9/11/01-9/11/21: Who Am I Now?
I’m trying to remember what my life was like on September 11, 2001. There are facts I know: I was 29 years old. I lived with my wife of 4 years in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We lived in the first floor and basement of a sort-of brownstone apartment at 231 Berry St between N1st and Metropolitan. Peter Dinklage lived a block away on the same side of the street in a block of apartments. We didn’t know he was Peter Dinklage yet. His first ‘big’ movie, “The Station Agent” wouldn’t come out until 2003. And he was years away from playing Tyrion Lannister and becoming one of the most recognizable faces on television. No, at that time a mperson with a really intense face we’d see from time to time on our street, or waiting for the subway at the Bedford station. We’d see him on the way to work, or coming home, but he was just another interesting person you’d see in Williamsburg at the turn of the century. There were a lot of faces in Williamsburg at that time I’d eventually see again years later and wonder where you knew the person from only to realize it was from one of the bars or the Subway or the bodega on the corner. For years, I’ve lived in this weird liminal space between the media and reality where I was derailed by faces and places. Even now, TV and movie crews film a lot in Williamsburg and I still get this strange deja vu.
When we moved to New York in 1993, Williamsburg was a wasteland of factories and shipping docks that had once drawn people to live there but as the factories and shipping slowed down the neighborhood withered. And like it happens so often in New York, once the corpse of the old Williamsburg was ripe for the the pickings, when no one else saw any value other than crackheads and the families who’d been there for generations, the artists started to move in. There were big empty space for galleries and little warrens for art studios, streets lined with warehouses that fronted the streets that eventual became bars and restaurants and recording studios.
The first time we went the one Subway stop under the east river to Williamsburg was for a party that my friend Tom knew about. It was on the south side of Williamsburg but we didn’t know what that meant. So we walked the long way, from the Bedford stop underneath the Williamsburg Bridge and over to that part of the neighborhood that was mostly Hasidic Jewish families. The old Gretch guitar factory still sat there dormant before they made it into luxury apartments. As we passed under the bridge there was a group of men huddled around a 50 gallon oil drum with a wood fire going inside. It was straight out of Warriors. Or at least that was the reference I had. After a while in NYC you get used to seeing things you wouldn’t see anywhere else, but that stuck in my mind, mostly because I was really actually scared, something that honestly didn’t happen all that much when we lived there. Later we;d know we could have taken the J train or a car service or any of the other easier ways to get to the salute side, but we didn’t know then.
By 2001, we’d lived in Williamsburg going on five years. The first four we were in an apartment over an old storefront that had no bathroom or kitchen floor when we first saw it and agreed to move in. The shower tap plugged into the wall on the other side of the shower and that was the only hot water in the place. But the rent was $800 a month, hundreds less than we were paying in the East Village, and the landlord, a sweet Puerto Rican man named Angel, promised there’d be a floor and hot water from every tap by the time we moved in. A couple years later he offered to sell us the building for $250,000 dollars. We were just about to get married, just barely 25 and that seemed like a lot of money then. Years later the building’s completely gone, replaced by more luxury condos, and Angel probably made millions for just the postage stamp of real estate the building occupied. But that was the place we lived when we got married. Probably should have tried to get the money somehow.
The place we lived in on 9/11 had actually been Angel’s family place. He and his wife moved further out in Brooklyn and his daughter kept the top floor while we had the first floor and the basement.
My main reason for living in New York was to make music. I started at open mic night at the Sidewalk Cafe and eventually put together a band. In the late 90s alt.country was all over the place. Uncle Tupelo had brought it in and then broke up and Wilco and Son Volt sprung up in their place. To be an alt.country band in NYC may seem like a bad choice (and maybe it was. Several A&R people told me we would have been better off in a smaller town that fit that music better), but I grew up with country music and became a punk rock kid in high school, so it fit. In the few years we’d been playing out we’d opened for some bigger touring acts (Old 97s, Drive-By Truckers, et al), we’d put out our own record that sold a few thousand copies and in mid-2000 we travelled to the UK to play a few gigs and talk about a record deal with a new company starting up over there. We sold out The Borderline while over there. It held a couple hundred people, so that was a big deal. At the same time we were recording our 2nd record. We took the money we’d made selling the first record and whatever money I had on my credit cards and we went into a studio that had great gear and later mixed the record in a private studio on the West Side where all the gear was the actual gear from famous studios of history. The Fairchild 670 was THE Fairchild from Hitsville in Detroit. The half-inch tape machine was THE half-inch machine the Beatles used to record doubles and slap back. This was before you could do all that stuff in your computer. In fact, I still had a TASCAM 424 I used to record demos at the apartment.
