On September 11th — that September 11th of course, the only September 11th — my brother, my sister, and my two nieces were in lower Manhattan, but I, sitting in my office 3000 miles away, didn’t know that. My brother worked on Long Island; I had some vague notion that my sister’s office was in Park Slope; no one had told me that my nieces had moved out of their parents’ house in suburban Virginia. The only person whom I knew and whom I knew to be at risk was my former best friend Mark.
We were no longer best friends not for any personal reason but simply because he and I had moved to opposite ends of the country. We would talk maybe once a year, we had made new friends.
Years before, we had worked together at the Pentagon and — a small, mild irony for a day marked by large, harsh ironies — he had moved back to New York to take a job in the World Trade Center.
I called his home number. His machine picked up, of course: he’d scarcely be home at noon on Tuesday, even a normal Tuesday. As I listened to his familiar upstate-New York accent, I realized I had no idea what I could say.
“Mark, if you’re not dead, call me. If you are dead…” You see, it just didn’t work.
I had worked it out by the end of the message and just spoke my name and phone number. Somebody would call me.
My relatives I only found out had been at risk when I found out they were safe. My sister had to abandon her car on Manhattan and walk back to her apartment in Brooklyn; my brother was in the City to talk to some colleagues but was only inconvenienced; my nieces just closed the window of their tiny Chelsea apartment to shut out the dust and smoke. It was my ex-friend I was waiting to hear about.
Two days later, Mark called me, un-dead, un-burnt, un-crushed by debris. I didn’t ask him what happened to him; it seemed indelicate, prying. I didn’t want to be a tragedy-tourist. Actually, that’s untrue, I did want to be a tragedy-tourist, I just didn’t want to be seen as one. For better or worse, my not-dead ex-friend had an almost compulsive need to tell me his story. I imagine, like the old man in the joke, he wasn’t just telling me, he was telling everybody.
His company had moved across the street from the WTC some months earlier. As the towers burned, everyone in his office pressed against the windows, transfixed, fascinated by the disaster. Mark, always the pragmatist, decided to go home for the day and stepped outside and was just a block away when the first tower came down. He jumped inside a bodega and closed the door before the dust cloud could envelope him. He spent the rest of the day crossing the nightmarish landscape, and then the Hudson, arriving back at his home in Hoboken sometime after midnight, safe and sound, home to his wife and kids.
160,000 people died on September 11th, because 160,000 die every day. Think of the person you love most in the world. One day, not soon perhaps but inevitably, one day, either you will learn of her death or she will learn of yours. That is the promise that is made to each of us at birth. That September 11th is special not because people died — people die every day. Nor because of the number of people who died — statistically, it was a blip, if that. It might very well be that with the drop in dangerous activities (driving, drinking, fighting) that accompanied the disaster, that more people actually died on the 10th.
It’s special because for once, that solitary experience of waiting to learn — of gripping the phone, of sitting the hospital waiting-room, of studying the doctor’s face as he studies your chart, waiting to see if that inevitable day, that long-promised, long-feared, inevitable day was finally, finally today — for once, that experience was shared. We all face death. We are just surprised when we don’t face it alone.