Friday, September 9, 2011

September 11th, 2001

It was a Tuesday.

I had been living in New York for just over three months, on a J1 student visa. Myself and two friends , Peter Dawson and Peter Whelan,  were sharing an apartment on West 125th Street, a few blocks from Harlem's Apollo Theatre. The three of us had gotten jobs through an agency, working as doormen and porters in apartment buildings in Manhattan.

That particular Tuesday, Peter Dawson was in San Francisco. I returned home at around 7 a.m., having just finished the night shift. There was no-one at home at the time; Peter Whelan had probably left to go to his own job. Given that we all worked different shifts throughout the summer, we could often go a day or two without seeing each other.

I woke up at 3pm and decided what to do for the day. I may have listened to some PJ Harvey, Aimee Mann or Gorillaz - the music that soundtracked the J1 summer. Given my 2-CDs-a-week habit, the radio was never on in that apartment. We were lippy 21 year olds who could talk for Ireland, so we never bothered getting a television.

With no one around to hang out with, I decided to go to the cinema. Moulin Rouge was showing, and I felt like it was the type of film that required a big screen and decent speakers. Loews on Times Square seemed a suitable destination.

I walked out of our building on 125th and made straight for the subway station. I didn't stop to talk to anyone,  go into a store or look at a newspaper.

The train pulled into Times Square and I hopped out. A police barrier had closed the street off - not an uncommon occurrence. Perhaps they were diverting traffic, or shooting a movie. Walking up 42nd Street, I began to notice that a lot of businesses were closed. Even the 24 hour internet cafĂ© next to Madame Tussaud's. 'Something must be up with the electricity' I thought. A power-cut, maybe. It seems daft now, but I distinctly remember hoping that Loew's had a back-up generator. I had nothing to do for the day; the lads were away, and a film would've passed a few hours.

But Loews was closed. Everything was shut. I turned around and went back towards the subway station, passing a man who was preaching fire and brimstone. Again, not an uncommon sight in New York city. But something he said caught my ear. God was punishing us for being wicked -once again, nothing new there - yet the man kept referring to today. Tuesday. God had unleashed his judgement, today.

I walked on, and a few people were looking up at the ticker-tape news coming in. More than normal - in New York, it was considered uncool to look up, unless you were an out-of-towner. But these people didn't look like day-trippers.

The sentence that was curving around the building in red-on-black letters said that one of the Twin Towers was on fire. That was all. It was getting close to 4pm and - I thought - part of the World Trade Centre was burning. I made my way back to the subway; maybeI could go downtown and see the fire before they put it out.

But the stop on 42nd was shut. A notice advised people to walk ten blocks north to the next station, where there were only trains going uptown. Time to go back to 125th, find somewhere in the neighbourhood that had a television. I had been awake for well over and hour now, but still hadn't spoken to a single person. Something had happened, but I had no idea what.

On the carriage uptown, a few people were standing around a man who had been to a one-hour photo shop. He was showing them pictures of what I still thought was a fire at the World Trade Centre. Looking over other people's shoulders, it was hard to see the photos or make out what he was saying. Getting out at my stop, I made my way to the Mexican deli on the corner of our block.

I walked in to a place that, before that day, I remembered for its accelerated air-conditioning and surly service. Above the counter, a small television replayed images that had been playing around the world for the past 8 hours.

A plane crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Then another plane hit the neighbouring one. And then they fell.

And then they fell.

I stood there, watching it happen again and again. New York is the kind of city that often makes you feel as if you're in a movie. But this was something else entirely. What was going on?

Later that evening, Peter Whelan returned from work. For the first time ever in apartment 11, the radio was turned on. All was still confusion, but reactions were coming in apace. Over a six-pack, myself and Peter discussed what had happened, and the day he had while I was sleeping.

He told me that, after his shift, he had gone to the World Trade Centre to volunteer, as he had some training in CPR. But they were only letting in expert emergency crews at that stage. Peter was thinking about going back tomorrow, he said. Although he had to work in the morning, so it was unlikely.

I got up that Wednesday morning and saw Peter in the sitting room. 'Are you going to work?' I asked him. 'I am, yeah,' he said. I said good luck and see you later, and went to work in an apartment building on East 56th Street. That day, I was filling in for one of the doormen.

