Smoke and Sky

The sky that morning was blue; unbelievably blue.

It had rained the night before—serious, drenching rain, the kind that can’t be defended against, only surrendered to. On the short walk from my bachelor pad to my girlfriend’s apartment I had gotten soaked to the skin. It was cold and clean. It felt good.

Ursula and I lived in the same neighborhood, our apartments separated by only a few blocks. She was an old-fashioned girl. Despite my entreaties, she wouldn’t move in with me unless and until we were married. I had a plan for that.

The cab came early while it was still dark. We were heading to JFK, the airport, for a 9:20 a.m. flight to London. Being an old-fashioned girl, Ursula wouldn’t allow us to be late. Astoria is about as far from JFK as it is possible to be while still in Queens so we expected it would be a long ride. But of all the times to be on the Grand Central Parkway, 5:45 a.m. is among the best, so we made good time. The radio was tuned to 1010 WINS—All News, All the Time. The big story that morning was Michael Jordan’s decision to unretire and play again in the NBA.

We got to the airport at 6:20 with time to kill. I was a little nervous as we checked our bags. I had good reason. The next day—Wednesday—was Ursula’s birthday, and I was planning to ask her to marry me. The ring was packed in a shoe, which was tucked away in my bag; the bag I was checking into the cargo hold of this plane bound for London. It wasn’t an expensive ring by conventional standards, but it was a big purchase for me. I got it at Macy’s. It cost about $300.

At the time, I was marginally employed as a bartender—probably not what most soon-to-be 30-year old women are looking for in a potential husband. Nevertheless, I had high hopes that the proposal would be accepted. After all, while Ursula had refused to move in with me, she had moved all the way across the city, from Staten Island to Astoria, so that we could be nearer to each other. I knew we were meant to be. I was pretty sure she did, too.

The airport was quiet. Ursula bought some fruit. I found an airport bagel and a giant cup of coffee. We spread out the day’s newspapers on a food-court table. I was a smoker then. Even in pre-Bloomberg New York, smoking was prohibited in the airport, so I had to leave the terminal and return to where the cars drop people off to indulge my bad habit. I brought the giant coffee with me.

As I smoked, I tried to imagine what London would be like. I had been invited to participate in a single performance of The 24 Hour Plays, a theatrical gimmick wherein a handful of artists conceive, write, rehearse, and produce an evening of short plays in, you guessed it, twenty-four hours. It’s basically a big sleepover with a play at the end. I had participated in this once before in New York at the invitation of the producer, Lindsay Bowen, who was a friend-of-a-friend. Why he had invited me to come to cross the pond for the London event, I’ll never know. But I wasn’t going to forego the opportunity to see the Big Smoke and to get a London theater credit on my resume.

Plus, I had a plan.

The plan was this: We’d arrive in the evening, tired, but excited. We’d head out for a walk and perhaps a bite to eat. This moment would also give me the chance to perform a little reconnaissance of the general vicinity around our hotel. I would be keeping my eyes out for a cozy little bistro, or a romantic nineteenth century pub. This was to become the location of the proposal, scheduled for the next night, and delivered under cover of the obligatory, yet innocuous, birthday dinner. It was a pretty good plan. Solid, with room for improvisation.

I stubbed out my cigarette and headed back into the terminal. I expected little resistance as I passed through the security check point. The luggage was checked. All of my carry-on items were already inside, parked next to our table in the food court. I was set to breeze through the X-ray machine, but the guard held up his hand to stop me.

“Take a sip of your coffee, please,” he said.

“Hm?” I replied, genuinely baffled.

“Please take a sip.”

“Oh,” I said, happily following his order. After gulping the coffee down, I raised my eyebrows as if to say, “Okay?” He waved me through.

“The strangest thing just happened,” I told Ursula when I got back to the food court. “The guard made me take a drink of my coffee.”

“Why?”

