Zombies of New York: A 9/11 Memoir Written for my students who were four and five years old on Sept. 11, 2001 By Jessica Slote
Unlike my husband, I like quiet in the morning. When he wakes up, he turns on the tv or the radio to hear the weather or the news, but he was out-of-town that day. So when I left the house to go to work, I didn’t know.
I turned down Avenue A to go to the F train. Right away, I saw an unbelievably huge horizontal band of smoke in the distant sky, downtown. I saw someone I knew standing in front of Key Food and I asked her, “What is that?” She laughed and said, “It’s a terrorist attack. A plane crashed into the World Trade Tower.” I thought she was joking (she has an odd sense of humor). She said, “Just keep walking, you’ll see for yourself.”
As if in a dream, I started walking down Avenue A with a growing sense of dread and disbelief. When I got to 2nd Street, at the spot where there was a clear view of the World Trade Towers, I found myself in the middle of a clump of people with their mouths open, all facing in the same direction, like seagulls facing into the wind, all heads lifted at the same angle, all eyes gazing up at the same spot, high in the air, in the clear blue sky, downtown. An enormous fire had exploded out of the side of one of the towers. My knees buckled and hit the sidewalk. I heard someone moaning. Behind me, someone laid a hand on my shoulder. Then, as we watched, the top of the building fell from the sky. (I think this happened. This is what I remember.) At that moment, normal life was suspended. We ceased to be modern. We became ancient. A new kind of time had begun: the kind of time prophesied in the Bible—the destruction of the Tower of Babel; the kind of time foretold in the tarot deck—the broken tower.
The moans grew louder. I realized they were my own. A voice in my head said, reasonably, “It will take them a long time to put out that fire.” Then it said, “Better go to your son’s school and pick him up.” The next thing I knew, I was getting to my feet and walking away. I walked back uptown toward my son’s school. I passed people with contorted faces shouting distorted words. I got to my son’s school on 16th St. and went inside. The children seemed to be running wild and no adults were to be seen. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. I found the computer lab and went inside to try and email my husband to tell him that we were all right. (This was the dawn of the cell phone age and few people had them, I didn’t have one.) My email wouldn’t go through. I tried several times, to no avail. Then I went and collected my son and a friend of his, to take them home. We went back out to First Avenue and started walking downtown. Now, to our horrified eyes, we found ourselves moving through a huge stream of zombies— strange men and women, covered in white ash from head to toe, with dead eyes, who moved with a slow but steady pace uptown, uptown. Some of these strange figures paused at public telephones and tried to make calls, while the stream moved on. It parted a little to let us pass among them, as we headed in the opposite direction. Later, at the home of my son’s friend… that’s when we heard what had happened. That’s when we saw it. The parents had the tv on and they kept showing it over and over, the towers falling, first one, then the other. The planes flying into the towers… the towers exploding in flames… then—falling…. Over and over and over. The parents showed us Polaroid photos they had taken of themselves on the roof of their building, drinking champagne as the towers fell and celebrating the fall of capitalism.
I hardly remember what we did after that. We went home, I sat on the bed, in shock, my son looking at me, holding my hand. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. After that and over the next weeks and months, I have only a series of blurred images: we went on the roof and stared in disbelief at the giant gap in the skyline where the towers had been, where monstrous fires now burned underground. These fires burned for weeks, months, and we had no choice but to breathe in the toxic fumes. A giant plume of white smoke traveled north, following the Hudson River upstream, back to the source, like the souls of the 2,000 who died.
We lived in a ghetto below 14th Street, which had been closed to all traffic except for emergency vehicles. We had to show IDs to prove we were residents to get in and out of the neighborhood, which had turned eerily quiet except for the sound of sirens screaming downtown. We went downtown one night, as close as we could get behind police cordons, and witnessed a nightmarish scene of destruction—a giant anthill of twisted steel with tiny human figures moving over it, dwarfed by enormous cranes, lit up in garish relief by huge klieg lights. Dante’s Inferno, Hieronymous Bosch. We went to Union Square and witnessed the sprouting of American flags on every store and building, and listened to feverish debates in the great old public square. New words and phrases were suddenly on everyone’s lips: “homeland,” “with us or against us.” Huge altars of flowers blossomed in front of firehouses, as people came by to express their grief and solidarity for the scores of lost firefighters who died in the towers trying to save people. The New York Times published short biographies with photos of every one of the people who died or were missing in the towers. We read them all—the lives of window cleaners and cleaning ladies, electricians, restaurant workers from Windows on the World at the top of World Trade Tower 1, stockbrokers and secretaries, managers and financial officers, and guards, and maintenance workers, and….. We heard the President tell us to keep shopping, shopping is patriotic. We overheard a woman on the street say, “I feel good today, I bought stock.” Rumors spread like wildfire. We watched and listened with disbelief as normal citizens succumbed to panic and paranoia. My neighbor asked me if I had sprinkled anthrax on the squash leaves in the garden—they were covered with an early October hoar frost. Colleagues turned up at the small textbook publishing house where I worked wearing rubber gloves—perhaps enemy agents had put anthrax in our morning mail…. No one at work seemed outraged by the New York Post’s front-page image of French and German leaders at the United Nations, who voted against the Iraq war, with weasel heads photo-shopped over their own, recalling Nazi propaganda juxtaposing Jews and rats. The headline, of course, screamed “Axis of Weasels!” We watched and listened in disbelief as the country clamored for war, and the wars began. The 21st century, which we had celebrated with so much hope and optimism only a year before, had turned to rubble and ash at our feet.