Like most people who had lived in New York long enough to recognize the World Trade Center buildings as landmarks of the city's skyline, I did not really think of them as beautiful structures. From, say the south entrance to Washington Square Park, your back to the arch at the north end, you could make out their outlines on a clear fall sky but be impressed only by their size and boxy silhouettes. The image of the Chrysler building from the 59th Street bridge on the East River is far more beautiful and elegant, particularly at night when the stainless steel Art Deco tower is bathed in artificial light.
The Twin Towers were bland architecturally, and the public plazas surrounding them sterile and often empty of people. The Chrysler, even the Beaux Arts City Hall, look upon spaces of bustling civilian traffic. The Chrysler has Grand Central Station across the street, the city buildings downtown stately turn of the century architecture and churches with their spires dating to the early nineteenth century.
Arriving in the city from my sister-in-law's modest apartment in northern New Jersey, stepping off the PATH commuter train into the station three stories down in the basement of the North Tower, in search of my first job in the big city, I was struck by the sheer number of people riding or striding up a bank of half a dozen full-size escalators. Eight-thirty in the morning and everybody, at least it seemed to me, looked like they were running late. The lobby had the traffic of Grand Central's, but the ambiance of mega-mall anywhere USA.
That view sticks with me. As uninteresting as the towers were aesthetically, that flow of humanity within its walls was pleasing. It was a world. My brothers had worked there at one time or another. Till I moved to the city from New Jersey, the lobby of the North Tower was the first I saw of the city. Thousands of faces, nearly all possessed of ambition.
So on the eighteenth of September 2001, when I was able to at last travel as far as Union Square on 14th Street, where I first found the smallish, humble statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the southwest corner of the square, I came up from beneath the tunnels, and in a cool and soft fall breeze from the sea, a breeze so gentle it felt like it was seeping its way north, like the bed of scents a sidewalk flower stall sends out to its sidewalk, was the unmistakable odor of death, hundred of deaths, on the breeze.
In my bedroom, I had watched on the newscasts live video of the attack. I tried to imagine the glass flooring at the edges of the observation deck I had visited, just once, because the height had slowed my heart, disintegrating while I stood on them. I thought, at the time, standing there seeing the wind sway the top of the mighty building ever so minutely, that something as dull and oppressive as the towers seen from the ground could not possibly be that alive.
On the television screen, that was all I could do. Try to imagine it all as if I were on Chambers Street, on the sidewalk, bending my neck back as far as it would go, like the first time, so I could find the very top. These monstrous constructions splitting the downtown sky reduced into a flat plane of perception so alien I stuggled to find a foothold.
Those flames look like they're coming from somewhere in the 90's.
The broadcast antenna's still up. Why can't I get Channel 4 off the air?
(on a long camera shot from a helicopter) What are those things falling off the sides of the building?
(me screaming in my head) Implosion! Implosion! (the south tower collapsing)
From then on, I stopped thinking, and just watched, all the way into dusk. The north tower collapsing. World Trade #7 following. The audio feeds with voices in tears, or trembling with anguish, my heart going more numb by the hour.
But that late afternoon, on the sidewalk off Broadway, just outside of the southeast Union Square subway stop stairwell, I finally grasped the enormity of tragedy. The odor of thousands of bodies in the ammonia clinging to a breeze from the harbor, faintly.
It was unbearable. I could not bring myself to walk to the makeshift, hastily constructed memorials along the 14th Street steps leading to the Union Square plaza. Compelled by grief, I turned back and left the same way I came.