“I guess people smuggle liquid explosives in their cups or something, so he made me drink it. I guess to prove that I wasn’t a terrorist. That’s pretty cool, huh?” Ursula shrugged.

“Well I think it’s cool,” I said. We went back to reading the papers.

At about 8:20, we made our way to the gate. We sat near the check-in desk. We could see the plane through the floor-to-ceiling window. The baggage was being loaded. The sky sure was blue. I began a mental inventory of the people who would be on the flight. A sleepy looking couple. A loudmouth, Lord of Finance-type jabbering into a cell phone. His conversation was hard to ignore. Cell phones were then still kind of rare. Ursula had one for work, but we weren’t bringing it with us. As a marginally employed bartender, I certainly didn’t have one.

“How much you want to bet that guy sits next to us on the plane,” I said. He was going on and on and on. When he was done with one call, he’d dial another.

The baggage was done being loaded. The waiting area was full. We seemed to have been waiting a long time. People started to get a little antsy. What was it, 8:45? Nine? Shouldn’t we be boarding?

By 9:15, Ursula couldn’t take it anymore. As an old-fashioned girl, she doesn’t like to be kept waiting. She approached the employees at the check-in desk to inquire about the delay.

Wouldn’t you know it? The man with the cell phone got there first.

“Are we going to be taking off?” he barked at the attendant, pointing at the phone by his ear. “I just heard that two planes flew into the World Trade Center. That’s what my friend was telling me. Two planes just flew into the World Trade Center.”

The airline employees didn’t know anything about it. They just knew we were being held at the gate. We’d be boarding just as soon as they were given the green light. Ursula looked panicky as she relayed what the fat man had said. His friend, the guy on the other end of the line, was watching the news. Two planes had flown into the World Trade Center. At least, that’s what the guy said.

Ursula’s brother Joe worked downtown, right near the Twin Towers. I told her to relax. I could believe that one plane would fly into a building. “But, two planes? C’mon.” I’m a natural skeptic. This news really sounded wrong to me. Plus, the source was clearly unreliable.

I would live to regret my skepticism. It was true. There had been two planes. Or was it three? Someone heard that there were three. Well, I didn’t hear that.Where did you hear that? It’s true, they are evacuating downtown Manhattan. All of Wall Street is on fire? They got the Stock Exchange, too? All the airports are shut down. Nobody is taking off or landing.

Things were getting a little hairy. The airline employees made announcements to Remain Calm and Wait for More Information. They were whispering to each other. One of them took a phone call and covered her mouth in horror.

I went to look for a pay phone. I called my mom. She was extremely relieved to hear my voice. She knew we were flying that morning. On the news they said that the planes might have taken off from New York airports. They said they were international flights. She thought for sure we were on one of them. I assured her we were fine. She said it looked pretty bad. The buildings were on fire—really on fire. I told her I would call again when we knew more about our plans. I still thought we were going to London.

Moments later, when Ursula tried to call her parents, all the pay phones were dead.

There must be a TV around here. Someone half-opened the grate of one of the restaurants in the terminal and we all ducked under. The television was showing awful pictures—just awful—of the burning buildings. It was mind-boggling. These towers, the ones my father would point to as we drove through the New Jersey Meadowlands and say, “Look, kids, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime view,” looked now just like two giant candles, spewing acrid smoke and flames.

The news anchors spoke in tones of amazement. There are dozens of planes unaccounted for. The Air Force has been scrambled. Tens of thousands of people go to work in these buildings every day. God only knows how many are dead.

Passengers and airline employees began clustering near one of the windows overlooking the tarmac. We joined them. Lower Manhattan was visible in the distance. Smoke billowed across the sky, providing grim confirmation that the television images were real. This wasn’t a joke. This wasn’t a story. This was real. This was the kind of day anything could happen.

I pulled out my camera. I snapped some pictures through the glass. I didn’t think they would develop clearly, but I felt like I needed to capture what I was seeing. A man in an airline uniform was telling someone that the planes had been hijacked. They cut the flight crew’s necks, he said. All planes have been ordered out of the sky.

