O utside my window, bits of paper floated on the slight breeze as if suspended by wires. Feather-like, they slowly descended in the unnatural quietness of that long Brooklyn day. Torn pieces of scribbled Post-it notes, desk calendars and photographs, daily to-do lists that would never get done. Reams of now-useless reports escaped from filing cabinets and desk drawers, shredded by terror and now free to spiral on the wind eastward to land on my roof or float past my window on their way to Coney Island.
That beautiful autumn day in September, I was living in a fourth-floor walk-up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a couple neighborhoods and a river away from Downtown Manhattan. I was listening to the radio while getting ready for a morning meeting with the writers of a book I was editing, and I heard the radio announcer say there was a fire on top of the World Trade Center. My first thought was that I should take the F train and walk across to Chelsea to avoid any emergency traffic jams above or below ground.
I was heading out the door when a friend called from Delaware: “They’re attacking New York” was the answer to my hello. This sort of announcement wasn’t unusual from this particular friend, and I responded with my usual “there is no ‘they’.” He’d seen on the news that an airplane had collided with the Twin Towers. I assured my friend that it was an accident, not an attack, and although it was too bad, bad things happen all the time in the city, and I was late for my meeting.
You know that scene in “Casablanca,” when the Parisian merriment is stilled by the voices of the Germans on the loudspeaker? Or you’ve seen newsreels of families gathered around their radios listening to the newscaster say that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor? All is quiet except for the bad news reverberating, and the air is heavy with the ramifications of what must happen next. That’s what it was like as I started off toward the subway station. Windows were open, and I swear everyone had the same radio station on. The solemn fragments of information told little of what was happening, but everyone seemed to feel the terrible nearness of the truth. What struck me was the lack of movement. Many people were just standing there, listening, or whispering to one another or into their phones. The dread was palpable and surreal against the beauty of the crisp fall morning, white clouds bouncing across an impossibly blue sky.
I’d made it to the subway station and paid my fare, but I didn’t get on the train when it came. Once back in my little corner of Brownstone safety, I’d turned on the television and I didn’t move for hours.
Not much later that morning, against the same backdrop of blue, along with the world I watched the second plane fly into the tower. My little couch faced west, only a wall between me and a direct view of what I saw happening on my TV screen.
The ladder to the rooftop was just outside my door and would’ve taken me to a front-row seat of the smoking horror of Downtown Manhattan, but I couldn’t bring myself to go up there, especially once I saw the paper rain outside my window.
Every time I hear “Never Forget,” I wish I could forget those people falling down down down alongside what was left of their work-home, and I wonder if I would’ve chosen to step out into the air and seal my fate. Or if I would’ve waited, ever the optimist, for help that wasn’t able to reach me, surrounded by dust and the flying detritus that would float toward Brooklyn, maybe make it all the way to Coney Island.
Lisa Lester Kelly is the accounting coordinator/news clerk for The Observer. She was living in New York City during the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.