by Laura Pederson.
People don’t look like people anymore after they’ve fallen from over a hundred floors above the ground.
In 2001 I was hosting a television show where I interviewed politicians, celebrities, and businesspeople. On September 10, 2001 I flew to Dallas, Texas, to speak with Colleen Barrett, the accomplished president of Southwest Airlines. However, I awoke to see the Twin Towers collapsing, just three blocks from where I used to work on the American Stock Exchange. Oddly, at first glance, the air was reminiscent of a tickertape parade, with millions of tiny slips of paper floating to the ground like snowflakes. The TV segment was not only canceled, but I wanted to get home as soon as possible. Having left Wall Street just a few years earlier, I knew over a thousand people who worked in and around the World Trade Center, including many good friends and old flames.
All planes were grounded, and it appeared the nation’s airports would be closed for days, if not longer. Likewise, trains and buses were on hold when it came to routes destined for the tri- state area. I grabbed a piece of shirt cardboard and wrote NYC on it with the intention of hitchhiking if worse came to worst. I knew that food, especially dairy and produce, would still be heading north, and I could catch a ride with a trucker. Before hitting the highway, I stopped at a rental car agency only to be told that they’d just signed out the last vehicle—most travelers had the same idea once their airline tickets were rendered useless.
On my way out, I spotted four guys walking toward the parking lot of cars for hire who looked like they operated an accounting firm in Midtown and asked if they were heading for Manhattan. Sol, Len, Barry, and Nate were indeed stranded in Texas after a business meeting and intent on driving two days straight in order to return home. I could tell they weren’t happy about the prospect and would much prefer to be in a business class cabin enjoying scotch and warm nuts, starting to read The Wall Street Journal, and then dozing off. Moreover, they looked at me as if I were a side dish they hadn’t ordered. Still, I showed them my driver’s license and said I could help drive if need be and pay for gas if they’d let me join them. They talked among themselves and acquiesced but said they were leaving right now. That was fine by me.
Suddenly I was worried about how many rest stops there’d be, with women’s bladders being notoriously weaker than men’s, especially on long car trips. Sol asked if I wanted anything from the coffee shop and I declined, instead deciding to use my five minutes to ensure I was starting out on a completely empty bladder, and secretly vowing not to drink a drop of anything for the next 1,600 miles. I then hurried to the parking lot, afraid they might leave without me. However, I was relieved when they all showed up carrying what must have been gallon mugs of coffee. I was thirty-five at the time, and in the bright sunlight they all appeared to be in their mid-fifties. Out of the four, I estimated that at least one had to have prostrate trouble. Not even an hour into the trip we stopped at a rest area, and I purchased a (small) bottle of water.
It was an emotionally jarring time, and everyone was talking about what had happened and what it meant. The only reference point was the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese sixty years earlier when 2,403 people were killed, although the majority were military personnel. The terrorist attacks on the morning of September 11, 2001 involved four airplanes hijacked by Islamic terrorists and primarily targeted civilians. Two flew into the 110-story World Trade Center Complex in Lower Manhattan, causing most of it to collapse. One crashed into the Pentagon and partially destroyed the building’s west side. The fourth plane was flown toward Washington, DC, but crashed in Pennsylvania after several brave passengers thwarted the hijackers.
However, we knew and understood very little at the time, other than that our country was under attack. We had no idea whether it was over, or if more aircraft had been commandeered and bombs were going to start raining down on us. The radio played the news nonstop, and we heard crazy reports, like that the people flying planes into the World Trade Center were suicide bombers who believed they’d be met in Paradise by seventy-two virgins (not a popular female fantasy, I couldn’t help noting). The death toll was unknown but we were told to brace ourselves for how high it was going to be. I fretted over the number of friends I’d lost on Wall Street. Merrill Lynch had their morning meeting on a high floor of the World Trade Center, and almost everyone used the transportation center underneath to commute from Long Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Westchester, along with other parts of Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and The Bronx.
I offered to drive, but the guys politely declined. At midnight they were still talking, and I recalled slumber parties from my youth where everyone stayed up half the night only to be nonfunctional the following day. We were gliding through Arkansas on I-40 East, heading toward Memphis, where Martin Luther King was shot dead fighting for his country at age thirty- nine and Elvis succumbed to the Rock ’n’ Roll lifestyle at age forty-two. Only a few trucks remained on the road. I crawled into the way back and took a nap. When I awoke it was quiet, still dark outside, and road signs indicated that we were deep in the heart of Tennessee. I saw an exit for Murfreesboro and recalled speaking at a school there in my twenties, with the campus blanketed in wildflowers, and how friendly the people were. I’d had some extra time before the event, driven through McDonald’s, and ordered a large French fry. This reminded me of the day that famous chef and doyenne of French cuisine Julia Child appeared on The Joan Rivers Show and shocked everyone by saying that she loved McDonald’s French fries. I’d visited Cannonsburgh Village, a reproduction of pioneer life with grist mill, school house, and general store. Usually there wasn’t time to do anything fun while traveling, so the experience stood out.
Barry was now at the wheel, and the rest of the guys were sound asleep. I felt the car lurch to the right and then straighten out. A few minutes later we jerked to the left, toward oncoming traffic. I whispered to Barry that I’d just awoken from a good nap and asked if he wanted me to drive. I sensed this wasn’t his first choice. I’ve never had an accident, my license was clean (meaning a few speeding tickets had cleared off), and didn’t even wear glasses, though I’ve been stopped by police for DWB—Driving While Blonde. Or maybe his reluctance was a result of the millions of dumb blonde jokes that circulate on the Internet (and people regularly send me). Otherwise, I don’t exactly exude authority. The one time I was on a cruise ship, the other passengers continuously asked me to fetch them cocktails and make up their rooms. When I’m shopping in clothing stores, other customers regularly touch my arm and ask if there might be a size medium of the sweater they’re holding somewhere in the back.
