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Florence in Words

On September 11, Fifteen Years Later

Like most New Yorkers, the brilliance of that day, fifteen years ago, and the deaths it charted remain fresh and clear in all my mind. Many disasters can be set beside it, including the long siege of war in Syria, for example. Still, it is important that each of us remember what we can of the terrible and terrifying history of our time. What I remember vividly begins with voting that day in a primary at a school near where I used to live on the East Side of Manhattan, and then taking a taxi to a doctor’s office, where there was pure chaos, lots of shouting to get out of there. It was 9:30 in the morning, and I knew nothing about what had happened, and assumed I could get another taxi to take me home, since I was carrying a thousand page manuscript, part of Women Writing Africa.

I walked out on Amsterdam Avenue, where, strangely, there were no taxis or buses, only people walking. And so I walked north, hoping I’d spot a cab on the way, and I did at 86th Street, where, despite the weight of the manuscript, I sprinted towards it, opened a back door, and slid in. The cabbie was crying, huge sobs rang from his body, and when I asked what was wrong, he said, “My sister, my sister, she’s in that building.” And that was all I could get out of him. Finally, he heard me when I said I would give him all the cash in my wallet if he took me home. He was headed, he said, to Queens, where he lived, and my apartment was on the east side of Manhattan, just ten minutes away. And he agreed.

But the first problem was that all the crossings of Central Park had been closed, and so we drove north to 110th Street, and east to Lexington Avenue and then south to 87th and Third Avenue, where I lived. I emptied my wallet, wished him well, and went up to my apartment, still carrying the huge manuscript. The journey had taken more than an hour because of the volume of traffic.

And only then—at perhaps one p.m., when I turned on the television—did I see what had happened early in the morning when I and countless New Yorkers were voting or arriving at work. The television played the clips of each plane hitting each of the Towers, and then the clips of each of the Towers falling down. And I am not sure whether that early day we also had sight of the people who chose to jump from the building before it began to collapse.

I sat for three or four hours, trying to locate all the friends I knew who worked in lower Manhattan, and for all of that time I could not find Mariam Chamberlain, who had voted and arrived at her office at least half an hour before any of this began. She was not in the Twin Towers, but in a building a few blocks away. And while she could see the horrors, she could not leave until late afternoon, and there were no phone lines she could have used to tell friends she was all right. She luckily found a bus nearby that was going from lower Manhattan up the east side as far as 34th Street, where she emerged to walk the twenty blocks to where she lived, and I reached her then, at almost evening.

It’s clear to me that I need to hear the names of the dead read out for the world to hear and I will also see the dreadful clips of the planes—only now we will also have to remember the two other planes as well as the views of those jumping and of the buildings collapsing as though they were made of dust, not steel.
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