Ten Years Later

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  • Ten Years Later
  •   I have travelled a lot, I have met a lot of people, and when I mention that I am from New York City one of the first things people ask me is if I was there on 9/11.  I have to sheepishly answer that yes I was, and I am usually reluctant to take the matter any further as it is still something that elicits a strong response in me.  I am always surprised by the strength of the emotions that I still have surrounding that day but I suppose that I, like many who were here, will never forget how we felt that fine and sunny morning in September, though we may try.  
      When I woke up this morning I went out for a ride on my bike, as is my weekend custom, without really meaning to I headed south toward Ground Zero.  A strange and somber air surrounded the place, it was quiet except for the ringing intonation of the names of the dead thundering out from loudspeakers and reverberating through the glass, stone,and steel canyons of downtown Manhattan.  All of it put me exactly back in the frame of mind I was in ten years ago today, and I decided to try to deal with it in pictures.  I don't tell these stories often, and usually only with others who were there as they are the only ones I expect to understand my reactions, but today I want to remember.  I want to share my own small perspective on this tragedy and perhaps shed some of the lasting grief that still attaches itself to this day.  

     I had spent the previous day in the company of fellow photographers from Art School and the conversation turned, as it tends to among photographers, to equipment, then to film, and ultimately to Polaroid.  This format still holds an unbelievable fascination for people, it is a magic thing that elicits childlike wonder in even the most jaded.  I remembered that in going through my closet of photographic equipment earlier that week I had turned up an unopened box of polaroid 669, unrefrigerated and three years expired it was undoubtedly going to be an interesting roll of film.  My very last box of Polaroid brand film, the last I was ever going to shoot.  I immediately thought: "Fuck it, no time like the present!"  I ripped it open and loaded it into my Polaroid 180, a fantastic fully manual model which I inherited from my father.  I went downstairs and took a few frames of my friends and then set it aside.  
     
    When I returned from my bike ride around lower Manhattan today I was in a strange state of mind and I looked at the camera, thought of that significant final roll of film sitting inside with less than ten exposures left in it and thought again: "No time like the present."  I took it around with me to the places where I was on this day ten years ago to photograph them, to show how much they, and I suppose by extension I, had changed.  

