We moved on the first of September. Left our 400-square-foot fifth-floor walk-up on East Seventh Street in Manhattan’s East Village—an apartment that cost a staggering $1,800 a month—for a bigger, cheaper, cleaner, safer one-bedroom in Astoria, the part of Queens comprising the westernmost extremity of Long Island, directly across the East River from Yorkville.

We haven’t even been here two weeks. The cable hasn’t been turned on yet. The guy from Time Warner is supposed to come tomorrow—Wednesday, September 12, 2001.

Astoria is known for its heavy Greek population. There are more Greeks in Astoria than any other city in the world except Athens. But Astoria, I’ve noticed, is also home to a large number of Arabs. Men in long white shirts, women in veils, bevies of children, crowding outside the mosques beneath the elevated train.

I leave for work a few minutes after eight. Stephanie, my fiancée, comes with me. She’s dressed in her workout clothes. She’s meeting her friend and erstwhile roommate Kim in the East Village for a morning run.

It’s perfect weather for jogging. Mid-seventies, zero humidity, cloudless sky. A gorgeous end-of-summer day.

The N train is approaching Broadway Station when we turn the corner, so we break into a run. We hit the metal stairs at full speed, clanging our way up two flights, and slide our Metrocards through the readers. We burst through the turnstile and onto the train just as the announcement comes on: Stand clear of the closing doors. We settle into our seats, laughing, almost giddy.

I leave Stephanie on the subway at the 49th Street station stop. I stride through Rockefeller Center, weaving my way through the slow-moving, camera-wiedling tourists, to 50 Rockefeller Plaza, the global headquarters of The Associated Press, the world’s largest newsgathering agency and my employer.

I don’t write for AP. I work in human resources. I’m a recruiter. “Staffing Manager” is my official title. I post jobs and hire temps and attend job fairs and crack jokes at the new employee orientation.

When I get off the elevator on the seventh floor, the receptionist, Michelle, hits me with the news: “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.” Initial reports have the plane as a Cessna, she says, the kind John Denver was flying when he crashed and died.

“What kind of idiot,” I say, “doesn’t see the World Trade Center coming at him?”

She laughs. All over the city, people are making the same joke.

Pictures of the damage are available online. A small black hole near the top of the tower, black smoke billowing out, its trail a black scar against the perfect blue sky.

Not a big deal, is my initial assessment. There will be scaffolding for a few months while they fix it. Minimal casualties. Could have been worse.

I go inside, sit at my desk. I drink my coffee, eat my marble pound cake. The phone rings. It’s Stephanie. She’s frantic. She’d been trying to get through for awhile. “I couldn’t get downtown,” she says. “They stopped the subway at Eighth Street.”

The driver, she says, made this announcement, in the same monotone he would use to announce the next station stop: “The N train is not going past Eighth Street because a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.” Jaws dropped, she told me, and silence fell upon the riders as they filed out.

“I want you to leave,” she says. “I want to see you. I want you to meet me at Kim’s.”

I don’t understand her panic. It’s just an accident—an unusual accident, to be sure, but an accident. These things happen. I sip my coffee. I take another bite of marble pound cake. “I can’t just leave,” I tell her. “I’m at work.” I tell her I love her and hang up.

And then the second plane hits.

Everyone piles into the office of the Director of Human Resources, where there is a television. No one knows what to think. It’s not shock, not yet, nor is it sadness. We’re all trying to piece it together.

“It’s terrorists,” says Jessica, my friend and the deputy director of the department. “Has to be.”

“Assholes,” I yell, punching the wall with the ball of my fist. The others look at me grimly.

Reports on CNN come rapid-fire, with little time to verify authenticity: The two planes were hijacked. They were commercial airliners. There were many passengers on board. The passengers are all dead. There are six planes unaccounted for in the skies right now. They’re headed to the White House, to the Senate, to the Sears Tower, to LAX. They’ve closed the Golden Gate Bridge and the Arch in St. Louis. They’ve closed Disney World. They’ve closed all the river crossings to Manhattan.

NARAL issues an order: all planes in the air must land immediately. This order has never been issued before.

This is it, I say to myself. This is the end. The Visigoths sacking Rome, the coup de grace before a thousand years of darkness. And for a moment, in spite of myself, I feel a frisson of thrill. Who wouldn’t want to bear witness to the Apocalypse?

Stephanie is on the stretch of Broadway near NYU. From this vantage point she can see the WTC, the black holes burning like sarcoma in the spires. She’s staring at the towers, and as she’s staring at them, one of them collapses. Now you see it, now you don’t. Gone in a cloud of smoke and earsplitting noise.

The vibrations register at Columbia University’s geological observatory in Palisades, twenty-five miles away.

Back in my office, the phone rings. My mother, who has been trying to get through for half an hour. (By now, cell phones are useless—the unprecedented volume of calls has overwhelmed the system). Am I OK, she wants to know. My uncle in California called, an uncle we rarely speak to. He wanted to know if I was OK.

“I’m fine,” I tell her. Then I add, somewhat indignantly: “I’m in Midtown.”

Also, this is the global headquarters of the world’s largest newsgathering agency. Whoever did this heinous thing wants press, needs press. You don’t blow up your free publicity department.

Jessica, who has remained cool as the proverbial cucumber, pops her head in my office. “All nonessential employees can leave,” she says. I point to myself. She nods.

I am a nonessential employee.

This happens everywhere in the city. The workers are sent home. Everyone spills onto the sidewalks at the same time. No one knows where to go. The subways don’t work. The streets are jammed with cars, and none of them can leave Manhattan.

People gather outside, around cars, around taxicabs, to listen to the radio. They convene with strangers. Everybody—everybody—is nice. People are angry, but not at each other. The gruff exterior of New York has peeled away, revealing the softness within. At its core, the Big Apple is mushy.

Everyone is trapped here, and we are no exception. We can’t take the subway to Astoria, and besides, we don’t have cable. We need to watch CNN. We need to know what’s going on. We need to stay connected. We don’t know anyone in Queens yet, not really. Just our friend Rus, who lives in Long Island City, and we have no way of getting in touch with him.

The plan is to get to Kim’s and wait it out. By this afternoon, maybe the subways will be running, and we can get home, to our new co-op of strangers.

There are now two clouds of smoke at the tip of the island, and the stench—incinerated metal, jet fuel, human remains, and God only knows what else—has already reached Rockefeller Plaza. I should be running in the opposite direction. High-tailing it to Harlem, to Washington Heights, to Inwood. I should head north and not stop until I hit Montreal.

And yet I am drawn downtown. Like in The Stand. I need to get down there. I need to see. To bear witness. To help, if I can. To do something. To take action. Even if I weren’t meeting my fiancée at Kim’s apartment, I would be going to the WTC.

This is pervasive, this pull downtown. All over the city, people feel this way. The ones who are far enough uptown not to be running for their lives, that is.

As I begin my brisk forty-block walk to the East Village, my friend Mike, who I’ve known since kindergarten, is fleeing from the World Financial Center, where he works, not far from what is already being called Ground Zero. He is with a sea of people, all covered in soot, moving as fast as he can, trying to avoid being stampeded. The throng moves south, away from the World Trade Center, toward Battery Park. Eventually, it will loop around the tip of the island and trek across the Brooklyn Bridge.

“I thought I was going to get trampled,” he tells me later. “I almost jumped into the river. At least there weren’t any people in there.”

But on Fifth Avenue in Midtown, I’m not scared. Not at all. I feel like this is a movie, a movie in which many people will die, but not me, I’ll be one of the survivors, one of the few who will make it to the final frame, it says so in the script, so there’s nothing to worry about.

In this mind-movie, I’m a spy, an operative of some sort. I’m meeting my contact in Astor Place. I have a different agenda than everyone else. I’m James Bond, who doesn’t flinch when the bomb goes off, just calmly sips his dry martini.

On every corner, people remain gathered in small groups, listening to the news, trading rumors. I hear an almost continuous newscast as I walk—carefully, to avoid injury. Don’t want to get hurt today.

I pass a beauty salon on Fifth Avenue, and through the window I see someone getting a haircut. Street vendors are hocking hot dogs. Some stores have tables set up out front, owners handing out free water to people on the street. “Do you need to use the bathroom?” I hear on every block. “Come right in.” All those little stores have bathrooms, but they are usually guarded like bank vaults. No admittance. No public restroom. Lavatory for employees only.

Not today.

I pass a table on the street, where someone is passing out literature on Lyndon LaRouche. He looks delighted that New York is burning, as if this will be good for his candidate.

