• Don Yorty

The Luck of Geography

from NY Chronicles 2001

September 11

Tuesday morning was sunny and fresh, a lovely autumn

day that made me happy to be alive as I walked to work

at the Island School a few blocks away. I’d been given a

new classroom that had a huge walk-in closet to hang

up coats, but it was full of broken things that had been

set aside to fix, never to be touched again, useless old

books, and boxes of dusty forgotten stuff. I was going to

throw it all out, wanting my room to be an amiable place

of order and calm, where my students would feel at

peace and be able to learn.

My colleague, Nancy, interrupted my cleaning to tell me

a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I said and she

agreed, “It must be a small plane with a couple of seats.

The pilot had a heart attack and crashed, killing a few

people and breaking a lot of glass,” and that sadly was

that, I thought returning to my own mess. When Nancy

stopped at my door again to tell me another plane hit the

World Trade Center, I thought of terrorists, and walked to

the principal’s office. I could have gone out on the street

to see the smoking towers, but I could imagine them well

enough, and besides I was at work, and it seemed duty

came first. When the principal urged us to go back to our

rooms, I did and having no one to keep calm but myself,

I started to clean again until I heard Nancy sobbing in

the hall, with her face in her hands. Out of them she

looked and said, “The buildings fell.” It seemed like the

floor gave way under me and I was falling too as I

imagined all those people.

At the office, the staff gathering, Sharon, the secretary,

was saying the buildings imploded. As a young woman,

working for the Transit Authority, she assisted the

architect who designed the World Trade Center and

remembered the specs. “The buildings did not fall on

any other buildings. They went straight down,” she

insisted smiling. Sharon was a born again Christian and

for her happily this was one step closer to the

Apocalypse. Everyone else looked worried. A teacher

was crying on the phone. One of the teachers had a

daughter who worked at the World Trade Center and

she was on the verge of hysteria. Another teacher had

turned her radio on and was upsetting the class. “Tell her

to turn the damned radio off,” Barbara, the principal,

commanded, her mane of gray hair flying. “Everybody

get back to your classes. Let’s keep things calm.”

I had no class to get back to and when a mother

appeared, desperate for her daughter, Sharon

suggested, “Why don’t you go get her.” As soon as I

returned and handed over the little girl, another mother

appeared as desperate for her daughter. The next hours

blur, the Pentagon bombed, the plane going down in

Pennsylvania, interspersed with mothers and fathers

coming to get their children. One mother told me she

worked at the World Trade Center, but was on a week’s

vacation. She really hugged her son. Every parent was

concerned that terrorists were going to come and blow

up the Lower East Side. What people love is what they

fear to lose, no matter how inconsequential it may seem

to the rest of the world. Going to get children made me

feel like I was doing something and I was grateful for the

job. Later, back in my classroom, I looked out the

window down at the playground where even now some

little girls were jumping rope. The wind was blowing

through the lindens, the leaves upturned, and birds were

flying like nothing had happened or these human affairs


When I left school I noticed the smoke—the Towers

were gone—billowing over the horizon going south

toward Staten Island. There was hardly any traffic on

Avenue D, which is a boisterous Hispanic street. People

were walking around without making a sound as if God

had turned the volume off. I had a beautiful view of the

World Trade Center from my apartment windows. Back

home I saw the smoke and knew that it was really gone.

The night before I had gotten up to pee around four and

looked at the Towers for a moment when I got back in

bed. They were enchanting sentinels, ghostly, with red

and white lights twinkling off of their great immensity,

dominating and defining the nighttime sky.

I checked my answering machine. I heard my friend and

neighbor Don Trammel screaming: “Don, get out of bed!

Look out your window at the World Trade Center! Look

at the World Trade Center!” Next was Neddi. She

wanted me to call her at Gene and Brigid’s. I did. Neddi

was sure there was going to be another explosion,

perhaps nuclear. To make matters worse, she couldn’t

call her mother in New Jersey; there was no long

distance from Fifth Avenue where she was. From Ninth

and C, I reached Neddi’s mother, but couldn’t get

through to my sister Cathy in Pennsylvania, so I called

Neddi’s mom back to ask her to call my sister, but now I

couldn’t get through to New Jersey either. Then I dialed

Pennsylvania and the phone was ringing. I told Cathy to

tell everybody I was all right, but the phone might go

dead at any moment. She was glad to hear my voice

and I was glad to hear hers. Although many miles and a

state away she seemed to be in the same state I was,

shocked but involved. “All those firemen,” she said.

