Reflections on 9/11 and Leaving New York

Creative Nonfiction by Alison Relyea

Reflections on 9/11 and Leaving New York

New York City is a love story. It is beauty, pain, concrete and air with millions of little lives colliding and crisscrossing into one giant ecosystem. It transcends explanation but we know its energy when we feel it and it is unmistakably New York. In our twenties, brunches led to exploring Chelsea galleries, record stores on St. Marks Place, bowling at Bowlmor and moules frites at Felix. Later we traded middle-of-the-night diners for middle-of-the-night feedings, with New York the backdrop to our changing, shifting, evolving lives.

When I realized my post-college fling with New York might be more permanent, I left jobs in fashion and start-ups to become a teacher. One day, while teaching second graders to tell time on an analog clock, one student commented wise beyond his years. “Each second that passes, each minute – that’s the only time it will be that exact time. Like today is March 3, 2011, at 10:15 in the morning, and I don’t know how many seconds. See? It keeps changing. You can only live each second once.”

A picture flashed in front of me from a decade earlier, a second, an instant, that we New Yorkers relive again and again. We may only live through the reality of the day once, but the stories that unfolded with the crumbling towers, the way it changes and shifts each year in our memories, how we carry it with us lives on. New York is a city that went to bed that night below clouds of smoke and woke the next day to show us that time would march forward, no matter how hard we tried to press rewind.

When I drive down the West Side Highway now, I always slow down as I approach Chelsea and look out the window to my left, anticipating that giant red-brick warehouse-style building on West 26th Street, with balconies overlooking the Hudson River and downtown Manhattan. It doesn’t matter how many happy hours we had or how many lunch breaks we enjoyed outside on that balcony. What I remember, what I see most clearly, is that September morning.

In 2001, my usual walk to work at a small start-up took me from the subway station at 23rd Street and 8th Avenue to 26th and 12th, where the landmark Starrett-Lehigh building occupies an entire city block. Designers, photographers, and filmmakers rode the freight elevator with us, exiting at various floors where their creative work emerged from the canvases of giant, many-paned windows and sweeping city views. On September 11th, the sky was crystal clear. I don’t need to rely on my own memory for this; it was all over the reports that day, both before and after.

At a Catholic elementary school on West 25th street, a security officer and I shared a smile, recognizing each other from our morning routines. “Nice day,” he commented. What happened to his day after that? Did children at that school lose parents? Did he lose friends or colleagues? Could the Catholic priests and nuns lessen the pain or help make sense of this? I’ll never know the answers. It was around 8 a.m. and there were kids playing outside and he was watching them jump rope and play hopscotch, keeping them safe as their parents said goodbye. He was smiling in the sun on a New York City morning.

The next couple hours are slow motion, and this is my version of a story told millions of times. Where were you on 9/11 when the Twin Towers fell? I was at my desk at work at a start-up called SportsCapsule. Despite much of New York culture arriving at work between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., we all arrived early. Each of us sat quietly at our own desk, spaced out in an open-plan, warehouse-style office. Our flip-flopped feet rested on cement floors beneath Aeron chairs as we stared at our computer screens, drank coffee and checked e-mail.

Suddenly we were all there together, looking out those painfully large, south-facing windows. Then we went to the balcony. Then we were not sure we should be on the balcony. Then we were on AOL instant messenger – AIM for short. Then we were getting phone calls. Then we couldn’t get phone calls. Then we were trying to get news updates. Then we went to the bathroom. Then we felt like we might throw up. Then we were back at our desks. Then we didn’t know what to do. Then we left the office. The streets were quiet except for a few men in camouflage with machine guns standing on the corner, and we became aware for the first time that the Starrett-Lehigh’s basement tenant was the FBI.

My boss considered leaving her car in the garage where she always parked it, but the streets were empty, so she drove. She drove my friend Alex and me north along 12th Avenue and dropped us near Alex’s Hell’s Kitchen apartment. We saw someone in medical scrubs and asked where we should go to give blood. Roosevelt Hospital? The person gave us a grave look and said they already have more than they need. With six packs of beers from a corner deli, we went to Alex’s apartment, to the outdoor deck where we had gathered for birthdays, engagements, music and memories. The crowd grew as friends found their way from various parts of Manhattan.

A day or two later, only minutes after seeing Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones walking slowly, pushing their child in a stroller though Central Park, I saw an old college friend running. “Eric!” I called, and he turned to see the look on my face that said, “You’re alive!” He answered, “I’m okay. I don’t work at Cantor anymore.” The pain in his eyes revealed lost friends and a deep knowledge that with one different decision, it could have been him. The sought-after path of Cornell graduate to Cantor Fitzgerald associate was a coveted one until it wasn’t.

