An old friend, a bond salesman, called me in Nashville that morning from the 68th floor of a high-rise in Lower Manhattan.
He described the second jet, low and fast. His voice shook. I told him to get down on the street and head east up to Delancy and over whatever bridge he could into the refuge of Brooklyn.
They had turned off the main elevators so he found the freight lift, stumbled in his blue suit down to the street, then up through Chinatown, over the bridge and off the island. He walked the 9 miles to Queens and the train.
Catching his reflection in a mirror, he saw that blue suit was entirely white, his face chalky, covered with a mist of drywall and asbestos. He said he looked like his own ghost.
When I lived in the City That Never Sleeps, I held up my end of it. I didn’t count sheep. I’m Irish. I counted heartaches. For years I walked the streets at night or drove, pretending there was somewhere I needed to be.
Late one night, trudging up 10th Avenue, I was stopped by a working girl, looking for the last fare. End of the month, the rent was due. I politely declined and she walked along with me trying to see if she could put her foot into the lonely crack most men carry and push that door open.
We talked like strangers do that are knit together by whatever it is that keeps people out on the street looking for something they will never find in their peaceful beds and quiet dreams.
As I left her at some corner in Hell’s Kitchen she whispered like a worried mother, “You watch out for yourself now. You take care.”
She began to walk away, then stopped, turned and called out to me, “This city’s got a way of getting next to you.” Then she disappeared into the darkness near the docks.
I knew what she meant. It gets in you. You can leave and swear you’ll never step foot on those bricks and side streets again. But you aren’t doing the deciding. It decides. And one day you feel it circling around inside you. Roaring like a subway in your blood.
And it follows forever. Forever next to you.
I left, as much as going allows of leaving, in 2000. I sold what I could, packed a U-Haul and one Saturday dawn drove away down 7th Avenue to the Holland Tunnel. The last thing I saw was Trinity Church framed by those permanent steel towers on each side.
Anyone that has ever lived there knows the city has always been a numbers game. Lives are measured by salaries and bonuses.
People gauge themselves by birthdays and weight, by their credit scores and debts, by dress sizes or the number of shots needed to tally up enough courage to go home alone again on a Friday night.
Success is measured in square feet. It’s either some Chinatown studio-sized life looking out on an alleyway or it’s a 3-bedroom condo with shoe closets on Riverside Drive.
It’s a numbers game. Try to multiply the hope. Try to divide the longing. Stare at the remainder like maybe someday it’ll be the right answer. Being young is a numbers game, too. You can’t wait for Time to add some years to your heart, subtract its own innocence, and finally reach critical mass. Shed the temporary pain. Look for what’s permanent beneath it. What lasts.
I stared at the high-rise kind of life always counting the floors and stories each held.
I listened to strangers, trying to hear their secrets, promising myself that maybe someday I would knit all their ragged confessions into something beautiful. Something permanent.
One night late I was driving, returning from Brooklyn. The Battery Tunnel goes under the harbor so quite literally you have to submerge yourself, then float to the surface into Manhattan. It was raining hard. Maybe 3 a.m.
Just as I was passing the Trade Center on West Street, a back tire started that unwelcome thump thump thump of a flat.
Alone in Manhattan at 3 a.m. in a downpour I pulled to the side directly in front of the two gleaming towers.
It was the kind of rain that drenches you in a minute with no hope of keeping any part of yourself dry. Like being submerged above ground.
But I had no one to call and the streets were deserted. So I pulled up my collar, climbed out, fished a jack out of the trunk and went to work on the lugs.
I had replaced a couple of worn tires the previous year and they had used a mechanic’s gun to tighten the bolts down.
By then West Street had become a river. I was on my knees, muttering, cursing under my breath when a lone car started past. He saw me and, rather than sending a wave of water at me, slowed.
I continued to tug at the lugs but noticed he turned up on Vesey and slowly came around. He pulled up a few car lengths behind me.
“Just great,” I thought, feeling for my billfold and slipping it into my sock.
