September 11, 2001: A day in my life, 11 years later
I’m not sure what prompted me to write this today, as opposed to the other ten September 11ths that we’ve observed since 2001. Mine was not even a minor September 11 story. I did not lose any close friends or family in the attacks. It’s the stories of those who died, those of their families — such as this one in yesterday’s Stamford Advocate, just to highlight one example — are the ones to pay attention to, as are those of the first responders who sacrificed everything. In contrast, this is my personal blog, and this was an opportunity to put down my thoughts. I’m planning to treat this as a work-in-progress, filling in and correcting details as needed, and doing some rewrites, so I look forward to feedback.
On the night of September 11, 2001, we got to the front of the line at Mama Buddha, on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village, just as they were taping a sign to their window saying they needed to close for a while. They seemed to be the only restaurant open for blocks. They’d been jammed with customers for hours, and the staff needed a break.
They looked at me, sweaty and wearing hospital scrubs, and then quietly asked how many in my party. I didn’t really think about why they were letting us in despite the sign, just said it was four or five. It was only as we were being seated that I realized I was being faced with an Ethicist-worthy question. Do I tell the hostess that I hadn’t actually been working at the hospital, as the staff obviously assumed from my scrubs, but had shown up only to be gratefully told I wasn’t needed?
We decided to stay. We were hungry, we weren’t taking food away from legitimate rescuers – the crowd looked to be locals who didn’t want to sit in their apartments – and I had tried to volunteer, after all. We figured we’d leave a big tip.
We did, and then we dispersed to various parts of Manhattan, me to Hell’s Kitchen, my friend Gady and the others to their hotels. We weren’t sure what was in store the next day, but we knew we’d need some rest.
I live the same building I did in 2001, with the same southern exposure, just in a different apartment ten flights higher up. In 2002, I moved from the 10th floor to the 20th. My balcony faces downtown Manhattan.
I was working at home on the morning of September 11, 2001. A friend instant messaged me, and told me to turn on the news. A plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers.
I spent the rest of that morning alternating between the television and my balcony. It was, as everyone remembers, a gorgeous day, the sort it would have been wonderful to spend on the balcony.
At some point, I spoke to my friend Gady Epstein, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He was on an Amtrak train that had stopped outside of Newark Penn Station while workers checked why a hatch was open without explanation. Was there a bomb on board? (There wasn’t.)
You can see the Manhattan skyline from where the train had stopped, and he of course had dribs and drabs of what was happening at the World Trade Center.
Gady told me he was headed to New York that day to cover the primary. The mayor of Baltimore, Martin O’Malley, was supposed to come to help his brother campaign for a City Council seat in Queens. Gady asked me what I knew. I had either just watched one of the Twin Towers fall, or that happened while we were on the phone — Gady’s pretty sure of the latter, and he’s probably right — but I was agitated, and I didn’t know any more than he did.
I told him, knowing he wouldn’t agree, not to come into Manhattan, that I was looking for ways to leave. It wasn’t clear if I would have the option of driving up to my parents’ house in the suburbs, since all the bridges and tunnels were closed.
It looked as though Gady’s train would be the last one let into the city, and he was staying on it. He was coming in to cover what even then people knew would be a story that dominated the decade. I seem to remember him planning on a day trip, so he didn’t have a place to stay. I told him he was welcome to stay at my apartment, and wished him safety getting into town.
Sometime soon after that, my cousin called, understandably close to panic. Ian is basically my brother, the older sibling I never had, just as I’m the younger brother he never had. At the time, he was an attorney at a large Times Square law firm. No one knew if there would be more attacks, nor what their targets might be, and here he was stranded on the island of Manhattan, some 50 miles away from his family. He told me he was coming over.
When he arrived at the door to my apartment, he crushed me with a hug, for a good long time. We caught up on the most current news we had, and opened a bottle of something white. I was desperate for a drink, but abstained, thinking by then that I might head to a hospital to try to help treat any injured that showed up.
Ian started making phone calls so he could work out how to get home, while I called my dad. I had called earlier to let my parents know I was fine, even though they’d know I hadn’t been at the World Trade Center in years. But now I was calling for advice, as I often did.
What should I do, Dad?
I’d really like you to come up here, we know it’s safe here, he said. But just as I knew Gady was coming into Manhattan, my dad, a pediatrician, knew what I was really asking.
You should go to the hospital, he said. I had an MD and had done my internship, but I’d left medicine two years earlier, and I didn’t have a license. You still know enough medicine to be useful, he said, even if it’s just doing whatever someone tells you to. It’s what I would do.
I knew that too. I told him I’d stay in touch, and went to find a pair of scrubs.
It was right around that time that my cousin and I watched the second tower fall. We hugged again. It was all unreal, and that of course is a ridiculous and trivializing understatement.
Somehow, Ian figured out a way to get home. He headed out, and I got on my bike.
The ride across town was almost the mirror opposite of the one I’d taken from NYU, where I was a medical student, to the Hudson River ferry to meet Ian and Lisa’s first son just after he was born in August 1997. We laugh about that visit now. I was a sweaty 25-year-old, and I think the new parents were horrified that I’d be touching their baby. I don’t blame them.
This time, I biked eastward across 34th Street. When I arrived at Bellevue, there were throngs of people. A state trooper was guarding a back entrance to the ER, and said he couldn’t let me in because I didn’t have any current NYU or Bellevue ID – which was true. I thought about asking the deans for some proof I’d graduated, but quickly realized that wasn’t exactly a good use of anyone’s time that day.
I decided instead to bike across to St. Vincent’s, which was actually the closest trauma center to the Twin Towers. There, staff were waiting outside the ER, looking downtown for any signs of rushing ambulances. They thanked me for coming, but said they already had too many hands on deck, and no patients had even arrived yet. Come back at shift change at 8, they said. We’ll have a better sense of our needs then.
We all were of course hoping that hospitals would be full, as gruesome as it sounded. That at least meant there would be survivors.
I biked home.
The streets were empty of cars at 7:30 when I biked back to St. Vincent’s. I saw the same crowd of staff amassed outside the ER. It was clear they still didn’t need any help, which I knew before I arrived but was hoping wouldn’t still be true. They again thanked me for coming.
As I was getting back on my bike, my phone rang. It was Gady, who happened to be across the street covering a St. Vincent’s press conference. He had found a hotel, so he didn’t need a place to stay. But he was starving – as Gady often is – and wanted Chinese food – as Gady often does.
So Gady and I, along with a few other reporters he knew covering the press conference, ended up at Mama Buddha, just a few blocks away.
The eleven years since September 11, 2001 have been full of changes, some wonderful, some sad, and some mundane.
Mama Buddha is now closed, having merged with another Chinese restaurant. St. Vincent’s has been shuttered since April 2010, the victim of debt.
My father died later that year. But he stood proudly at my wedding in 2004.
My wife was stranded in upstate New York the morning the towers fell. We didn’t meet until the following spring, and were married two-and-a-half years later.
Ian was a groomsman at my wedding. He’s now at a different Times Square law firm as a partner.
Gady couldn’t make it, since he had moved to Beijing as correspondent for the Sun and then Forbes. Today, he does the same for the Economist.
This morning, I worked at home. Cate and I – and our dog Zinny, adopted in April — alternated between watching friends and relatives call out the names of the nearly 3,000 people who died 11 years ago, and staring at the nearly complete Freedom Tower from our balcony.
A casual observer who wasn’t there on September 11 wouldn’t even know that the Twin Towers had been visible from my midtown Manhattan building. But we did.