Theatre Journal for September 2001

My Wounded Hometown

by John Kenrick - 9/20/01

The World Trade CenterThe World Trade Center as seen from my former office window.

When the twin towers of the World Trade Center went up in the late 1960's, I and many other New Yorkers openly resented them. How dare they usurp our beloved Empire State Building as the world's tallest skyscraper? But soon the Sears Tower in Chicago overtook them all, and the Trade Center gradually became a familiar part of our landscape. You could see them from parts of every borough, as well as much of neighboring New Jersey. But beyond a place in our skyline, they became a part of our lives. Many of us worked there, most of us played there, and it became a visual reference point for all of our daily lives.

I remember the night of my college graduation, being treated to cocktails in Windows on the World (the legal drinking age was 18 back then). Looking out on the lights, I felt so sophisticated I could hardly stand it. Over the years, many a gala evening or romantic date began or ended the same way, clinking glasses as the world glittered below. And whenever returning from a trip out of town, the site of those towers from plane or car were usually the first endearing reminder that you were really home. Up close, the Trade Center was outsized and garish, but ultimately breathtaking – much like the city they watched over. Like 'em or not, the Twin Towers were pure New York.

One morning in 1993, I delivered some papers to a friend at the World Trade Center before going to a songwriting session partway uptown. From my composer's loft in SoHo an hour later, I watched in horror as smoke rose around the Towers. It took agonizing hours to verify that my friend had gotten out ok. After that terrorist strike, she took a job in the suburbs. Over the years, she questioned the wisdom of her decision, saying how she missed the view. She now thanks heaven.

Tuesday September 11th, 2001 was unusually beautiful in New York, with cloudless skies and a cool breeze hinting that autumn was just two weeks away. I was in the middle of eggs and toast in my neighborhood coffee shop when the radio blared news of a plane crash at the World Trade Center. As I raced to pay my tab and get home, a man sitting at the counter said, "What's the big deal? Some private plane must have gone out of control, probably too small to cause any real harm." I replied, "On a crystal clear day like this? There is no way this is an accident." The genius laughed at me.

I got home in time to flip on the TV and see Tower Two in flames. The gaping hole told me this was not caused by a small private plane. Two minutes later, I and my partner watched in total disbelief as a second airliner went into Tower One, hurling an awful cloud of fire and smoke through the opposite side. What in hell was happening? Getting a phone line to anyone down there proved almost impossible. I finally got through and was leaving a message on a friend's office voice mail as the first tower went down. It couldn't be – this was impossible! The fall of the last tower was somehow even more sickening. I watched it firsthand from the roof of my apartment building. As the tower disappeared into itself, I and those on neighboring rooftops cried out. From our distance, we could not hear the collapse, but it was all too obvious we had witnessed the death of thousands.

Part of my soul was torn to shreds. And the Pentagon too? I ran to the local junior high to tell friends working on the local primary election. Everyone there was beyond shock – we had woken up in peace, and were at war before lunch time. As if to prove to myself this was not a dream, I went inside to vote. Moments after I was done, the election was shut down. While heading home, I was approached on the street by strangers. All of us were seeking confirmation of what we had either heard or seen. We all re-learned the real meaning of the word "unbelievable" that wretched day.

Still seeking to grasp what was going on, I headed up to my roof, and there saw the massive column of smoke where the World Trade Center used to be. What had been horrific on television was suddenly directly in front of me. Maybe it took that to make it undeniable. I finally wept, long and hard. The thought of all the lives that must have ended as the towers fell was just too much.

In the days that followed, the internet became inaccessible from Queens, as did any but the most local phone lines. In time I found that everyone I knew who worked in or near the Trade Center had gotten out ' and the friend I had been calling when the first tower fell was blessedly caught in traffic. By Thursday morning, the wind shifted and the smoke reached my neighborhood. I will never try to describe that.

Then came the sickening news that a neighbor was one of the missing firemen. Sergio was one of the kindest people you could ever hope to meet, genuinely loved by so many people here in Jackson S. The gift shop that he and his girlfriend Tanya owned has a sea of candles sitting below a security gate crammed with flowers and notes of prayer. Such impromptu shrines are all over the city now, in front of almost every fire house and downtown hospital.

Estimates are that some three to six thousand lives were snuffed out. New York is very much a city in grief. Most of us have tried to resume living, but our hearts are not in it. And over a week later, no matter where you go, the disaster is either being discussed or lurking just a word away. Each of the thousands killed is an individual tragedy too. Standing outside Saint Vincent's Hospital on Monday, I was overcome by the wall of photos of the missing taped up by desperate relatives. An exhausted fireman walked up to the photo of a fallen comrade and brushed it with his fingers before falling to his knees in tearful prayer. A woman I did not know look at me, and we gratefully held each other as we wept.

As I walked around Manhattan that day, there were some reassuring signs of normalcy. I heard one driver hurl obscenities at a pedestrian, and one man started yelling at his secretary on his cell phone – until I and a few others went off, making him feel as stupid as he looked. But otherwise, the crowds on the street are quieter and even kinder than usual. The quietest crowds can be found at a spot on Canal Street where you can looks down to where the towers stood. Even from blocks away, the rubble is a devastating sight, beyond anything a televised image or my words can convey. Again, seeing it with your own eyes makes it impossible to deny. It just sits there smoking away like a newly blasted entrance to the bowels of hell.

As I write this, half a dozen Broadway shows are closing prematurely because of a precarious drop in business, so even my beloved art form has been throttled by this horror. Its seems trivial compared to everything else that has happened, but it means hundreds more people out of work, on top of the thousands losing jobs in other industries. I wonder how the shows opening these next few weeks will fare. So few feel like going out to have a good time right now. I went back to Music Man when performances resumed on the 13th, and caught Urinetown the following night – but while enjoying both, I also had the feeling that I had no business enjoying myself while so many were digging in the rubble just a few miles away. Not that I was alone. Hell, even David Letterman expressed the same guilt when his show resumed taping days later. The fact that they are turning volunteers away doesn't make the frustration any smaller.

I know New York will come back, but first we must face thousands of funerals and millions of healings. I want the evil network of bastards that perpetrated these attacks eradicated from the face of the earth, no matter the time or the cost. I want our government to set up the kind of air travel security we should have had in place long ago. I want to know why our military and so-called intelligence agencies were unable to do anything to protect the largest city in America from such a massive attack. But most of all, I want New York back. And no matter how many new buildings go up in the future, I fear that this town's soul will never completely be like it once was.

If nothing else, this oh-so-cynical town has lost whatever naivete it had. Every time I look at the downtown skyline, the seemingly endless plume of smoke that has replaced the Twin Towers stabs at my eyes and my heart. Life will go on and we will surely overcome this living nightmare, but my beloved hometown is now a wounded place. We mourn, we pray, and we can only hope for the healing power of the tomorrows to come.

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