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the diary thing 
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09.11.01
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 numb
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WE WERE IN BED when the phone rang. We were talking about the wedding, or the cats, or something. K. got up and ran to the library where our only working phone sits, on her desk. I heard her answer -- a friend, it sounded like -- then say goodbye and hang up a minute later.

"It was Scott, honey. He said we should turn on the t.v." Just a touch of urgency in her voice.

I get up, reach for my glasses, and walk downstairs. Assasination? Bush, maybe, or Sharon. Something horrible in the Middle East? An earthquake? I decide, in the slivers of thought as I walk down the stairs that no one notices natural disasters anymore.

The New York skyline. Lower Manhattan. Smoke. The twin towers, pouring smoke. A fire? Well, in one tower, maybe, but both? I remembered the old Oscar Wilde joke, that losing one parent might be unfortunate, but losing both seemed careless. It would be my last moment of levity for the day.

Terrorism. The word was used cautiously, even after it had been established that both towers -- both towers; I was having a hard time with the whole idea -- had been hit by airplanes. Highjacked. Well, of course. I mean, it was just so obvious, wasn't it?

Then the footage. One tower on fire, a ring of thick smoke. Then, from the right side of the frame, a dark blur, resolving itself into the familiar shape, a stout, cigar-shaped body, two wings, big engines slung low. Behind the first tower, then gone, then a gout of flame exploding to the left edge of the picture. Captured "just moments earlier". And from that moment, it seemed like someone had kicked the floor out of the world.

K. IS GRIPPING MY ARM. We watch, silently, trying to imagine just what's happened. I don't know who used the word "war" first. We try not to say the obvious things: Hezbollah, Taleban, Saddam. We remember Oklahoma City, but besides that, the urge to avoid thinking simply, vengefully, without a single fact, has to be fought now, from the beginning. We hope that other people feel the same way.

The scene cuts to Washington, a pall of smoke from behind the "Old Executive Building", a merry -- for Washington, anyway -- beaux-arts collection of turrets and ornament. Another explosion. A bomb? A car bomb? The network anchor speculates wildly, drawing on the fuzzy map of Washington in her mind's eye to place the scene, just out of the direct view of their camera. A few moments of confusion, a quick cut back to New York, then the word "Pentagon", and I'm really, truly scared, for the first time.

A plane has crashed into the Pentagon. Two planes have crashed in the World Trade Center, and another plane has hit the Pentagon. I hear "small plane", but from the looks of the fire and smoke, visible now that a camera crew has crossed the Potomac and started transmission, it had to have been a lot bigger than a Cessna, a twin-engine commuter plane, or a regional jet. I've seen the Pentagon, from overhead, flying into D.C. National, and I know it's truly huge, that the blaze captured by the long lens of the video camera, consuming one whole side of the building, is massive and deep, breaking through two, three, maybe four of the building's rings.

Well, that's it. It's war. There's going to be a war. Again.

I GO DOWNSTAIRS TO COLLECT THE MORNING PAPER. I leaf through as we watch, yesterday's news looks laughable; silly, childish stuff. The film festival. Celebrities. The latest news from the Three Stooges-like squabbling among the country's right-wing political parties. What a farce; what a load of shit. I fold the paper with a sigh and decide to go online.

There's nothing, really, yet. The NY Times page has rudimentary stuff -- I've seen it already -- and images that refuse to load. Nothing in the e-mail. Even through my ancient modem, it all comes through too slowly, with coughs and splutters. I'm about to log off when K. rushes past, from the kitchen where she was making coffee, the radio on, on her way back to the t.v.

"Honey. One of the towers has collapsed. Right to the ground."

More smoke, a wild boiling cloud, wreathing most of the remaining tower, clearing slowly. One tower. I can't imagine New York with only one tower. But of course, it's not over. We sit and watch, holding each other's hands, as the second one falls, buckling, shuddering, spitting black debris as each floor folds down, subsiding into yet another boiling cloud of smoke. Gone. 

The news that follows seems like poorly plotted drama. Another plane, a crash into trees, ploughed, smoking earth outside Pittsburgh. A car bomb outside the State Department. Rumours of more planes, quick denials. Hasty press conferences with politicians, police, airline representatives. "Trading has halted on the New York Stock Exchange." An awful scream petering out into sobs and shudders.


 
"Let's walk over the bridge to Brooklyn. They can't hurt us in Brooklyn."
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- from the New York Times, 09.12.01

 
The kind of day, I suppose, that diaries were meant for.

WHAT DO I DO NOW? For lack of anything better, I make my way downtown, to the shoot I have scheduled with Bruce, a Canadian director premiering his new film at the festival. It occurs to me, of course, that everything's been cancelled, but I'm grateful for the chance to move, to leave the television, the pile of papers filled with old news. K. is getting dressed, on her way to church to pray, before heading off to work. Her section, entertainment, will be thin today, and she's prepared to do damage control in news.

The bus north to the subway is silent. No one reads, or talks. Eyes staring straight ahead, out the windows. Thoughtful -- I like to hope -- thousand-yard stares, vain attempts to read the future; tomorrow, next week, next month, or maybe just escapes into peaceful places in one's memory.

