by David Trinidad

              Does it really matter,
              whether we photograph the disaster?

                                                         —Susan Rich

After we broke up, Ira kept the loft
on the third floor and I took the one
on the second, where his offices had been
(he’d moved them a while back, a few
blocks west, to the tenth floor of 180 Varick,
then disbanded his agency when he
became editor-in-chief at Grove/Atlantic).
Suddenly I was living like a college student
again—mattress, lamp, desk from IKEA.
Since I would have had to bicker with Ira
to get some of the things we’d bought
together, I exited the relationship “clean,”
with just my stuff: poetry books, collectibles,
art. Isermann starburst clock. Password
(silhouette cigarette spies) and What Comes
Around Goes Around
(Liz Taylor wielding
gun) paintings. Pinkish Joe Brainard
(boy in shower). George Schneeman
(stockings on wire hanger with gem by
Alice Notley: “So may / I say that I
had a vision / last night of Heaven?”).
Hung them on pale green walls. Missed,
most of all, watching movies, so had
a 27-inch Sony Trinitron delivered from
Circuit City in Union Square. DVDs
were new; I became obsessed with seeing
movies in their true aspect ratio. I was
aware, time to time, of Ira’s movements
above me, on the high white tin tile ceiling.
More light than I was used to (it woke
me too early) and considerably more
noise, one floor lower, overlooking the
intersection of West Broadway and Spring.
I hated being closer to the push and
shove of SoHo, the madding crowd
moving, rapaciously, from shop to shop.
When the red tour buses turned onto
Spring, the heads of the sightseers sitting
up top would glide, like cardboard cutouts,
by my windows. Byron ran up and down
the stairs between apartments; Ira and I
called this “joint custody.” Twice a week
I took the Trenton Local to New Brunswick
to teach at Rutgers, and every Tuesday
night taught a graduate poetry workshop
at The New School. Sold, bit by bit, on
eBay, the bulk of my Barbie collection
to supplement my adjunct income.
Almost immediately, Ira started dating
a nineteen-year-old Dutch boy named
Marc. I was surprised that it didn’t bother
me. Yes, Ira had initiated the breakup,
and I was unsure of the future, but I’d
quickly accepted that I would be better off
single or with a more appropriate partner.
It bothered Marc, though, that Ira’s ex
was living in the same building; it became
a point of contention between them. At
8:46 a.m. on the eleventh, I was sitting
in bed, in my underwear, working on
a poem. I heard the plane go overhead
and knew that something was wrong:
it was flying too low and too fast, and
made a whistling sound, like a missile.
Then a crash, as if two cars had collided
in the distance. And people shouting.
I pulled on my jeans and, barefoot, went
downstairs. From the front steps I could see
the towers straight down West Broadway.
It looked like a small plane had flown into
the one on the right. A taxi was stopped
in the middle of the street; the driver stood
beside it, staring up. I don’t remember
smoke, just a hole, black, toward the top.
I could tell, from the sky surrounding
the towers, that it was a beautiful blue
day. The air felt mild. Ira appeared in
the doorway behind me. “I hope no one
is up there,” I said. What did I know
about the World Trade Center, or what
went on there. I was in Manhattan to be
an artist. I noticed the towers sometimes
at night, walking home a bit weary after
teaching; or full after a late meal at Café
Loup; or after an event at The Poetry Project,
disenchanted with being in the thick of it.
Pretty, lit in alternating stripes—some
floors white, some black—but somewhat
abstract—it never consciously registered
that people were inside. I’d been up there
once, eleven years earlier, when my mother
and sisters and niece and nephew came
to New York for my graduation from
Brooklyn College. I found it the most
unnatural feeling in the world. My fear
of heights kicked in with a vengeance: legs
rubbery, stomach clenched; I felt as if
I were about to be plunged into the abyss.
While Ira and my family took photographs
of each other, I waited anxiously to return
to the elevator and ride down to solid
concrete and safety. “Oh, I think people
are,” said Ira. He was going to vote, then
to his office. “Must you go?” Did I actually
say this? If I didn’t, I certainly thought it.
I watched him walk down West Broadway
and turn left on Broome. I watched a man
set up a telescope on a tripod in the street
in front of our steps. By now, black smoke
was pouring out of the hole, into the blue
sky, and rising into the floors above it. Marc
had come down, saw what was happening,
and went back upstairs to get his camera.
I stood in the doorway, tentatively, half
in and half out of the building, holding
the door open, while Marc ventured down
into the street to film the burning tower.
Traffic had all but ceased. Sirens, far-off
sounding, west and south of us, wailed
toward that desperate height—surely they
would be able to help. People passed
on the sidewalk and in the street. Some
walked quickly, without glancing back;
others paused, turned, and froze in place.
“Oh! Oh!” I looked up to see a burst of flames
in the middle of the second tower. My
only thought was that the fire in the first
tower must have caused an explosion in
the second. “It was an airplane,” exclaimed
Marc, leaping up on the steps. “I didn’t
see it,” I said. “Do you want to?” He had
caught it on his camera, held it up to me:
the two towers tiny in the flip-out screen.
I told him no. (He would ask me again
later in the day, and again I’d tell him no.)
More and more people were streaming
from lower Manhattan—most stunned
and silent. Noticed one woman crying.
And a man on a cell phone, gesturing
wildly. “They just hit the Pentagon!” he
yelled as he went by. I looked up: were
planes going to keep falling out of the sky?
When the man with the telescope said “I
can see people jumping,” I went inside.
Byron was up in Ira’s apartment; in the
stairway, I debated whether to bring him
down to mine. He was safe there, I decided,
asleep under the bed (I hoped), oblivious
to the chaos. I entered my place and turned
the television on: there were the stricken
