Volume 81, Number 15 | September 8 - 14, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Looking back at 9/11 • A special Villager supplement

Out of the Ashes

Jerry Tallmer.

Losing the Towers, losing our sense of security in New York


Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December. But the days grow short when you reach September.

Ten years. Ten minutes. Ten seconds.

The elevators in the World Trade Center always scared the hell out of me, the few times I had reason to ride in them — usually to get to Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of one of the Towers. They reminded me of boxcars, those elevators — the kind of boxcars that conveyed a million or so Jews to Auschwitz, except that these oversized tin-can elevators seemed much more flimsy than any boxcars would have been.

I was actually in another elevator, in my own apartment house, heading off to work, when a woman who lived some floors above me said: “Did you hear? A plane has just flown into the World Trade Center.”

What flashed into mind was the B-25 that had hit the 79th floor of the Empire State Building on a fogged-in day in 1945, not a beautiful blue-sky day in 2001. Joseph Kahn, a reporter for the New York Post, had climbed up all 79 flights of steps to get to the floor where a dozen or so young women had been burnt to death at their desks.

Now, in 2001, a black woman of some years had a radio tuned to 1010 WINS. A second plane had hit the other Tower. How many dead, I asked her.

“Forty thousand,” she said bleakly.

I crossed the street, entered the building where I worked, got into an elevator there...and, for the first and only time in my life, slid to the floor in a two-second faint.

Make mine Manhattan, New York, New York, it’s a helluva town; the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down, the people all ride through a hole in the ground…. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere…I like New York in June. And July. And August. And September… .

What the hell, I was born and bred here East Side, West Side, all around the town. Native New Yorker, New York City-er. All my life I have been — had been — blessed with a sense of security, total unthinking security, as I walked around town — my town — guarded by two oceans and a forest of skyscrapers. Weren’t you? And millions of other walkers?

All that security was blown away in the space of an hour. Not an hour, a split second, when the first plane hit the first Tower. In that instant everything changed — changed utterly, as a great poet said in somewhat different context.

Le Corbusier said the skyscrapers weren’t tall enough. Maybe he was right. Not tall enough or strong enough, not to mention fireproof enough.

There was once a long, slow, prestigious movie called “2001.” In it, an exploratory space ship of the (then) future is taken over by a computer named Hal. That’s the difference between 21st-century terrorism and 13th-century terrorism — a rogue computer vs. a handful of box cutters.

Since 9/11 we have narrowly averted a shoe bomber, an underwear bomber, a Times Square bomber, and I don’t know how many undisclosed other bombers. Nobody knows how much longer we can be so fortunate as to hold off even greater disaster than 9/11.

Am I still angry? You bet. Angry at the box-cutter wielders who killed Berry Berenson Perkins and nearly 3,000 other human beings that morning. Angry at George Bush for taking three whole days to get to Ground Zero and then exploiting the hell out of it. Also for not having the guts to go get bin Laden when he, and we, might have had him. Most of all, angry at myself for sharing, to whatever tiny degree, the Islamophobia of some of the worst, most despicable, most dangerous political figures of our time.

The New York Observer had it right 10 years ago. Its 96-point banner front-page headline that week was, quite simply: “Sept. 11, 2001.” That said it then, and says it now.

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