Sunday, September 11, 2011

Seven Days in September

This wasn’t my war. It wasn’t even my city. And it wasn’t supposed to have been my assignment that day, or for the nearly 10 days that followed. But I was in New York on 9/11 -- definitely the wrong place at the wrong time -- and found I was swept up in the chaos and other forces beyond my control.

I had been there already for days, covering the fashion shows that had been unfolding inside the tents at Bryant Park as part of New York Fashion Week. That morning, as terrorists flew jet planes into the World Trade Center, I was just about to take my seat alongside a catwalk teeming with pregnant models showcasing a new line of maternity wear by American designer Liz Lange, a fashion runway first.

But I didn’t end up reporting on that.


Liz Lange Maternity Fashion Show


Instead, my story that day, dictated into a cell phone, among the only ones working in Manhattan that day as evidenced by the numbers of people offering me cash to enable them to make one last desperate call to a loved one, was a first-hand witness account of what I saw erupting in the streets. Citizens who had just started work that morning were screaming, running, bleeding all around me. Many were trying to flee the terror unfolding just a few blocks south of where I was then standing.

Within minutes of the attacks, I encountered people who had just staggered up 6th Avenue from Wall Street, seeking refuge amid the shading trees of Bryant Park. Several had barely escaped with their lives. I rooted for the cell phone in my purse and quickly dialed my newspaper in Toronto.

“I’m in New York,” I shouted. “You’d better use me. I’m at the centre of a war zone.” I was speaking to an editor on the news desk.

“Thank God you’re there,” he said. “We had no idea we had any one on the ground. Listen, we’ll get details from the wires. But you get colour. Start talking to people. Can you do that?”

Colour was newspeak for observed details, live quotes. I looked around me and saw people limping to benches beneath the trees at Bryant Park. There were men with ash on their faces, their white shirts dirty and torn, and their ties askew. They were all Wall Street refugees.
“Yes, I can,” I said, and clicked shut my phone. I swallowed any reservations I might have had at the moment in approaching people who looked like they had just gone through hell, and went straight to work.

“Sir, hello, excuse me. I am journalist. From Canada. Can I ask you where you have just come from? Can you tell me what you’ve seen?” From him I heard that the plane had hit the First Tower with thousands of people still in them. It was burning and people were jumping out of the windows to their deaths. He said he saw bodies falling past his window while he hid under his desk, thinking at first Manhattan was experiencing an earthquake after he felt the building shaking. He had gathered as many people as he could, his co-workers and fellow floor dwellers, to lead them down a darkened stairwell, and just in time.

“The tower has come down,” he said, quietly, still in shock. “I came straight here, after first ducking into a church to say a prayer.” A terrible story. Horrible images. But I didn’t flinch. I didn’t dare. I knew that what I was reporting on was historic. I wanted to convey it fully for my readers back home, recreate in words what I was seeing and hearing and experiencing, first hand.

I wanted to persevere, despite the feeling of nausea rising inside me. And rising not only as a result of what I was witnessing. I was pregnant. It was why I had been at the maternity show that morning. My paper hadn’t been aware of my condition. I hadn’t thought to tell them. I was in the first trimester, barely showing. It was just supposed to be a bunch of fashion shows. Nothing strenuous. And now this. The biggest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor. I had another child and a husband back home in Toronto. I should have called them immediately. But I had called my paper, instead. Career first. I hadn’t yet broken the habit.

I thought it would be just that one day, and then I’d be finished. I’d be home. Safe. Or so I had hoped.

But then I couldn’t get home.

I was stuck on the island of Manhattan for more than week. All the international flights out of the city were halted in the aftermath of the attacks, and the trains were all full. I called my newspaper to ask them to help me get home. My editor didn’t return my calls.

And so I filed more stories – on the series of bomb scares that succeeded in spooking the city in the aftermath of the attacks, and on the desperation of the families of the victims who had begun postering the city with family photos of the missing.

These intimate portraits of people smiling out at the camera from birthday parties and bridal showers, holding their dogs or hugging their moms, were laser printed onto pieces of 9-by-11 inch sheets of paper that had been hastily taped or thumb-tacked to telephone poles, shop windows, the New York subway. These were the human face of the news story that had gripped the world. I walked by those pictures and absorbed the fear and sorrow, feeling it weigh me down as I wandered alone through the city.

The city that never sleeps was completely empty of yellow cabs, cars and buses, the streets eerily silent and still. Scared New Yorkers cowered in doorways, clutching tiny American flags. Dark-skinned shop and restaurant owners with origins in the Middle East were instantly the target of people’s ire and frustration. In SoHo, a man of Lebanese background told me a stylish woman had walked into his shop on the afternoon of 9/11 to tell him he was no longer welcome there. “She said people like me are the problem. But I am American!”

