Jennifer Shaw Griffin: There is nothing quite like eye contact and a shared mammalian warmth in a place beyond words

By September 10, 2021 No Comments

I was living with my husband in Brooklyn at that time, and we were working from home. In New York, there is a time when the veil of summer lifts. You never know when, but it always comes and everyone feels lit, You can see it on the faces and hear it in the voices. Dog days – the miasma, stench of urine, a half-dead grimy terrarium of humidity, subway platforms completely unbreathable, commuters wilted, pissed off. And then. It comes, the break in the clouds. The sun shines, the breeze blows, the air clears, the tempers (and temperatures) settle, people begin to speak to each other again planning outings and looking forward to the fall.

The weekend just before September 11th was like that. On Sunday, we spent the day on Ellis Island. We got off the subway at the World Trade Center Plaza and walked between the towers on our way to Battery Park to catch the ferry. I remember watching the skyline recede from the back of the boat, feeling the air, smelling the ocean – such a relief.

When you walk around the downtown area and look up – all the buildings are enormous, stretching away from you like an exercise in forced perspective. The Twin Towers were almost double the height of anything around them.

On that Tuesday, we woke up, made coffee, put on the radio morning news and started work. A normal day. A beautiful day. Clear skies and sweet-smelling dry clean air. A word from the radio, in the background – there’s a fire at the World Trade Center. I jumped up and turned on the TV. Smoke spilling out of the building. Helicopter hovering.

At 25 years old, I had worked at the WTC. Everyone in New York who worked as an office temp had likely worked there at some point. There were probably dozens of office temps there right now. I thought of the time there was a fire drill and I – along with thousands of other people – dutifully climbed down 20, 50 or 88 flights down and out.

We began hearing the fire trucks racing down Flatbush Ave on their way to the bridges. One, after the other, after the other.

Our landlord was having the front of the building resurfaced. The crew was Yemeni. We had been talking with them all week, coming and going through the doorway; one day, the ran a hose from our kitchen sink. I turned at looked over my shoulder. Two of the workers were looking in the window at our TV. There was worry. I handed one of them a cup of coffee.

When the second plane hit, it was like the air was sucked right out of the room. Silence. Un-comprehension. A crater in the landscape of what we thought we knew for certain. When next I looked over my shoulder, there sat the coffee cup, unattended on my window sill. The entire construction crew was gone.

Our upstairs neighbour came home. He was an architect and managing his first project at the nearby Brooklyn Museum of Art. I saw him coming up the stoop and I called out to him. He came into our living room and sat on the couch. He and my husband began talking about the structure – unique at the time the towers were built – central core with walls and floors hanging off the flexible shell, the specifications of steel, the truck bomb in 1990.

When the first tower fell, I remember standing up involuntarily, and crying out. Reaching my arm toward the TV, fingers splayed. For what? To stop the fall? To stop time? When the second tower fell, we lost TV reception. Can you imagine? The transmitters were on the roof of the tower. TV went black first, then pixelated static, all stations gone.

For us, this is how the silence began. The silence is what I remember most. The silence was the aftershock. Because New York City is nothing if not loud – 24/7 loud, depending on your neighbourhood, and how far up you are.

For the next few hours, the mass of people came, walking over the bridges, walking up Flatbush Avenue a block from our house, covered in grey ash. Looking into the distance down the avenue, a river of people walking through a cloud of particulate matter. Thousands. Already there were handwritten cardboard signs in all the bodegas: “Please come in. Use our phone. Free water. Sit and rest. Use our restrooms.”

My husband and I walked to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, leaning on the wrought iron fence with hundreds of other people staring across the bay at the column of smoke obscuring downtown. Below the promenade runs the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway: 100% empty. More silence. Everywhere. Indescribable. I believe we listened to ourselves breathe.

I looked up into the haze and murk overhead, picking out individual glints of white fluttering across the bay. Paper. Tons of paper, exploded into the sky, torn and singed, skittering across the streets of Brooklyn like dead leaves. I picked up a scrap that day. I still have it. It hangs framed in my hallway, underneath a picture of the Twin Towers.

I didn’t sleep for 30-something hours, glued to the television. The stations had all managed to switch to local transmitters on Long Island and New Jersey. If I went to sleep and woke up again, this event would be a solid thing locked and located in the past. As long as this event was still happening, there was a chance it might morph somehow, and become something else. Irrational, I know. But when the knowing of something is unbearable, the mind will find rest on whatever lily pad it can.

Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I went in to Manhattan. It took me a few hours to figure out how to do this, walking empty streets, trying different subway lines. The Brooklyn lines were severely off, because most of them went underneath the WTC – a major connection hub. I finally heard the approaching rattle and hiss from up on street level and I took off running to catch it.

The NY subway trains are mostly relatively new: shiny silver metal with bright orange and yellow interiors. Every once in a while, a ghost of generations past rumbles through the station and the platform quiets as we all stand and watch these old relics totter past. The train I caught was one of those. Carpeted with thick layers of graffiti and only lit from within by a pale green light. Not sure if it was even meant to carry anyone. It was empty. But the doors opened, I stepped in, and the doors closed. It rolled along slowly as if afraid to make noise. I got out at the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge and walked south.

It was dark outside at that point. There was a perimeter blocked off, five blocks in every direction. Police at every intersection. I was not alone; there were others standing at the barricades staring down old cobbled streets towards the only electric lights downtown, the warped and broken steel columns hanging there in the smoke and halogen lights. At that time, we still thought – hoped – there could be rescues.

People were standing on line at blood banks. Underneath the Twin Towers was four flights of shops, restaurants, offices, subway tunnels. Surely there was someone alive, trapped in a Banana Republic or pinned down by a newspaper kiosk still holding on to their bagel.

And there were stories of some who did escape, survivors who ran burning to jump into the harbor, or who walked blind down dark tunnels to the next station, and climbed out. Walking north again, unsure how I would get home again, I hit Houston Street – and a new shock. A complete barricade across the island from the East River to the Hudson: tanks, National Guard, heavy artillery, streetlights. And thousands of people looking down the avenues.

I realised I was not supposed to be where I was, that apparently, no one was allowed south of Houston. The tunnels and bridges were closed to both cars and pedestrians. I guess the trains were not supposed to stop anywhere south of Houston. (People lived there, but they had to prove residence to police, and could only enter to collect belongings; there was no plumbing or electricity south of Houston.)

I put my hands on my head and went sideways through the barricades, melting into the crowd. At one point, I saw a Franciscan friar – brown burlap robe, cowl, rope belt with a rough-carved cross swinging. He looked like a refugee from the Middle Ages, lost and adrift in the 21st century, scanning the crowds and looking for a soul in need of comfort.

Maybe two weeks later, we went to Manhattan to walk around and just be with people. We passed a bodega with a box of tissues and a sign saying, ‘Sit and rest’. Union Square was filled with posters of the missing.

At some point, we decided to seek a pint in a bar. We didn’t want to go home. The only thing at home was 24/7 cable news coverage. It was too much, too much to bear. Still. We just shuffled to the back and drank our pints. Churches and bars, churches and bars were hastily filled with folding chairs and packed shoulder to shoulder in that time. I’m not a church-going person, but one day I did seek one out. I just wanted to be with people, and I wasn’t alone in that. New Yorkers, usually ones for avoiding eye contact, but even that changed. People held each other’s gaze longer than usual. There is nothing quite like eye contact and a shared mammalian warmth in a place beyond words.