September 12. It doesn't have the ring of September 11, and yet the date remains in our memories as the day we crept outside into a new and unknown world.
all photos scanned from my film, Sept. 2001
The night before, we stood on our rooftops, where we had stood frozen most of the day, and watched the sunset turn the smoke cloud an apocalyptic orange. The buildings had just been there. We had watched them burn. We felt the rumbling impact of their impossible collapse. It seemed "unreal," as everyone would say, like a movie.
We went to bed worried. We had our canned goods, our bottled water, our cash, just in case. But we hardly slept.
The East Village night was silent, with traffic blocked off and all non-residents banned from entering. We lay awake, waiting for the percussion of another explosion.
In the morning we wandered out into the smoky world. Our neighbors covered their faces with breathing masks. The air shimmered with dust.
American flags, overnight, had sprung up everywhere. On the streets, men had carried televisions to the sidewalks where crowds gathered to watch the towers fall, again and again.
Signs went up for prayer services. People who never went to church went to church. Men pressed transistor radios to their ears and listened to the latest reports.
In Union Square, a sprawling memorial quickly blossomed and, in the coming days, overflowed.
Signs told us what to donate to the rescue workers, a long list of necessities. On our own transistor radio we heard that candy bars and chewing gum were good. We loaded two bags with Snickers and Doublemint and headed downtown. The blood centers didn't want anymore blood.
They wouldn't let us down past Houston, so we kept walking west.
On the empty West Side Highway, dump trucks carried debris northward, past the desolate Meatpacking District. We heard about body bags. We watched the smoke plume climb the cloudless sky. We heard about the Chelsea Piers being turned into a "makeshift morgue." There, they waited for bodies and took our donations.
Was it that same day or the next? Downtown, the tourist machine had already begun.
Like vultures pecking at the body before it was cold, hawkers sold American flags, posters, postcards, and pins of the Twin Towers. More would come. Already, orders were in for Trade Center snow globes, ashtrays, and baseball caps. Somewhere, someone was putting together gruesome photos for 9/11 Memorial Scrapbooks. Already, the tourists were adding Ground Zero to their vacation destination lists.
But on that day, and for many days, the smoke had not yet cleared.
On the souvenir stands, the vendors sold respirator masks. We bought them and put them on. Without them, we coughed and choked on the smoke as we stepped as close as we could to the disaster. It was still burning.
Up in Times Square, the tourists had all scurried away. The streets were dead. Newspapers floated across Broadway. It was so silent there, you could hear the sound of the traffic lights changing from green to yellow to red, though no cars came by.
All the big TVs were shut off. In the window of Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, the curator of wax had taken some celebrity from the window--Leonardo DiCaprio?--and replaced him with George W. Bush.