A Long Way From Spitalfields
Ten years ago this morning, I woke in an apartment in New York City. It was around eight thirty when my friend called from outside the bank in Midtown, where he had gone to deposit cheques. He had left early to be there at opening time and, as he was standing in line waiting for a teller, he saw on the television that there was a fire in one of the towers at the World Trade Centre.
I got out of bed and climbed up onto the flat roof of the apartment. It was a beautiful day, clear and bright with a blue sky after days of rain and cloud, and the humidity which overwhelms Manhattan in July and August had cleared. Although most people try to avoid New York in the Summer, and residents who have the option seek refuge in beach houses, it is my favourite time of year in the city. The one time when the pace slows, languor prevails, and there is peace in the shadowy air-conditioned buildings where people linger to avoid the baking temperature and blinding light outside in the streets.
Summer was drawing to an end and there would be no more of the trips to Long Island that had punctuated my time in the City. Just a week earlier, on Labor Day, which marks the change in the season, the beaches had closed for the year.
I stood on this same roof on July 4th and watched the fleet line up in the East River, admiring the firework display as I ate dinner with friends. Looking across Manhattan that morning, I could see the distant plume of smoke from the westerly of the towers. It did not mean anything to me then, but I was puzzled how it could have happened, so I went downstairs and switched on the television. The television was reporting a plane had crashed into the tower. It was an extraordinary event for which the news anchor had no explanation, and so I went back to bed and dozed again.
I was awoken by the return of my friend who had cycled back from his errand at the bank. People were getting really excited about this fire, he told me, and he switched on the television again. For the first time, I sensed the panic and helplessness which was to envelop the city that day, as the presenters struggled to find words and keep their cool in the face of inexplicable and unprecedented events.
Then came the strangest moment of television I ever saw. Upon the screen, a plane jetted out of nowhere and disappeared into one the towers. “That’s a re-run, you’re seeing here, of the plane hitting the tower that we reported earlier,” commented the news-anchor, only to swallow her words – almost choking – as she exclaimed, “Oh no! That’s not a re-run, that’s another plane.”
Exactly a week earlier, at eight thirty in the morning, I visited the World Trade Centre accompanying my friend who was applying to an office there for a street traders’ licence. We came through the subway which opened up into a shopping mall and emerged onto the plaza directly beneath the towers. I recalled the first time I came to New York and stood at the top. Stretching my arms between those external struts and gazing down upon Manhattan from such a height, it was as if looking from the window of an aeroplane. My birthday was in a few days and we vowed to return to the top for a celebration, but we did not go back.
Once the second plane hit the towers, the tenor of events changed. Very quickly, reports came in of hijackings and other planes unaccounted for. I went back up onto the roof of the apartment and looked again to confirm the reality of the television news with my own eyes. Now there were two plumes of smoke in the sky, and sirens erupted through the streets as fire crews and police hurtled down the avenues of Manhattan. I returned to the television and stayed there, compelled. I had a pocket email machine and I was able to write messages to everyone in London to let them know I was alright, before the lines went dead.
A campaign was underway, something I could only comprehend through reference to science fiction such as “The War of the Worlds.” An attack had commenced that morning without indication how long it would last. As I sat there in shock at the accumulating reports of the plane hitting the Pentagon and the crash of United 93, a dread grew inside me. There was no reason to assume that this would not continue all day and it was impossible to know where and when it would end. It felt like the end of the world – there was no way to grasp the nature of what was happening. When I returned to the roof and looked again, the World Trade Centre had gone completely, replaced by a vast black tower of smoke billowing into the blue.
Twenty-one months earlier, I had been in Los Angeles at the time of the Millennium. Somehow, everybody expected a transformation and a new era to begin then. Nobody wanted to admit it was a non-event. But that morning, I realised that I was witnessing the actual moment when one century ended and a different world was born.
For a couple of years, I had been working with producers in Times Sq who were to present a play of mine on Broadway, opening on September 15th 2001. I loved being in New York in those days, it was a true metropolis of glamour and affluence – a world incarnated in the now over-familiar fiction of “Sex & the City.” Many times I enjoyed Cosmopolitans at the Bowery Bar, the location where Candice Bushnell’s novel, which was the origin of that series, began.
Walking out onto the street on that September day, several miles from the unfolding catastrophe at the World Trade Centre, the scene was not dissimilar from usual, except – as people went about their business – I knew what everyone was thinking. We were all looking at each other in fear and knowing that we could only enact the semblance of routine. I went to the grocery story and bought food for the next few days. On my way back to the apartment, I saw a postcard of the World Trade Centre on a rack and, without thinking, I took the entire stack in hand, went into the store and paid for them.
Back at the apartment, I addressed postcards to everybody in my address book in England and then I went to the Post Office and mailed them all. I still do not understand why I did this, because I never wrote any messages on the cards, yet I knew everyone would realise who sent them and why. In fact, half arrived within ten days and half arrived four months later, intercepted perhaps as suspicious material in the collective paranoia that ensued.
On the first day J.F.Kennedy Airport reopened, I flew back to London, peering from the window of the jet at the smoke still rising from the foot of Manhattan. At once, I went to see my parents in Devon and found them well, but within a week my father died unexpectedly. My mother had dementia and could no longer live alone, so I chose to move back into the family house to care for her. My play never opened on Broadway and I did not have the American career that I so longed for at that time, but after the events I had witnessed it no longer mattered to me.