“They got the Pentagon,” someone announced to the crowd.

They got the Pentagon? What could that mean? We went back to the TV. The Pentagon had been hit by an airplane. New York was on fire. Washington was under attack. What was happening? Who was doing this? What’s going on?

Ursula needed the bathroom. “Don’t leave me,” she said. “Stay right here.”

“I won’t leave you,” I said, meaning it more than anything else I had ever said. She went in. Seconds later, I heard a gasp from the crowd gathered under the TV. Oh no. Oh no. What? It fell. The building fell. I couldn’t see the pictures, but I could see their faces. The building collapsed. A woman screamed, “Oh my God.”

I wanted to see for myself, but I knew I couldn’t leave from my spot. I didn’t want to get separated from Ursula. I told her I would be there when she came out. It wasn’t the right time to break a promise like that. People were starting to get emotional. People were running. Things had turned tense.

When Ursula emerged, I told her what I had heard, that the buildings had collapsed. She started to shake. Her brother. He worked downtown. What if he was there? What if he was on the sidewalk looking up? I tried to calm her. “I’m sure he’s fine,” I said. “He knows not to go toward something like this.” I’m sure it rang hollow, given my comment about the two planes.

We went back to the window. There was a much larger billow of smoke now. There was so much smoke, in fact, it was impossible to tell if the buildings were there or not. The world was falling apart. I decided it was time to leave. “Let’s go,” I said. “We’re getting out of here.”

The flight was officially cancelled, so there was no trouble getting the tickets sorted. Getting our luggage off the plane was a bigger problem. We fell in with a crowd of people, following them up the escalators, down the hall, down the stairs, into a large room. We waited. For a long time. I wondered: Where was that security guard who made me drink my coffee?

Finally, they brought in the bags and the anxious crowd surged. A policeman held people back. Some could see their bags, could actually reach them and wanted to take them. He told them to wait. One fellow, an Englishman if I remember, decided he’d had enough. He lunged for his bag. The policeman told him to step back. The Englishman maybe didn’t realize the magnitude of the historical moment he was caught up in. He said something under his breath. Something really stupid. The man with the gun was in no mood for jokes.

“How would you like to spend the rest of the day in handcuffs?” he asked. I’d never really heard someone speak that way before. With extreme prejudice.  If the Englishman didn’t understand before, he did now. This was no fire drill. The policeman meant business.

Were it not for the $300 Macy’s ring, I would have left the bags. We waited a long time, but we were eventually able to get at them. There was a line for cabs. That, too, took a while. How perfectly New York—the world is falling apart and not a cab to found anywhere.

We ultimately got in a car with two strangers who also lived in Queens. The ride was long. The traffic was terrible. No one spoke. As we inched through parts of the city I had never seen before, we listened again to 1010 WINS. Only now there wasn’t any talk of basketball. The deejay was instead informing all off-duty and retired firefighters and policemen that they had been immediately and indefinitely recalled. They should report to their local station or precinct house. The city was expecting that the hospitals would be overwhelmed with casualties. Blood donations would be needed. Please, don’t anyone try to get into Manhattan, he said. All the bridges and tunnels are closed until further notice.

The cab got us very close to my apartment, but we couldn’t get all the way there. The traffic on the road was simply stopped. We paid and thanked the driver and got out. We dragged our over-packed luggage down usually sleepy streets. Suddenly, there was a roaring in the sky. People came spilling out of the stores and cafés, their eyes to the heavens, hoping to get a glimpse. Was it yet another kamikaze plane? Was it another hit?

No. It was a fighter jet—an honest-to-goodness United States Air Force fighter plane coming in low over the Grand Central Parkway, heading straight for Central Park. A cheer went up. This was definitely not a day we were going to forget.