I went up to the roof to take some photos of the smoke.

Don Trammel was there. I told him by the time he called

I’d already gone. He told me he was riding his bike to

work when he heard a plane go overhead down

Broadway so low that he looked up to read American

Airlines on its side. Two blocks later at Washington

Square, he saw the gash in the tower. Don thought he

was looking at a movie set until he saw the flames. Ted,

our neighbor, a journalist who had risked life and limb in

Kosovo, was on the roof with his camera too. Ted had

been up that morning and was annoyed that when the

first tower fell the anarchists at See Squat on Avenue C

had cheered on their rooftop like “their favorite team had

just won.” It was hard to believe Americans would find

something to celebrate in the deaths of fellow citizens

whose only sin was getting up and going to work. These

East Village anarchists, if they were with Osama bin

Laden for a minute, he’d kick the beer bottles out of their

hands and string them up stinking faster than they hiss

and spit at anyone who disagrees with them. The

billowing smoke was a crematorium that left us quiet on

our rooftop. The roof on See Squat was empty; I figured

once they’d realized everyone had seen them cheering,

they went cowardly into hiding. I looked at all the people

on the surrounding roofs and thought, “Let us live well

and let evil know we’ll not be cowed. But what we think

is evil thinks we’re evil. What’s evil? That’s the question

at hand, the problem we have to solve.”

Don, Ted and Neddi came to my apartment. None of us

wanted to be alone. We sat together drinking vodka

watching again and again on television the second plane

hit the second tower. Neddi was determined to leave.

She was sure there were going to be more attacks and

was very anxious, as if every second was Russian

roulette aimed at her head. I told her not to worry, that

when you run from death, what you often do is run into

it. But Neddi was adamant. We told her that everything

was closed and jammed. How was she going to get out?

But early next morning Neddi found a ferry going to

Weehawken. With no planes in the sky and not much

traffic on the Hudson it was beautiful and quiet. On the

train from Newark she talked to a woman who had run

out of the first building and in all the smoke got lost and

wound up back where she had started, then she had to

really run and luckily made it through all of the

confusion. “She was our age,” Neddi said calling from

her mother’s.

When the Towers collapsed, the pressure at impact

heated to a thousand degrees, starting a fire beneath,

that has to be hosed down constantly or it will burst into

flames. Everybody’s boots keep melting and have to be

replaced. Wednesday morning the rest of the World

Trade Center collapsed, sending smoke billowing north

over NYU. When I left my apartment in search of a

newspaper there was the smell of fire in the air, and

burning plastic, which was unpleasant, but not

overpowering. The streets were very quiet with hardly

any but official traffic. Every now and then you heard a

siren. Some people were walking around with dust

masks or handkerchiefs over their faces. It was

impossible to find a newspaper. Almost all newsstands

are Muslim run and I smiled to let them know I wasn’t

angry with them. One fellow, his wife and I chatted. He

didn’t have any papers, but said the front page of the

Post had the photo of two people jumping hand in hand

from the Eighty-eighth floor. Hearing the sounds of a

plane, we and everybody else on Fourteenth Street

looked up warily to see two military jets streak overhead,

feathering an otherwise untraveled sky. The south side

of Fourteenth Street was blocked off to general traffic by

the police and I had to show them my driver’s license

before they let me go home through the barricade.

Through the night the smell of smoke entered my

dreams and woke me up. Thursday morning the

southern skyline was an oppressive fog that had erased

City Hall and all the other buildings south of Canal. It

was like nothing was there. I went to see a movie with

my friend Gary. Sexy Beast was entertaining and made

us forget until we stepped from our air-conditioned

reverie to stroll the smoky streets reminding us of death

again. Like me Gary wore no mask. We had to laugh

when we saw two young gay guys, each wearing white

dust masks, stop an older guy on his bike, excited to

know where he’d bought the green plastic sci-fi-looking

respirator he was wearing. Only in the East Village does

disaster turn into fashion.

Friday the blockade on Fourteenth Street was lifted.