When I get to the cordoned-off Empire State Building—which today has reclaimed its crown as the tallest building in New York—I realize that, despite my staunch belief that I will not be the victim of collateral damage, it’s probably not prudent to be so close to an obvious terrorist target.

Speaking of collateral damage, there are posters plastered all over the city advertising the new Arnold Schwartzenegger flick of that name. The film is about a firefighter whose family was killed in a terrorist attack, and his subsequent revenge. Art imitates life, life imitates crappy movies. It is supposed to be released next month. The release will be pushed back.

I head east, picking up the pace until I hit First Avenue. Twenty blocks uptown, to my left, the blue windows of the gaudy United Nations building glint in the gorgeous sun. Another terrorist target. I bang a right.

A newspaper blows by my feet. Michael Jordan on the back page, dressed in his Washington Wizards uniform. Attempting a comeback. Yesterday’s paper, yesterday’s indulgent excuse for news. Today, no one gives a shit. Jordan is once again a country in the Middle East.

When I get to Fourteenth Street I stop at a bodega and buy a six-pack of Pilsner Urqell. Business is brisk. The cashier is busy. He may not be thrilled with his lot in life, with his minimum-wage job, but unlike me, he is an essential employee.

I get to Kim’s, a third-floor walk-up on East Ninth Street, half a block from Veselka, the landmark Ukrainian eatery. Kim is one of Stephanie’s best friends, from college. They lived together until last year, when Stephanie and I moved in together. Now she lives with a random roommate, a kid just out of school, a wannabe actor, who in the months to come will use his day job—giving tours at the fireman’s museum—to pass himself off as an actual fireman, in order to woo women.

(In the coming weeks, when I will hear the wail of bagpipes from St. Patrick’s every day as yet another FDNY funeral passes by, women across the tri-state area will give themselves to firemen in a profund and cathartic way that is at once sexual and nurturing—a show of collective physical love reminiscent of some pagan fertility rite, quite unprecedented in my lifetime).

Stephanie, Kim and I exchange hugs, kisses, reports. We watch CNN. We drink the beers. The beers have no effect.

Someone buzzes the intercom. It’s Taylor, Kim’s ex-boyfriend. “I was in the neighborhood,” he says, coming in. “I wanted to make sure you were OK.”

That sounds like a line. It’s not a line. This sort of thing is happening all over the city. Reconnections. Unannounced calls. The hard shell, the gruff exterior, has been eaten away. Burned off by jet fuel.

Taylor stays for half an hour. When he leaves, Kim says, “I haven’t seen him in over a year. Haven’t even heard from him.”

We finish the beers and we eat and they announce that the subways are running again. Stephanie and I take the N train to Queens. It’s a bumpy ride, lots of stops and starts. The train stops for good at Queensboro Plaza, a good three miles from our apartment. But at least we’re on the other side of the river.

On the hour-long walk home, we stop at a Walgreen’s and buy a clock radio. We need to listen to the news, and what are the chances that the cable guy will come tomorrow?

We have dinner at the Sanford Diner, one of our haunts, on the Astoria version of Broadway. Our friend Rus, whom we’ve managed to contact, joins us. We don’t talk much. There isn’t anything to say.

The President, too, has been silent. We don’t know why; the story keeps shifting. He’s on Air Force One. He’s flying away from a missile strike. He’s in an underground bunker. His whereabouts are unknown. For all we know he’s dead. Later, we will find out the truth—like Gene Hackman in Unforgiven, he wasn’t dead, he was only in Nebraska.

The only voices belong to the newscasters, none of whom know what’s really happening. Rumors swirl: Dick Cheney is in an underground bunker. All of Capitol Hill has been whisked to an installation somewhere in West Virginia. Donald Rumsfeld ran outside the Pentagon to help people who might be buried in the rubble. The Pennsylvania plane was headed to the White House. Osama Bin Laden masterminded the attacks.

Giuliani resurfaces. Literally. He’s a media whore, so it’s strange that he’s been absent all afternoon. Not that we care what he has to say. His approval ratings are in the toilet. He’s on his way out. Everyone in New York hates him.

But here he is, covered in dust, a handkerchief in his hand. He was in Building Seven when it collapsed. He was with some police- and firemen. He was stuck in the rubble. That’s why we hadn’t seen him on TV. He had to be rescued. Dug out of the ground.

Into the leadership void created by the president’s vanishing steps Rudy Giuliani. He doesn’t say anything earthshattering. He just repeats what the newscasters are reporting. He reassures people that the air is safe to breathe, that it’s safe to go back to work. He doesn’t sound like a politician. He sounds like someone who knows how to handle a crisis. His is a voice of authority, the only one to have spoken since the day began. And it has the ability to put us at ease. For all his flaws, Rudy understands what it means to be a New Yorker.

Months later, after Giuliani’s meteroric rise from history’s trash heap, a colleague at AP, a bureau chief who has decades of experience covering politics, will remark to me that Giuliani has engineered the biggest political turnaround in American history. A complete 180. A direct result of his handling of the crisis. His sweeping popularity will help Mike Bloomberg defeat Democrat Mark Green in the mayoral election that November.

Back at the new apartment, the TV is all static. We plug in the clock radio. It’s frustrating to only listen to the news. I want to see the images. I want to watch the smoke billowing from Ground Zero.

On the phone with my brother, and then my cousin, I hear more rumors. A Palestinian enclave in Passaic, N.J., upon hearing the news, began celebrating; rival street gangs joined forces and stabbed them all to death. Someone survived the WTC collapse by skating down the rubble as the building fell, like he was snowboarding. Police officers looted the buildings in lower Manhattan. Massive quantities of gold were stolen from the vaults beneath the towers. Mossad was behind it. The Saudis were behind it.

My brother is a registered nurse. He works in an emergency room in a hospital in the Jersey suburbs. They kept staffers there, cleared beds, preparing for fallout, for the wounded arriving from lower Manhattan. There were no wounded, he says, no one to attend to. Everyone was dead.

Stephanie and I fall asleep, clutching each other tighter than usual.

The cable guy shows up first thing in the morning and installs the cable. Another essential employee.

I go to work. There is nothing to do at the office but read news reports and exchange how-did-you-get-home stories. The people in Jersey had the most difficult journeys. Ferries deposited them in Weehawken, miles away from their cars. Many New Jerseyans stayed in the city, slept on couches, on floors.

That evening, I meet some friends at McHale’s, a bar on Eighth Avenue frequented by actors—a dark, loud place, with big booths and cold pitchers of beer. Mike, my friend who escaped from the World Financial Center, is there. Stephanie joins us, as does Kim and her boyfriend, Chris.

Chris gets into a debate with a close friend of mine, also named Chris, that goes on for hours. Everyone else listens to them argue. It’s like watching TV, our own Crossfire. We listen so we don’t have to participate. We’re not ready to talk. We’re still numb.

Later, I will remember that the Chris/Chris debate was engaging, but will not be able to recall what it was they were arguing about.

We notice the actor Ian McKellen sitting at a table by the window. He’s in a play on Broadway, which performance was canceled tonight (along with every Major League Baseball game). He’s with some teenagers who appear to be relations. Family members. Loved ones. He looks just as sullen and numb as everyone else. Magneto and Gandalf the Grey, just as powerless as everyone else. I recall the line from Richard III, which eponymous role he played so well: A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!

The next day, Thursday, I don’t go to work. The magnitude of the event—the sheer evil of it—is starting to seep into me, poisoning any sense of ease. There is a nagging pain in the pit of my stomach that won’t go away. The evil has settled there, gnawing at my gut. My head aches from the toxic fumes that will pollute the air for weeks. Fumes that are supposed to be safe, although no one really believes that.

I talk to a friend of mine who lives by herself near the U.N. She’s been having nightmares. She and her sister are on a plane, they’re holding hands, the plane crashes into the World Trade Center. She can see the tower through the window. In her dream she feels the impact.

She is not the only one to have dreams like this.

The New York Post splashes a mug shot of Mohammed Atta on its front page under the headline THE FACE OF EVIL, which pisses me off. I think about the Arabs, my neighbors in Astoria, wonder what they must be feeling right now. Siekh cabdrivers, turbaned Indians often mistaken for Arabs, bear the brunt of the burgeoning anti-Muslim sentiment. Tuesday’s goodwill is starting to slowly dissipate.