In the days that followed, I also stayed glued to the television, watching news coverage of the event on American television from inside my tiny boutique Hudson Hotel room. Seemingly intelligent commentators were saying, “But why do people hate us so much?” They really hadn’t a clue. It was a question also asked outside, all around me, on the street. One time, when I let it slip that American foreign policy appears to have upset people around the world, inspiring them to retaliate; I was treated with suspicion and dismay.

But I also witnessed hope and resistance. Ladies still lunched on Saturday at Bergdorf’s. The children in Central Park continued to cast their toy boats into the wind, confident they’d sail back.

Yet it wasn’t exactly life as usual: I overheard a trio of nurses talking while on a break from working in the makeshift morgues that had sprouted up in the wake of 9/11. They were near the Central Park basin, huddled on a bench, dragging exhaustedly on their cigarettes. One described in vivid detail how people had been incinerated alive while stuck inside the towers that day. In my mind’s eye I saw the blackened corpses, heard the screams.

I remember putting a hand on my belly. The baby was still barely the size of a tennis ball. Not yet kicking. It gave me hope to carry on; to displace thoughts of death with thoughts of life. It is what I had been able to do on the night of 9/11 when Broadway had insisted on keeping its doors open, its marquees bright.

I was alone on the night of the attacks, and not a little scared. When I heard the theatres were opening on The Great White Way as an act of defiance against the terrorist attacks, I answered the rallying call of art by seeing Contact, a hit play without words in three parts. The last part examines a man on the brink of suicide who encounters a woman in bright yellow dress dancing in a bar. He knows that to live he must reach out to her, join her in her dance of life. He does, and the show ends on a high note. The entire audience rose to its feet that night to let out a collective cheer. The cast came out to take their bow, hoisting aloft the Red, White and Blue. The house erupted into a rousing version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I didn’t know the words, being Canadian, and so didn’t sing along. But I was buoyed by this spirit of resilience, and for days afterwards, the idea that salvation is possible only through contact with other human beings was a theme that resonated within me. It was something I repeatedly encountered on my wanderings through the city.

Many people I met in New York in those days believed whole-heartedly that we’d all not just survive but endure this unexpected attack on all our lives if only we banded together to support each other through it. Certainly the people who had lined up in front of The Children's Health Services Building in Midtown Manhattan, a makeshift depot for people seeking information about missing loved ones in the days following the attacks, believed this. They were certain their loved ones, even if they had jumped out the windows, had managed to carry on. They begged me to bear witness to their stories:

“Tell them in Canada about my brother, Juan. The bus boy at the top of the Tower. He was there for the breakfast. Maybe he got out. Maybe he is walking around outside with a concussion and doesn’t know where he is. Maybe you can help us find him.” Stories that seared my heart.

New York, in the wake of 9/11, was to me something straight out of Kafka. The city where I had travelled to frequently in the past, loving its energy, its verve, its variety had overnight become a cramped and claustrophobic place where people were transformed, their emotions pulled inside out, in the struggle to come to terms with what had suddenly befallen them. In just three days – encompassing the crucifixion, the burial and gradual (but partial) resurrection of Manhattan – I experienced the full spectrum of human experience and emotion, and also random acts of kindness.

New Yorkers whom I had never met before approached me when they saw me sitting alone in restaurants, urging me to come to their tables, eat with them, feel part of their human family. “No one should be alone,” I recall one man saying to me. “Especially at times like this.”

It was that spirit of resilience that rallied New Yorkers also to donate blood in record numbers, in addition to food and clothing, including booties for sniffer dogs whose paws were being singed as they scampered across molten ground in the vain search for bodies. New Yorkers, normally so protective of one their hard-earned minutes, also gave freely of their time. On the afternoon of 9/11, I also encountered a Wall Street executive (white) personally chaperoning a Wall Street support staff worker (black) into a Chelsea restaurant for lunch. He told me he had found her on the street, crying and covered in dust, her clothes mostly ripped off her middle-aged frame. He had volunteered to take her to the hospital. There, her wounds were dressed and her rags replaced with green hospital scrubs which are what she was wearing when I saw her ordering a plate of spaghetti alla vongole, her unsung white knight urging her to eat.

Outside on the terrace was a group of beautiful young people. They were almost insultingly sophisticated, wearing fedoras and diaphanous dresses, their voices elegant sounding and engaged in philosophical conversation. I felt as I was witnessing some kind of Last Supper among the fashionable. Really, that day, none us knew what would happen next. There was about six of them sitting at that long table, drinking in the sunlight as well as the chilled champagne.

In the background of this Evelyn Waugh-like scene was a young black boy defiantly playing basketball. I will never forget the thud-thud-thud of his ball against the asphalt of his urban playground. It sounded to me like a New York version of “La Mareillaise”: an anthem of resistance in the face of such terrible – and palpable – human tragedy.

