Sunday, September 11, 2011

That Day: We Remember…

September 11, 2001, a Tuesday, was a nice Fall day, I think (aging has a way of dimming memory, at least mine, no matter how ‘unforgettable’ the subject). My wife Rose and I left our apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens, earlier than usual that morning to vote: it was Primary Day in New York City. At the polling place, we heard that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center (just that, nothing more). We went back home to turn on the TV. This is how we remember it:

ROSE: When we saw the plane had hit the Tower and it was burning, I remember thinking I’d better get on the road now before the traffic is impossible. Only a New Yorker could have had such a reaction to a disaster. I owned a boutique called Metaphors on Bedford Avenue at North 6th Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, three blocks from the East River, just opposite the Manhattan waterfront at 23rd Street. Eventually, I got to my store. As I was pulling up the gate, Karen, who owned Luanna’s, an Urban Cowboy boutique across the street, hollered at me to close my store!

“Why?” I shouted back.

“Because the country is under attack.”

“But,” I said, “we have a captive audience today, The subway is shut down.”

“Go home!” she said. So I did.

ROBERT: I was working as a trial lawyer in the Queens Office of the Criminal Defense Division of the Legal Aid Society. The office and the Criminal Courts were on Queens Blvd. in Kew Gardens, a 7-minute ride on the G-train from the Roosevelt Avenue station in Jackson Heights. I took the train; we were a one-car family then and Rose needed it to get to the store. When I arrived, everyone was glued to the TV. Like everyone else, I stayed in the office and watched. What did I feel? Astonished! Did I see the Towers fall? I‘m not sure; maybe one? From the vantage of age 70, I’m convinced that I don’t remember more than I do remember, and depending on how much time has passed, my recollections may be mist-enshrouded.

For example, on November 23, 1963, when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, I was employed as a copyboy on the New York Journal-American, an afternoon daily, one of the City’s 7 daily newspapers at the time. When the inevitable cliché is asked: And where were you on etc., etc, etc.? – I usually say I was working in the City Room that late morning when Kennedy was shot. But was I? I think I was because I have a vivid recollection of standing immovable in that room with everyone else — editors, reporters, copyboys, pressmen – transfixed by the TV showing . . . something? Announcement of his death in the Dallas Hospital? The Funeral? The assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby? I’m not sure; I’m guessing (always reminds me of the movie, ‘The Mists of Avalon’).

The Courts shut down; the subways, too. I walked the 3 miles home. I had it easier than most.

ROSE: I drove home through Long Island City, Queens, past the 59th Street Bridge which thousands of people were spilling off onto Northern Boulevard, all of them fleeing Manhattan. I stopped and offered a ride to a foursome of Indian-looking people, hoping they lived in my neighborhood of Jackson Heights, also known as ‘Little India’. I was disappointed and more than a little embarrassed to see very few cars stopping to offer rides. The man owned a newsstand in Midtown and the three women were his employees. They thanked me for being “a human being,” but alas, they lived in Flushing. I had to take them all the way, I could do no less. As we talked, I asked if they were from Pakistan. “No, No,” they cried, “India, India!”

Past Jackson Heights, of course, my 1990 GEO overheated and stalled out in unbelievably stop-and-go, snail-paced traffic. Then a passing Caddy stopped alongside, the window rolled down, and a lovely, black female arm miraculously extended a plastic gallon of water to me. My newsstand owner then exclaimed that he had been an auto mechanic in India and “Not to Worry!” And, indeed, after a brief rest and some work under the hood, we were back on the road. After leaving them off on Main Street in Flushing, I had a comparatively smooth ride home.

The next day I was determined to open for business as usual. The shop was filled all day with frightened young people. Williamsburg then was a haven for wealthy trust fund babies and poor artists pushed out by rents across the water in the gentrifying East Village. I sold one pair of earrings for $12 all day. That was all right because September 12, 2001, was a day to be together to start to feel safe again.

ROBERT: In the days, weeks, years after ‘9/11’, four things still stick in my mind: First, the names with personal detail and photographs, affixed in the thousands to every fence and empty wall in downtown Manhattan. Second, the sea of dirty-white dust of ‘cremains’ that blanketed cars, trees and streets when the prevailing winds blew towards Queens. Third, the dazed, sad look on the face of my friend, a Fire Department Lieutenant, who was on the fourth floor with his men when the North Tower fell, as he told how he’d been dug out of the rubble like a rare artifact. Fourth, the resigned-hopeful face of the young NYPD detective who’d done 12-hour tours, six- days-a-week for months at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island (Had a site ever been more aptly named?) His job and that of his brother-detectives: to rake through thousands, tens of thousands, of tons of debris from ‘ground zero’ in search of human remains. They told him to wear a mask. What they didn’t tell him? That in 2004, when I met him, he’d be forever unfit for duty, unable to run or climb without gasping for breath, unlikely to see his children get much older.

Oh, yes, lest I forget: If Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Thomas Von Essen, his handpicked Fire Commissioner, had been delivered into the hands of the rank-and-file of the New York City Fire Department after 9/11, I suspect the ‘Mayor of America’ would have been hard-pressed to explain why the Fire Department’s radios failed to deliver the message to vacate the Towers while the Police Department’s radios worked fine – especially, since the City had known, since the prior bombing of the WTC in 1973, that the FD radios were defective… Just a thought.

Robert Knightly


  1. Wonderful portrayal by both Bob and Rose - presence is in the details and you have given us an excellent picture with all the senses!

  2. This is such a poignant depiction of how and why NYC got back to normal so quickly after the disaster. And I too, wonder about those 'radios' .