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 writes:

I 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.

GROUND ZERO: September 11, 2001

by Max E. Verga

As usual, 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.

Exiting 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.

As usual, 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.

We soon 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.

We heard 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.

Even 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.

I loved 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.

Ironically, 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 call animals.

Here 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, 2001.

I remember 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 steel.

The rest 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.

We will smile again, sort-of, but the smile won't be matched by the look in our eyes. That brightness is gone forever.

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© 2001 Max Verga


MAX VERGA has 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.


BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 11, 2001