What Alice Looks Like [and Some Memories of September 11th]
If you’ve ever wondered, Alice
[And Now an Unrelated Appendix to This Post: I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about September 11th, which isn’t the sort of thing I usually blog about, but there it is.
I have no special connection to the events that took place that day. I don’t know anybody who was in the Twin Towers. But I was in Manhattan that day, and I did see what was happening: I was, uncharacteristically, on time for work that day, which meant taking the train across the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn at around a quarter past nine in the morning.
You could see both towers quite clearly from the bridge, and that morning you could see that they were both on fire. It looked exactly the way it does in all the pictures. No one on the train knew what was happening — at the time there was actually a petty, hilarious atmosphere in the crowd, like, look at those fat-cat Wall Streeters! Their buildings done caught on fire! We didn’t understand. I only understood later when I got to work and watched the towers fall on TV.
It was a strange, awful day. I was working at Time, but not in any serious capacity. I was a junior editor at Time’s short-lived spin-off technology magazine On. The whole place was both stunned and frantic — people rushing to try to understand what was going on, having to pay attention to the absurd, pointless-seeming mechanics of making a magazine (they produced a whole issue in about 36 hours) while simultaneously trying to psychically process the atrocity that had just happened.
I was largely irrelevant to this process. I went out and tried to give blood, but all the blood banks were full — there weren’t enough survivors to give blood to. I did some man-on-the-street reporting, which I dutifully filed (I don’t think anybody ever used it). Eventually I took a subway downtown, to try and get close to the crash site — it didn’t seem right staying in midtown, which was completely serene and untouched. It felt unreal. The island had been sealed off at Canal Street by the police, so you couldn’t get anywhere near the World Trade Center, but the smoke and the stench were appalling enough as it was. You didn’t need to get any closer.
I ended up walking home over the Manhattan Bridge as the sun set, in a silent crowd of Brooklyn commuters. We felt sheepish at being so healthy and alive and useless. An enormous tilted pall of black smoke hung in front of the sun. The smell was unforgettable: it was of something burnt, something highly artificial and chemical like insulation, that wasn’t ever supposed to get near an open flame. A steady, bloody stream of ambulances raced across the Brooklyn Bridge. The East River was bobbing with police boats and fire boats. It was the only time I’d ever seen FDR Drive with no cars on it.
At the far side of the bridge we were met by Red Cross workers handing out paper cups of water, anticipating, correctly, that we would all be totally dehydrated. At the time I thought of hanging onto that cup — it felt like the only real thing I’d touched all that day. I didn’t, of course. But now I wish I had.
It’s strange: I’m not a horror writer, but horror always creeps its way into my books somehow, at some point or another. My horror tends to be psychological horror, fantastical horror — in other words the horror of a middle-aged white guy to whom nothing truly horrifying as actually ever happened, except, you know, the existential horror of being born or whatever. September 11th is probably the closest I’ve ever come to the real thing: I didn’t witness horror, but I could sense it. It wasn’t far away. In fact it was very close. I hope I never get any closer.]