The Grey Snow of 9/11
Early on a June morning in 1986 I entered the lobby of the World Trade Centre in New York, taking the express elevator to the 78th floor, and switching onwards. The binder copybook in my hand was opened on yesterday’s progress – a scramble of names and numbers – which had become this morning’s action plan. Word on the street was that Revlon was hiring summer interns. To be in with a shot, I would have to submit an application by hand at their offices.
Arriving on the 98th floor of the North Tower, I completed the task, inventing a few flowery reasons why I would be a good candidate. I remember nothing of the offices of one of the world’s largest cosmetics businesses, nor of the personnel whom I met there.
What I do remember is the dizzying scape that lay outside its windows, and the latticed, beautiful concrete skeleton which held the glazing in place, and the building aloft.
I pressed my nose and forehead to the glass, staring down on Broadway, Central Park, Harlem and the Bronx. Two decades assembling American myths in my head, and here many of them were, crushed into one canvass. At length, I pulled away, leaving pixelated oils on the building’s pane.
I descended to the ground level, and continued on my quest for summer work, filling a new page of contacts in the daily copybook.
Which was fortunate, because I didn’t get the cosmetics gig. Revlon decided they could do without me. And I hardly hold it against them. A man who doesn’t wipe the oils from his nose and forehead off the office window has no place in the clacking halls of fashion.
That summer of ’86 was a saturated time. The world seemed fully new to my twenty-year-old eyes. America was this in-your-face place where the cars were outsized, the heat and humidity oppressive, certain streets held palpable danger, and the buildings were so giant they mocked your mortal bones.
It was exactly what I wanted.
We each curate the events which become the milestone moments of our lives. This is how we explain who we are, to ourselves and others.
That early American summer on the streets of New York, when I cobbled together a job and a community through my own graft, is one of mine. It taught me what you can create from nothing when you land in the right place. It placed in me a fiery independence and self-reliance. That summer was a gift given to me by New York. I have a simple, intuitive appreciation for all things American ever since.
On completing university I chose to work with an American company across Continental Europe. There, I developed lasting friendships with Americans. Through living in the Middle East, I observed the complicated relationship America has with the world, a weave which has within it both high purpose and base avarice.
Throughout the nineties, the dominant media I consumed would be American. Imperceptibly, as I aged, America’s cars became less grandiose and its buildings less outsized. I was acclimatising to the dominance of American culture in which much of a catatonic Europe, short on ideas of its own, genuflected in the direction of Hollywood, Windows™ and Chyrons™ .
By the late summer of 2001, I was newly returned to Dublin, all guns blazing.
I remember that my Ozzie friend, Pete, was departing Dublin on September 11th, after a year living in Ireland. I picked up a text from him that day, just after lunch.
Pete’s message was the first hint of the trouble we would first call ‘The Events Of September The Eleventh’, and which became ‘9/11’.
‘Hi from Heathrow. Terrible what’s happening in New York’.
2001 was a time of dodgy internet connection and frustrating load-times. I immediately went to search out what Pete meant by terrible happenings. But it took a while to understand the architecture of what was going on.
By the time we scrambled the office television, the second plane had delivered itself into the South Tower. The video was played on a loop by most TV stations. Such repetition is needed when the brain goes into shock.
I watched and rewatched a speeding jet plane directing itself into the middle of a 110 story building, creating a giant fireball which belonged in a comic strip. American vocabulary seemed eerily on point. It was an awesome sight.
‘Look!’ I kept repeating, as I pointed at the plane on the TV. ‘Look!’
Joanne, my American friend and colleague, was with me in the room. From the eastern seaboard herself, she was watching a calamitous crime in her own country, dislocated by distance but not time. I remember her demeanour as strikingly still. In silence, hands clasped and shoulders drawn forward, she too stared, agog.
It is the feeling of jeopardy which I remember most from that day. The feeling that everything was up in the air; in play.
The watching world had become Chicken Licken.
And there were many reasons to believe the sky was falling down. Reports came that more planes were in the sky. Where next? What next? George W. Bush, at an education event in Florida, made a brief and discordant statement where he talked about finding ‘the folks’ who had perpetrated this attack on America. He was then shepherded to the skies by his minders.
When you don’t know what’s happening, the safest place is a moving place.
Joanne was trying to call her folks back home. I decided to return home, car radio blaring.
Every thirty minutes of that afternoon seemed to bring new drama. First the impact on the two towers. Then the people jumping. Then reports of more planes being hijacked. Then the grounding of American air traffic. Then the Pentagon hit. Then the damned towers came down – and in such a grotesquely symmetrical collapse. In front of our eyes, those towers became ghosts.
The resulting hurricane of dust, originating from the beautiful concrete skeleton I had once so admired on the 98th floor, spread across lower Manhattan. “Everything looked like it was covered with grey snow” said Guy Sanders, an ambulance driver on the day. A ghoulish army of whitened workers walked out from the debris, up Broadway or over the Brooklyn Bridge, seeking to distance themselves from the ungodly scenes they had witnessed.
That evening I spoke to my Dad, exchanging shock and wonder at it all. We commiserated with each other on the ways of the world and the loss of life. My younger brother was in Lisbon, and we spent a long time on the phone talking about all we had witnessed. What happened needed to be owned in words – the act of internalising pixels from the ether into reality.
It is 35 years since I applied to Revlon in the higher reaches of the World Trade Centre. It is 20 years since the towers collapsed and thousands of people senselessly died. So much has come in their wake: monuments and wars, truth commissions and lies.
A grey snow still occludes the full meaning of 9/11. It is early yet. There is light, but not heat, in history’s long day.