In Union Square, the hub of Fourteenth Street, a vigil is held. Every square inch of wall space is given to fliers. Have you seen this person. Help me find my wife. Last seen Tuesday morning. There are candles and music and prayers. The feeling of overwhelming love generated there is palpable, even on TV. But it’s not enough.

Stephanie’s friends are going to Union Square, to the vigil. She wants to go. I refuse. I can’t do it, can’t board the subway, can’t take the risk. The feeling that I had on Tuesday—that I was in a movie, that I was safe, that it was all going to be fine—has evaporated. The serenity of shock has lifted, replaced by a bottomless sense of dread.

I feel isolated, out here in Queens, among the Greeks with their Old World customs, among the Arabs with their mosques and their veils. I don’t belong here. And I feel violated. I didn’t know anybody who died, true, but as the comic that ran in the Voice put it: We are all victims.

That night, we meet Rus—who among his many talents is a musician who performs under the stage name Lance Monotone—at Gibney’s, a bar near the Broadway station stop in Astoria. I feel as low as I’ve felt since Tuesday morning. In addition to the dread, there is tension between me and Stephanie, because she really wanted to meet her friends at Union Square, and she feels like she’s missing out. She is missing out. And it’s my fault.

Rus is not taking it well, either. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days. We are three zombies, hollowed out.

We get our beers and find a table. As soon as we sit down, a familiar song comes on the jukebox:

Hey Jude, don’t make it sad,
Take a sad song and make it better…

It’s not one of my favorite Beatles tunes—I prefer tracks from The White Album and “Norweigan Wood” and “Ticket to Ride”—but as soon as the song begins, I find myself singing along. I don’t intend to sing, I didn’t know I knew all the words. But the same irresistible force that drew me to lower Manhattan on Tuesday compels me to sing now. I couldn’t stop myself if I wanted to. But I don’t want to stop.

Hey Jude, don’t be afraid…

Rus and Stephanie are also singing, loudly, oblivious to whoever in the bar might object. The place is crowded—all the bars were crowded in the days after the attacks—but later, I won’t remember anyone else being there.

Then you can start to make it better…

The song structure of “Hey Jude” suggests riding a bicycle up a hill. It starts slow and soft, building as the song gains momentum, as the peak is approached. Our voices, too, crescendo as we sing, slowly but ineluctably getting louder as the verses yield to the choruses, and as we realize that the lyrics could not be more appropriate to our mood:

And anytime you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain,
Don’t carry the world upon your shoulder…

The last verse is louder still, with louder harmonies, and as it ends, Paul is practically screaming—in our bicycle metaphor, this is the last few pedals to get to the peak of the hill:

Then you begin to make it better
Better better better better better YAAAAAAAAAA!

And we’re screaming too, as loud as we can while maintaining tune, and never before, for all the times I’ve felt a surge of emotion while listening to a favorite song—“Thunder Road” or “Miami 2017” or “Born to Run” or “Solsbury Hill”—never before has music sparked such euphoria in me, moved me to such an extreme degree, reversed my polarity, shifted the tone of every synapse and nerve ending in my body from negative to positive so profoundly, so completely. It’s beyond simple catharsis. It’s a religious experience.

There is a rest, then—a moment of complete silence representing the acme of the hill; a pause to let the good vibrations seep in—and then the coda, the glorious coda, begins.

Nah, na na, na-na-na nah, na-na-na nah, hey-ey Ju-ude.

Now the bicycle is riding downhill. Now it’s easy. Now we are screaming even louder. Rus and Stephanie take turns doing the vocal riffs. I sing the bass line. The outro goes on for four full minutes, more than half the song, and it could go on forever and should. When the world ends, if the world ends, this is the final piece of music we should hear.

Nah, na na, na-na-na nah, na-na-na nah, hey-ey Ju-ude.

Finally the song fades out. We all take a breath and look at each other, marveling at the impromptu concert we’ve just given. And for the first time since the towers fell, I feel…we all feel—me and Stephanie and Rus, and Jude, too, probably—we all feel…better.

110 Original Comments:

2009-09-01 00:35:11

I remember hearing a David Cross bit about how in the days afterwards, everyone in New York was just unfathomably nice to each other.

I was at home when I first heard; I was supposed to be watching Married with Children with someone over the phone. I turned on the TV and there it was. Even over here, it was the only thing in the news for weeks. I messaged friends who were out to say ‘Hey, turn on your TV. Get the bar you’re at to turn on the TV.’

‘What channel?’ the messages came back.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ I wrote. ‘Any channel.’

I’m glad you and your loved ones weren’t hurt, Greg.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 01:24:16

Thanks, Simon.

Cross is right. Everyone was unfathomably nice. And having lived there for years beforehand, I can say that I wasn’t surprised. I always knew New Yorkers got a bum rap — partly by design, to scare off tourists.

I remember saying at the time that if this had happened in a different city, it would have instigated a riot.

And…you were watching Married with Children with someone over the phone?!?

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-09-01 01:55:45

I agree with you. New Yorkers are actually quite warm; they just hide it under a lot of bluster.

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Comment by James D. Irwin |Edit This
2009-09-01 02:08:38

When I visited New York I’d heard that they were all shoe gazing assholes who hated tourists.

Couldn’t have been further from the truth. I don’t know if it’s just because we were English, but everytime we had a map out someone would come over and offer us advice on how to get here or there.

I’ve written about this at TNB. New York is much friendlier than London.

2009-09-01 04:35:25

The few – very few – New Yorkers I’ve met have all been nice people. I tend to think that the New Yorkers you see as surly garbage workers in films are to blame for that stereotype.

Ah, it was the Girl At The Time. We’d sit up and text each other back and forth while we watched TV.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 04:52:36

Thanks for clarifying, Simon.

New Yorkers cultivate the image of being surly. It comes with having to share personal space with millions of strangers. You can be more outwardly pleasant if you live in a house with a fence and a big porch.

Comment by mellygoround |Edit This
2009-09-11 19:52:33

It was about 11pm at night here. I was watching The West Wing when it was interrupted by a news report. “Wow!” I thought.

The show resumed and by the end of the hour, the second plane had done it’s thing and, as Simon says (heh), all the stations just started blanket coverage. I rang mum in Canberra (I’m in Melbourne) as I knew she would’ve be up watching The West Wing too.

“Are you watching this?” I asked. She was.

“It’s war,” I said. “There’s gonna be a war. Nothing is ever going to be the same again.”

“I know.”

We stayed on the phone, watching together in different cities, for about four hours, unable to turn off even though nobody was saying anything new, knew anything new.

I not only felt a kinship to all Americans that I had never felt before, I felt closer to my mum that night that I had ever felt in my life.

Great piece Greg, it actually made me tear up a little.

Comment by mellygoround |Edit This
2009-09-11 19:59:34

In other news, there were some guys on the street yesterday with big signs saying ‘Hundreds of Architects and Engineers demand a proper investigation into the collapse of the WTC.’

I’ve never really been one to subscribe to the conspiracy theories and haven’t thought much about it, but I was watching Children of Earth last night and that entirely fictional account of the abhorrent moral choices men in power are capable of making when they think it’s necessary got me to thinking about it, and now that I do it does seem odd that the entire buildings collapsed when the structural damage occurred at the top, not the bottom of the buildings.

Note, I am not an architect or an engineer and am entirely ignorant about such matters. Can anybody educate me.

Also, yes, clearly it takes nonsense science-fiction to I get me to think deeply about matters political.

Comment by James D. Irwin |Edit This
2009-09-01 00:45:03

Man, this is incredible. Thanks for sharing it.

I was off school sick on September 11th. I was watching cartoons or something when all of a sudden it just cut to a tall burning building. I was twelve years old. I was just really pissed off that I couldn’t watch cartoons anymore. We didn’t have cable, which meant we had just four channels and they were all showing the same thing.

As I grew older I watched documentaries— real footage etc etc complete with the knowledge of why it was significant and what it all meant.

But it never really felt real.

The first time I was in New York we went to Ground Zero. It just didn’t register. All I could see was a building site. I couldn’t imagine there being these two huge towers there.

I went to the NYPD museum too. Cool 1970s cop car, old gangster tommy guns etc.

Upstairs they have police items taken from the wreckage. There’s a burnt out gun, scraps of uniform and, worst of all, a beat up car door riddled with holes and splattered with blood.

That kind of made it real, but I still couldn’t, and still can’t, begin to imagine what it would have been like.

I got the same feeling I had when I visited the Anne Frank house/holocaust museum of the Nazi rally grounds. Incomprehensible evil.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 01:29:08

Thanks, man.

