I have absolutely nothing significant or profound to say on this tenth anniversary of September 11. And yet, of course, I woke up thinking about that terrifying day. I didn't listen to a lot of the coverage this weekend but one show that moved me to tears was a podcast from “The Story” on public radio. I listened to “They Did What They Could: Three Stories” as I hiked Runyon Canyon yesterday and found myself sobbing throughout. The stories are not about the day of the attacks, they are just simple looks at three individuals and what they did in the aftermath. The first profile is of Richie Cabo, a horticulturist with a New York nursery who was there when they brought in a near-dead tree from the World Trade Center plaza that had been buried in the rubble of the towers. Over many years, Cabo and his colleagues miraculously nursed the damaged tree back to health. Last December it was replanted at the site of the attack where it is now part of the 9/11 memorial. Especially moving is Richie's emotional reading of a poem someone sent him about the “Survivor Tree.”
Ten years ago this second, I was sitting at my computer in my apartment on Crescent Heights Boulevard in Los Angeles, answering emails from my company on the east coast. It was a little before 6 am when I noticed a news scrawl that said “small plane accidentally hits World Trade Center.” Huh? By the time I got to the TV set in my bedroom it was clear that it wasn't a small plane but there still seemed to be massive confusion about what had taken place. When I watched the live transmission of a second plane slamming into the other tower, I thought it was a video replay of the first attack. Then, when the Pentagon was struck by yet another plane, I remember running to my bathroom window to see if the skyscrapers in downtown Los Angeles were being hit as well. I was on the phone with my friend Helena as the first building collapsed. It took us both almost a minute to understand what had happened, it just seemed incomprehensible that the building wasn’t there anymore.
After getting through to some of my friends in New York, I learned that a close friend of one of my colleagues was on the 105th floor of one of the towers and, knowing that he couldn’t get out, had called his family and friends to say good-bye. At the time I was working with an author in North Carolina on a geography book. Two close friends of this woman worked for National Geographic and were on Flight 77 with some Washington, DC teachers and three 11-year-old sixth graders who were traveling to California to participate in an outreach program at a marine sanctuary near Santa Barbara. The students were from an underprivileged neighborhood and were terribly excited to be on their first plane trip. All of them were killed when the plane slammed into the Pentagon. The author I was working with dedicated her book to her lost friends and colleagues.
The first time I saw the World Trade Center was in September 1972 during my very first trip to New York. My grandfather had just been elected President of the Menswear Retailers of America and, as a Bar Mitzvah present, had taken me to the swearing-in festivities. I was thrilled to see that great city at last, and I’ve written about some of the memorable moments from that trip, such as when my grandmother accosted Liza Minnelli in front of the Plaza Hotel screaming, “Leeesa! Leesa Minoolli! Come over here and meet my grandson!” as well as my unwilling participation in some grand theft at the fancy La Côte Basque restaurant. One of our touristy adventures during that trip was a boat ride around New York Harbor. I vividly remember staring in awe at the brand new towers that I believe were still being cloaked with their white sheathing. Sure, we had skyscrapers in Chicago, including the still-under-construction Sears Tower which would soon eclipse the World Trade Center as the tallest building in the world, but I was still impressed by the sight of these imposing double monoliths.
I first ventured inside the World Trade Center in September 1978. My mother and I were spending a week in New York prior to my departure for my Junior Year Abroad in Paris. The day before I left the country, we had a sumptuous brunch at Windows on the World, the elegant restaurant on the 106th floor of the North Tower. I remember exactly where we were sitting and the breathtaking views all around us that were even more dazzling than the food. I can still see the employees of the restaurant buzzing about. Could any of those people have been working there in September 2001? As we know, there were no survivors from that floor, well above the swath of the building that was decimated by the plane. The restaurant lost 73 members of its staff along with 87 people who were eating breakfast or having meetings there at the time. There is a haunting photograph dubbed “The Falling Man” that shows one of the restaurant employees in mid-air, having jumped from the building in order to escape the inferno.
In the mid-1980s I visited New York with my girlfriend Julie and we couldn’t get enough of Manhattan, walking from one end of the city to the other. I took my shiksa girlfriend to lunch at Sammy’s Roumanian, a Lower East Side Jewish hangout that is not for the faint of heart. A pitcher of golden chicken fat sits on every table and there is enough cholesterol in each meal to clog the Lincoln Tunnel. I remember Julie ordering some dish that featured “unborn eggs,” God help her. When she couldn’t finish her plate, the waitress reprimanded her, calling it a shanda to waste all that good food.
Trying to walk off our heavy meal, we continued southward until we found ourselves in front of the twin towers. It’s eerie to see Julie standing in front of “The Sphere,” Fritz Koenig’s massive bronze sculpture that stood in the plaza between the two buildings. “The Sphere” was the only work of art in the World Trade Center complex that survived the terrorist attack. It was heavily damaged by the falling buildings, of course, and the unrepaired sculpture is now on display in Battery Park. It’s a surprisingly powerful symbol that is now the focal point of a new controversy. A group of 9/11 families want the sphere moved back to its original location at Ground Zero, its damaged hull a fitting reminder of the violence of that day. But they're getting resistance from Port Authority and claim officials don't want the Sphere to mar the “sanitized” beauty of the new memorial.
To get as much of the towers in the frame as possible, I got on my back on the ground of the plaza and snapped this photo of Julie standing in front of the massive buildings, the same picture that was taken by millions of tourists up through September 10, 2001. Looking at the photo now, all I can see are the obscene gashes left in the buildings by the two planes and the grisly footage of the people who jumped to their deaths, many landing in the very spot where Julie is standing.
I wandered around the World Trade Center complex many times since then, including just a few weeks before the attack. Kendall and I were on one of our pilgrimages to New York, the ones where we'd cram half a dozen plays into three or four days. Being an early riser, I’d hightail it onto the busy New York streets and wander down Broadway, past Greenwich Village and Soho, and into Lower Manhattan. I remember that last Sunday in August 2001, using the twin towers as my compass rose as I headed towards the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a beautiful structure which sat in the shadow of the World Trade Center. As part of its permanent collection, the museum contained priceless artifacts rescued from Staszow, my great-grandparents’ Polish shtetl. I gazed at the towers as I walked by, remembering earlier visits, including those with my mother who had died in 1999. It was sad that I’d never be here with her again, but at least these buildings would be permanent and everlasting reminders of our New York adventures.