America (Simon and Garfunkel, 1968).
America (1-2-3, live, the Marquee Club, 1967).
America (Bowie, the Concert for New York City, 2001).
Those towers were almost human for me. I was in love with them, and that’s why I married them with a tightrope.
Philippe Petit, 2014.
When the first tower was hit, there was a long rumbling. Take an oil drum, turn it on its side and play a tattoo on it with mallets, amplify this, give it heavy bass. Something like that. It was an extended sound—it went on for three, four seconds.
I was working in 195 Broadway, a block east from the Trade Center (it was an older, far more distinguished building; it likely considered the Towers parvenus). I went to the window to see if a truck had overturned on the Brooklyn Bridge, my first guess as to what had happened, but there was nothing but traffic.
Kevin came in. He was the sort of loud, overgrown boy who makes a good reporter on Wall Street. He wore blue nearly every day, great bright blues. “Plane hit the Trade Center,” he said.
“What kind of plane?” I said. “Some kind of Cessna?”
“Probably out of Teterboro or something.”
“How do you hit the Trade Center? How bad a pilot must you be?”
“Like JFK Jr. bad.”
He went back down to the street. I looked out at the Bridge again (still traffic), then crossed to the other side of the office, where a small window, a foot wide and two feet high, offered our only rear-facing view: a little rectangular frame of Church Street and the base of Trade Center 2. There was a grey and black plume of smoke in the air, with bits of paper raining down. “How big was the plane?” a woman behind me asked. “It was a real plane?”
A man came on the intercom and said that everything was under control. No need to leave. Kevin came back, his bluster drained out of him. People were starting to jump, he said. “It’s worse than you think.”
I sat at my desk, sipping coffee, constantly refreshing a news website that said nothing. It felt like I was sitting in a room with a corpse. I kept walking to the small window, watching the dark cloud grow darker, the papers whirl and scudder in the air. I could see they were memos, photocopies, manila envelopes, pieces of folders. I looked at the desk next to the window and saw the same, only neatly stacked.
When the second plane hit, there was a long, loop of fire and what looked like embers flung high into the air. The building shook; there were screams, murderous screams coming from the street. The man on the intercom, sounding unshaken, said that we should leave.
In 1996, I’d worked in 2 World Trade, on the 18th floor. The towers were often empty-feeling buildings, as if they’d been built for some municipal folly (say, if NYC had hosted in the Olympics in 1968) and had been left to fend for themselves. The guards wore maroon jackets. There was so little light. Our office rationed it out to the bosses and editors, each of whom had an office with a tiny window view, leaving the rest of us clustered in semi-darkness. It could feel like working in a mineshaft.
On the ground floor there were a set of halls and small lobbies that linked the two towers with the lesser buildings of the Trade Center complex. At Christmas, they set up a shabby-looking electric train set. There were statues—Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as stockbrokers, their feet up on their desks—in one shop window (I recall seeing Bugs covered in grey dust in a newscast post 9/11). A dyspeptic Indian man ran a narrow, almost vertical newsstand. There was a bagel stand whose manager would catch your eye and yell “Yes! what are you having today!” He was the brightest soul in the whole place. There was a Duane Reade outpost whose aisles, especially in the winter, were full of lunchtime coughers and snifflers. I still try to recall faces sometimes, of anyone whom I saw then. If I can, I wonder if they made it out.
Tourists came to the Towers but they just took the elevator up to the observation decks, snapped photos and left. No one who didn’t work there hung around the neighborhood, which was full of winding, scaffold-filled streets whose main businesses were small-time importers, rug dealers and people who seemed to cadge a living out of repairing toasters and radios. You could walk around at lunchtime and know that someone in 1924 saw much the same view as you. Except for the Towers.
So when the men playing “God Bless America” on boomboxes began selling souvenir atrocity postcards, and the busloads of people wearing American flag T-shirts began to show up to gawk at the ruins, it was hard not to be resentful, as petty as that may sound. This gritty little old neighborhood, visited by few, loved by fewer, had been burned and gouged, had been turned into a mass grave and now it was a theme park. What was once a real, and happily anonymous, place was bought by history.
On Broadway that morning, there was broken glass everywhere—the windows of Au Bon Pain were shattered, as were those of a Mrs. Fields cookie shop (its owner hurriedly pulling down the grating). People were standing in the street and sidewalk, staring up at the towers. I stood with them for a few minutes. There was a sudden fluttering down along the length of Trade Center One: someone had just fallen. I couldn’t stand there and watch any more.
I decided to walk to my girlfriend’s office in Chelsea, declining to take my chances with the subway. I took Church Street up. I tried to process what had happened—had there been a second plane? Had the first tower caused the other to catch fire? When I first had moved to New York, to help myself get the lay of neighborhoods, I’d come up with little mnemonics. The one for Church’s cross-streets came back into my head for some reason: Judge Murray Warren will see you in his Chambers. Thomas doubts the Worth of Leonard Franklin. A van pulled up sharply and out spilled six or seven FBI agents. I knew this as they were in windbreakers marked “FBI” in great yellow letters. One of them, a woman younger than me, seemed excited. She sported an FBI hat as well. Perhaps she had a desk job and suddenly here she was, pulling an X-Files. I couldn’t blame her for looking a bit eager.
