Midtown, Manhattan, September 12, 2001
I’m going to die now, aren’t I?
I’m going to die right here, amongst strangers.
“There are reports of a bomb.” The disembodied voice again, calling out from the walls, from behind the corporate artwork of prairie landscapes, flowers, past Presidents. “Leave if you wish to do so.”
A woman with square, burgundy fingernails pushes the elevator button repeatedly. Her hand is shaking. I swallow hard. There’s a group of us, men in collared shirts and chinos, women in skirts and heels, corporate wear, each of us staring at the elevator doors. My high heels sink into the carpet of the elevator lobby as I bite a lump out of my thumbnail. Getoutgetoutgetout.
What if today is not the aftermath; what if yesterday was just the start? More collapsing skyscrapers. More rogue planes in the sky. More smoke, confusion and death. All that I have to cover my head if this tower comes down is a fake Gucci purse that I bought off the sidewalk in Times Square. I thought it was a good fake, convincing, but it has a stuck zipper, nylon seams and the inside has a sharp plastic smell. I take another chunk out of my thumb.
A man, with deep blue sweat hoops under his arms, says, “No way. After what happened yesterday. Where are the stairs?”
He pushes open a door beneath a green EXIT sign. The pale golden carpet of the hallway gives way to grey concrete. In the emergency stairwell, people already herd downstairs, un-smiling, heads down. The ceiling is low and angled steeply. The walls are close together. The lights flicker on-off, on-off, on-off like an eye twitch. My Brazilian colleague’s long, tawny ponytail swishes. She’s about to leap into the throng. I reach down and grab her hand. Luisa turns to me, mouth open, eyes narrow. She gives my hand a small yank, I hold firm.
If a fire breaks out in your skyscraper, stay put, don’t leave. These tall buildings are designed to contain fire within their floors. Sit at your desk and wait for the Fire Department. You may smell smoke; you might even feel warm. That’s just the fire playing with you, whispering through the air conditioning ducts, sneaking along the electric cables, bubbling up the water pipes.
Skyscrapers fall down, although this we didn’t know until yesterday.
Fact: in the emergency stairwell of a skyscraper, the thud of hurried footsteps on concrete is a stadium’s roar.
Nobody is going up the stairs.
We roll around the corner. Black numbers on a white wall.
“It’s-okay-it’s-okay-it’s-okay-it’s-okay.” I can’t stop saying it, like a prayer or a mantra or a wish. “It’s okay.” I say it to myself and I say it to Luisa. She’s faster than me; she wants to let me go, keeps giving little tugs. I don’t know Luisa. We’ve never had a coffee together, or shared a bottle of wine after work. Until yesterday, we had only spoken once.
We skitter past the obese, the old, the relaxed. My upper thighs spasm. I’m wearing somebody else’s legs. I’ve not yet learned to walk. Each step down is a jolt. My hips pinch. There’s a pull across my groin. Sweat streams through the crack of my buttocks, down my legs, out of my armpits and into my plastic handbag.
“There’s a report of a bomb in the building.” The deep male voice hesitates. “Leave if you wish to do so.” Why are they not being cryptic? Back home in London, it’s an ‘unidentified package,’ an ‘abandoned gym bag,’ a ‘security alert.’
Yesterday, as the evacuees descended the stairs in the Twin Towers and the firemen ascended, survivors spoke of calm, of camaraderie.
“Keep going, buddy.”
“Not too far to go now, ma’am.”
But they didn’t know then that the Fire Department can’t always get to that room in the sky where you are. Our pace slows, we hit an obstruction. Someone below is carrying a suitcase, hugged to his chest like a baby. ‘Put the case down, man, you’re holding us up.’
At every floor more people file into the stairs, unsmiling. “Just put the fucking bag down.”
If I could, I’d kick off my shoes but they have an ankle strap, a complicated clasp. I’m slower than I should be.
I might die because of a buckled shoe?
Someone just kicked me in the back. I drop the hand. Luisa hurtles away, takes the stairs two at a time. I slow down and turn. A briefcase swings at me. I duck, smell leather. A man. He is very fat, with a sheen of sweat on his face as though he’s dipped his head into butter. “You’re inhuman, running. Leaving the rest of us to burn,” he growls and swings his briefcase at me again. “I’m going to find out who you are,” he says. “I’m going to find out where you work.”
Yesterday, I walked to the office in a Walkman vacuum and only noticed when I got to Broadway that Manhattan was quiet. I pulled the speakers from my ears and heard the distant wails of sirens—so very New York—but no car horns. Rising into the vacant air was the static hum of car radios turned up high. People on the sidewalk stood still. A woman, her arms and legs bare, shielded her eyes and looked downtown. The sky was a pottery blue.