The original idea for this piece was just to write about “Hey Jude” and the effect it had on us that day — I was listening to the song about a month ago and it reminded me of that night. But when I realized that most of the TNB readership was not in NYC at the time — and that some, like you, were still kids — I decided to expand, at the risk of seeming exploitative (and running long…this thing was 4000 words plus).

There’s nothing to see at Ground Zero now. For months after, they had these cool twin lights that poured up from there that looked like angelic twin towers…you could see them for miles around. I don’t know why they got rid of them.

Comment by James D. Irwin |Edit This
2009-09-01 02:15:08

I saw people selling photos of that— the two towers of light.

I only came on this morning to make a post of my own.

I’m posting it on Facenews instead though, if I get around to writing it.

A piece on how I prefer ‘TV friends’ doesn’t feel worthy of knocking this one down.

‘This is the best I’ve read on TNB…’ is becoming a cliche now, but really man, this is right up there with JMB and Matt’s Katrina post.

On second thoughts, maybe I should post mine here for some sort of balance.

Did you know ‘Hey Jude’ has the word ‘fuck’ in it? It’s the second verse I think, you can hear John Lennon say something like ‘ah, fuck’ really quietly.

Oh, thos rebellious young rock ‘n’ rollers.

Also, Pilsner Urquell is a fine beer. We used to have foreign students and they’d always bring a ‘thank you’ gift. One student, a very pretty Czech girl, brought a huge crate of the stuff over.

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Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 02:19:02

Thanks, Jedi. Yeah, I’m going to have to do an extended Aniston/Kardashian expose to balance it out, I guess.

Matt’s Katrina post is amazing…I intended to link to it, but I decided not to have an italicized intro, and it didn’t fit anywhere else.

Pilsner is great, but compared to the Pilsner you get in Prague, it’s nothing.

And I didn’t know he said “fuck” in that song! Wow.

Comment by James D. Irwin |Edit This
2009-09-01 02:34:28

I really want to go to Prague.

Isn’t it the same beer though? Or is it just a case of tasting fresher for not travelling far? Guinness tastes better in Ireland.

We have a beer here, Adnams, that is only sold in a certain radius because it doesn’t travel at all.

I really want a beer now.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 09:42:53

The beer is Prague is ridiculous. You can drink it for breakfast it’s so good. It took me a good six months after I came back to re-adjust to paying $5 for a pint of American swill instead of ten cents for a half-litre of liquid gold.

2009-09-01 11:56:29

I heard it was really cheap there.

It’s more expensive over here because it’s imported. Unfortunately most beer drinkers deride it as lager, when it’s just European beer.

I used to like British ale, but my taste changed to lighter drinks. Except Guinness.

$5 for a pint? Seriously?

I’ve taken to drinking Becks because the bar I usually go to sells it for £1.29. The price makes it taste better.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-02 07:12:05

Pints are up to $6 in NYC now. It’s ridiculous. But Prague is more expensive; I visited in ‘98.

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-09-01 01:11:21

Wow, Greg.
What an amazing piece of writing. Too many evocative phrases and images and words to single any one piece out, but I have read so many pieces on September 11 and this is one of the best.
I was working as a journalist when this happened, all the way around the other side of the world. I will never forget the images that were being fed in. Terrible, terrible images that we could not show onscreen. It was shocking and unreal and difficult to find words to describe it. In fact, it was one story that I didn’t need to find words for – the pictures did all the talking.
I am glad you and your loved ones weren’t harmed.
Thanks for posting. Thanks for bearing witness.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 01:35:46

Thanks, Zara. I was hoping people would use the comment space to share where they were…it’s interesting to know.

The journalists, too, were shaken up by all this. One of the AP photographers took pictures of people jumping from the towers. Some of the images were too graphic to put on the photo stream, apparently. That guy had been to Iraq, seen war, but even he’d never seen anything quite like that. They brought it trauma experts afterward.

And a few months later, when someone sent the anthrax powder to 30 Rock? The journalists collectively lost it.

It’s a good thing we had the images, in a way, because there was no leadership that day. In retrospect, the oddest thing about it was how long Bush et al were off camera. I don’t care how much of a Republican shill Giuliani became, or how much of a party hack…part of me will always love the guy for what he did that day and in the weeks afterward.

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-09-01 01:40:27

Unfortunately I do recall the images of people jumping. We had a live feed coming in and it took some moments before we actually realised what we were seeing. It was the first time I have witnessed journalists actually speechless. I think the thing with the jumpers was that it was impossible to fathom why jumping would seem like the best option. Just unbelievable.

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Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 01:45:08

Here is Anthony Lane of The New Yorker in September of 2001 on that:


At the time, I thought this was the best comment anyone had written…and I still tend to agree.

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-09-02 03:20:50

I was at home, where I still live.

I’d returned a week earlier from Austin, where I’d gone to visit a friend and see …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead one last time before heading off to Serbia to work on Banned for Life. I took a bus to Austin to save a little money, and everyone thought I was insane.

Almost as soon as I returned, I worked on my friend Burke’s short movie, which was shut down by the fire department for not having a permit or some such. That was on Saturday the 8th. As an irrelevant side-note, I met Pete and Ely of Die Princess Die for the first time that Saturday.

On Monday night, I was watching TV and a goofy acquaintance named Vincent showed up on Blind Date. I immediately called my neighbor, Joe, who also knew Vincent, and we watched the show “together” on the phone. Vincent made a complete ass of himself. Joe and I both laughed ourselves silly. Afterwards I worked on Banned for Life till at least dawn, and ended up crashing on the sofa. I heard the phone ring at some point that morning, but didn’t answer. Then, around two in the afternoon, I woke and listened to my messages. There were two from Joe, telling me that “we’re under attack” and to turn on the TV. The second message spelled out what had happened more explicitly.

I turned on the TV and sat in a daze watching. I had worked at a restaurant on Albany Street, maybe two blocks south of the WTC, for three years, but I’d lost touch with everyone there. Many of the customers at the restaurant worked at the WTC. I was sure that some of those customers had died that morning, and possibly a few employees at the restaurant. I still don’t for sure.

Meantime, I still had (and have) a lot of friends who lived in NYC, and I called them but couldn’t get through.

At a certain point, I couldn’t watch TV anymore. Joe and I went down the street to get a bite to eat at a Mexican restaurant, which was deserted. The entire city seemed deserted. I hadn’t seen it that way since the Rodney King riots in 1992. (Maybe one day I’ll write about the riots. I remember those days well.)

Over the next few days, no one could of course speak of anything but 9/11. I’ve already mentioned above one of my reactions: the impact it would have on my book. The following Saturday, I again worked on Burke’s short movie, and it was strange to see how much had changed, or seemed to have changed, in the course of the intervening week.

My friend Chris Meyer, an actor who lives in NYC, told me what I considered amazing story that relates to 9/11, but I’ll have to save that for later.

What I haven’t mentioned in any of the comments I’ve left so far is what a great piece of writing this is, Greg. It really moves, and I’m sure I’ll recall some of the details for years to come.

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-09-02 03:25:21

Oh, and I forgot this: people suddenly thought I was brilliant for having taken the bus to Austin instead of a plane.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-02 07:14:15

Thanks, Duke.

I don’t think the overall impact of BFL was at all affected by 9/11…if anything, it only made it better.

And of course it’s good to hear what you were doing and how you found out. (Also: now we have proof that you do in fact sleep!).

Look forward to hearing your amazing 9/11 story.


Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-09-01 01:58:42

There are too many remarks I want to make and not enough time at the moment to make them all. I’ll return later, but for the time being, I can’t help but want to throw up this clip, which I’ve always found very moving:


Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 02:15:39

Thanks, Duke…that should be playing throughout. How I love thee, Paul McCartney.

Comment by Jude |Edit This
2009-09-01 02:28:10

Hi Greg
“When the world ends, if the world ends, this is the final piece of music we should hear…”
I had never thought of that song in this way, but of course…makes perfect sense.

I love this song for an obvious reason – I loved the way my students would suddenly start singing this song from the other side of the room when they needed my attention. A wonderful way to be summoned.

Here’s a link that will bring tears to your eyes and a smile to your heart!

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 04:36:12

Wow, that link is awesome. Thanks for sharing.

Funnily, when the use the song for Cirque de Soleil, they don’t end with it; it cuts to the Sgt Pepper reprise, and works perfectly.

Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-09-01 02:49:57

Beautiful job writing about a truly hideous thing.
My daughter and her family lived in NYC at the time.
About six months afterwards, she visited us in Miami Beach.
We live under a flight path for MIA.
When a plane went over she visibly panicked, ducking every time.
Just the sound of a plane passing over still was instinctively terrifying to her.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 04:37:25

Thanks, Irene. Yes, planes have a whole different connotation now, alas. We didn’t have kids yet, but I’m sure the terror would have been different if I had.

Comment by JB |Edit This
2009-09-01 03:04:27

Man. A Schwarzenegger flick. Michael Jordan on the Wizards. All seemingly irrelevant details, but do they ever paint a simple portrait of what seems like a completely different place.

We’ve changed so much in eight years.

This got me thinking about CGI technology. I saw a preview for the movie 2012 this weekend, and the trailer was just an orgy of destruction with John Cusack running around, leaping out of the way. Anyway, sitting there in the theatre, bored, I realized that no matter how fluid and seamless the special effects look, nothing will ever surprise the naked eye as watching the towers fall did. Terrorists killed the potency of special effects dead.

Just a theory.

Great piece.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 04:29:49

Justin — read the Anthony Lane piece I posted above — you’ll appreciate it, as he discusses disaster movies.

I don’t think we’ve changed at all, alas…there was a brief period of interest in larger issues, but is seems to have evaporated over time.

2012 offends me, and I’m not easily offended. I don’t ever want to watch buildings fall down ever again, and I don’t see why anyone else would, either. I hope to God that flick fails big-time. Emmerich should just go ahead and make snuff films, as that seems to be his area of interest anyway.

Comment by Justin Benton |Edit This
2009-09-01 06:40:17

I’m looking at my choice of the pronoun “we” and I’m split. The antecedent could be American culture. Could be popular culture. Or just stuff in general. I don’t know. It was early, and I was not caffeinated.

Anyway, why do some (or many?) think we’ve not changed at all since 9/11? Seems to be a popular notion, and kind of a cynical one masked as dry, progressive. I’m not disagreeing. But I can’t totally agree.

I feel I’m getting vague. Vague’s not good. Why does this topic, 9/11, make us pontificate vaguely?

I’m out.

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Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 09:27:56

No, you’re right, we have changed. Some more than others, but we’ve changed.

But man, that 2012 movie pisses me off…

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-09-02 02:07:31

“I don’t think we’ve changed at all, alas…there was a brief period of interest in larger issues, but is seems to have evaporated over time.”

I’m completely in agreement with you on this, as I so often am in complete agreement with you.

I’d just gotten going with Banned for Life when 9/11 happened. I’d had a year of false starts, and finally it was coming as it should, and then the towers fell and I thought, “Holy shit, this book is going to be completely invalid. I mean, I’m writing all this stuff about the cultural state of America, and now everybody’s going to wake from this horrible dream we’ve all been living of special-effects movies and horrible pop songs by Mariah Carey types and dopey TV shows starring Will Smith and all the rest of it, and people are going to think and feel and live as they haven’t in a long time, and my book is going to be completely meaningless.”

This was the reaction of my inner sociopath; the selfish artist concerned only with himself. But within a week or so I could tell that everything was going to stay exactly the same, culturally speaking, though for a year or so I would talk to Americans who’d insist that life had changed profoundly after 9/11.

It changed our foreign policy, but that’s about it, I’m afraid.

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Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-02 07:15:12

“2012″ is the proof in the pudding. If it bombs, there’s hope for us…

Comment by JB |Edit This
2009-09-02 07:35:21

It’s funny that I question this notion of post-9/11 change. I’ve spent most of my life in Illinois. Naturally, 9/11 didn’t really effect the Midwest. I haven’t changed because of it, directly. It was just an incredibly captivating drama unfolding on TV.

So, after some thought, I agree with you, Greg. And you too, D.R. Can I call you Duke?

Isn’t it funny how some believed that 9/11 was supposed to signal the death of transgressive fiction? As though, the American writer could not write about destruction or violence, as a matter of escape?

And, yet, the apocalyptic is more popular than ever.

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-09-02 13:56:06

It’s moribido, or the death instinct, as Freud called it. People rarely mention that, though the opposite term libido, which his work popularized, is of course a household expression.

And I’d be chagrined if you didn’t call me Duke, Justin.

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-09-02 13:56:37


2009-09-01 03:31:11

Great story, man. I had shivers in my spine as I felt what was coming… Terrifying.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 04:38:01

Thanks, David.

Comment by Jim Simpson |Edit This
2009-09-01 03:31:58

Damn! Damn! Late for work and I haven’t finished this. I’ll read more at work, as I’m also a nonessential employee.

Great work, Greg, really.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 04:38:29

Thanks, Jim.

Essential employees: anyone who works in a grocery store; firemen; cops; medical people of all stripes; journalists; ConEd employees and Verizon employees

Comment by Ribekka |Edit This
2009-09-01 03:55:39

I have to admit I got a little teary at the end of this. It’s a really great piece of writing.

I was ten when this happened. Living in Staten Island. I was sitting at a lunch table with a bunch of ten-and-eleven-year-old girls when they told us. The girls I was sitting with all started panicking, “My great Aunt works on 38th street!” “My cousin’s brother works somewhere in the city!” And I said, with a sense of genuine peace, “My dad is probably there right now fighting the blaze.” He’s an officer in the FDNY. They all just looked at me for a moment, then went back to their own panic. But I was never worried about him; I had the same (possibly foolhardy) peace you did.

I still dislike the sound of bagpipes, as I attended a few of those firefighter funerals.

Interesting how when one brings up 9/11, everyone can’t help but share their own stories.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 04:41:13

Thanks for sharing yours, Ribekka.

Those bagpipes lasted for weeks, maybe months after, down Fifth Avenue in the mornings. Foremen in dress uniform, casket. It was so sad.

2009-09-01 04:54:47

Most of our relationship has been in the aftermath of that day and days to come.
I remember so well the night when my old boyfriend was hours late at Madhu’s party
and you and I got the chance to talk for hours. This was the night I started to have feelings for you. You had just come from meeting a friend at Windows on the World and were flying
high from all that you saw from up there. I remember saying that I’d never been to the top of the WTC – just shopping in the basement there outside of the subway or sitting in the Winter Garden right on the water listening to live music in the summer. I remember thinking maybe I would go there one day with you.

The towers were something of a marker in the city – like the south star – you could gage where you were according to where the towers were in relation to your whereabouts. Now the towers’ collapse serve as a marker to me. Times were either before Sept 11th, 2001 or after. I always look at when books, albums, movies were made – they were either made before or after that day. Before that day, we worried about something happening at midnight 2000 (Y2K) – but we were all ok – the next day walking around hungover, but all ok and thinking we were all fools to think something terrible was going to happen to us.

I remember meeting up with you at Kim’s apartment (and my one correction – like I usually do – we didn’t eat – we just drank) and our walk through the city to 59th street when they subways started to run. I remember being a constant state of goosebumps for weeks to come. Most of our relationship has been in the aftermath of that day. The day it happened, it was like the city skyline has lost it’s two front teeth – I remember, on top of feeling all the shock and grief, being so pissed that the skyline was forever changed.

I’m glad you wrote this.
It’s always felt too soon to write about it – or too sacred.
But I’m glad you did.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 05:09:28

Aw, thanks Steph. Yeah, you’re right — most of our relationship has been after 9/11…sort of a baptism of fire, I guess.

WOTW was overrated. It was no Rainbow Room. Y2K was also overrated.

I didn’t do much fact-checking on this, as you know, aside from a few suggestions you made. I forget a lot of stuff that happened, and my chronology is messed up…I’m sure you told me to leave work AFTER the plane hit, but I don’t remember it that way. It was odd, trying to reconstruct it after all this time.

Thanks — love you!

2009-09-01 16:58:22

I know – when I got out of the subway – both planes had hit – there were two black stripes on the sky and both towers looked like there had been giant bites taken out of them. I felt the need to get down there too and help, but I stayed and watched and waited in line at a payphone to make that call to you – to get your ass downtown – because none of us knew what the fuck was happening – was the whole city going to be bombed – and there were the missing planes too they kept talking about. And after I called you is when I saw the first tower collapse and when I ran to Kim’s.

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Comment by Brad Listi |Edit This
2009-09-01 06:49:35

The Big Apple, at its core, is mushy. Indeed.

