burned…
My boss reached out and let me know he was closing the branding business. We couldn’t get to the office in Chinatown and everything with clients was on hold. I was a contract worker, I didn’t get severance or even that last paycheck. But, I was ok. I worried about the women in the sweatshop and the elevator operator with whom I’d shared a daily ritual. Were they ok? A lot of people in those days after September 11 were not ok. I felt lucky.
For days, we walked—not knowing what else to do. We went to the West Village to look at the faces of “the missing” posted on chain link fences. And we eventually walked down to witness the absence which became known as Ground Zero. We paid our respects. We cried. We prayed.
I mourned the loss of the city I’d begun to know and love. I mourned the loss of the Mythic City. I mourned the loss of innocence for myself and my friends that happened that day. Eventually, I came to learn about people I knew who had lost loved ones and I felt the unfathomable depth of their mourning. A trauma expert told me later that as devastating as natural disasters can be, human-made disasters are harder for people to understand, process, and recover from. He was referring to school shootings, bombs, acts of terrorism, and war. This made a lot of sense to me because I kept asking: “How could this happen?” And I hadn’t come up with a compelling answer yet. Yes, it was possible—just barely—to understand with the head, but absolutely impossible to understand with the heart.
Over the years, I came to believe that I had been called to NYC by the spirits and Devas of that place, the Soul of the city, the ones who make it Mythic. I felt that I had been called to absorb some of the psychic pain of what would soon happen. I felt I’d been called there to stabilize the field. I believe I did that. I held NYC in my heart…and stayed for twenty years. I offered myself to the place and it gave me back much in return.
I knew that time on Crosby Street in that building was impressing itself upon my heart. But, I didn’t know why then. Now, I can reach back through time, relive all of it, and see that it was a moment when I was beginning to understand something about the way the world is. I was beginning to understand what it might mean to be an adult, to take responsibility, to be part of an ecosystem, to work and live—consciously. And it was a time that would be wiped away in an instant—leaving me a felt sense of the fragility of our constructed “realities,” with regrets about not making potential connections with others, gratitude for the beauty and pain of change, nostalgia…a better sense for this thing we are doing called…
Just yesterday, I took my daughter into the city for the day for back-to-school errands and we made a stop at 5 Crosby. It’s been remodeled and now houses an insanely hip store. She reluctantly took this photo of me and then we watched a parade of young models rehearsing a runway show on the street, witnessed a small marching band, and generally felt the same September hum that just keeps regenerating the creative force of NYC over and over again.