Yesterday, I was so late for work that I rode an empty elevator up to my floor. People were gathered in the secretarial bay, grouped around a computer. A collective sigh. “My God, the Pentagon!” My secretary looked at me as I passed. “You’re used to attacks like this, Miss Street, coming from London.” From the Photocopy Room outside my office: “The South Tower’s down!”
Yesterday. The state of Before, of not yet knowing. A spasm in time.
I fired up my computer. Row upon row of emails entitled, “Are you OK?” My friends. If they all raised their hands to say, “yes, we know her,” could I race home, across the Atlantic on their upturned palms?
Luisa kicked open my office door, her face was red and wet with tears. “I saw people jumping! I saw them jump!”
I shook my head.
Nothing made any sense.
Yesterday. I called my parents, imagining the phone ringing in their house in England. My brother answered.
“I’m okay.” I rushed the words out, so that there would be no misinterpretation, no tiny second of doubt.
“What d’you mean you’re okay?” said James.
“Haven’t you heard? Where’s Mum?”
“She’s asleep. She’s got a migraine again.”
“Can you wake her?”
“You want me to wake Mum up?”
“Manhattan’s been attacked and I want her to know that I’m okay.”
“What d’ you mean attacked? You don’t want to go worrying her now. You know how she worries.”
“Please, just go and get her.”
The familiar sound of my mother rubbing the receiver free of germs. Then her sleepy voice. “Hello?”
“That’s good, darling. I’ve been in bed for two days. Bloody migraine.”
“Mum, there’s been an attack here but I’m miles away…Mum?”
“Your brother’s shouting something. What is it, James? He’s watching the telly. Turn it down, I’m talking to your sister, Trans-Atlantically. Jesus Christ! Sas? I’ve got to go, there’s something happening on the news.”
Someone on the stairs above us is singing the R.E.M. song, ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It.’
Christ, my heel has snapped! A woman behind me groans. I can’t lose my space here. I can’t be shunted into the slow lane. I grab the iron banister and pull and lurch my way downstairs until I hit a steady rhythm.
Why am I here? Why am I even in Manhattan?
I remember now: ‘I’m going to meet a Rockefeller.’
Who do I think I am? Carrie bloody Bradshaw?
It’s all over isn’t it? We’ve shifted into war and we’re all poorly equipped and dangerously clothed and why should I be killed for a career choice? What a fucking useless thing to die for.
I wish R.E.M. man would fucking shut up.
You might feel fine, mate, but I feel like giving you a punch in the chops.
My last word on earth: Cunt.
Cunt isn’t me. I am not cunt.
What if I am ‘cunt?’ Is that why I’m so useless at yoga, I’ve got no real zen?
I’ve been kicked. I’ve been abandoned. There’s no humanity on these stairs.
‘It’s the end of the world as we know it!’
‘Excuse me?’ I turn my head and look at the woman. The stairs are clogged now, the fast lane has slowed so I match her step-for-step. Her chest is heaving, sweat drips from her nose. I realize she’s been praying out loud and that I’ve been listening to her—“Hail Mary full of grace, blessed be thy name”—and, based on her stare, she’s been listening to me. I didn’t know I was speaking out loud.
I haven’t been to confession for years; I only go to church for weddings. Is prayer going to help me, her, us? How long have we been walking side-by-side, uttering our unlikely penance: Three fucks and a Hail Mary?
“Oh sacred heart of Jesus, I place my trust in thee,” I say, holding her stare. She smiles and the clot of people in the fast lane suddenly releases and I bounce down the stairs and away from her.
Yesterday. The afternoon of September the 11th in London. I imagine my father at his cushion shop in the East End, cutting swathes of velvet, methodically sluicing through the layers, forming squares. His chief machinist hovered in the doorway. ‘One of the world’s tallest buildings just collapsed.’ She picked up an armful of green velvet.
My father uncoiled another roll of cloth across his table. “How did it fall down?”
“They think it’s a bomb.”
Dad bent over the cutting machine, aligning it with the length of the table. Pat came back for more squares. “Another building has just fallen down,” she said.
“Where are these buildings?”
“New York. The financial district.” Pat put her hand to her mouth. “Do you think that’s where Saffron works?”
My father left his shop without unplugging his cutting machine or saying goodbye. He wanted to get home before my mother found out, before she could start to worry; he wanted to be the worried one, the fraught one. When Mum phoned the shop to tell him I had just called Pat said that he had already left. “Those poor people, Pat, trapped. We must pray for them.”