This piece probably summed up the experiences of millions of people in and around New York on that day. No two 9/11 experiences are identical, of course, but I sort of feel like you’re the Representative Man here. I have a buddy who was in New York that day and his description of it was eerily similar, right down to the going-to-a-bodega-to-get-a-sixer and everything.

And wait a minute: There’s a country in the Middle East named after Michael Jordan??!!


Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 09:05:54

Yes, Air Jordan’s cousin lives there: River Jordan.

It was a weird day because it was a work day, but it wasn’t. Some people continued to work, some didn’t, and some people had loved ones unaccounted for and others didn’t, so the mood was hard to really capture.

I’ll never forget that Lyndon LaRouche guy, though…weird.

Comment by Matt |Edit This
2009-09-01 07:01:35

Greg, you blew me out of the water, in the best posible way. This is amazing. I read it once before I left the house this morning, and then again once I got to work. I’m simply stunned, all over again.

I’d been living in New Orleans for about two months at the time, and was two or three weeks into my graduate studies. I didn’t even hear about the attacks until after my morning English Lit class. I had friends from California who were supposed to be flying out on a trip to the east coast that morning, and I spent hours on the phone trying to get hold of someone, anyone, how could tell me they were all right, that their plane wasn’t one of those unaccounted for. They were, fortunately, diverted to Denver.

I know exactly what you mean about the sense of being in a movie. On the evening Katrina made landfall, there was a point–short, but intense–where I had the sensation of This isn’t happening to me. This is a story, and I am a character in it. Where exactly that comes from, I don’t feel qualified to say.

I think I need to scroll back up and read this again.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 09:09:16

Thanks, Matt. Much appreciated. And I’m glad your friends were diverted to Denver.

I think “it’s like I was in a movie” is the best way to describe having almost an out-of-body experience…not that I was outside my body, but I was shut down to some degree, aloof, detached. How else can you process something like 9/11 or Katrina and not burst into tears all day?

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-09-01 19:24:12

Actually, Matt, I think your piece and Greg’s compliment one another.

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Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-02 07:17:05

Yes, they are bookends. I agree, Duke.

Comment by New Orleans Lady |Edit This
2009-09-11 11:46:08

Matt! I just realized something, I think. Did you go to UNO? If so, that is where I know you from!

Comment by Matt |Edit This
2009-09-01 07:13:49

Also, today’s token SSE occurance: just this weekend I re-watched Unforgiven and the McKellan Richard III.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 09:10:08

Two great films. I had to sneak the Nebraska joke in there…it fit too perfectly.

SSE, indeed. (Simon Smithson Effect, for those of you who have no idea what we’re talking about).

Comment by Matt |Edit This
2009-09-01 09:34:16

Unforgiven in on my Top Ten. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to drop the Nebraska line in conversation since Saturday.

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Comment by James D. Irwin |Edit This
2009-09-02 01:16:25

I nearly watched Unforgiven at the weekend.

Maybe the spell has been broken…

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-09-02 01:52:52

I love Unforgiven>/i>. It’s one of my favorites that Clint Eastwood has directed, High Plains Drifter being another.

Comment by D.R. Haney |Edit This
2009-09-02 01:53:16

Another goddamned HTML error. Oh, well.

Comment by James D. Irwin |Edit This
2009-09-06 09:06:14

High Plains Drifter is, at a push, my favourite of his Westerns. I like the ambiguous is-he-a-ghost-? element

Comment by Robyn |Edit This
2009-09-01 07:16:05

This made me cry.
I was at work in NYC that day, too, a little closer to the WTC than you. I think of beautiful early fall days, that certain shade of blue–kind of like it is today, actually–as “9/11 weather.”
I don’t want to claim that I suffered any sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome, not when so many others suffered so much more, but I don’t think I will ever really get over that experience.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 09:12:08

Everybody talks about the weather, I’m told, how nice the day was…but I distinctly remember thinking that back in Astoria, before getting on the subway, well before the towers hit. It was a day like today — just gorgeous. And that made it worse, somehow.

Thanks for commenting, Robyn.

Comment by Kerry |Edit This
2009-09-01 07:58:20

This was very powerful and I thank you for writing it. I’m going to make everyone I know read this.

I was 25 year old. I was unfortunately living at home with my parents. I worked at the Aladdin Hotel & Casino on the Las Vegas Strip as a PBX operator and room reservationist in their call center. I wasn’t due in to work that day until 11am but was woken by a supervisor around 9am asking me to come in as early as possible because they needed everyone on the phones. I was groggy on the phone, because it woke me up. “Why do you need everyone in?” I asked. “There was a bomb in New York.” she said and hung up. In my fogginess all I could think was, “If there was a bomb threat at the New York New York Hotel & Casino, what does that have to do with us at the Aladdin???” I rolled out of bed and in the living room my mom and stepdad were watching the news and then I realized the mistake I made and all I could say was, “Why didn’t you guys wake me up?!” I watched the news for a few minutes then got ready and went to work. All flights were canceled. We had to calm tourists who were meant to go home that day and help extend their stays, find rooms for them. Because we are such a tourist town there were fears that follow up attacks could hit us, especially since we have a casino that is a replica of the NYC skyline. Las Vegas is so full of itself. We had a TV rolled into the call center and we watched the news all day. It was scary and sad.

Two days later I had concert tickets to see Modest Mouse. We went although it felt weird to be going to a concert. It was awkward. The band didn’t know if they should rock out or be subdued. Music did not make us feel better that night.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 09:16:27

Thanks, Kerry.

Vegas was definitely a target. They said that on the news over and over. What better symbol of American debauchery than Vegas?

Yeah, it was a rough time for music. A week or so after, they had a very quiet concert in NYC. Can’t remember any of it, other than Sting singing “Fragile,” and how apt it seemed.

Comment by Michael Strange |Edit This
2009-09-01 08:00:41

Greg – I loved your piece, although it brought tears to my eyes while reading it here at work, which I then had to explain to my co-workers. As I read, my mind was completely flooded with my own experiences, emotions, and images from that day. It was almost an emotional overload for me. Someday maybe I’ll sit down and record them all…or maybe not. There’s just so much, and it would be hard to put it all into words as well as you’ve done here. Still, one moment stands out, sparked by your point about there having been a lack of leadership, and about my near plunge into New York Harbor.

Three co-workers and I were running along the Battery Park promenade from the mountain of smoke & debris from the first tower collapsing, and because of the way the crowd had moved, we were forced into one of the Staten Island Ferry slips. At that point, the second tower fell, again sending horrible sounds and a massive cloud our way, but because we were inside the ferry terminal and couldn’t see exactly what was happening, it was even more terrifying. The panicking crowd began to push, not knowing that the only outlet in the direction they were pushing was the river. It was at this point that I made sure my wallet and keys were secured deeply in my pocket, and I began unbuttoning my shirt, believing I’d need to swim out and around the terminal.

And then it happened. A young man began yelling at the crowd, telling them to be calm. He wasn’t a cop, or a security guard, or anyone in authority. But he was a leader at a moment when people were desperate for one. I remember it distinctly…he got everyone’s attention – a few hundred people, probably – and he seemed to physically rise above the crowd, as he said: “Everybody stay calm. Listen to me. I’m twenty one years old, and I can tell you that I’m not going to die here today. We’re all fine, and we’re safe. Everyone needs to stop pushing and move in that direction back out of the terminal.” And everyone followed his directions. It was an amazing moment. And I stayed dry.

Again, I really loved reading this, Greg. Thanks for writing it.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 09:23:07

Thanks for commenting, Mike. Sorry I made you cry!

And holy shit, I didn’t know that. Good for that guy, and God bless him. I think there were many people like that that day, all over the city. The fact of the matter is, it could have been much, much worse. People like that man were unsung heroes.

It was hard to write this — most of it just came out in one burst. But eight years is long enough to keep silent, I guess.

Do you remember what Chris and Chris were arguing about?

Comment by New Orleans Lady |Edit This
2009-09-11 12:05:26

Wow! I’d love to know who that kid was. He is a hero in his own right.

Comment by Rus |Edit This
2009-09-01 09:18:07

I had actually forgotten about the Hey Jude sing-along in the haze of those events. Reading about it took me back there and I’m glad we all shared that moment together. I remember that feeling you described, as we were singing the coda, as indescribably peace-filling. At the same time, I also remember thinking how glad I was that I, unlike Steph (who was much stronger than I would have been), didn’t see either tower fall. I still have trouble crossing bridges, traveling on the freeway and being near any massive structure. Oddly, I’m okay with airplanes.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 09:39:16

Thanks, Rus. Likewise…was good to share it with you.