At home, strangely—blessedly—the phones were working. We called around, letting people know we were safe. My parents. Ursula’s parents. Siblings. Friends. It was the early afternoon. We put on the TV and it stayed on for days. Like most Americans, we were scared. We were confused. We wanted to help in some way, to contribute to the rescue efforts. What could we do? The radio said they’d need blood. We could do that.

But they needed blood in Manhattan. We were in Queens. “Don’t anyone try to get into Manhattan.” But Ursula wanted to go. She didn’t want to just sit there watching TV. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to sit tight and watch TV. We went.

The empty train moved slowly, grinding to long stops between stations. As we made the turn at Queensboro Plaza, the once-familiar skyline came into view. No towers. Just smoke and sky. Then we were underground. Then we were at Lexington Avenue, walking south, against the tide of office workers escaping uptown and over the 59th Street bridge. People looked tired, but the atmosphere was still very electric. The southern portion of the island we were on was on fire. It was still too difficult to process.

The line at the blood bank, located in the basement of the Citibank Building, stretched around the block. People were being turned away. They couldn’t accommodate all of us. We should go home. We joined the march back uptown. The Queens-bound train was jam packed with people. Everyone was frazzled. A man in a suit took a cell phone call. The caller evidently asked what he was doing. “What am I doing?” he said in an over-loud voice. “I’m thinking about all my dead friends down at Five World Trade.” People were shooting daggers at the guy.

Then again, there was no script. No one on that train, or in the airport, or the city, or the country, had experienced anything quite like this. Pearl Harbor was an attack on a military base. While we weren’t at war in December 1941, the world was. This was different. This came out of the clear-blue sky. Nobody knew what to do, where to go, or how to act.

By evening we learned that Ursula’s brother had also arrived home safely. He’d left his office on foot. He joined the parade of workers walking toward the Brooklyn Bridge. The streets, he said later, were littered with high-heel shoes that had simply been kicked off and left behind.

The Brooklyn Bridge was closed—none shall pass. So he walked uptown to the Manhattan Bridge where he was able to cross into Brooklyn. He then walked the entire length of that borough, about 6 or 7 miles. He saw the towers fall. He arrived at the Verrazano Bridge in the late afternoon. There he was able to pick up a bus to Staten Island. When he entered his parents’ house at 9 p.m., his face was badly sunburned. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky all day. It was unbelievably blue.

We tried to sleep, but we ended up awake in the middle of the night. We wondered about war, about death, about the future of the country. We took it on faith that there would be another attack. What about London? What about The 24 Hour Plays? What about our hotel reservations?

The skies were shut down on Wednesday, too. It didn’t seem likely that we’d be going, but I didn’t know what to do about that. I called the hotel in London. They were very understanding. We wouldn’t have to worry about missing our check-in. The airline, too, immediately refunded the price of all of our tickets. They had bigger problems, I guess.

It was Ursula’s birthday. She was 30. I still had that $300 Macy’s ring to deal with. My stomach was a bit unsettled. Should I go ahead with my plan? What did all of this mean for my plan? The previous day’s events could have been interpreted as one big “Don’t do it!”

I decided to do it. Stick to the plan. That’s what you do. When things are falling apart, you stick to the plan. We went to eat. I brought the ring with me. The fighter jets were still streaking across the sky. The neighborhood was still buzzing. I was still buzzing. We talked about life. We talked about the world. I was looking for the right moment to pop the question—a natural segue, an appropriate pause. It never presented itself.

We walked back to the apartment. I didn’t want to lose the day. I wanted to stick to the plan. I gave Ursula a hug. I told her I loved her. I reached into my pocket, took out the ring, and said I thought we should get married.

That was not at all what I planned. I planned London. I planned the Thames. I planned romance, and savage cool. But that’s how it came out: I think we should get married. It wasn’t even a question.

The sky had fallen. There were fighter planes in the sky. But she said yes. I considered it the first victory in the war on terror.

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Comments

  1. FeliciaB says:

    Your last line just made me tear up, darn you.

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