I had a plan on September 10th, 2001. It was a rough plan, just broad strokes, really. But it was a plan. I had a plan to get my life in order. It was a three-part plan. Part one: stop being fat and stupid. Part two: become rich. Part three: quit smoking. Sometimes thing don’t quite go to plan.
The next morning I watched the south tower of the World Trade Centre collapse on television, I ran out of the conference room in the building I was freelancing, near 23rd street and Broadway in Manhattan. I ran down the stairs and outside and onto Broadway and even though I was miles away from the carnage, I could see the smoke billowing up from where the World Trade Center had been.
At that instance I knew that the television wasn’t lying. That comforting box wasn’t going to pause to tell me a story about how the right detergent would make me happy. I took one more glance downtown and thought, “Thank God, I’m not down there”.
In the subsequent days and weeks, I talked to friends who had not been spared the horror. One had vomited ash. Another was utterly convinced that the smouldering rubble hid survivors. I bought drinks for a fire-fighter who told me about the jumpers and a dream he had where he was strong enough to catch one. I drunkenly nodded along, like I had any idea what he had seen.
By the time I reached my office, I was told all of the news. The second tower collapsed. Then the rumours started circulating. An unstoppable tsunami of fire and debris was thundering uptown. There were other planes. Planes heading towards the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. The white ash that had engulfed downtown was anthrax. There was looting, the Capitol had been destroyed in Washington and there were bombs going off. I then came to the most logical, rational conclusion I could come to: the world was ending. The world was ending and I needed a plan.
I examined my options. I could a) fight or b) flee. In retrospect, I think I pulled off hysteria pretty well. I didn’t shriek and run in circles. I decided against fleeing, which I imagined involved me screaming and running all the way to the Hudson, diving into the river, and swimming to Canada. No. I had to stay and fight, which primarily consisted of me fighting a fear that was felt like a fat clown giving me the Heimlich manoeuvre.
Part one of my new plan that morning: call my dad. I managed to get through after numerous attempts and he choked back tears and I told him I was alright. He told me in a hoarse voice to keep it together, to get home, and then his voice cracked and he told me we’d get them. I didn’t know who we’d get, but we’d get them. I assured him I was okay – a-okay – and hung up the phone. The inside of my cheek was bleeding from where I had chewed it.
Part two of my plan: I called my girlfriend and told her an equidistant point to meet between my office and Columbia University, where she was going to school. It was a bar we drank at frequently. I was going to be her hero, by golly. I made sure my voice was firm and commanding. I told her not to worry. We were going to be okay. That is the sort of lie you tell that you don’t really think is a lie.
In some ways, hope is just a lie in a prom dress. I told her we would be okay even though we would never, ever be okay again. In a few months I would be unemployed, a few months after that my dad would be dead, and a few months after that she would move out of our apartment because I cheated on her.
The third part of my plan: prepare for the apocalypse and fight my way to my girlfriend. Because, obviously, anarchy was going to break out. The streets would be full of lawless biker gangs and cannibals and warlords commanding small armies of hockey-mask wearing barbarians. I ran into the office kitchen and immediately began soaking a dishtowel, because of that tidal wave of destruction that should have reached the Flatiron Building a few miles north of the Financial District by now. I would wrap that dishtowel across my face to help me breath. I then started looking for a weapon so I can slash and cleave my way through hostile hoards of humans on my way to rescue my girlfriend. There were no weapons. Then I paused and seriously considered affixing, with tape, the fork and knife in the sink to a broom handle to make a spear. I could stab my way to my girlfriend using a spear made out of a broom handle and a fork and a knife. I could do that.
Of course, there was no anarchy. Just funeral parlour silence.
I walked up the middle of Sixth Avenue with hundreds of people. There was no traffic. Jet fighters zoomed above our heads. I tried not to turn back to look downtown. I remembered the Greek myth of Orpheus. How he was allowed to escort his great love out of the underworld on one condition: that he not look back to make sure she was behind them as they ascended out of the darkness. I didn’t look back. I walked. I met my girlfriend. We kissed and I was rescued.
The bar was a dark party of stunned office workers who decided that the end of the world was happy hour and that happy hour lasted for years. The trains weren’t running to Queens, so I knocked back two or five. My girlfriend was quiet. I could hear my dad tell me that we’d get those bastards. Out of nowhere, I looked at her and told her, “We’ll get those bastards.” She asked who. I sputtered. I tried to come up with an answer. By that point, everyone in the city knew that the city had suffered a massive terrorist attack.
“The terrorists. We’ll get them back!”
A guy at the bar staring at the television with giant wet eyes overheard me and weakly gargled an agreement.
She asked “who” again.
“The terrorists. We’ll get them back. We’ll nuke them. Wipe them off the planet. It’s got to be the Iranians, right? Well, let’s nuke Islamabad!”
“John, Islamabad is in Pakistan,” she whispered. She should know. She was getting a graduate degree in International Studies. I got angry at her and stormed outside.
The streets were full of hot-blooded zombies. It’s funny how you don’t know you’re crying until you can taste the salt in your mouth. I tried to man up and not look like I was sobbing.
We caught the first train back to Queens. It was crowded. Everyone stood shoulder to shoulder, but no one shuffled. We were all tight like a Tetris game. Near the front of the car there was a man groaning, like he was wounded, but he wasn’t.
On the way back to our apartment, I stopped into a deli for a pack of cigarettes. The owner of the deli was startled to see me walk in. I later learned that the man who sold me the cigarettes was from Bangladesh. But as I paid him, I wondered if he was from Islamabad, Iran, the capital of an imaginary nation of terror. I felt ashamed and I asked him how he was doing. He begged me to leave. He was afraid and he just pleaded with me. “Please, go, leave. Please.” He closed his shop later that night and he didn’t reopen until the next week.
I smoked my first cigarette on the roof of my apartment as my girlfriend passed out. I could see the plume of smoke snaking heavenward from across the river. I was safe. Far away from the carnage. But there was the smell — the smell of burning plastic, concrete, steel, bones and the lead from thousands and thousands of computers. The smell was part of the smoke that settled like a blanket over the entire city. I lit my cigarette and exhaled and the smoke spilled out of my nose and mixed with the smoke that polluted the crisp autumn air. The smoke clung to my hair and my clothes, my skin, teeth and dreams. I can still smell it as I write this.
I lit a new cigarette with the glowing red end of the old cigarette and I inhaled and exhaled more smoke. I wished that with every drag, I could pull myself into the cigarette and through the cigarette and transform myself one suck at a time into smoke that finally escapes out the other end. I wanted to be smoke. I wanted to twirl and float on the breeze and disappear.
Plans burn – and I still smoke.
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