In a parking lot at Canal and Greene St., I stopped to watch the towers again. They were now heavily aflame. Each had a large black wound spewing filthy clouds which the light wind was sending on to Brooklyn. These were the only clouds. Otherwise the sky was so clear and fine that you could see the sleeping moon.
I was in a small knot of people. “It’s going to burn for a long, long time,” an old man said, with shaky, if unquestioned authority. Two NYU kids were filming with handheld video cameras. “Check it out, dude,” one said to the other. He offered a view from his camera monitor as if he was sharing a flask.
Walking up Greene through Soho, I kept turning back to the towers. Felt like Lot’s wife. Two men in suits, roughly my age, fell into step with me. We heard something and turned to watch 2 World Trade fall into a pile of smoke. It made a low, bustling sound, like a train crossing somewhere in the distance. Now there was only one tower, ruling over a cloud. I looked at the shorter of the guys, said something like “can you believe this” and he gave me a why-are-you-fucking-talking-to-me face. “We have got to get out of here, it’s not safe here,” he told his friend. I crossed Houston, cut through the NYU dorms, past the Picasso sculpture no tourist has ever visited. There a woman was talking to a buildings-and-grounds man, explaining in detail what was happening, although he could see the burning tower directly over her head. In Washington Square Park, some 200 people were standing in rows near the arch, looking like they were at an outdoor concert.
Everywhere I walked, I saw people carrying children and dogs.
I went into the First Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue and sat in a back pew for a time. As I was coming out, the crowd in the street gasped as one. The other tower was crumbling now, again into a grey, atomic cloud, again with a soft rumble. What was there wasn’t now. How many deaths was I going to witness today? For all I knew 195 Broadway was gone as well, for all I knew I wouldn’t make it out of Manhattan. “Oh God, all of those people,” a woman said, not screaming, just giving each word a long, piercing note of sadness. The air went out of me and I sat on the street.
At my girlfriend’s office on Seventh Avenue, I found she wasn’t there (she’d never made it in to Manhattan from Queens). I drank some water, took in whatever speculations were circling (Camp David was bombed, Congress was bombed, the President was missing). I figured I’d have to walk home to Queens at some point, so why not start.
Walking towards Third Avenue, trying to avoid the larger streets, I saw people in lines everywhere: public phones, bars, pizza shops, ATM machines. Was there a bank run, too? Like 20th Century Miseries, Greatest Hits this morning, I thought. A grocery store had set up an easel with draft paper, on which you could write the name of anyone for whom you wanted a prayer said. A handful of names, including “Everyone.” A man was jogging down Third, headphones on, shirtless, a blank expression. I wanted him to collide with a telephone pole.
I reached the Queensboro Bridge around noon. “We’re representin’ Queens,” a man yelled on the gangway. “This is the real Million Man March!” Cheers. It was a carnival atmosphere by now, everyone sent home early from work. The sun had gone brutal. There were no police on the bridge, as far as I could see, and the mood was edgy: it felt as if it could turn dark in a moment. A few men drinking Budweiser were ogling women, calling for them to strip. They were jumping on and off the rear bumpers of barely-moving trucks.
It was as if we were in a retreating, quickly deteriorating army. Midway across the bridge I felt, no I knew, that a plane would come and shear straight through it, and thought about how it would feel to hang in the air for a moment before falling into the East River. Death seemed so present by now, so familiar.
In Queens Plaza the crowd broke in two, the greater half heading straight onto Queens Boulevard, the lesser up towards Astoria. I followed the latter stream for a time, forked off to Sunnyside, home to Locust St. My girlfriend had believed, for an hour or two before I managed to call her, that I’d possibly been killed. A few days later, during a minor argument about the dishes, she slapped me in the face and started crying. We got married a year later; it didn’t last.
I sat for an hour with my feet in a bucket of warm water. I had no idea how I would get through the rest of the day.
Leonard Cohen:...the terrorist position is so seductive that everybody has embraced it. The governments have embraced it, the lovers have embraced it. The same politics of the bedroom and the living room and the legislative assemblies of the world…it is the terrorist position. Reduce everything to confrontation, to revenge.
Vin Scelsa: Do you think the media plays a big part in all that?
Cohen: It’s way beyond that. It’s all lost… Our culture, our civilization, all this beautiful stuff from Mozart to Bukowski, as exalted or as funky as it gets, it’s just nail polish on the claws and the nail polish has begun to crack and flake and the claws are showing through. And that’s what we’re living with—a world in which the claws have been exposed. And it’s only been a tiny brief moment when they were covered with nail polish, and now the nail polish is coming off.
Scelsa: The future looks pretty grim.
Cohen: It is grim. It always has been grim.
“Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight,” NYC, 13 June 1993.