I held onto that basketball beat for days. I wanted it to be the sound of life, the life growing inside me. I had grown fearful of the baby being able to survive 9/11, especially one night when state troopers had burst into a restaurant where I had just gone for a meal, ordering me and hundreds of others in the vicinity, to run for our lives.

There was reportedly a bomb in the Empire State Building.

I had been a competitive runner in my teens. I can really burn it. But I resisted, not wanting to disrupt my pregnancy. But the police were screaming at me to hurry. I had no choice. I had to save myself. I looked for the tall-tale signs of blood in my underwear later that night and saw none. I looked again the next day and the day after. Still nothing.

I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I lit a candle. God answered my prayers: a few days later, I boarded a train to Toronto. It was a long, 12-hour journey, punctuated by arrests of swarthy-looking men grabbed from their seats before the train crossed the border. I passed the time looking out the window at the grass-filled fields and marshes dotted with herons that lined the way to Canada. Nature proved a welcome respite from the strife of the city. I was going home. 
 
At Niagara Falls there was reportedly a bomb on my train. I disembarked along with the other passengers. Dogs sniffed me and my luggage. I called my newspaper to report on what was again happening to me. The paper called a local radio station. The radio station called me. I reported live from the scene. Career still first.

As soon as I got to Toronto, I went to see my doctor. I had risen to the occasion, pulled it off. I had survived. I said as much to the clinician peering between my legs, probing my insides. I told him how on that day the smell of New York burning was the smell of ashes. Money. Files. Letters never sent. I had stood so close to the inferno I had felt the heat on my skin. That’s when he said it:

“The baby’s dead.”

I had been babbling on, trying to hide my nervousness and mostly from myself, acting cocky perhaps, not wanting to face my emotions. I had been blocking them out for days, refusing to acknowledge the fear that lay coiled like a snake in the pit of my stomach. If I had wanted to cry in New York I had denied the urge. I had needed to get through and not crumple. If this makes me sound brave then know that by cutting off my feelings I felt hollow, empty of purpose, a paper bag tossed by the wind. In New York, I had absorbed so much sadness through my eyes, my ears and the pores of my skin. I can still today smell the ashes, taste the loneliness. And I can still remember what happened when the clinician coldly pronounced (as clinicians, I suppose, will do), that my baby was dead. When he said there was no heartbeat he could have been describing me: with those words my own pulse stopped. I fell silent as a tombstone. 

After days running for my life and that of my unborn child, I was unable to move; I felt anchored to the examining table, my legs wide open, vulnerable and exposed. I blinked rapidly as I looked up at the ceiling, the bright white lights of the closet-like room helping me to see nothing but my pain. My chest heaved. The tears wanted to pour out, now. I wouldn’t let them. I clenched my jaw tight. I would not speak. I waited until this man, this stranger in his white coat and mask, dressed to protect him from me, stepped backward and away from me. He might have tossed me a terse sorry. But I really can’t say. I recall stumbling into my underpants. Pulling on my jacket, I remember the cold touch of the door knob. I remember the pitch down the hallway. Me averting my eyes from anyone in my path, until I got to the woman’s washroom down the hall. I turned on the light. I looked at my face in his gray glass of a communal mirror. And then I bellowed like a cow at slaughter. I clutched the antiseptic whiteness of the sink as I retched. “No. No. No.” I had anticipated losing this child but that don’t make the loss less wrenching. Somehow I walked out of that washroom and found a corner amid the anonymous bustle of a medical building where I could call my husband. As soon as I heard his voice my tears came again. I couldn’t speak at first through the sobs. He called out to me, frightened. “Dead,” I gasped. “The baby’s dead.” “Oh no,” he said. His voice sharp and tinny as a pin. I pushed my face into a wall. I wanted to disappear. He said he was coming to get me. I wondered if that meant I’d be rescued, at long last.

I hadn’t wanted to lose my baby. I had been determined not to, despite the pressure I was under, quite a bit of it self-imposed, I’m afraid, by having volunteered to play the role of the keener journalist. I can’t say for certain that the events of 9/11 did snuff out the life I was carrying. But I had been in a state of flight-or-flight for days. The conditions weren’t good for nurturing life, or so I believe nature herself had determined. Somewhat like those who suffered as a result of the events of 9/11, I was a victim of circumstances beyond my control. The randomness of evil: it can affect you where and when you least expect it.

And yet, death hadn’t triumphed.

Almost exactly one year later to the day, I returned to New York once more to cover the collections, again staged inside the tents at Bryant Park. Life. Life had gone on. New York had risen from the ashes, and I was back, five months pregnant with another baby, one that lives: my daughter, born four months later, just after the start of the New Year. My newborn. My precious. My own sweet life. 
 
Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information, http://www.deirdrekelly.com/.


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