looking back on 9/11 from Vermont
If someone told you Camel’s Hump mountain had disappeared, would you believe them? That’s sort of the way I felt on that day. It was years before this flatlander had moved to the Green Mountains. I boarded the E Train on 14th Street and saw a young woman in a business suit crying and covered in ash. She was headed uptown and I knew her starting point… The World Trade Center Station. It was Sept. 11, 2001 and I had seen on TV the planes strike a couple of hours before in a midtown office. I worked at a financial services firm and screens tuned to news channels are ubiquitous. Strangely those images would be the last I would see for a number of days as my spouse and I didn’t have a TV and YouTube had yet to be invented. I left the office for a doctor’s appointment and saw the twin towers burning while looking downtown. It was an exceptionally bright sunny day. Above the buildings all blue except the trail of smoke. People were going about their business but things changed when I arrived at the hospital. There were reports of more planes in DC. The receptionist said “all the doctors are getting ready .” Ready? I wasn’t following. I was still under the impression the crashes were some sort of accident with casualties that wouldn’t extend beyond the hospital in that neighborhood. Someone else started saying that the news said “DC has been hit.” Hit? I went back to the subway. I looked down town… but this time I couldn’t see the buildings… just the trail of black smoke cutting the deep blue sky. When I got back to the office they told me the buildings were gone. Gone? I didn’t understand.
As a child I had watched the building slowly rise over a number of years. They didn’t go up in tandem. One was finished way before the other. A few years after completion the director Dino De Laurentiis had invited all New Yorkers to appear on the new Trade Center Plaza for the final scene in his remake of King Kong. My friends went, but I declined. I had lunch at the World Trade Center’s Windows on the World back in the day. I failed to wear a jacket and tie and the restaurant provided an ill-fitting substitute. It was with a group of my parents’ friends. All everyone could talk about was… my outfit. I was struck by the design of the tables as each was at a level so that everyone could enjoy the view. In addition I had been at a reception on one of the lower floors within the previous month. The banquet area had the feel of a top-end 1970s hotel. I think for many New Yorkers the buildings were best remembered at a distance. As a child, driving with my parents on New Jersey highways, you would mark the progress of the work. When completed you always thought back to that time when they were slowly rising. No matter how many years later you had it in your head: “finally finished.” How could all that have simply disappeared in the course of going to the doctor’s office?
Things were different. The days after are what I remember most. There was the ever-present smoke. Would that fire ever stop spitting out that smell of death? The news of the missing and dead. The fighter jets flying as a constant reminder. The handmade posters still bring me to tears. Every lamppost on every city block was filled with photocopied images of loved ones taped-up by friends and family. There was this one black and white image of a young woman…. Have you seen…. I walked from 14th street to 96th street in the days that followed and her loved ones had not missed a single lamppost. Then the fire-stations… each one smothered in flowers with photos and notes of remembrance. The army of first-responder funerals coupled with the pages and pages of newspaper obituaries. The nervousness about being on higher floors. The wariness when the commercial jets reappeared. I remember a brief respite when people walked in the park with candles. I think it was three days after as we were all very raw. There was a bond there. No matter who you were. All of us wandering with our little lights flickering in the holy darkness.
Those memories traveled to the Green Mountains. A change of scenery never erases a life lesson about the impermanence of everything familiar. That day was a precursor to standing six feet apart in masks. The sylvan Vermont landscape can take on a threatening hue in light of West burning in drought. The challenge is finding a path that acknowledges the mutability without caving into fear and paranoia. The week after I returned to my office in Midtown I discovered most of the food delivery people had been fired. The new security protocols demanded government issued photo ID’s to enter the office buildings. Most of these hardscrabble workers were unable to secure the documents. Ironically some of the actual hijackers who steered the planes into the World Trade Center had this form of identification. Then there was my Sikh co-worker, who was verbally assaulted. It seems the NY subway riders deemed anyone in a turban to be fair game. In present day Vermont I feel the same anger. Recently I witnessed a young store clerk being barraged with obscenities by a physically imposing middle-aged man. Her crime was to enforce the store policy regarding mask wearing. Rage has a habit of being mis-directed.
Twenty years ago and a day the World Trade Center stood tall. The war on terror hadn’t started. It was six years before the iPhone. Broadband had just begun. Internet for the general public had been around for roughly 10 years. Global Warming was a relatively new concept. A lot can happen in a couple of decades. If someone says Camel’s Hump is gone… my advice: check.