towers, smoke billowing from both, and
that clear blue sky. A male newscaster
was saying, “This is going to change us
forever.” On another channel: a slow-
motion replay of the airplane heading
toward the south side of the second tower—
what I couldn’t see from where I stood
on the steps. On yet another: the flames
I had seen, papers raining down, screams
from a crowd witnessing the impact off-
screen. I turned down the sound and
called my father in California, to let him
know I was OK. An early riser, he was
watching it on his TV. “All I can say,”
he said, “is it’s a good thing your mother
isn’t alive to see this.” I hung up and
called Susan. She could see the towers
from the dining room window of her
10th floor apartment on Washington
Square. She had to get ready, she said,
to teach. It wasn’t lost on me that the two
people I’d felt closest to in the nineties
both reacted as if this was business as
usual. I knew enough to stay right where
I was, and be scared. I looked out the
window: the intersection was filled with
people, all staring downtown. I called
Ira at his office. “This is serious,” I said,
“You should be here.” The moment I hung
up, a terrible, collective wail came from
the crowd outside. I turned around to
see, on the soundless TV, the second
tower collapse under an avalanche of
plunging, gray-white clouds. A half
hour later: the same terrible wail from
outside, the same terrible spectacle on my
silent TV. I have no memory of what I
did in the interval. The next time I peered
out the window, the crowd was gone:
nothing left to look at except smoke
and an unexpectedly vacant sky. On
the television, thousands were passing
into Brooklyn on the bridge, behind
them an ominous, expanding brown
cloud. I pointed the remote at it, brought
up the sound. Felt a bit safer to hear
the newscaster say that Manhattan had
been closed to traffic, and to hear, at last,
Ira’s footsteps above my head. In the
afternoon, when he and I took Byron
out, the streets were virtually empty.
We walked to the market on the corner
of Thompson and Prince, M & O, so I
could stock up; we didn’t know how long
the city would be cut off. Ira waited
outside the store with Byron. I filled my
handbasket—with what? cans of tuna?
Progresso soup?—then got in line, a long
one that wound around the counter and
halfway down an aisle. As I inched
toward the front, I glanced back at the
other people in line: all were stiff and quiet
and scared—I could see it in their eyes.
The woman directly behind me—thin,
middle-aged, Italian—kept bumping me.
Normally that would have set me off,
but not today. She was nervous—I got
that. “Just get me out of here,” I thought.
At the register, after I’d emptied my
basket and the cashier was finally ringing
me up, the woman pushed her items
forward, poking me, hard, at the same
time. The cashier began to ring up
her stuff. “Those aren’t mine,” I said
flatly, “they’re hers.” The cashier (she
was wearing a white smock) looked up;
I saw fear in her eyes. Confusion as
we tried to separate the woman’s items
from mine. The woman—still pushing—
acted huffy, as if this was my fault. “If
you weren’t so pushy,” I snapped, “your
things wouldn’t have gotten mixed up
with mine.” Surprise at first, then her
face hardened with indignation: “I guess
everyone’s ugly today.” My comeback
was involuntary: “Shut your stupid mouth.”
The cashier looked freaked out. Would
this escalate into violence? bloodshed?
death? I left the store shaking, helpless
with anger, overcome with self-reproach:
why couldn’t I keep my mouth shut. Ira
had never had much sympathy for my
post-altercation regrets: he would have
told the woman off and thought nothing
more about it. Back at our building, Byron
came in with me. After it got dark, Ira
knocked on the door. He and Marc were
going to the supermarket at LaGuardia
and Bleecker, did I want to come with?
I did; I could stock up more. On the way,
a celebrity sighting: Harrison Ford. Surreal
to see Indiana Jones in a business suit,
on the day that was going to change us
forever, strolling down Prince Street with
two other men, also in suits, smiling and
relaxed—perhaps they’d just enjoyed
a good meal. In the market, the bread
aisle was bare, except for one loaf of
potato bread on a bottom shelf. This
brought to mind how, during the Cuban
Missile Crisis, supermarket shelves were
stripped clean. Nine years old at the time,
I didn’t understand how adults could be
so frightened they would panic into mob
behavior, or how grocery stores could run
out of food. For days, the air was sepia
colored. Someone (I don’t recall who) said,
“We’re breathing people.” The smell—
Jeffery remembers it as “chemically” or
“plasticy”—lingered for at least a week.
The wind would shift and you’d be reminded
it was still here. Everyone south of Canal
Street had been ordered to evacuate; we
were two blocks north, so were safe. Or
got to stay, I should say. I watched, out my
window, countless people drag suitcases
up West Broadway, hunched forward like
refugees, white surgical masks over their
mouths and noses. Houston Street was
cordoned off; every time I left SoHo,
I had to show my ID to a policeman
when I wanted to go home, to prove that I
belonged there. I remember thinking this is
probably the only time I’ll get to see who
really lives in Manhattan. The first time
I took the subway (to Penn Station, to take
the Trenton Local to Rutgers), I sat across
from a young woman. We were the only
two in the subway car. We looked at
one another, but didn’t speak. In all the
tight spaces—the trains, the greengrocers,
the streets—New York was a different place:
people were actually being nice to each
other. Maybe it was true—we had been
changed. Then Bush, worried about the
sagging economy, came on TV and said
that, as an act of patriotism, Americans
should go out and spend money. The day
after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, the crowds
came back. And soon after: street vendors
and sightseers, those mammoth red tour
buses stalled in traffic. I kept the green
curtains drawn. SoHo was once more
a hub of thriving commerce, and looked
like a trampled amusement park by the
end of each day: a place people came to
to push and shove from shop to shop,
and drop their trash. The usual ugliness.