September 11, 2001
Some events seem larger than our abilities
to comprehend them. Bearing witness can help us as we gather our
thoughts and emotions. Max Verga, BENT's "Bear in Mind" columnist
was four blocks from the World Trade Center when the second plane
crash occurred. For many of us in New York City, the need to talk
about what we have seen and heard has been overwhelming. It's as
if telling the tale will put it in perspective. But there is no
perspective for something of this nature. I told a friend that I
feel as if we have all been reborn . . . in ashes. I saw those ashes
firsthand. I think they will always be a part of the City I cannot
yet get back into. I am scared, and not just for myself and my life
here in the borough of Brooklyn. I'm scared for what the world will
be from this point onward.
ZERO: September 11, 2001
Max E. Verga
I have the incredible ability to be in either the right place at
the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on
your view of the events in question.
the subway on my way to work on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I noticed
something different when I got off at the Rector Street station
in downtown Manhattan. Fire engines were sounding their sirens and
I noted large pieces of paper floating down, apparently from somewhere
nearby. I presumed it was just a small-sized fire in a nearby office
building, something not at all uncommon in lower Manhattan.
I got my coffee and bagel and paid the street vendor, when I heard
a loud boom. I knew immediately that it had come from the World
Trade Center. Like everyone around me, I began to run. As I neared
the building where I work I saw a co-worker, covered in soot, crying
out that she had been pushed under a car as people had begun to
run and that both her knees were badly hurt. Another co-worker and
I helped her into the building where we work.
learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I
had been in the subway when the first crash occurred. We were urged
to stay in the office, which we did. While there, we felt two loud
rumbles that sent debris throughout lower Manhattan, turning the
view outside our windows to one of near-midnight. We saw what looked
like black snow rain down on nearby rooftops, blanketing everything
in what would quickly become up to two inches of ash. Nobody dared
think about what was in that ash.
both of the Trade Center towers collapse. Later, we were evacuated.
Some of us walked around the tip of Manhattan to a ramp that led
onto the Brooklyn Bridge. It was closed to pedestrian traffic, so
we walked further uptown to the Manhattan Bridge; we looked back
constantly at a permanently marred skyline. We had to wear wet cloths
around our faces to prevent us from breathing in too much smoke.
I made it home almost two hours later, glad that I lived close enough
to the bridge to make my walk feasible.
when I awoke the next morning, it was still hard to fathom what
had happened. Two Manhattan landmarks that had always seemed vulnerable
but indestructible were destroyed. Buildings around them would collapse
later. As I write, I can still smell smoke. I think a lot about
the many times I walked in and around those buildings; on my way
to a union building close by, to make purchases in the building's
concourse shops, to buy from the farmers who came every Tuesday
and Thursday to sell their produce at the Farmer's Market in front
of the World Trade Center. My lover and I would take the subway
under the Center on our way back from spending after-work hours
in the beautifully landscaped Battery Park City nearby, a rare quiet
refuge in an otherwise frenetic city.
to go to #7 World Trade Center to take photos of cars whose reflections
were distorted in a mirrored overpass. I sit in front of one of
those photos as I write. I love the way the composition resembles
an abstract painting, a painting I could have made only with a camera
lens. The overpass and the possibilities for more images like the
ones I took are gone now. In their place are far more poignant abstractions;
twisted girders, holes in the ground where buildings once stood,
everything covered with dingy gray ash, as if a Monet painting had
suddenly been turned into Picasso's "Guernica," with twisted, screaming
faces reminding us of the thousands of people buried underneath
what remains of the World Trade Center.
some of my family, the ones who I didn't even know existed at the
time, lived through the Oklahoma City bombings. One sister was one
block away from the bombing site. She had shown me the spot in her
office where debris from the destroyed building had become imbedded
in the walls. Now, I can share my own stories about a day in which
the world changed forever within seconds. I still have pictures
from the Oklahoma site, with its chain link fence stuffed with mementos
and tributes to people killed for abstract ideas known only to the
killers. No doubt, New York will have its own fence soon, followed
by yet another memorial to the fact that human beings have killed
human beings since their DNA branched off from creatures we mistakenly
in New York, we walk around as if we've lost a loved one, knowing
that what we have lost above all is our innocence. We can no longer
look at the rest of the world and say that what we see on our television
screens is sad, but somehow not reality as we experience it. I can
remember very few times when I felt that the world had changed around
me, never to be as it was before. The first time was when John F.
Kennedy was shot. The second time was when I first heard from the
father I had never met. The third time was Tuesday, September 11,
living through the time when all of us thought that the Cuban missile
crisis would bring us to the brink of nuclear war. I remember seeing
images of the war in Viet Nam. But yesterday, war came within earshot.
When I was in the eighth grade we practiced running to bomb shelters.
Yesterday I ran, but there was no bomb shelter in sight. Some of
us had thought that we were a continent unto ourselves, a world
protected by two oceans and benign neighbors to the north and the
south. We are forever to be proven fools. But some of us learned
that hard truth in much too harsh a manner, lying underneath twisted
of us jump every time we hear a loud noise. We wonder if there are
some "foreigners" we can ever look in the face again without imagining
what kind of destruction they might bring upon us. We know that
revenge will only reap more savagery until what separates us from
the villains might be a very fine line indeed. But we also know
that many of us will never again be able to look up into the New
York sky with longing to be heading where the plane we see is going.
Some of us might never set foot in a plane again. And no matter
how the New York skyline is rebuilt, it will always be sadly gap-toothed,
as if the smile was punched out of it and only a wary grin remains.
smile again, sort-of, but the smile won't be matched by the look
in our eyes. That brightness is gone forever.
© 2001 Max Verga
been an activist ever since getting a call from a friend reporting
that he'd been in a riot at the Stonewall Bar only hours before.
He began his activism with the West Side Discussion Group, later
became involved with its offshoot theater group, and was one of
the founders of Mainstream, a gay-disabled group. For more about
Max, see his longer biography.