We gathered news of tragedies. Neil was a young computer programmer at a company where I worked before SportsCapsule. I only had the chance to know him briefly but now I’d remember him forever. Neil spent a recruiting event telling our college recruits about his fiancé, his family, and how he loved his New York life between his turns on the bowling lane. His gratitude and happiness sold these kids on their own futures. Neil and some other former colleagues of mine were on a team of consultants staffed at Cantor. He went to work early that day.

One of my best friends from college, Moira, was living in San Francisco during 9/11, but her uncle Eamon was killed. He spent his career at Cantor Fitzgerald and rescued many people from the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. ESPN made a documentary about him. Just when I thought my friends in other cities were safe, the ripples of the damage reverberated around us, leaving the gravity of what we had witnessed and an acute sense of our own mortality to sink in. Each moment is its own. We will never live it again.

Every year, the anniversary is marked by something different, some other memory, a mix of sadness, nostalgia, loss, gratitude and hope that almost seems to define the word anniversary. On September 10, 2002, I went on my first “date” with my now husband, Rich. We went to see a band play with my friend Adeeb. They sang a cover of “Bring on the Dancing Horses” by Echo and the Bunnymen. As our other friends parted over the course of the night, Rich and I ended up sharing late-night falafel on a stoop in the East Village and singing “New York State of Mind” in a basement karaoke joint. A week earlier, we barely knew each other. Suddenly, we were moving through the city together as the clocks struck midnight and it was, once again, September 11th.

A couple months later, for my twenty-sixth birthday, my aunt took me shopping in Soho. I picked out a coat, the most expensive piece of clothing I’d ever owned. It was a brown wool knee-length coat by Rebecca Taylor, with a delicate floral trim and lining. The chocolate color matched my hair, and the double-breasted buttons were more narrow than usual, softening the silhouette. I remember looking at myself in the mirror, still on cloud nine with this new boyfriend, and thinking, “Life’s too short.”

The sixth anniversary, 2007, was a Tuesday again like the first time. A few days earlier, I welcomed my third-grade students to a new school year at Little Red in the West Village. It was my first year as a head teacher. The father of one of my students, Sal, was a firefighter killed in 9/11. Sal was three years old, his brother Vincent a baby, when their father died. On 9/11, Sal shared a medal with the class, along with a letter sent to his family from President Bush. Tears welled up in my eyes as Sal read the letter, his voice steady and proud. It didn’t seem fair that at nine years old, Sal had processed enough grief to face this moment with poise.

On September 11, 2008, I was a new mother. That shifted my focus from Sal to his mother. That day. Her loss. Her grief. Holding young Vincent in her arms and listening as a neighbor told three-year-old Sal that he was now the man of the house. So many widows left to make sense of the senselessness, so many children without a parent. Holding a new life of my own, a one-month-old son named Robert, I realized how each life is held by many others, creating exponential loss.

Over the next few years, September 11th gradually became not only a day of tragedy but what it had been before that, my younger brother’s birthday. Kevin was born on September 11th, 1983. He was two months early, a middle of the night emergency when my mother hemorrhaged from placenta previa. Neighbors cleaned up the blood while my dad rushed her to the hospital. Kevin suffered a stroke but survived. He was our September 11th miracle before the date had meaning.

Memories of lives lived emerged from the tragedy of those same lives lost. Legacies were honored, stories recorded and shared, and families continued on very different paths but they kept going. A writer I know wrote a story about a life she never envisioned with a man she would never have met, all because 9/11 took her first husband’s life when she was twenty-seven years old.

Two children later, strollers and scooters filled the tiny foyer in our New York City apartment and in a postpartum whirlwind, we landed twenty miles away in Rye, New York. I thought I’d be leaving 9/11 behind, but instead, wove more threads in the fabric of its memory. A plaque at our local YMCA tells the story of a young man named Christopher who grew up in Rye, now twenty-five years old forever. My children’s hockey coach lost his three close friends - Teddy, Tommy, and Ward - and presents a coaching award every year in their honor.

On the 18th anniversary, September 11, 2019, I woke up bleary-eyed and started writing, needing to preserve this story. Partway through writing with a busy day ahead, I clicked save. My kids went to school and I went to work, with little reminders interrupting the otherwise normal day.

Robert’s youth soccer team played at halftime at the high school Varsity soccer game that evening. Gazing at all these young people who never shared a day alive with the victims of 9/11, the power of time was palpable. I opened that day’s New York Post while waiting for the game to start, an impulse purchase that morning at the deli. On the cover, it promised a list of names inside, and I was finally ready to find the ones I recognized. Eamon. Neil. Christopher. Sal’s dad.

