Growing up, my dad lived in the West Village with a huge picture window facing South, the Twin Towers rising up directly in the middle, as if the window had been built as a frame just for them. When the Twin Towers were originally built, most New Yorkers didn’t like them. They shifted the main representation of the city skyline from midtown to downtown and seemed to say that “bigger” was more New York than the elegance and artistry of say, the Empire State Building or the Chrysler.
My dad loved those buildings though. To him, a divorced dad in his early 30s who had just moved to Manhattan and was trying to start a new career in real estate, the Towers said that anything was possible in NYC. It was new money instead of old. The sky was the limit.
I don’t remember visiting the top of the Empire State Building as a kid (although I’m sure I did), but I remember going up to the top of the Twin Towers. We would go with my dad quite often. I remember craning our necks to look up at the towers from street level, our ears popping in the elevator, and the breathtaking unobstructed views of the entire island from the top of the North Tower.
My dad moved to Manhattan when I was ten. My sister and I would visit him every other weekend from our home on Long Island. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to live in the city too. When I finished college, I got a job at an advertising agency in midtown and rented an apartment with a friend of mine on the Upper East Side. I went through a string of apartments and boyfriends in the years that followed, and ended up suddenly needing a new place to live after I made the mistake of hooking up with my roommate. My solution was to make a hasty move into my cousin’s apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. This was before Brooklyn was cool and I remember lying in bed, my first night there, feeling like my life had taken a wrong turn. I didn’t belong there.
Back then, I used to go to the gym every morning before work. I had yet to switch my gym membership to Brooklyn, so that first morning in my cousin’s apartment, I woke up ridiculously early, packed my clothes and all the toiletries I would need to shower and hopped on the subway so that I could go to my old gym in the West Village before work like a normal day.
When I finished working out, I went down to shower in the locker room, which was below street level. I came out into reception at a little before 9am, which is when the receptionist informed me that a plane had just hit one of the Twin Towers. “What? Really?” I remember asking. It was hard to wrap your head around. “Yes,” she told me. “You can see for yourself outside.”
From outside the gym on 10th Street and 7th Avenue, there was a clear view of the towers. When the second plane hit, it felt like it was happening right in front of me. But, I came to realize only a few hours later, that’s how everyone felt. Almost everyone in New York City on September 11th had a clear view of the Twin Towers because they were the tallest buildings in Manhattan. If you were on pretty much any avenue on the West Side, no matter how far up, you could see them standing tall at the end, because all avenues seemingly ended at the tip of Manhattan where the Twin Towers stood.
People ask why I have never written about my experience on September 11th and the answer is because my experience is nothing unique. It was a shared experience by millions of people in Manhattan that day, who were way luckier than the people who were further downtown. Everyone felt like they were RIGHT there, except that they weren’t really RIGHT there because they knew people who were actually RIGHT there, and that was something else entirely. For New Yorkers who weren’t really right there, telling your September 11th story feels self-indulgent. It was a life altering event for all of us, but the value of our individual experience at the time (even now), seemed/seems pretty unimportant.
I mean, just last week, after a year of working with Allie, I found out her dad was one of the first responders. I imagine her experience, even though she was only a little kid living on Long Island at the time, dwarfs mine. But she’d never mentioned it before either.
That day, I did what most people in New York did who weren’t really RIGHT there. I stood and gawked. I watched as people on side streets walked casually to the subway and then saw what was happening when they hit the avenue. I bought a disposable camera at a drugstore and took pictures. Pictures that I have never actually shown anyone and am now embarrassed to have taken. I overheard people talking about terrorism and could not even begin to comprehend what they were saying. I wasn’t sure whether someone doing this on purpose or two planes crashing coincidentally seemed more preposterous. I remember the fear dawning on me as I realized that a coincidence was actually the less likely of the two. Then I felt shame for being so naive. I walked up a few blocks to St. Vincent’s hospital where I assumed ambulances would start to arrive but none came. Obviously, I wasn’t going to work and I couldn’t go home (not only could you not take a subway back to Brooklyn, but my cousin’s apartment where I had slept for only one night felt far from my home), so I did the only thing I could think of— I looked for my dad.
Cell service wasn’t working that day so I tried to call him from a pay phone but couldn’t get through. I walked to his apartment but he wasn’t there. I walked to his office but he wasn’t there either. I walked to his brother’s office and it was deserted. So then, I went to the last place I could think to go— a building that his partners were developing in the East Village. He had told me that it was going to be one of the tallest buildings in the area and would have the most beautiful view of the Twin Towers, better than his apartment.
I found him there, watching the horrors of the day unfold from the rooftop of a construction site, newly built, all floors and ceilings, with no walls.
I never went back to that apartment in Brooklyn, except about a week later to pack up my things. That day and the days after, it felt safer to be in Manhattan than outside of it. Even without an apartment, Manhattan was my home. On September 11th, I took my gym bag full of toiletries and moved into my dad’s place in the West Village. I looked out his picture window at the black smoke billowing where the towers used to be. I got together with friends who lived nearby and we walked outside on major streets that were now pedestrian-only, talking about the smell and whispering about the friend of the friend who was in the South Tower. We cheered the ambulances and fire trucks driving down the West Side Highway. We went to Union Square and looked at all the pictures of the missing people, hoping that there were no faces we recognized. We watched nothing but the news for weeks. We walked to work because we were scared to ride the subway. Once back at work, we got evacuated more than once due to bomb threats, walking down countless stairs in stunned silence until we were all let out into the sunny streets below, not knowing which direction was safe to go. We wondered if life would ever go back to normal.
And then gradually, it did. With a new sense of fragility and a confusion about America’s place in the world.
I stayed with my dad for about six months, before I felt (or he felt, I can’t remember) that it was time to move on. I found a new place and a new roommate; the first of many more, until I eventually moved into the apartment I live in today.
My dad was right. The construction site he was standing on top of on September 11th would have had the most beautiful view of the Twin Towers.
I know because it’s the building I now call home.