Eventually Barry said that it was time to stop for gas and we’d switch places. In Cookeville, Tennessee, I took the wheel and drove through Monterey, Crossville, Crab Orchard, and Rockwood, heading toward Knoxville. The news had become an endless loop of grimness. It was hard to escape as I quietly spun the dial in search of an oldies rock station, forgetting I was in the South, where country music dominated the airwaves. Finally, an eclectic musical mix rose up from the dashboard that included “Just Another Day in Paradise,” “Prayin’ for Daylight,” and “Achy Breaky Heart.” Along the highway were billboards for Elvis’ home Graceland (“Enter the Blingdom”), Dial-A-Prayer, and the popular TV show Baywatch (“Frost Bites. Summer Is Coming!”).
When dawn slowly broke, I was in the Blue Ridge Mountains and thought of Francis Scott Key awakening to see that our flag was still there. The veneer of civilization had cracked, but America’s heart continued to beat. The guys began waking up and made noises about bathrooms and coffee. We were heading northeast on 81 and had just crossed into Virginia, which is where I relinquished the wheel for good. At eight o’clock that night, my new friends dropped me on the Manhattan side of the George Washington Bridge and wished me well before continuing on to Scarsdale. From there I could catch the A train and then a crosstown bus. Standing on my Upper East Side terrace, I would see the smoking remains of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. When the large complex of seven buildings was completed in 1973, critics hailed it as an architectural disaster, and most New Yorkers agreed. Now the iconic skyline looked as if a big bully had knocked out its two front teeth. After almost four decades of life together, we’d become accustomed to one another and even grown on each other. As when any member of the family meets a bad end, bygones were bygones, neighbors and even strangers banded together and lamented everything we’d lost.
It transpired that a dozen friends and colleagues were murdered on that fateful day. Most had been at meetings on the hundredth floor or above. Some died trying to help others. One leapt from a window of the fiery North Tower, and for that reason I’ve never been able to watch TV footage of the jumpers. I was told that one woman held her skirt before leaping to her death. Two people held hands and jumped together. A doomed employee emailed a pal, “Thank you for being such a great friend.” 9/11 was the single deadliest attack on the history of the United States, resulting in 2,996 people killed and over 6,000 injured. They were of all nationalities, including Arabs and Jews, and trod every walk of life, from janitors to billionaires. The multimillionaire head of one company, who was rather renowned for being an asshole (which many on Wall Street viewed as a compliment or badge of honor), was told three times by authorities to vacate a top floor of the North Tower but refused to stop doing business. While reading the titan’s large obituary, a friend put it this way: “He lived like an asshole and he died like an asshole.”
Jimmy Daley was beloved by everyone on the trading floor, and I can’t think of many other people who fall into that category. A cheery and charming floor broker for Merrill Lynch, it was his name I was saddest to see on a list of missing colleagues circulating via email. Jimmy and I both had our fair share of wild Irish blood, and as a result we were both teetotalers. After work he liked sitting at Harry’s Bar and drinking club soda. Whereas I didn’t care for alcohol, quick-with-a-joke-Jimmy liked it quite a lot and still enjoyed a contact high, unspooling yarns and creating more than one “Irish Layover”— when you miss the last train or bus. The only good news came when it was discovered that Jimmy Daley’s phone had been out of order and he was indeed alive and conversing.
Still, the losses kept coming and were too difficult to bear. The tiny threads that held a tapestry of eight million people together had been torn apart. A woman at my church wrote this poem.
Nine-Eleven by Charlotte Parsons
You passed me on the street
I rode the subway with you
You lived down the hall from me
I admired your dog in the park one morning
We waited in line for a concert
I ate with you in the cafes
You stood next to me at the bar
We huddled under an awning during a downpour
We dashed across the street to beat the light
I bumped into you coming round the corner
You stepped on my foot
I held the door for you
You helped me up when I slipped on the ice
I grabbed the last Sunday Times
You stole my cab
We waited forever at the bus stop
We sweated in steamy August
We hunched our shoulders against the sleet
We laughed at the movies
We groaned after the election
We sang in church
Tonight I lit a candle for you
All of you
After 9/11 I went to seminary and became an interfaith minister with plans to sign on as an army chaplain. However, my husband was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, and then my stepmother crossed the Rainbow Bridge, leaving Dad alone and at loose ends, so that had to be put on hold. My husband made a good recovery, and I aged out of military service. Nevertheless, most of my friends had left the religions of their youth, so I was in demand for family funerals and a number of pet departures. Hands down, cat people have the best stories for eulogies and really know how to throw a memorial service. Otherwise, I’m relieved not to be languishing in a Manhattan jail, since burying pets in Central Park is illegal, and I’ve presided over a number of “going home” ceremonies at dusk featuring twigs tied into crosses and garlands of black-eyed Susans, to which mourners brought their own garden spades. Thank goodness for Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers,” because you’d be surprised how slight the funerary canon is for avian burials, and I happen to be neighbors with a woman who has experienced a string of bad luck when it comes to parrotlets. Dickenson’s verse is also mercifully short in case park police show up, and the funeral-goers are required to make a run for it. There’s no dress code, but sneakers are recommended.