After the game and once my younger children were in bed, Robert and I sat down together to watch a movie he saw at school that day, The Man in the Red Bandana. His teacher showed it to them, wanting these students to know the legacy of his childhood friend, Welles, who was featured in the film. Then we watched the ESPN video about Moira’s uncle, Eamon, and I sent Moira a text to let her know I’m thinking of her. Before going upstairs, I read Rob the first half of this essay from 5 a.m. that morning.

When I sent Moira’s text, I noticed a message from an unfamiliar number. It read, “Always think of SportsCapsule on 9/11. Hope you and yours are well.” I tucked Rob into bed, then texted back to find out it was my old friend and colleague, Mark. We slowly went back to work at SportsCapsule a few days after the towers fell, but only to hear for certain that our start-up was winding down. Loading old desktop computers and office memorabilia into the trunks of taxicabs, we headed to our respective apartments to file for unemployment and figure out what came next. We kept in touch for a while, but by 2019 I hadn’t talked to Mark in over a decade. Seeing his name in a text, I could hear his voice distinctly and picture his AIM name popping up in a bubble on my monitor as we exchanged silent jokes from a few feet away.

Putting my phone down, I clicked my computer on to return to this essay, but not before scrolling through back-to-school photos on Facebook. A post from my friend Glenn caught my attention. It was a picture of a young man named Swede, with a note about Swede’s character, their friendship, and his death on 9/11. I remembered Swede from college. I could picture him at parties, smiling and friendly. I didn’t know him well and the memories are more like a watercolor than a photograph. In those eighteen years, I had never realized Swede was among the victims, among the stories left to loved ones to keep alive. I went back to that newspaper and found two more names: Welles and Swede.

On a last whim before shutting off the lights and heading to bed, I pulled an old college photo album down from the bookshelf. I could not let this 18th anniversary of 9/11 end without revisiting the night my New York City love story began. It was Spring of 1998, my senior year of college. On a Saturday afternoon in May, after hatching a midnight plan the night before, four friends–Veronica, Dominique, Grant and I–piled into my beat-up Jeep Cherokee and headed to Manhattan for a night out.

Our plan was to celebrate the friendships forged in those Ithaca hills before graduating and scattering to new cities. We had no reason to go to New York City that night, but no reason not to, either. After pulling through the Lincoln Tunnel, we headed south to a restaurant that Grant, from his time in the Hotel School, promised would change our lives. We rode an elevator to the top of the World Trade Center and exchanged our giddiness for confidence as we entered the bar area, unable to secure or afford a table at the actual restaurant.

Nestled into a cozy booth with menus boasting The Greatest Bar on Earth, we ordered the cheapest bottle of champagne available, stretching our college budgets. Grant’s father knew the chef, and I didn’t think much of it when he asked our server to mention his dad’s name. Could the chef stop by our table if he has a chance? Moments later we put down our champagne flutes to shake hands with this famous chef, Michael Lomonaco, a man who a few years later survived the falling towers only to have his restaurant’s event calendar replaced by weeks, maybe months of funerals for his friends and colleagues.

That night, we knew nothing of this fate as we asked strangers to take group photos, smiling ear to ear in the best downtown outfits we could cobble together from our closets upstate. As the bubbles of the champagne worked their magic, we went to the floor-to-ceiling windows across the bar and pressed our foreheads against the glass, gazing down on the city below. A window on the world. A glimpse into our future. A feeling that anything was possible.

Recently, I pulled the brown coat out of a basement closet, found the couple buttons that had fallen off from years of wear, and took it to a local tailor for repair. Those buttons, first one and then a second, remained in my jewelry box through many moves. Other than two buttons and a torn seam in the pocket, the coat was in fine condition. In the same way that memories can go to the back or the front of our mental closet, I returned the now-mended coat to my wardrobe, eager to weave that piece of who I used to be with who I am today. The floral trim flirts with the double-breasted shape, begging the coat and the woman wearing it not to take life too seriously.

Some sights and scents from 9/11 have disappeared from my memory. Nightmares faded long ago, and while I can still see the towers falling, my stomach doesn’t rise in my throat in response. I cherish that coat and the old, grainy 35MM photos from Windows on the World, and somewhere I might even have a newspaper from that day. My September 11, 2019, New York Post, despite my intention to save it, must have found its way to the recycling bin. We don’t always get to decide who and what we keep, but we hold on to the love stories.

About the Author

Alison Relyea

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Alison Cupp Relyea is a writer and educator. She works as the Director of Education and Programming at the Rye Historical Society and writes a monthly column at ryehistory.org/. In her personal writing projects, Alison writes essays that cover topics in gender, education, current events, family and politics. Her work can be found at ryehistory.org/stories, The Good Men Project, Gimme the Good Stuff, Red Tricycle and Hamlet Hub, as well as on her Medium site. Alison loves finding ways to thread humor into her work and bring small moments to life in a way that connects with others. She lives in Rye, NY with her husband and three children.