No one rushes for the subway entrance. Is it me, or is everyone moving with a hint of solemnity, an instinctive reverence for the terrible moment? I grab a paper -- more old news -- and wait on the silent platform. The subway finally comes. Every seat is taken except for one, next to a young woman, an African muslim in a black hijab. I take the seat, smile at her briefly. I have nothing to read. I glance over to see that she's doing her homework, for a nursing course of some sort, in a looping, girlish hand, the letters printed with strokes that curl with a flourish.

OUTSIDE THE HOTEL, a crowd stands, most of them on their cellphones, bent over, intent, turning slowly on their heels, some with one finger in an ear. At the press office, I'm told -- no surprise -- that all interviews have been cancelled for the day. Of course. And now my day opens up, free to contemplate the news without distraction.

In an empty conference room nearby, a t.v. is set up, a ring of chairs in front. I take a seat and watch as the first new footage is presented, the familiar plane from a new angle, the collapse of the first tower, a long telephoto shot, shivering as the floors disintegrate. I reflect on how modern it all is: jet airlines slamming into skyscrapers while we watch it on television, real Tom Clancy shit.

After a half hour in this room, silently watching in the company of strangers, I walk across the hall and phone Scott. My day's been cancelled, I tell him. I'm downtown -- would you like company? 

"Sure. Bring a couple of black coffees."

Scott is on the phone, the t.v. tuned to CBC, a half-composed e-mail on his computer. He's been trying to reach a couple of people he knows in New York. I head out to the balcony for a smoke. 

We sit, looking at the city, and wonder whether this is what September 3rd, 1939, or December 7th, 1941, felt like. On the t.v., new footage is being shown, amateur and professional shots of the second plane, the collapse of each tower. Bush stiffly addresses the press. His choice of words feels uninspired; hobbled metaphors; "these folks"; a poor show of rage. For the rest of the day, almost every official statement feels just as inadequate, FDR's "day that will live in infamy" artlessly twisted and re-moulded, along with the inevitable references to Pearl Harbor.

Scott is restless. He feels agitated, helpless. He can't sit around any longer, and heads off to give blood. My brief trip to Britain, just over three years ago, prevents me from doing the same, so I leave him at Church Street and walk down to pick up a cheque on my way home. The streets are full, the usual traffic of students and shoppers and workers on lunch breaks, but it feels still, subdued. The sky, I finally notice, is empty, not a single flight in the air, the background rumble of ascending and descending flights into the city's two airports absent. On the ground, no one runs, or shouts, or laughs. Conversations are hushed. It's like any other day, really, except that the normal's been kicked out of it.

My old employer is across from St. Michael's, the Catholic cathedral. I take a few steps north, toward the bank machines in the Eaton Centre, then change my mind, and walk around the corner to the entrance to the church. I walk halfway up the centre aisle and find a seat, drop my camera bag onto the pew and slide onto my knees. I look around, at the handful of kneeling figures in the side aisles, at the rows of candles, most lit now, in the dark corners of the cathedral, at the cardinal's hat hanging far above the altar, underneath the peeling mural on the ceiling. I don't know how long it's been since I've prayed. I don't know where to start.
 

Oh God, I pray for mercy. There has been enough dying today, and enough grief, to tear the world apart with anger. I pray that vengeance will be blunted, that innocent lives won't be swallowed up in chaos. I pray that if some horror or loss is inflicted on me or someone I love, to have the grace and dignity to avoid the comforts of hatred.

Hardly the most eloquent thing I could have said, I think. More inadequate rhetoric on a day when words are both necessary and cheap.

AT HOME, THE STORY IS EXPANDING. More footage has poured in, from an unexpected shot of the first plane sliding into the north tower, caught from the far end of one of Manhattan's long, canyon-like streets, to a vivid perspective, from the base of the towers looking dizzily up, as the second plane dissolves into the side of the south tower. I'm amazed at how the plane, a massive Boeing 767, just disappears into the wall of the building, atomized into fire and smoke. I remember standing at almost the same spot, many years ago, wandering around the business districts's twisting streets, taking pictures for an album cover.

I'm mesmerized by footage taken by a doctor, a handycam in one hand, a medical bag in the other, as he makes his way through the dust cloud between collapses. A rumble as the north tower dies; he looks up at the looming bloom of debris heading for him and pleads, quietly, over and over, before taking shelter behind a car: 

"I hope I don't die. I hope I don't die."

Tony Blair looking grim and purposeful. Another performance. Jacques Chirac stunned, almost pleading. Blocky, stuttering videophone footage of a Taliban official denying Usama bin Laden's guilt. Yasser Arafat, his lips shaking as he expresses his shock. On the streets of East Jerusalem, a woman in a black hijab wails with joy, mad-eyed children jump up and down, men fire automatic rifles into the air. That can't be doing any good, I think to myself. Vengeance starts here, in the bitter jubilation of the angry, the ignorant, the desperate.

I watch people leaning out of windows, a few storeys above the smoking wound in a tower, moments before collapse. I see bodies falling, making quick progress down the elongated grid of the building's skin.

I sit and watch late into the night, numb and, mostly, emotionless. It's been hours since I watched the second tower collapse and found myself shouting: "Oh Jesus no! No no no please God no." Since then, the day has been almost dreamlike, no action seeming to be related to the next, no consequence of any significance. Over and over, in my head, one question repeating, with minor variation: 

What just happened? What did I just see? What happened today?

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writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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