I remember being there and singing, but that’s it. And my memory of it is through a small lens — I only remember you and Steph, and that were were sitting at a small table on high stools. I remember nothing else from the night but the singing and the peace.

Bridges, freeways, and tall buildings you have some control over…once you’re in a plane, there’s nothing you can do but sit back and release yourself to someone else. Which is why plane travel never scares me.

2009-09-01 17:01:25

Hey R/L – I miss living in Queens with you.
I remember being able to walk and meet up with you.
I also remember how it was hard for you on your motorcycle
after that. Anyway – i miss you and hope you can come up (down? across?)
for a visit soon, fellow Virgo.

Comment by K |Edit This
2009-09-01 10:03:23

I found this piece today, on one of those gorgeous cloudless days that always makes me think of that One. This memory was so eloquently written and thank you for sharing it. I too am so happy that in the midst of that awful experience I have this one tiny nugget of a memory that so many outsiders will never understand. I’ll never forget walking home those 2 miles and seeing a huge line wrapped around a streetcorner of people waiting to donate blood right there on the spot.

Beautiful piece.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 12:08:36

Thanks, Katie.

The blood donations! I forgot about that. All that blood, and no one needed it. But what an outpouring of love. There were a lot of monetary donations, too, in the weeks that followed.

Comment by tammy allen |Edit This
2009-09-01 13:44:35

Riveting. Thank you. I love New Yorkers.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-01 14:12:47

Thanks, Tammy.

Comment by Tawni |Edit This
2009-09-01 15:59:26

I will always remember that it happened on a Tuesday because that was the day of the week my band usually practiced. Nobody felt like playing music because we were too sad, so we sat around just drinking and kind of freaking out about it together on my front porch.

The blood donations were mentioned above in a comment. I called that day to try to donate some A+ and they said they didn’t need it because not enough people survived. That was a kick in the stomach to hear. How fucking bleak is that?

This was really amazing writing. Thanks for sharing.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-02 01:59:15

Thanks, Tawni.

There was, as I recall, a collective paralysis with artists, but musicians in particular. It was obviously inspiring, in many ways, but it was so awful and heinous that no one knew how, or when, to begin. I think it took about a week for anyone to pick up an instrument. That concert they televised, with all the big names, was the first time anyone big anything, and even that felt too soon.

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-09-01 16:47:19

i can only imagine what it must have been like to be there that day. i was watching it on tv and i was traumatized and stuck in one position, just stuck. i stayed there, in front of the tv for over a week, watching coverage. i didn’t know what to do or say. i watched the second plane fly into the building on tv in real time, and i just couldn’t believe what i was seeing. it looked like claymation or something. just not real.

i’m so glad you wrote this.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-02 02:00:15

Thanks, Lenore.

It’s the equivalent of watching Ruby shoot Oswald in realtime on TV. But much, much, much worse, as Oswald was only one man. No one expected those towers to fall — including the firemen inside them. The footage of people in the building shows that day an eerie calm.

Comment by Elizabeth Collins |Edit This
2009-09-01 18:15:10

Thanks for this piece. I was in Iowa on 9/11 and I remember just sitting down at my desk (I was working as a communications writer while I finished my thesis project) when my boss sent out this weirdly religious (I thought) e-mail that said, “Pray for the people in NYC. Come up and watch the TV, if you’re so inclined.”

I didn’t know what had happened, but I got to the TV room just as the second plane hit the other tower. And I used to work in the World Trade Center. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that I was an intern for Governor Cuomo, there in the WTC, really high up, actually, when the first bombing occurred. I always used to get vertigo when I stood too close to the windows there. After that happened, I said to myself, “Those towers are doomed. I will never go back there.” And I didn’t. And then…so many years later…

Stephen Walter’s brother was working there on 9/11, and he was in the second tower (not the first one hit). But what he said was that the security on the PA kept bleating, “Everything is fine. Do not evacuate…” and he and his co-worker looked at each other and said, “Yeah, fuck that,” and they got to the ground floor just as their building was hit. Crazy. Then they ran uptown for about forty blocks and got drunk. I don’t think Stephen’s brother made it back to NJ until about 4 a.m. –some stranger gave him a ride, because people were doing things like that back then. No family member had been able to reach him all that time and they were thinking he was dead.

Anyway–it’s one of those unfortunately historic days that bring out the stories in all of us.

One last thing: the worst part about the whole tragedy, for me, was seeing national news footage of the train station in Summit, NJ (where I lived with *my* fiance, in the mid 90s), and it was just jammed with cars. All those people were dead because they worked in the Towers. That really got to me. I used to take the train with those people every day (though I worked in icky Times Square).

I hope you didn’t breathe that toxic dust…I was just thinking today that the beautiful September weather we’re seeing right now was probably just like 9/11. That sounds kind of stupid, but you know what I mean. It just made me think of the irony of beauty and tragedy mixed together–forever.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-02 02:12:00

Thanks, Liz.

Wow, thank goodness he got out of there. And thank goodness — or God, as your old boss would have it — that you did in ‘93.

The little details, I think, are always the ones that amplify what happened…one of the victims was an RN who worked at the hospital right near us in Astoria. They set up a big wreath and stuff outside. I used to walk a different way to avoid it, because seeing it always made me cry. I’m sure those cars in the Summit parking lot had the same effect.

And you’re so right about the weather.

Comment by Marni Grossman |Edit This
2009-09-02 06:57:03

I had the same reaction when I first heard: this is some sort of freak accident.

I was a sophomore in high school. School had just started and we were supposed to have the traditional all-school assembly. But instead, they gathered the middle and high school and told us that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.

“Are you scared?” someone asked. I couldn’t imagine why I would be. Shit happens. Planes crash.

It wasn’t until we’d been sent home from school that things started to click for me.

Greg- this was so fantastic. I was holding my breath the whole time. Just great writing.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-02 07:10:44

Thanks, Marni.

I remember being in school when the space shuttle exploded, and the teachers making a big deal about it, but no one really understanding why. 9/11, of course, was much bigger, in the number of lives affected and the overall effect on the country, especially with foreign policy.

Comment by Elizabeth Collins |Edit This
2009-09-02 08:56:47

You know what’s strange to me, being an ex-New Yorker and feeling more connected, in a way, to this tragedy than some other people might? The fact that my students now in Pennsylvania still tell me how when they were little kids and 9/11 happened, everyone in Philadelphia area was completely freaking out, like hiding in the basement with cans of food, schools closed, roads closed–like they truly believed it was the end of the world or that they were next. They all believed they were going to die. That makes me feel like they completely overreacted, but then again, I wasn’t on the East Coast at the time.

My mother had, I think, five students who lost parents that day (because we grew up so close to the city, as you well remember).

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Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-02 10:08:09

I think there were people out in the boonies who died when they insulated their homes with sheets of plastic and duct tape, to protect themselves from anthrax spores.

That’s awful about your mom. I mean, how do you go back to school after that? So, so sad.

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2009-09-02 12:24:10

Incredible piece, nothing I can add.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-02 12:50:10

Thanks, man.

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2009-09-05 12:33:34

I was in both OKC when the bomb hit the Murrah building and in Littleton when the Columbine was under fire. What struck me about this piece was how you said you walked carefully – that day was not the day to get hurt. I remember that feeling – like every move required extra caution. Weird that feeling. Profound account, sir.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-06 02:48:55

Thanks, Erika.

OKC and Littleton? Does the FBI have a file on you? ; )

The caution was the first thing that I thought of — this is not the time to twist an ankle or get hit by a cab. Little things can be big on days like that.

Comment by Kim |Edit This
2009-09-06 06:58:13

I’ll never forget it.

Comment by Becky |Edit This
2009-09-11 05:03:47

This is excellent, Greg. Truly.

I don’t usually have the patience for longer pieces, but never a dull moment here.

I remember the good will. It was everywhere. That was nice. “That was nice” seems facile, but it was nice. Really.

And I love that song. It IS my favorite Beatles song, but now it is extra-favorite.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-11 07:34:12

Yes, I’m sensitive to running long as well — I think I have an inner alarm that rings when I hit 2000 words — but this had to be what it was.

Thanks, Becky. Much appreciated. And you’re right — it was nice.


Comment by Becky |Edit This
2009-09-11 21:43:52

My 9/11 story, from my post in the upper midwest is as follows.