Now everyone can come and go as they please down to

Houston. School would be open. It was raining, pouring,

which made me glad. While I was still in bed drinking

coffee, my cat Cachito ignored the cleansing weather

and curled up by my thigh, with his paws over his eyes. I

don’t think he’s noticed the change on the horizon, but

then do we humans notice the anguish of animals, say

the cries of an anthill stirred up and torn asunder by the

sticks of little boys? I often feel, as a human, big and

small at the same time, meaningless and yet the most

important thing of all. Knowing one day I shall be dust

and smoke, I got up and walked to work with a rolled up

poster, a painting by Rousseau, The Snake Charmer, to

hang up in the back of my classroom next to a map of

the world.

There was some good news. The first grade teacher’s

daughter who worked at the World Trade Center had

caught a cold and didn’t go to work. Unfortunately a

colleague had a friend who was a chef at Windows of

the World, a young married man with a ten-month-old

son. He hasn’t come home. Later I took the bus—it was

still raining—across Avenue D to C and then up

Fourteenth Street to Union Square to get money from

my bank where, out front, a little Asian lady was selling

little American flags. At the south side of the Square

before the dark statue of George Washington sitting

stiffly on his horse, people were putting candles in a

widening circle of photos and flowers and pieces of

cardboard with written expressions of sympathy on


A few people moved among the candles extinguished by

the rain, dumped out the water and lit them again, the

perfumed damp wax crackling and sputtering to flame as

the ever changing crowd gathered around, stood and

walked on. Here and there people played guitars and a

circle of others holding hands prayed for peace in every

country of the world, one guy calling out the names: “Let

there be peace in Madagascar.” “Let there be peace

in Madagascar.” People had also constructed a wall of

hope that curved along the lawn toward the east with

hundreds of photos of people who haven’t been found,

most of them young, a father holding his newborn baby,

'a woman cutting her birthday cake, smiling at a party or

the beach, some were old, a dignified man in a suit, lady

executives and immigrants who cleaned the halls and

bussed the tables at Windows of the World, in fact

everyone in New York was on the wall.

I remembered 1990 in Guatemala when I stood in front

of the post office in Santiago Atitlan where people from

the countryside had hung up the photos of missing loved

ones, hundreds of disappeared men and women, just

after the Army had opened fire in the town killing and

maiming dozens of civilians. We Americans have

supported a Guatemalan government that since 1954,

Eisenhower and the Cold War, has murdered a hundred

thousand indigenous Guatemalans in the name of

stamping out Communism. The wall in Union Square

was like the wall in Guatemala, full of the faces of

common people that no one will ever see again, done in

by stern oppression. In that wall then and this wall now I

could see no difference.

I stopped at Dick’s Bar for a drink and talked to my friend

Clio who heard the first plane go over as he was

arranging flowers. He walked down Fifth Avenue and

could see people hanging from the shattered towers,

falling and jumping. He kept walking as the second

plane hit. When the towers fell he stopped. David, who

works at CBS, said the most difficult footage he ever

edited was of his fellow New Yorkers jumping and letting

go. He noticed that as the women fell, those wearing

skirts held them down modestly to the very last second.

It was this holding down of the dresses, David realized,

that made us human. Curtis who has AIDS and lives at a

hospice on Rivington Street was having a morning

cigarette down in the garden when he heard a “Boom!

Boom! Boom!” that he thought was thunder although the

morning was sunny and brisk. When he went up to the

roof, he saw what he thought had been an accident. It

looked like a burning matchstick, just a little bit of flame

shooting out. Loretta and Grant saw the first smoking

tower on an elevated train coming into Manhattan. No

one on the train reacted and for a moment they thought

they were looking at special effects: “It takes awhile to

wrap your brain around something like that.” Curtis had

a perfect view of the burning tower from the dining room.

When the second plane hit, he was watching it on

television and turned to look out the window at the

detonation of plane and building. At one with the

explosion between heaven and earth, Curtis could not

understand why he was alive while thousands of

perfectly healthy people had just gone up in smoke.