Dad kept stopping on the roadside because he couldn’t see through his tears to drive. The news on the radio got bleaker: nuclear device on Lower Manhattan, the fire visible from space, the impossibility of survivors. When he got home Mum was in the road waiting for him, holding a bottle of rum. “She’s okay. She’s okay,” she told him as he opened the car door. “Have a drink, Jimmy.”
Tim, I think of Tim.
We are very new. We go on dates, sit in little walled gardens festooned with fairy lights. We conduct our early courtship downtown, in the shops and restaurants of the Village, walk hand in hand in the shadow of the Twin Towers.
Last night, in my small Midtown apartment, Tim and I watched CNN, the alarmist red text circuiting the bottom of the screen and looping around my chest. Pearl Harbor. Giuliani. Empty Hospitals. We learned that a sniffer dog had sat down on a floor of the Empire State Building. ‘It means he senses a bomb,’ the blonde co-anchor said and she nodded her head but her hair didn’t move.
“How far away is the Empire State from here?” I said.
“It’s a dog sitting, sweetheart, it’s not a bomb.”
I went into the kitchen, picked up first the bottle and then the opener. I drew out the cork as my stomach curdled and my breath shortened.
“False alarm. No bomb,” Tim called.
I took the bottle and sat back down. Tim shook his head when I offered him a glass. I filled mine. We changed channels and watched cars whizzing round a race track before we saw street children in Cairo celebrate the wreck of the Twin Towers. I drank the whole bottle of dark red wine. When there was a dreg left, I stood and showed Tim that I could hip thrust better than Madonna. I ‘Vogued’ for him. I showed him how my dad dances. Tim eyed me carefully through his steel-rimmed spectacles. My teeth were stained and my mouth coated raspberry.
I’m not getting any younger.
Should Tim and I have a baby?
What do I want children for? The mess, the excrement, the neon plastic.
The tiny red truck abandoned in the hallway.
All that softening of the body and the heart.
A man steps into the stairwell, pressing a linen handkerchief to his forehead. ‘My wife says all the Midtown buildings are being evacuated.’
This announcement triggers a new lane, a third lane, right down the middle. People begin to jump down the stairs, kangaroos in business suits, taking the landings at a hip-popping slide.
I can’t go as fast as them, I know my limitations. I can’t jump all the way to the ground floor, not in these shoes.
I have written down a name in my diary: ‘Binladin.’ He is an enemy of mine. He wants me dead. I’ve never had an enemy before, just people that I don’t especially like and who don’t especially like me.
I think of England in the War, living life under attack. Coastal children strafed by fighter pilots, as they walked home from school. Gas masks and doodlebugs and above-ground air-raid shelters, made of battered tin. I don’t know how Londoners coped in the Blitz. I know they were brave, stoic, community-spirited, bedding down in the Tube stations, as the city exploded above them.
But if I’d been there I think I’d have been the one with my head under the blanket, crying into my ration book, as everybody else sings, ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ and ‘God Save the King.’
My hair lifts in the wind from the street and there is late summer’s heat, tanning lotion and mosquito spray and limbs prickly from the sun.
The future is at the bottom of the stairs on the Avenue of the Americas, between 48th and 49th. I push the man on the step in front of me, I bear down as he slows, forcing him to stay on his journey. I turn my shoulders, look back into the stairwell. ‘Keep going!’ says a woman a few steps above me.
The milky daylight spools first around my ankles and then rises up my body, higher and higher.
Each step down gouges flesh and my feet slip in my shoe, from blood or sweat, I don’t know, but I’ve got to keep moving. When I get to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, I’ll say my prayers. I’ll light a candle for the dead and another for the living. I’ll take off my shoes and I’ll let myself cry.
The steel door is wedged open with a fire extinguisher. The light changes, a puddle gold on the cement floor. The sunlight is a hand reaching in from the sidewalk, it pulls me free.
Manhattan. Sheer cliffs of chrome, steel, glass, fountains in the courtyards of the skyscrapers. A city of shadows and sudden rectangular sunbursts or a squeak of sky. It looks just as it should, except for the people lined up beneath the buildings; faces part bluster, part blind fear. Thousands of us.
This is not New York City. This is not America. Something has broken. The fighter jets roaring above Central Park, the sealed tunnels and blockaded bridges.
The pyre at the bottom of the island, the slash in the downtown sky.
–Saffron Marchant (from Sweet: A Literary Confection)