We’d already been to London and on several tours by the time fall of 2001 came around. We were supposed to leave on September 12 for a two week tour that would start in Pittsburgh, go through the Midwest and south and then back. We were playing a bunch of the dates with Slobberbone, a band from Denton, Texas we’d played with in New York a couple times. They wrote these epic story songs and just roared all night long. They had a crazy fan base across the country. We’d just released the second record and No Depression magazine wrote a two-page feature story on us, calling us, “…the best alt.country band you’ve never heard of.“ We were still working on the record deal in England. We had a fancy lawyer who was also Sonic Youth’s lawyer. After almost 10 years of busting ass in New York, momentum was building.
The morning of 9/11 started like any other Tuesday morning. I was running late to my job as a proofreader at a medical advertising firm. I was probably a little hung over and a lot distracted. We were practicing that night with Walt, the guy who was filling in on bass for the tour, and the next day we were playing in Pittsburgh, so I wasn’t paying attention to anything. The office was on 38th Street (ironically, in the same building as my first NYC job where I got fired after working there 3 months…on my birthday. New York becomes a weirdly small town once you’re there for a while). I came out of the L Train station on 1st and 14th and, as I came topside, a young black woman sprinted down the sidewalk, weaving through the crowd, screaming. She had a baby, maybe 18 months old, in one of those foldable umbrella strollers that they probably don’t make anymore. She was sprinting south, looking up at the sky. No one said anything to her, just tried to get out of the way. I remember thinking “She better slow down. That baby could fly out.” I turned to watch her pass. Everyone turned. She crossed the sidewalk and disappeared in the crowd trying to get to the uptown busses.
Over the buildings to the southwest I saw a plume of smoke. It was big enough that it looked like it was coming from a building on fire a few blocks away, not a few miles away. But I didn’t know anything about that then. I got on the uptown bus and got to the office. I never carried my keycard (one of my small rebellions I used to prove to myself I wasn’t owned by ‘the man’) so I always went in through the mail room. As I passed through, Bruce, the mailroom boss said, “Hey, did you hear? A plane hit the World Trade Center.” I said something like “Shit, that sucks,” and walked to my office thinking it was probably another accident; Sometime not long before, a baseball player had crashed into a building while flying his hobby plane.
Honestly, what happens over the next few hours is a blur of images and ghost memories of emotions that changed so quickly I didn’t have time to register them fully. The second plane must have hit the South Tower as I was making my way into the office, because I don’t remember seeing it happen. I tried to call Theresa as soon as it was clear things were not normal but I couldn’t get through. All the cell phone lines were jammed. Finally, I tried on the office line and I got her. Knowing she was OK settled me down. She said everything was OK there and they were watching on TV in their conference room. She worked for The United Way then. She did food rescue and food pantry management throughout the whole city. A couple years before she started the first Community Supported Agriculture exchange in New York City in McCarren Park in Williamsburg. As far as I know, it’s still going today.
People in my office were freaked. A lot of folks were talking about leaving to go home. That’s when the bosses came down to our floor and told everyone to stay in the office. The news that other planes had been hijacked was coming through and we were 3 blocks from the United Nations. I remember thinking about dirty bombs since the UN wasn’t very tall. Theresa’s office was 2 blocks from the Empire State Building and Grand Central Station. Everything was a target. Why not. At that moment what happened was starting to sink in, the audacity of an attack like that. But most of us stayed in the office. Someone pulled TVs out of the conference rooms and we watched whatever news coverage we could get. I don’t think we had cable. I think we pulled it out of the air with rabbit ears. We could get one station. I can’t remember which. In groups of 8 or 10 we stood around the cubicles in the hallways and just watched. I wondered what we were watching for, but it was just disbelief. Watching it made it reality. Turn away from the TV and everything still seemed kind of normal. And then the first tower collapsed.