Danny had worked at the World Trade Center for a

marketing firm, a psychiatrist who figures out the coming

teenage trends. They’d done many fire drills before,

evacuating the Towers, but nobody had ever told him

what to do once he got outside, because he always went

back in. Consequently hundreds of people were

standing around, only moving further back until the

rumbling started and everyone began to run trampling

many, crushed and fallen, left behind. Danny never ran

so fast in his life. Beyond thought, pure terror propelled

him on to J & R Music World, where he stopped and

looked around. Needing someone to talk to when the

Towers fell, Curtis called Richard who lives on the

Bowery and has a great view himself. Richard had seen

the collapse and could hardly talk, while he and Curtis

looked at the smoke, but then Richard said, as if out of

breath, “Oh well, I never did like the architecture.” We

have to laugh. “They were too big,” Curtis remarks: “Like

two big dicks. Oh dynamic when you were standing right

up next to them, but too much for such a small space. I

hope the FBI isn’t listening,” Curtis whispers half in jest. I

mention that on Fourteenth Street I saw American flag

t-shirts for sale. Curtis bristles at the thought of wearing

Old Glory. “I like flags in general, but let’s face it, wearing

the American flag is, is, is tacky! It’s gaudy!” Curtis finally

blurts out, making us chuckle, but then I’m somber: “You

know, I was expecting a terrorist attack for a long time,

but I always thought it would be germs in the subway or

a suicide bomber in the Holland Tunnel or Radio City—”

“In the middle of a performance of Cats,” Curtis says and

again we have to laugh.

On the way home from Dick’s I noticed on every lamp

post, wall and available space people had put up flyers

with photos of their loved ones asking me to get in touch

if I’d seen them, described down to the smallest detail,

what clothes and jewelery they were wearing when they

left home in the morning. It was so poignant, so stupid,

so useless; every face I saw was dead. When I got

home I saw Queen Elizabeth, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy

Carter standing together at a funeral service on

television, and something about the sad looks on their

familiar faces made me start to cry, a quick eruption that

startled Cachito who stretched up in my lap to look

closely at my face, examining it strangely as I sobbed

tears and snot. A man on television looking for his wife,

held up her photo in case somebody had seen her.

“Retaliation isn’t the answer,” he pleaded. “This has got

to stop.” A crowd in Jersey City attacked a car of

Muslims, but luckily the police intervened. When a

reporter asked the little Muslim boy how he felt about his

attackers, he replied, “I want to kill them.” The boy was

born in Pakistan where they believe Mohammed gets

you into heaven. I was born in Lebanon, Pennsylvania

where Christ is coming back to raise the dead, as if the

luck of geography predestines eternal salvation. On the

island of Borneo in February, five hundred men, women

and children were chopped apart, little girls sprawled

headless in an Indonesian civil war hardly noticed or

thought about, brought about, one could easily argue, by

decades old Cold War policy now defunct. What makes

one death worthier than another? “The Mouth of Hell,”

Hillary Clinton called Ground Zero. I see open mangled

space, pieces of the skeletal towers still standing,

twisted burnt wet, windows broken, knocked out but not

down yet. Downtown’s very lit, smoke still rising, but the

air is cool and fresh because it rained and washed it

clean of human ash, the smell of rotting flesh. There is

no moon or stars, the dome of heaven’s endless, black

but for two passing planes blinking transitory lights.

Saturday is bright. I ride my bike near but not next to the

East River. Because of environmental laws enforced

over the last twenty years, life is coming back into the

waterways where not only fish, but barnacles and snails

are living. After a century’s absence, these creatures

have returned and eaten, where they’d left off, into the

wooden supports below the waterfront surrounding

Manhattan. My favorite promenade is falling apart and

now fenced off with no money to fix it up. Until that long

awaited day of reparations, I have to go like all the other

bikers next to the FDR Drive, which is another kind of

river that flows, comes and goes in its currents. Happy I

ride, born from the struggling sperm into the yearning

egg, conceived around the time Israel and China were

born and shortly after Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead.

Oh you school children reading this one day on the

moon, remember: “We the living think it’s all about us,

but it isn’t.” The pigeons come floating down at the very

southern end of East River Park, not fenced off. I sit and

see beyond the Brooklyn Bridge the State of Liberty,

closed off to the public, surrounded by the Navy and the

Coast Guard, raising her lamp in the fading sunset

engulfed in the color of blood, the reddest of dusks. I

asked my grandfather once if he believed in life after

death. He was quiet as he thought about it. “There has

to be more than this nightmare,” he finally confided and

we both had to smile a little bit.

Union Square, Friday, September 14, 2001

Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, December 4, 1990

World Trade Center from my window, 649 East 9th Street, NYC, early 80s

9/11 Memorial Lights from my window, NYC, September 9, 2013

#donyorty #911 #newyorkcity #manhattan #aids #worldtradecenter #santiagoatitlanguatemala #911anniversary #911remembered #911neverforget #september11 #911tribute #911memorial

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