    These are the few frames I shot, and stories about those places.
  • This is the place where I stood with my mother and a gathering crowd of confused New Yorkers in the moments after the attack.  I was living at home, having returned to NYC after dropping out of college amidst bad grades and a disastrous break up.  I heard the first plane go over our house as I was laying in bed, and thought it strange for a moment but groggily dismissed it and turned to go back to sleep.  Soon after, my mother was yelling at me to get out of bed and come to the kitchen.  She was yelling something about me packing my bags to move to Canada.  Confused, I grudgingly roused myself and walked to the kitchen where I was confronted by the image of the first tower in flames.  My mother explained what had happened and we both marveled for the next few minutes at what appeared to be a tragic accident unfolding on television.  When the next plane hit we both knew immediately that it was no accident.  Not knowing what else to do we walked out to seventh avenue and watched the two smoldering towers burn at the southern end of the island.  My mother clutched my arm very tightly, I don't remember what she was saying to me except that it was worry about what this all meant and whether there was more to come.  My first reactions in the fugue state that I would later recognize I was inhabiting were "Damn, it is going to take a long time to fix those holes in the towers."  I imagined months of cranes and giant scaffolds, never dreaming for an instant that those two towers would both be gone within the hour.  In this state of mind I left my mother to go down my job in SoHo, further downtown and closer to the WTC, at Broome Street and Broadway.  
  •  On the way I stopped here, at Bleeker Street and LaGuardia Place, named in honor of one of the greatest mayors in our city's history.  A crowd had gathered in the middle of this street, and people stood transfixed, staring downtown at the burning towers.  I stood behind a man who had hastily set up an easel and and watched him render the scene in oils.  As I was watching him paint, the second tower began to fall and I stood in utter, horrified silence though around me there was nothing but screams.  I remember thinking, "He is going to have to repaint that whole canvas."  In the detached and shocked state I was in I thought for the first time about how altered the city's skyline would be by the loss of one of those towers.  I could not even begin to consider the human toll, it was just too big to really take in at that point.  In this state I continued on my way to work, moving further downtown and closer to the site.  
     Today, I asked a man on the street to take my photo there, I tried to look somber but I found in the instant before he snapped the shutter that to look as serious as the subject demands was impossible and ridiculous and that thought made me smile.  So, oddly, I am smiling here in the spot where once I stood in horror.  
  • This is the building I worked in, 480 Broadway.  Once offices and apartments it now houses Top Shop, who bought the entire building.  I was at that time an apprentice to the Audio Engineer at a small post-production house.  I had studied film and photography in college and high school but the idea of making it a career scared the shit out of me.  I had chosen a safer route and taken a job in the commercial realm.  Amazingly, all of my co-workers were at the office that day.  Every one of them had come in to work despite what was happening because we really didn't have any idea at that point what was happening.  I stood on the second story window ledge with my co-workers, where now oversized portraits of models are,  and looked at the steady tide of people walking up broadway covered in dust and we all looked south at the still burning second tower.  We watched it splinter and disintegrate, dropping into itself amidst confetti of glass and paper and dust.  I remember a woman I worked with screaming "Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!" over and over at the top of her lungs.  When it had dropped from sight, we all looked at each other, no one said a word, and we all climbed back inside and shut the window.  We marched to the back of the building, threw open a window and lit up a joint and began to talk about what we had just seen.  I don't remember much of this, I doubt any of us do, and I don't think that is attributable to our smoking pot.  We were in complete shock.  My friend was playing "Godspeed!  You Black Emperor" on his stereo.  He said it was his "end of the world music".  Few times in my life have a soundtrack matched an experience perfectly in the moment that something is happening and none moreso than this.  Ever since, I have kept it on whatever music device I have in the event that I am once again in need of an apocalypse soundtrack.  We spent the next few hours watching the exodus of dust covered people walking up Broadway and everyone used my two-way text pager to contact their friends and families since pager service alone was functioning.  
  • I started working that night for a volunteer relief service for the firefighters, police, and EMT's who were working at the site downtown.  I didn't really have much to offer in the way of skills, I just worked at the food table and brought food and drinks out to the long line of ambulances that was stretched out along the driveway of the Chelsea Piers.  People had begun to camp out at this spot along the West Side Highway where the police had established a cordon line below which they were restricting travel further downtown unless one was a resident.  To discover them ten years later standing in the exact same spot, cheering and carrying the same signs of support,  brought me instantly and forcefully back to that day.  They were cheering for the ambulances, the fire trucks, and the police vehicles as they sped between downtown and the relief center I was working at.  The ambulance drivers were universally morose when I would make my rounds.  They had come from neighboring counties in New York and New Jersey to offer their services and their vehicles to aid the city's EMT's in the rescue effort and they were all crushingly disappointed when they arrived here to discover that there was no one to rescue, no survivors to speak of.  They were using the ambulances to ferry supplies and exhausted rescue workers, firemen, and cops up and down from the site.  They became increasingly despairing over the course of the night as I brought them cup after cup of coffee because it was becoming apparent that no good news was going to come out of downtown, no survivors were going to be found.  The ambulance drivers all felt horribly guilty as they drove past the crowd of supporters that waved cardboard signs at them and cheered and clapped as they drove by.  They would honk their horns to try to keep the spirits of these kindly souls up, but they could not bring themselves to admit to them that they were not doing as much good as they had hoped to do here and that the situation was very, very bleak.  Seeing those same people camped out in the same place today I still could not bear to tell them what I knew because I was so touched by their gesture.
  • Hog's and Heifer's bar in the Meatpacking district is a biker bar that has been there since the days when it was the only establishment in the neighborhood that did not butcher, package, or distribute meat.  It was a dingy dive joint with scantily clad bartenders who would dance on the bar to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash songs and curse you out when you ordered anything fancy which they did not stock then make buy you a whiskey while sneering at you as they downed their own shot that you were obliged to pay for as well.  God help the man who tried to hit on them.  Many of the patrons were firemen and police who were also motorcyclists in their private lives and so it became the place where after departing the volunteer center we would all go for a strong drink.  I met a woman while I was working at the volunteer center and we went there on that first night and we drank heavily with our fellow volunteers and the exhausted off-shift police and firemen.  We ended up going home together that night and we shared an entirely physical affair for a whole week.  I think that all of the usual things that would have prevented an encounter like that occurring were lost in sight of the fact that we were painfully aware of the fragility of life, scared that another attack would occur, and could not bear the thought of going home to an empty bed.  A warm body was the closest shield in sight for the fears that we were experiencing and we took refuge in one another for a few days while we grieved and processed what had happened.  We would meet at Hogs and Heifers after our shifts ended and have a few drinks for courage and then go home together.  This ritual continued until they closed the relief center after it became apparent that the rescue effort was over.  That same week my two-way pager died and I lost all of my phone numbers, including hers.  I rang the buzzer at her apartment a few times over the next few weeks but she was never home.  I never saw her again.  
      I was surprised when I went by Hog and Heifers today that they were having a barbecue for the firemen.  Tons of motorcycles were parked outside, all bearing the FDNY cross on it, and there was a huge crowd of New York's Bravest in full regalia gathering there.  
  • I have lots of small recollections of those days but they are disjointed, more like vignettes than part of a whole story.  I remember the smell.  I remember that the sirens never ceased, only got closer and further from all directions at once.  Mostly, I remember the incredible unity that existed in New Yorkers.  There was a sudden solidarity when this populous city acknowledged itself for the first time not as a mass of humanity but as individuals.  It was unprecedented in this city that has a reputation for being cold, faceless, and uncaring.  Everyone felt purpose, everyone talked to strangers, and everyone was kind to one another.  I felt a similar kindness today in this city as we remember and relive our local tragedy that has touched a nation and the world.  That is what I hold onto; that in the face of great tragedy people respond first with kindness.