I sat at the desk and listened to the radio; music was being played to rally people, emergency crews were being exhorted. 'I've just got a call in from some fire-fighters from New Jersey,' said one DJ. 'They were down there today, and they want us to stop calling it Ground Zero and start calling it Ground Hero. So, this is for everyone down at Ground Hero this is David Bowie, Heroes. God Bless America.'

Several residents of the building stopped to talk to me at the desk. What was that smell, they kept asking. Is the building being evacuated? Should they leave? What was happening? What was that smell? With as much calm as a 21 year old in a white shirt could convey, I told them that I had received no calls, and that I was sure that we'd be told to leave if we had to. But what was that smell?

A little while later Jay, a Puerto Rican man in his fifties who I'd been working with all summer, stood at the desk. That smell, he said, was coming from 50 blocks south, at the bottom of Manhattan. Burning, melting and acrid, it was everywhere.

That evening, I went back home. Peter wasn't around, but sometimes our shifts would cross over and I wouldn't see him for a day or two, occasionally a little longer. We were hired as 'summer relief' in seperate buildings, and our shifts changed on a weekly basis.

I went to a store a block away run by a guy from Yemen. Sometimes we'd talk about girls, and his beer was cheaper than the Mexicans'. As I made my way towards the fridge, he was having a conversation with a customer about the attacks. They were both saying how tragic it was, shaking their heads. Then the customer shrugged his shoulders and pointed a finger towards the man behind the counter. 'No offence, bro, but it was your people that did this. Your people, man.'

Back in the flat, for the first time that summer, I began to think about my flight back home. Three weeks away, not too long. I couldn't believe it, but I wanted to leave Manhattan.

The next day, Thursday, I went to work again. In a surreal way, New York was getting back to business. Hawkers were already selling commemorative T-shirts. I came home in the evening - there was still no sign of Peter. I was getting a little concerned, but thought maybe he had hit the town. Or, charmer that he was, maybe he'd met a girl. Good for him.

But he hadn't returned by lunchtime the next day, and now I was worried. It was a Friday and I was off work. We had no cell-phones and I didn't have the address of the building where Peter worked. I was the only person in Manhattan that knew him.

Walking into the nearest precinct, I was greeted by a cop in his thirties. I told him that my friend might be missing.

'Has this got anything to do with the events of Tuesday, sir?' ( The words 'nine-eleven' had yet to find their way into 21st century parlance.)
'No. He volunteered to help, but they turned him away. The last time I saw him was Wednesday, he said he was going to work.'
'And are you related to this man?'
'I'm not, no.'
'Well, then you can't file a missing person's report, sir.'
'But his family are in Ireland - we're here on student visas. I'm worried that he's been mugged or hurt, I don't know what to do.'
'Sir, have you called St. Vincent's?' (The hospital closest to the Twin Towers.)
'But this has nothing to with Tuesday - he went to work!'
'Sir, just call St. Vincent's. If he's not there, come back and we'll see if we can help you.'

I found a payphone, wanting only to get through the formality of making the call, so I could return to the station and ask that cop to help me find my friend.
Someone answered. I asked for Peter Whelan. They asked me to repeat it. I did. Then they asked me to spell it. I did. They asked me for the spelling, again. I gave it to them.

They put me on hold. A man's voice answered, groggy.

'Hi, I'm looking for Peter.'
'Peter Whelan.'
'This is Peter Whelan. Who's this?'
'Who's this? Who's this! It's Jimi, man, where are you? I thought you were dead!'

Peter sounded rough, said he'd explain what happened when I got there. He gave me the name of the ward he was in, and asked if I'd bring the New York Times and the latest Newsweek or Time.

I got on the subway; my first trip downtown since the attacks. I got out at Canal Street. There were jets in the air, and smoke in the distance. On the corner of the street, a man was holding a placard that said 'War Is Not The Answer.' A truck carrying rubble stopped in front of him. An arm jabbed out, followed by a head hurling insults.

'Hey buddy - you're a fuckin' asshole! Get that sign off you! I've been hauling shit out of there all day. Bodies, man! That sign is bullshit, you're a fuckin' asshole!'

I bought the papers Peter asked for and made my way to St.Vincents. There was a bus-stop in front of the hospital, covered in pictures of missing people. Details of lives emerged - this guy worked on the 96th floor of  Tower One; this man had a tattoo with his wife's name on his right shoulder; this woman had a particular kind of bracelet.