Bowie and Tony Visconti were upstate that morning. Visconti’s son and a friend were living down by the towers; they got out. Bowie and Iman’s place in Soho was close enough that she saw the second plane hit.
A month later, Bowie took part in the Concert for New York at Madison Square Garden. It’s hard to watch this concert now, with its exhausted, nervy sense of mourning, the open anger and blood lust, the boorish antics by the comedians. The Anglo-American theme of the night, emphasized by the Union Jack and Old Glory set against each other above the stage and with Paul McCartney writing an official theme song, was reassuring then; it just seems a sad premonition of a shared disaster now.
Bowie’s performance of “Heroes” was everything the audience needed to hear that night. Many of them had lost friends, and some of them likely would contract cancer and emphysema because of their work during those weeks. Bowie cast the song up in the air for everyone to grab onto it. It seems churlish to begrudge him, or the audience, for doing the expected; doing the expected felt like a luxury then.
But he had opened the show by himself. He sat at the edge of the stage, his legs tucked under him, looking as though he’d been recruited from the Beckenham Arts Lab and asked to warm up the crowd before the real acts started. He had a Omnichord keyboard, on which he set up a waltz pattern. It was another toy instrument, like the Stylophone and the Rosedale Electric Organ, that he’d elevated.
Bowie messes up. He misses his cue with the Omnichord and he spends the whole first verse off-kilter, the keyboard racing ahead of him, which makes him rush his phrasings and he can’t quite settle into the melody. He doesn’t show a lick of concern. With the second verse he catches up with the song, falls into a lilting pattern.
The lyric, like the Trade Center, was a relic from a lost Sixties. Even as a child, I’d thought Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” was about another, much older country, like the Hardy Boys novels with their jalopies and automats. Mrs. Wagner’s Pies; men wearing gabardine suits and bowties on the bus; young people hitch-hiking without fear of being kidnapped and killed (the latter was drummed into you as a kid in the Seventies). “America” was an exile’s song. Paul Simon had written some of it in England, using his English girlfriend Kathy Chitty as a supporting character; he was missing his home enough that he turned people stuck on the New Jersey Turnpike into pilgrims.
Why sing “America”? Well, the title was a good applause line. And he “was looking for something which really evoked feelings of bewilderment and uncertainty, because for me that’s how that particular period really felt. And I really thought that Paul Simon’s song in this new context really captured that,” Bowie said in a November 2001 web-chat.
It was also an old memory of his, as he’d been a fan of the Scottish band 1-2-3 (later Clouds), who had a residency at the Marquee Club in 1967. One of the songs in the 1-2-3’s set was by a composer that no one in Britain had heard of, some New York folkie who’d crashed in London in the mid-Sixties. Somehow 1-2-3 had gotten hold of one of Simon’s then-unreleased songs and turned “America” into a nearly ten-minute progressive track, full of time and key changes (Yes would all but steal the 1-2-3’s template for their cover a few years later).
The song felt as if it could be opened: each of its verses is a self-contained little world, each line could fork off somewhere else. Bowie takes his time with it, he gives each line enough room, he stresses the preposition “for” over the crowd-pleasing “America.” There’s a sense that he’s trying to recall a world that’s fading just as he’s singing. Michigan seems like a dream to me now. Saginaw’s in another country. A bus full of sleepers drives East, and the night inks in the fields and towns that it passes. What was it like, he asks on behalf of all the lost kids at the Marquee, to have lived in such a place? And what will be there when it’s gone?
The Chrysler Building was talking to the Empire State.
The Twin Towers were talking to each other,
Saying, “All is forgiven, I love you still”
Luna, “Going Home,” 1994.
There’s a story about Nabokov and his family, sailing to America in May 1940. They had fled the Soviets and Nazi Berlin and now they were leaving Nazi Paris. Here they were, Vladimir and Vera and Dmitri, washed up on a pier in mid-Manhattan. A small porter and two large customs men opened their traveling trunk; on top were two pairs of boxing gloves. The customs men slipped on the gloves and began sparring, whirling in a dance around Nabokov; another inspector examined Nabokov’s butterfly collection and offered, gratis, his newly-coined name for a species.
“Where would that happen?” Nabokov would say when recounting that morning, delighted by the strange young country he’d come to live in. “Where would that happen?“
Performed 20 October 2001, Madison Square Garden. Released (edited) 27 November 2001 on The Concert For New York City (Columbia C2K 86270). Bowie performed “America” again on 30 May 2002 for a charity show at the Javits Center, a performance I’ve never seen, nor care to.
Top to bottom: Jamie Squire, “New York City,” 5 September 2001; Julien Menichini, “NYC,” 5 September 2001; Monika Bravo, “View From the 92nd Floor, WTC 1, During a Storm,” David Officer, “View of NY Skyline from the Empire State Building,” 10 September 2001; Evan Kuz, “World Trade Center,” 10 September 2001; Mike Horan, “9-10-2001″; “Oberon Watchman,” 8:22 AM, 9/11/01.