It was like a jump scare in a horror movie, but in slow motion. We recoiled from the TV and some gasped, some screamed. That was the moment 9/11 went from something that was happening, something terrible for sure, but not as connected to me, to something catastrophic, something we would all live through and never be the same again. It took weeks for that to set in, but that moment when the North Tower fell in on itself and the dust boiled out into the streets of Manhattan was the transition between one reality and another. The first reality was the life I had been living—music, possibility, an extension of my youth and the goals I set were still in front of me—and what was coming. I was a few years married to a woman I had already been in love with and shared my life with for nearly 10 years. We were in the midst of still writing our fairy tale, and what better place to do it than New York City.
The reality that settled in over the next few weeks, really the next few years, and maybe it’s still developing now, was one of loss and fear and sadness. There was the sadness of all the loss that happened that day, seeing our city in ruins, walking the streets and seeing haunted faces, feeling haunted myself. There was the smell that drifted on the air currents that had always been a part of New York but never really noticeable. In the morning, I smelled it near my office. In the afternoon, it shifted and drifted over Williamsburg, a reminder that held the tannins of death—burning plastic, sooty and present on the tongue with a hint of charred flesh, a sourness I still try to forget to this day, 20 years later.
After hours of waiting in the office I couldn’t get in touch with Theresa anymore. The cell lines were still jammed and her office phone rang to voicemail over and over again. I started to panic. I imagined just about every way she could die in the new world of possible deaths. Finally, my friend Gerry offered to walk me to her office. It was only maybe 3/4s a mile, but whatever was out there wasn’t the place we left when we came into the office that morning. Thinking back on that offer, knowing he was as scared as I was to go outside, realizing he’d have to walk back to the office alone, Gerry’s offer is probably one of the bravest, most noble acts anyone has ever given me. I’ve always meant to ask him what it was like to walk back to the office alone.
Hours later, we walked home. The Subways had been closed all day and we were going to have to walk over the Williamsburg Bridge. We moved south with the crowds of people walking in the streets, not pounding the pavement as they would on a normal day but almost like tourists taking in the new city for the first time. At the corner of 3rd Ave and 14th a homeless man in the middle of the intersection screamed Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” at the top of his lungs. That was the first sign of what was to come, but I didn’t think about that then.
Suddenly, we felt a train moving below us and people emerged from the station exits. “Is the train running?” “Just started again.” We moved down the stairs and disappeared from Manhattan, transported back within blocks of home. We went to Mugs Ale House to drink. It was late afternoon, so it had almost a holiday feel to it. But that feeling came and went. But we ate and we drank, friends met us and we tried to shake it off, but we couldn’t maintain the energy. Finally the day caught up to us.
The sun dipped below the short buildings of Williamsburg by the time we made our way south toward home. There were a bunch of us who lived close. We’d all gathered at Mugs like it was an aforementioned rally point in case of a disaster. As we got close to home we saw groups of people moving west down Grand Street toward the East River. Back then you could almost walk into the water at the end of Grand. I think there’s a park there now.
We walked halfway down the street that went to the water and stopped. To the southwest the sun set the sky yellow-orange on the horizon, in relief, the pillar of smoke and fire that would be a part of our reality for months and would never leave our minds in the years after. That’s the image I see when I think of 9/11. It was real then. The smoke as tall as the buildings it replaced. The skies empty except for the smoke, the clouds and the occasional fighter jet.
I’m writing this from my desk in Iowa. We’ve been in Iowa for 16 years now. I came out here to learn how to write stories and sometimes I do. Most of the time I feel like an imposter. The band tried to leave for the tour the next day, determined to not let this change our plans, in shock and denial still. But as we packed up the gear the Pittsburgh club called to say they were cancelling. I don’t think 9/11 was fully real to me in that moment. I was beaten. This was something I couldn’t overcome. I went home and watched the news for the next several days while Theresa went to work and made sure all of New York City got the food the United Way had to give. To say that the band never recovered is to describe one small symptom of what everyone lost, many lost much more.
I was a month away from turning 30 that day. I’m a month away from turning 50 now. The only wisdom I have is the sense that life goes on no matter what. I’m grateful for that momentum. Somehow 9/11 helped me live with the pandemic. It helps me live with the loss of who I thought I was and who I wanted to be and it helps me appreciate who I am. That I am. It’s days like this that pull me out of myself long enough to be glad I am alive and for all I have. Tomorrow will come, and the tomorrow after that. All I can do is try to meet all my tomorrows with more grace than the one that came before.
Jason T. Lewis
September, 11, 2021