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A Long Way From Spitalfields

September 11, 2011
by the gentle author

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.

20 Responses leave one →
  1. September 11, 2011

    As you say, the world changed on that day, but that time was also a great personal change for you. I am sure you have warm memories of your family now that you look back. Thank you for sharing your recollections of that day in New York. Ten years! It doesn’t seem that long ago.

  2. jeannette permalink
    September 11, 2011

    The Explosion

    On the day of the explosion
    Shadows pointed towards the pithead:
    In the sun the slagheap slept.
    Down the lane came men in pitboots
    Coughing oath-edged talk and pipe-smoke,
    Shouldering off the freshened silence.

    One chased after rabbits; lost them;
    Came back with a nest of lark’s eggs;
    Showed them; lodged them in the grasses.
    So they passed in beards and moleskins,
    Fathers, brothers, nicknames, laughter,
    Through the tall gates standing open.

    At noon, there came a tremor; cows
    Stopped chewing for a second; sun,
    Scarfed as in a heat-haze, dimmed.

    The dead go on before us, they
    Are sitting in God’s house in comfort,
    We shall see them face to face -
    Plain as lettering in the chapels
    It was said, and for a second
    Wives saw men of the explosion

    Larger than in life they managed -
    Gold as on a coin, or walking
    Somehow from the sun towards them,

    One showing the eggs unbroken.

    Philip Larkin. High Windows 1974

    xxx

  3. American permalink
    September 11, 2011

    Thank you for caring and for writing this.

    For Americans of my generation (the fall of the Berlin Wall being one of my earliest TV-watching memories), the attacks were incomprehensible. We had only ever known peace and prosperity, and in an instant we were doomed to endless war and economic calamity. When I step back and REALLY remember that day, I cry. Not just for those who died in the attacks, but for everything else that we lost — especially that beautiful moment of unity with the world that seemed to vanish within days.

  4. September 11, 2011

    Thanks for this, very moving.

  5. Marina permalink
    September 11, 2011

    A beautiful story of worlds within worlds. Thank you for sharing.

  6. September 11, 2011

    You really put me there with you. I was standing on your roof, watching television over your shoulder, listening to the sirens, and walking to the store. And then the juxtaposition of a world tragedy with a personal one so quick on its heels. I think creative talent has a way of emerging again though – such as with this blog.

    On this day ten years ago I was working at an advertising agency in London. We had a rolling news television screen in the foyer, and one by one left our desks and came to stand there in shock and watch as the events unfolded. After that our boss decided no-one could possibly continue with a normal working day, so he ordered everyone to the bar across the road. We sat there in a bunch, trying to get in touch with friends and loved-ones, and make sense of what we’d seen. Impossible of course. After that we all went home as quickly as possible – there was a real feeling to get out of the centre of London, just in case.

  7. September 11, 2011

    Thank you for sharing your story.
    Can’t believe it’s ten years ago.

  8. September 11, 2011

    Thank you for sharing. It brings back memories… I was at my office in Amsterdam when one of my colleagues heard on the phone that something terrible had happened. We went in search for a TV and sat watching in shock as the towers went down. Today my thoughts are with all those who suffered that day.

  9. Joan permalink
    September 11, 2011

    I was in the Edinburgh sick kids hospital on September 11th. My middle child, then aged 2, had had a massive asthma attack and had developed pneumonia. As we had no babysitters available my two other children (aged 3 years and 4 months) were with my partner and I at the hospital. I remember being very grateful that the room my son was in had a TV so that the well kids could be kept entertained by watching children’s TV. But just as we were watching the Tweenies there was one of those ‘we interrupt this broadcast’ moments and from then on we sat and watched the planes flying into the Towers. It was striking how all the parents on the ward were transported momentarily from their own immediate concerns to those of people across the ocean.

    I don’t think its a complete coincidence that within 3 months we had relocated (after four years in Scotland) to be near to family in East London.

    Incidentally that sickly child (12 last month) is now 2 inches taller than me and wears size 8 shoes.

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  10. September 11, 2011

    you are a good person with a good soul. the world is better for having you in it. xoxoxo

  11. Jonathan permalink
    September 11, 2011

    Thank you for sharing your story with us all. I too was English and living in New York, and your experience sounds very similar to mine. Like you, I have also relocated to London’s East End. This is a painful time for many of my New York friends and I grieve with them, but I also wish that we would start from today to put the past behind us and turn to hope for the future. As a former US president once said, you have nothing to fear but fear itself. He was right then, as the world lurched from depression to world war, and he would be right to say it today. I know that for many that day it felt like all hope was lost, but it was not. I for one live for a brighter day.

  12. CornishCockney permalink
    September 11, 2011

    Like those of my parents generation who knew exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of JFKs assassination, people of my generation will always remember the same about 9/11.

  13. September 11, 2011

    I have often wondered how you found yourself in Spitalfields and now I understand.

    Thank you for this very moving post.

  14. Julie permalink
    September 11, 2011

    A wonderful post,thank you.It took me a while to realise that the old century had gone, and that 9/11 had ushered in the new century.You got it same day.

  15. John_F permalink
    September 12, 2011

    Thank you for a wonderfully sensitive and moving piece – it says so much more than the endless media coverage.

  16. Melanie permalink
    September 12, 2011

    Thank you for writing this. I too remember thinking that this could go on all day and and even spread around the world. My thoughts are with everyone who suffered and lost someone.

  17. TokyoDon permalink
    September 26, 2011

    Thankyou, GA.

  18. Linda in Texas permalink
    January 15, 2012

    Thank you. You opened my eyes and melted my heart. I was clueless the international impact of 911 until I read this. I have only been to NYC once in my life and that was when I was young. I feel so moved knowing this city reaches out to the world, no longer will I think of it as an American city.

  19. January 15, 2012

    dear gentle author – i feel that you came back to london for a different purpose, and everyone reading your stories is grateful for this

  20. Barbara Taylor permalink
    November 21, 2012

    Thank you for a wonderfully sensitive and moving piece.

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