I, Ambler Man, was there. Were you there? If you or someone you love wrote something equally as cringe-inducing and overwrought as this in the aftermath of America's Greatest Tragedy, please share a link in the discussion system below.
This column I wrote was originally published Sept. 19, 2001, in the Ambler Gazette.
There was a woman jogging through my neighborhood wearing a surgical mask Thursday. This is a sight not foreign to the East Village, where I've seen people jog while smoking cigarettes with parrots on their shoulders, talking on cell phones, wearing hula skirts or (once) not wearing anything. But, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001, this limber young woman in the black stretch pants wearing the surgical mask was out of the ordinary. Just as every part of our country after Tuesday's horrors has become askew with new surrealism. Even my neighborhood, the East Village, which at times can make South Street look like bingo night at the local Rotary Club, has lost its shine.
I live on East Ninth and Second Avenue, five blocks from the demarcation line below 14th Street separating the broken city from the rest of Manhattan. I type these words and the smell of skank hash from the adjoining apartment building has been replaced by the acrid smell of the burning towers. The Halloween smell of burning leaves is suffocated but dour stench. It is inescapable and defies description, and beguiles lucid thoughts. It is hellish and heartbreaking.
I've lived in New York City almost two years now and foolishly thought the vulnerability of living had all but vanished. I thought this city healed me of weakness and insecurity, and quelled irrational fear. I, like many other New Yorkers and Americans, was burdened with a new fear the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
As I dodged the mighty towers' crumble away from my office in the Financial District with thousands of others there was a new moment of weakness. A new fear surfaced. I've described to many friends and family over the phone the past week all of the horrors I'd witnessed firsthand, and they told me to come home. My sister, who like many others in my family struggled to find me for three hours as I made the apocalyptic walk with the thousands to the north side of town along the Hudson River, was the most sobering.
"God is napping. Come home," she said.
And I considered it, not just for the weekend, but for good. I wanted to walk 80 miles south down the N.J. turnpike back to the safe confines of my parent's townhouse in Ambler and wish it all away. Wish away the unopened mail I saw littering the sidewalk on Rector Street. Or the woman's shoe ridiculously resting on a car hood on Wall Street. Or all the remnants of people's New York mornings floating through the air- a morning they'll never see fully realized. Or how I'd looked up from the sidewalk across from the Trinity Church and saw the flames.
"Look at those big chunks of debris falling," ones of the many sky gazers said. It was hard to imagine it wasn't debris. But, it wasn't. The haunting shadow of fluttering ties and dresses proved otherwise.
"I will not live like this. I will leave the awful place and chase dreams elsewhere." I didn't want to live in fear again. And I wouldn't. I was going to leave.
I started working in the Financial District last February, and it was a horribly cold day and snowed 3 inches. The snow soiled my newly purchased black wingtip shoes - my "Wall Streeters." It irked me the snow had soiled my new-shoe shine, replacing it with dingy gray smear. I felt less professional, less New York, and didn't need that insecurity roiling my already fragile disposition before I started my new job. I turned the corner toward my office on State Street and the Twin Towers greeted me.
They loomed high above, the tallest of tall buildings, serving as bodyguards to those clamoring for a dream in fair Gotham. They were comforting and reassuring, but also challenging. Daring those of us lucky enough to have worked in its skyline to outdo ourselves. To be better than we expected. To conquer fear.
On Sept. 11, a new snow covered my shoes as I turned the corner toward my office. The Twin Towers had collapsed and the financial district was covered in its hallowed dust. It looked just like that day in February, the gray snow. But, this was September and it was sunny when I'd left that morning. My shoes were streaked again, but this time I walked back home, to the East Village instead of my office. I covered my face with the New York Post as I walked toward the river, waiting for the rest of the sky to fall, the dream to fade into oblivion. As the hordes financial district employees moved away from the choking dust, there were expressions on people's faces I'd never seen before. It was a mixture of shock, sorrow, surprise and dread. This expression made the eyes widen, the cheekbones sag, and the teeth grit.
"I will not live like this. I will leave and chase my dreams elsewhere."
And I left. As soon as the highways opened I left. I wet home to see my family and friends and contemplated moving away from New York. Away from that awful place and shake the memories of Tuesday. But, with all of those grim realities, within all of that selfish pit for "my horrible experience," also realized I was part of something special. I was about to leave a city, which a week later continues to dig ferociously amidst the WTC wasteland even though all hope is lost. A city that has mile-long lines lined up at the blood bank. A city that has rallied itself and a nation to persevere and be strong— to outdo ourselves. To be better than we expected. To conquer fear. And I will do that. I will give blood until my veins collapse. I will donate money that I don't have. I, like everyone else in this city, this nation, will persevere and continue to dream.
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Top photo: Getty.