Earlier that day, Mayor Giuliani had said that the chances of finding any more survivors were extremely slim. Most of the people on that bus-stop weren't coming home.

I went in to St.Vincent's and followed the signs to Peter's ward. There he was, lying on a bed, sharing the room with another patient.

We had spent the summer playing chess, heading to bars, putting the world to rights and laughing. Now, here he was, looking pale, but alive. It was good to see him.

Peter told me what had happened. He hadn't gone to work on Wednesday, and had returned to volunteer. As he was standing on Christopher Street, waiting for word on what was happening, a truck passed by. Peter felt a jab in his stomach. He lifted his shirt; he was bleeding from a small cut, but wasn't in too much pain. He walked over to a cop, and showed him the cut. An ambulance was called. It took a while, obviously, but Peter wasn't in agony.

One came, and took him the short distance to St.Vincent's. They brought him into a room and gave him an x-ray. It came back, and next thing he was flying down the hallway on a gurney. 'Sir, something has pierced your stomach lining. It might have hit an artery. You may lose part of your colon.'


So, here he is, two days later, metal shard removed , arteries and colon intact, in a St. Vincent's ward. Peter's room mate is eye-balling me from his bed a few feet away. A John Wayne movie about a burning oil rig plays on the TV pulled close to his bed. I look at Peter and nod my heads towards his beardy neighbour.  Peter turns to him and says 'It's OK, man. This is my friend.' The beardy Wayne fan goes to close his curtain but, before he does, he stares at  me again. 'OK. But I'm just looking after my buddy, mister.'

Myself and Peter opt to conduct any further conversations in French. My compatriot would like to go for a cigarette. A nurse brings a wheelchair and I wheel Mr.Whelan outside. He's had to make a few phone calls, but his J1 insurance will cover the operation. We go back to his ward, where The Duke is still (loudly) fighting the flames.

Over the next few days, I return to visit Peter and his room-mate - who, I find out en francais , is a homeless man that got hurt in a fight. Peter makes a quick recovery and is out by the end of the weekend.

'Wanted' posters of Osama Bin Laden, from the Daily News, are put up in subway stations by maintenance crews. People sit on the train wearing similar looking t-shirts of the Al-Qaeda leader with the words 'wanted: dead or alive' underneath his face. The word 'alive' is crossed out.

It is a Tuesday, the 18th of September, a week after 9/11. It is also my 22nd birthday. Myself and my convalescing friend go to a bar in Greenwich Village. Just as we enter, a woman gets up from her seat at the bar and glides past us, out the door, on roller-skates.

We head off after a couple of cocktails. The barman paid for the Long Island Ice Teas after hearing that it was my birthday,  and that I come from Galway. Turns out he used to work in a bar on Quay Street, and spent a year there.

Myself and Peter then find ourselves in a small bar with maybe ten people in it. We have a beer and a yap, but stay away from the well-stocked jukeboxes you find in the city's dives. In pubs dotted around Manhattan, me and the two Peters had spent the summer singing along to Pogues, U2 and old soul tunes. But, for obvious reasons, the third Tuesday in September, 2001 wasn't that kind of night.

A man comes into the bar, orders a beer and goes to put his hand in his pocket. The barman puts down the glass he's cleaning and looks at him.

'What are you, kidding me? You don't pay for beer here anymore, buddy. This one's on me.'

A firefighter is now standing at the bar, drinking his beer and trying, perhaps, to ignore the fact that everyone in the room is looking at him. And is soon insisting that they too will buy him a drink. He quietly declines several rounds.

'So, how are you doing man?' asks the bartender.

Everyone's listening. He doesn't talk for too long, only says that it's a mess 'down there' and that he's lost a lot of friends. Another bottle is placed on the bar. He's said as much as he wants to now; there'll be no more backslapping or 'hey, this one's on me.'

Looking back now, the two weeks after that night seem to shoot by. But I do remember looking at the calendar, waiting for the day of my flight out of JFK. The intensity of the grief and loss in the city was now being matched by the desire for revenge,with the Duke Bush promising to 'smoke them out of their holes.' The hawks were circling.

Time to go home.

It was a Monday. The plane touched down in Shannon. I met my father in the arrivals hall, wearing the first suit I ever bought with my own money. The accents around me sounded strange, the colour scheme seemed off. Then, that feeling - the kind that's hard to shake.

I was missing New York.