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Tower Falls

Osama Bin Laden (on the right) with his two brothers and two unrelated friends. Oxford University, 1971.

The towers they are sleeping now. Sometimes I think about them, below the black void waterfalls flowing down many stories below the imprints. Jung wrote that every person has a shadow life, a life unlived. I wonder if buildings have a shadow life too. I think about the towers inverted and going down as deep into the earth as they previously went up into the sky, through layers of rock and crust and fire—all of it is god’s furnace, but maybe god's furnace is not so different looking than man's furnace, with molten steel and jet fuel. 

And where oh where is Blaise Bailey Finnegan III today? Is he sleeping, is he dead? Does he have the lung disease?

And where is Osama? Are he and his hijackers down there too, under the waterfalls going deep into the center of the earth, laughing at us, past the entry gates to il Purgatorio with the message carved in stone Dolente…dolore

Henry Hudson discovered New York Harbor on September 11th, 1609. Reverend Samuel Purchase met with Hudson soon after and found the famous explorer "sunk into the lowest depths of the Humour of Melancholy, from which no man could rouse him. It mattered not that his Perseverance and Industry had made England the richer by his maps of the North. I told him he had created Fame that would endure for all time, but he would not listen to me."

Manhattan is built on a big pile of shist—that was the joke that the tour guides loved telling, on our high school class trip to the big city. We were little provincial kids, we wandered around the city feeling so glamorous and excited, singing all the songs from Rent. What they didn’t say is that Battery Park City was Adam’s Rib, that the material was taken from under the World Trade Center and added on as a pile of landfill out in the middle of the Hudson.

My old pal Frank, a New York native, has a Black Flag tattoo on his ankle. It has the plane flying into one of the two middle bars. Below the towers, it says No, its not the end.

In September 2001, I had been living in Brooklyn and going to my first semester of art school for about a month. It was my first time living away from home. I kind of hated it. I would bike through the city all night and then show back up on campus, bleary-eyed in time for my eight-hour sculpture class, where we would sit in silence before our Woody Allen-caricature professor, sanding down our “abstract” soapstone blobs until they were baby-bottom smooth. He would sit at the front of the class reading a magazine, saying “that’s it, that’s it, keep sanding.” He was trying to teach us some kind of lesson about patient but it was really just festering our resentment.

On the morning of September 11th, I woke up late for class. Scrambling across the quad I ran into a guy who told me, “Hey man—a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.  You gotta go up on the roof and check it out…”  

I climbed up on the roof of the Design building. A group of student onlookers were gawking at the smoke billowing out of the tower. I remember thinking it was some kind of cartoonish accident—I imagined a little bi-plane piloted by some scarved and goggled old man accidentally hitting the building. 

Then the second plane hit. It came out of nowhere, going so fast. What was happening was starting to become clear.

I went down to my classroom on the 4th floor. There were big glass windows with a clear view of the towers and lower Manhattan. The poor teacher—who was so much younger than I am now—was struggling to hold the students attention and kept saying, “Please be respectful.” 

Through the plate glass windows, the towers were clearly visible and smoking heavily. Then the towers disappeared. Someone shouted “YOU CAN’T SEE THE TOWERS!” followed minutes later as the smoke cloud cleared a little bit “THE TOWERS ARENT THERE!” Smoke and screams and horror.

And as so many people have mentioned, that indescribable and terrible smell that settled over the city for months. Was it jet fuel or asbestos or death, or what was it exactly?

I have never smelled anything like that. That smell will stick with you forever.

I dropped out of college and moved back home to North Carolina in December. Art school seemed insane and pointless, not to mention expensive. New York was cold and scary. I found out my dad had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. He had actually been diagnosed in the summer, but they had waited to tell me because they didn’t want to a dark cloud hanging over my first semester away at college.

I was so happy to be back home.

Seven years later, by a series of random happenstance and accidents, I ended up back in New York. I got a temporary job an archivist at the 9/11 Museum and Memorial. The Memorial hadn’t been built yet. It was my first real white-collar job. I wore a suit every day and got my two dollar breakfast at the diner, double-toasted blueberry muffin slathered with butter, on my way to the black, Death Star-like skyscraper at One World Trade. Seven years after, you could still really feel the direction of the abscess before you saw it—something in the play of shadows created by enormous skyscrapers. It was hard to tell whether you could just feel the emptiness in that space, or if there was something psychically powerful about the site. A crowd was perpetually gathered around the chain link fence, and a blustered looking police officer held them at bay as dump trucks left the place in a steady stream—still removing rubble seven years later to the morbidly named Fresh Kills landfill. 

I feel honored to have had the opportunity to listen, sometimes in person, to the stories of the firefighters, family members, and first responders who were there that day. It really drove home how much I had not understood as a teenager in 2001. 

We even got to go out on a tour of Hangar 17, way out in Queens, where the Port Authority was storing all the big 9/11 artifacts that would eventually be put in the museum. The twisted steel, the last column, the teddy bears, the melted bike racks.

Everything had been tagged and had the toxic dust carefully cleaned off of it, but the acrid smell lingering vaguely on all the pieces of metal and ephemera in the hangar brought me back to 2001. It took me back to what it was like to be 17, to eat the foods I ate then in the college cafeteria, how everything tasted vaguely metallic after that day, to see how the future closed in with less possibility and liberty than existed before. It reminded me of how I went down to the Brooklyn Bridge that afternoon and watched the people from Manhattan stream over, the women with bloody feet from walking all that way in high heels. Some people were shoeless, and they weren’t worried about getting glass in their feet. No one took any pictures.

And how quickly the flag-sellers came out, almost within hours, sensing the opportunity. I didn’t have a cell phone at the time and how the payphones were all out of order because the lines were tied. It is smells that bring up the strongest sense-memories. They bring up a lot of old feelings.

I get more and more emotional about 9/11 with every passing year. 

I hate seeing the irony and the whataboutism and the comparisons to the coup against Salvador Allende in 1973 and the “well of course I feel sorry for those who died in the towers, but”, and now this year, the “well, technically, more people have died of covid than in the towers.”

What do they get out of the irony. The people who engage in this every year remind me of worn-out preachers who still give the same sermon to the same congregation but they no longer believe in it, they do it from ingrained habit.

As I get older, it becomes more and more clear to me how much this one event changed everything, how intensely it shaped my world and even the direction of my life. 

The entire sunken world of before is gone, that more innocent world I recognize with affection when I’m watching movies like Con Air and Die Hard and Fight Club

I’m sure part of it is simple nostalgia for being a teenager before Y2K, but I think actually the world was materially different. And that world and feeling is gone forever and its never coming back again.