Steam Scare, Old Scars
I took this with my camera phone, as did about 10,000 others around me. Of course, I didn't whip out the cell phone camera until after I heard that the cause of the explosion wasn't Bin Laden, but a burst steam pipe.
I left work (at 34th and Madison) and headed towards my sister's place (54th and 1st). When I got to 34th and Lexington, I saw people running down the street, looking over their shoulders.
Instantly, my blood ran cold. I'd only seen people running like that once before in my life.
I looked up Lexington, and saw the huge geyser of brown smoke, erupting from the street. It filled in all the spaces between the skyscrapers in the distance, reaching the tops of the buildings, seemingly coming towards me and the rest of the crowd that stood in stunned silence.
I'd only seen smoke like that once before in my life.
I called my sister, and told her to turn on the TV, see what the news said. There wasn't anything at first. After a few minutes, she said one report mentioned a transformer may have exploded. "More Than Meets The Eye" jokes aside, I felt some relief.
I called Jay, who works around there. His building was being evacuated. I told him what my sister had told me.
As word spread that officials had ruled out terror, the mood of the ever-growing crowd on the streets lightened. What had been, moments before, an eerie mass of quivering dread, the crowd of people began to drop their guard, smile, and exchange expressions of gratitude. Police urged everyone to be on their way. "Nothing to see here, folks," someone cracked.
I thought about 9/11. Though it happened almost 6 years ago, images remain seared in my memory as if I had witnessed them today. Ambulances speeding from downtown, throwing off gray ash; people applauding them as they passed. A man in a suit, clutching a briefcase, walking stunned, his hair and shoulders sprinkled with dust. A woman falling to her knees in Union Square Park, a stranger bending down to embrace her. Shopkeepers, students, businessmen, taxi cab drivers, all standing in the street, silently staring in the same direction. That sickening gray ash caking on the railing of my dormroom balcony; that plume downtown that seemed to glow brighter and more terrifying as the hours passed and the city fell into the darkest night it had ever known.
Years later, these images still strike me. Last week, I was watching Saturday Night Live, and there was a semi-amusing skit set in an office building, where the boss goes around the conference room table, asking the staff's suggestions on how to save money. As he goes rapid-fire around the table, the employees the camera shows are more and more ridiculous, including a turkey sandwich and a mounted deer head. I admit, I giggled a bit. But then, as nearly all Saturday Night Live skits do these days, it ended with a bizzarre and disturbing ending:
The building collapsed.
I sat there quiet, feeling chills throughout my body. I doubt any of the people involved in that sketch were thinking about 9/11 when they wrote it. And 9/11 certainly wasn't on my mind when the boss asked the turkey sandwich his opinion on budget restructuring. But that final shot, of the building collapsing, quickly and shockingly sent my brain back to that horrible day. I shut SNL off. I didn't feel like laughing anymore.
I was 20 blocks north of the WTC on 9/11, far enough away that there was no evacuation, no close up look at the maimed and killed. My memories of that day pale in comparision to the traumatic things first responders and those further downtown witnessed. If I can be shaken to the core by something as simple as an SNL sketch, I can't imagine the terror those closer to the events of 9/11 felt yesterday when they saw the smoke exploding from the street in front of Grand Central Station, and people covered in mud and dirt and blood, fleeing the scene.
Six years after 9/11, this is a city still very much in shock. While day to day life has returned to normal, I don't think anyone living here believes everything is still the same. All the wars Bush starts won't restore that damaged place inside ourselves, the place within us that collapsed along with the towers on that awful day. It's a fact that's incredibly frustrating and incredibly sad.
But as I walked uptown yesterday to meet my parents and sister for dinner, I was struck by the difference between how I am now and how I was on 9/11. That day my roommates and I basically just huddled around the television. I couldn't go near Ground Zero until a year after. But when I saw that smoke at Grand Central, I didn't feel the urge to run and hide. I felt this strong desire to help, to call my friends and find out if they were ok, to get closer to the scene and see what I could see. I can't quite explain it. But even if it was an attack, I didn't want to just go home and watch it on the news. I needed to be there. And looking around me, I could see a lot of people felt the same thing.
Maybe we are scarred for life. But scars are simply new skin, new tissue, that fills our wounds and strengthens them for our next painful scrape. In many ways, this is a braver city than it was before 9/11. And if it's one positive that came from that day, it's that we know what we're able to make it through. We know we can survive. Our memories, however painful, are perhaps our bodies' way of reminding us that we're, in fact, survivors. And that's a good thing to remember. We're still here.