Patricia Lee Stotter
New York City October 30 2001
I make sounds for a living. I hear better than I see.
At 8:39 a.m., September 11th, I was at the gym, sitting on top of a stationary bike, engaged in the clicking spin of a stillborn journey, when I looked up at the television and saw that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade towers.
The familiar 4/4 of the runners on treadmills played against the fluttering ostinato of conversation and wheel rotation, and as more and more people observed what was happening, it all modulated into a sotto voce choir of disbelief.
I immediately called my husband to tell him the news and to tell him I was coming home. He was recuperating from arthroscopic knee surgery, so he wasn’t at work. He said,” I heard the roar of the plane. Its flight was low and unnatural and I felt the impact.”
I left the gym and stepped onto Mercer Street, with its perfectly framed image of the tower smoking, and stood among the others, silently, looking.
It was silent. It was silent. An audience stood viewing the urban proscenium of death. The people, frozen and staring in the street, looked like some crazy foreshadowing of a Pompeii, waiting for the mud and the dust to take its place upon them. Disbelief. Denial.
The second plane hit.
Shrieks. Moans. Jesus. Oh shit! My God. A guttural burst of tears into coughing. Suddenly news announcers being quoted between strangers-now-intimate, participating in a thanatopic game of telephone. Walk home quickly. Three blocks.
No water in my building. My husband and I go next door. I call the children’s school. They are safe there. It is best to let them have a normal day. I am so in denial, I actually believe at this point that my two children can have a normal day.
Looking through my dear friend and neighbor’s window, which is a knockout cityscape, vertically punctuated by the great downtown buildings, I suddenly realize that I must get my children. Oh my God, what have I been thinking, I must get my children.
My neighbor’s daughter also goes to Grace Church School, so we call again and are told that 1 or 2 parents are coming up. It is our call.” Make that 4 parents. We are on our way.” We are rehearsing. We will be calm. “Yes, it is a terrorist attack, but we are safe, we are juuuust fine.”
I have never been more grateful for my brilliant, funny, generous neighbor, friend, and colleague; we became mothers on the same day, so it seems fitting to make this trip with Linda.
Suddenly everything changes. The air smells different; I feel a percussive shift in the smokiness. The nature of every sound transforms. Everyone is turning. I am not one person I am part of this mass, witnessing.
We turn autonomically. I hear a sound I have never heard before. It is an utterance of horror produced simultaneously by thousands. It is expelled, simultaneous and involuntary, brain stems slamming diaphragms in disbelief and trumpeting despair. Death is in the air. One of the towers has fallen.
I hear the church bells of Grace Church. I am not a member of any church, or any temple. If God lives anywhere for me, it is somewhere between the math and the magic of the architecture of song. So, I hope my kids are held in the gentle embrace of these bells.
Linda and I wait 15 minutes for our three children to be brought to us. The other parents waiting in the quickly-filling lobby are in shock, as are the children delivered, one by one, with care, to us. The bells of Grace Church keep tolling. I focus on the bells. I try to act normal— whatever the hell that means on the day flying bombs slam into the world trade towers—and I attempt to keep my kids calm while saying, “Linda and I are so thirsty. Just in case the stores close or something let’s buy a whole bunch of water. How many can you hold, Casey?” We duck into a deli. We buy 12 gallons of water.
Returning to the street heading downtown towards home, we are met by the mass of people, dust-covered, moving up Broadway in flight from their date with Hell. They are startled. It is a score of failed language. The street is jammed: polyphony of crying, coughing, and muttering. A man on a scooter pushes himself up Broadway shrieking “We are done for. I am dead.” And then a string of expletives. I explain to my kids that these times bring out craziness and as they can plainly see he and we are still quite, quite alive.
And then it happened. More mass. Hundreds and hundreds of adults, desperate to get north, to get home, to touch their loved ones, to see their dogs, to pat their cats, to hold their kids, to listen to their radios, to watch their TVs, to wait for the rings of their telephones, to get somewhere else, these people, these desperate, sad, stunned, hurting people who had watched people holding hands jump to their deaths, who had stepped over hands and hair and shoes, who had breathed in the smoke and the loss and the fear, these people parted for me and my friend and our three beautiful, clean children. They carefully moved aside and smiled gently to protect these children with their mothers from as much of the horror as they could.
I saw suddenly how many people were helping each other. I saw that my kids had handed our bottles of water to dust-covered, desperate, smiling strangers. I heard Linda say, “This is the most wonderful city in the world. When times get tough, we New Yorkers really pull together and help each other out.” Our stunned children agree and feel very proud to be New Yorkers.
We return to the 10th floor safety of Linda’s loft and watch our worlds fall apart through her window.
© Patricia Lee Stotter