The driver, a nondescript middle-aged man in a trench coat, stepped out and walked toward me. He had something in his hand. I steadied myself, lug wrench gripped like a club now.
“Car trouble?” he asked.
“Just a flat,” I answered. “The lugs are a bear, but I’ll get ‘em.”
He glanced up at the towers, pointing, “You might get some help.”
“No thanks,” I said. “I’ll manage.”
He looked up into the storm, then back down at me, “It’s always hard . . .’till it isn’t.”
I nodded. He gestured at the umbrella he was carrying and said, “Well I could at least shield you while you work.”
“No thanks,” I said again. “I’m drenched. Going to be a while yet. No sense in both of us getting soaked.”
He gazed at me for a moment, then shrugged and walked back to his car.
I went back to work, straining and muttering under my breath, a little relieved he had left.
He got back behind the wheel but instead of driving off just sat there, lights shining through the rain at me on my knees, full of my temporary trouble between those two great and immortal skyscrapers.
I finally broke the first lug’s grip and went to work on the second, just as stubborn, when I noticed the man get out again. He walked toward me, raising his umbrella.
When he reached me, he looked up again at the towers, then down at me on my knees. Then without a word he extended the umbrella, shielding me.
It was pointless of course. All great things are.
The only causes worth much of anything are lost causes. The ones you do in spite of their pointlessness. The ones, great or small, we do, not because of what they might achieve but because of who we are.
For the next 30 minutes he held an umbrella over a stranger . . . me . . . in a blinding storm.
He never said word and neither did I. Some things do not require explanation.
And when I finally won out and tightened down the last lug on the spare, he simply closed his umbrella and walked away. He got into his car and swung north into the dark.
I got to my feet and watched him drive off. Then I looked up at the towers, permanent and unmoved by this small display of human kindness.
But I had that feeling I sometimes get, that I was being shown something . . . something hidden . . . like seeing just a glimpse behind a veil. Something large hidden in something small.
After the attack, a friend, a NYC detective, volunteered to be a sifter. Perhaps the greatest crime scene in history. The ruins were dragged to Staten Island to be sifted like flour on a conveyor belt for months.
Looking for the remains of innocence, I suppose. Going through its 1.8 million tons of asbestos and mangled steel and lives, searching in vain for reasons.
He told me 1000 souls were never identified. Even their 24 pairs of chromosomes were indecipherable, circling forever above the trade screens of Wall Street.
Those buildings are gone but others rose in their place. And strangers came from places with no alleys and subways looking to make their fortunes, to take the place of the lost.
110 stories . . . 3000 dead . . .
2 wars and 20 years. Always a numbers game.
Great things sometimes fall. Innocence, even a city’s, is known only by its absence. And now those towers that once seemed immortal are no more. They were carried away, every stone and steel pillar, reduced to dust by rage, then grief.
And we who remain sift through the evidence of our memories like detectives, trying to solve some mystery beyond our mortal ken.
Large things like towers disappear and small things like kindness reappear again and again on the conveyor belt of memory.
The working girl on 10th Avenue was right. This city has a way of getting next to you.
So when I look at that small acre of Manhattan what remains for me now is not the memory of those impermanent towers. Some small thing has risen in their place. Something that against all odds still lasts.
An unforgotten and pointless kindness. A lost cause. Like trying to stay dry in a downpour.
I guess he must have had a debt.
Sometimes on September 11, I look into the mirror and still see the person that wandered the streets at night. I see the man that drove the avenues and stood out in storms.
My hair is gray now. And though I no longer wear a blue suit, there is a fine mist of memory that covers me.
Like my friend, we all become our own ghosts, haunted by our memories.
And some nights I still see a stranger looking up at what was . . . still hear him saying, “It’s just hard. . . ’til it isn’t.”
Then I remember, it’s always been a numbers game. Just no longer the way I once thought.
My eyes are not nearly as hard or certain as they were. Now they show a debt.
Will Maguire lived in New York City until 2000. He is a writer and songwriter, now living in Nashville, TN. His most recent stories appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.