I was supposed to pick my dad up from the airport that morning. He had been at a funeral for his adopted father in Connecticut. I was living in sin with my new boyfriend (once roommate, now husband). I woke up to my telephone (the land line, back when we had a land line) blowing up. I was pissed. I looked at the caller ID and saw it was my Mom. I ripped the phone out of the cradle. “WHAT?!?!!?” I said.

“Becky, have you turned on the TV?”

“No. I was fucking sleeping.”

“Turn on the TV.”

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. But your dad got one of the last rental cars and he’s driving home.”

“What the hell is going on?”

“I don’t know. Do you still need detergent?”


Walk to bedroom.

“Honey, wake up. Something’s going on.”


“Something’s going on. Maybe thousands of people dead. A plane crashed into the World Trade Center.”

Hours later, after the towers fell and terrorism was implicated, my mom showed up at the door with a bottle of laundry soap.

She stood in the hall because I wouldn’t let her in because my apartment was a filthy mess.

“Remember this, Becky,” she said. “Nothing will ever be the same again. This changes everything.”

She spent 30 years in politics and knew these kinds of things. And I gave her an “okay, mom.” and a hug. And she left. And she was right.

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Comment by Dana |Edit This
2009-09-11 07:19:42

Beautifully done Greg. I was hundreds of miles south on that day (and this), but we were under the same crisp gorgeous blue sky conditions.

I think Stephanie was right – maybe we haven’t changed so much, but for me everything happened pre 9/11 or post 9/11. This morning when I was walking my dog and a plane flew overhead, I clearly remembered the silence in the skies in the days following. On the afternoon of 9/12 a plane flew over our house and I remember running outside as did my neighbors on either side. All of us waving to each other with relief to see that it was a naval plane.

I have a friend that was in the 2nd tower (73rd floor) that day and he wrote his experiences as a kind of therapy. It’s horrifying and honest (he was panicking in the stairwell) and human. He’s an only child and his parents couldn’t reach him for several hours. One line: “I had this weird thought of “if I just walked down 73 flights of stairs and I die now…I’m gonna be pissed.” ” He still struggles with panic attacks and a fear of flying.

And I agree Becky – the niceness factor was unbelievable. I had to drive to upstate New York (MOH in a wedding) less than 2 weeks after the attacks and traffic was “nice”. People didn’t tailgate, they didn’t flip you off, they yielded. And when we drove through Canada to continue on to Michigan to visit family I was incredibly moved by all the Canadians flying American flags. Boy did those border crossing suck though. ;)

Thanks for sharing Greg. The imagery is startling. And now apparently I have someone else at TNB who’s a must read! (I’m falling behind!!!)

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-11 07:36:33

Thanks, Dana. Yes, I recall also applauding the fire trucks from all over the East Coast that showed up, and the Verizon workers…Verizon workers!…who were downtown doing repairs.

I’ve only seen footage of the inside of the WTC, but it seemed eerily calm in there…like they had less of an understanding of what was happening, not being able to see the towers.

And I appreciate you elevating me to must-read status — although my stuff is usually about things like Jennifer Aniston turning forty and why Phil Collins isn’t as good as Peter Gabriel.

Comment by Alison |Edit This
2009-09-11 07:39:43

Thank you Greg, for making me stop and think about all the details of that shocking, extraordinary day. In the months and years afterward, 9/11 was used for such nefarious political purposes that I became somewhat inured to the event. But on this 8th anniversary you opened my heart and mind again. You did what our leaders did not — reminded us of the extraordinary care and concern that people give to one another in a time of crisis. On Democracy Now this morning I was listening to the story of an iron-worker from Toms River, NJ who volunteered at ground-zero as iron-workers were needed to help clear the rubble. He is one of many many volunteers who became seriously and chronically ill from working at the site. You so well described people’s extraordinary kindness and willingness to help, and also people’s fears. Our leaders chose to focus on the fear, and turned 9/11 into a sound byte. Thank you for bringing me back to what really mattered.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-11 08:30:49

Thanks, Alison…wow, your comment made me tear up.

I’ve done a lot of reading about 9/11 — although the subject is so difficult I can only do it in short bursts — and I have a lot of anger about how its aftermath was mismanaged by the powers that were. Nefarious, indeed — well put. I tried not to editorialize in the piece, just tell it like it was, or how I remember it.

There was a great deal of kindness that day and in the weeks that followed — unprecedented in my lifetime — and also a great deal of agreement between political enemies, as the platform party positions became meaningless, and politicians were forced to think on their feet. Somewhere I have a stack of newspaper editorials in which Krauthammer and Krugman say basically the same thing. We may never see that kindness and consensus again, alas.

Again, thanks for writing in.


Comment by Ruth Quinn |Edit This
2009-09-11 08:53:36

“Stephanie and I fall asleep, clutching each other tighter than usual.”

This was a powerful piece you wrote. That quote caused me to burst into tears. Sept 11 is emotional to me for so many reasons… but on that day, Terry and I also fell asleep, clutching each other tightly… it was our second date….

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-11 11:24:15

Thanks, Ruth.

It’s quite a thing, to go through that with someone you love — it’s a baptism of sorts. I know it made my relationship with Stephie stronger, and I’m sure it had the same effect on you and Terry.


Comment by Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell |Edit This
2009-09-11 09:16:50

Wow. Thank you, Greg. It’s too easy to forget the experience of this day, but you brought everything back in a way that was powerful yet just right. I moved to the west coast only a month before and had to teach my very first class – Intro to Psyc – on that morning. I still went to class & so did my students. But gone was my planned lecture. We were all waiting. Waiting to hear from loved ones in NYC, waiting for the rumored plane to crash into LA, waiting for the fighter jets to circle over the Portland skies again. A terrible day, even though I was so far away. Thank you again for bringing these memories back in a meaningful, manageable way. -J

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-11 11:32:31

Thanks, Jerusha.

It was also, of course, the day after your birthday. And what an inauspicious start to an (award-winning) academic career!

The farther away people were from NY and DC, the less likely they were to be dismissed from work, I recall. Good for you for kibboshing your planned lecture.

Thanks for sharing.


Comment by Jorge |Edit This
2009-09-11 11:15:05


I worked at a bank in 2001.

For some reason, I had the 11 a.m.-7 p.m. shift that day. As I made my way into my branch, I look up onto our TV in the lobby to see the tower come down. I ran to the bathroom to throw up. I had an inkling my good friend — a firefighter http://www.nyc.gov/html/fdny/html/memorial/wtc/lynch_michael_ff_lad004.shtml — was in that building.

Months later it was confirmed.

I have been to Ground Zero three times since, the latest in 2007. I was able to hold my composure in 2007, until I saw his name on the giant list. I lost it.

To this day, I cannot hear bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” without immediately tearing up. Hell, I am tearing up writing this.

Thank you for sharing your story, Greg.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-11 11:40:18


I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend. And I’m with you with “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes — always will associate that with the FDNY funerals down Fifth Avenue in the weeks after. And I can’t go to Ground Zero, either.

Thanks so much for sharing, and again, my condolences.


Comment by New Orleans Lady |Edit This
2009-09-11 11:52:04

Beautifully written. At one point I found myself crying. I don’t have too much to add except that I have also felt that “I’m in a movie” feeling a few times in my life. Katrina was one. I’m sorry you were there but I feel blessed to have read your story.

Comment by Greg Olear |Edit This
2009-09-11 14:54:38

Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Read your comments on Matt’s excellent Katrina post, too…that seems like “in a movie” to the max, alas.

Comment by Jorge |Edit This
2009-09-11 11:57:11

Greg, thanks for your condolences.

Comment by Cara Waller |Edit This
2009-09-13 08:57:49

Thanks for sharing this piece; it is wonderfully written. I was in Charlotte that day, watching it as it happened on NBC. As strange as this sounds, I was missing being a part of it. That area will always be my home; I am a Yankee at heart. I am so thankful that people like you are well spoken enough to be able write your experiences so that readers can live the moments through you. I am so glad that you have grown into such a talented writer since highschool; although, I am not surprised.
Take care. Best wishes in your writing.


GREG OLEAR is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker and founding editor of The Weeklings.

3 responses to “A Sad Song Made Better”

  1. This is really well-written, Greg. Glad you linked it to Zoe’s post.

  2. Vita Sowders says:

    an alternative medicine doctor

  3. […] I was in New York when it went down—close enough to acutely feel the sense of violation of the place I called home, but not close enough to claim any right of prolonged grief. No one I knew died. No one I knew was hurt. My life has moved on. […]

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