On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I stood on the roof of my apartment building in Brooklyn and watched the twin towers fall. I spent the rest of that day crying, drinking, and planning my escape back home to San Antonio, where I could feel a bit safer with my family and await the forthcoming Armageddon from a yellow-level threat zone.
The next morning, I tried repeatedly phoning the same few friends with limited success. Much of New York cell service was lost and what few lines were free were constantly congested. Eventually, I called the downtown Manhattan bistro where I waited tables, hoping to find out if my coworkers were all right. I expected the phone to go unanswered because the restaurant, like almost every other business below 14th Street, had to be closed.
“David,” begged the assistant manager as plates and silverware clanged in the background, “get here any way you can. We’ll pay for your car if they open the bridges!”
Not only were they serving, but as one of the few open eateries in a ten-block radius, they were packed with West Village locals who wanted to be anywhere but home.
Over the next 72 hours, in place of my absent coworkers who’d fled the city, I would work three double shifts. Then I would have the money to do what they did—rent a moving truck and leave New York.
Each day, to cross the 14th Street roadblock, I had to show my ID to a military policeman. It was the Texas driver’s license I’d been meaning to replace since 1999 when I’d moved to New York City to be a performing artist. I’d managed to fill the two years since with drinking at bars and dancing at clubs in between working at jobs I didn’t want, like the one I was going to that day.
"Where you going?" the guard asked from behind huge goggles with a giant machine gun strapped to his chest.
“I work down here at the French Roast,” I replied.
After a few minutes of checking my story on his walkie-talkie, the guard let me pass, gruffly reminding me, “If you live in New York, get a New York ID!”
But soon I wouldn’t live in New York. In a few days I would be on my way to San Antonio where my ID made sense.
Three days later I’d made 900 dollars: my get-out-of-dodge fund. At the end of my last shift, I got drunk on red wine with my favorite bartender, Yoni. We talked about the softer side of New Yorkers that had emerged since the attacks: doors were held with smiles and eye contact; pleases and thank you’s were exchanged with cashiers. Earlier that day I’d seen a couple embracing in tears on a subway platform—the simplest goodbye suddenly wasn’t so simple.
I noticed this sudden swelling of emotion in the restaurant too. I told Yoni that during the last three days, I’d felt more like a therapist than a waiter. Holding a coffee carafe and wearing an apron, I listened to people tell me that they were quitting their banking jobs or ending their abusive relationships. Over a dirty martini, a woman told me with tears in her eyes that she’d decided to move back home to spend her mother’s last few “good years” with her.
Whenever a customer asked me how I was doing, I answered, “Hangin’ in there,” uncertain about opening up to a man to whom I’d just served an omelet. No one needed to hear about the people I loved whom I still couldn’t reach by phone or my friend whose father had died in the first tower.
The first of my three shifts felt mutually therapeutic. Three days later, being in the restaurant had become a kind of torture. Every half hour I locked myself in the bathroom for a crying jag as I cleaned my hands with alcohol wipes, afraid that Al Queda had tainted the tap water. I imagined the water in Texas, flowing pure and clean from the luxury showerhead in my mom’s master bathroom.
I got up from the bar and looked around at the restaurant for the last time. Its tiny tea light candles and wall sconces lit up a dozen scattered forlorn faces. Beneath an antique poster for French cigarettes a man sat alone wearing headphones, listless, a bowl of uneaten soup steaming in front of him. As I hugged Yoni goodbye, he slipped a huge magnum of red wine into my satchel and said something in Hebrew.
“What?” I slurred to him.
He patted me on the shoulder and whispered, “Drink… to forget.”
At 3am a cab dropped me off near my loft building in Bushwick, a sparse Brooklyn neighborhood that had felt like an industrial wasteland even before the attacks. Now its streets were full of garbage that had blown over the East river from the towers: lunch receipts from Wall Street delis, a Father’s Day greeting card, internal documents from Morgan Stanley—little pieces from the archives of strangers’ lives crunching beneath my feet and flapping overhead in coils of barbed-wire fencing.
Approaching the door to my building, all I could hear was techno music blaring from the rooftop across the street. An outdoor rave seemed in poor taste, but in the wake of the attacks, any human desire seemed plausible. If people wanted to sit in a bistro and pay 18 dollars for a sandwich, why shouldn’t they want to dance?
"You got a cigarette?” someone asked from the darkness a few feet behind me.
Without a second thought, I reached into my brown leather satchel for a smoke, my street smarts weakened in this new era of kind gestures. A moment later I felt a body up against my back and an arm around my neck. Something hard was rammed between my ribs.
“You feel that?” he asked. “That’s a fucking gun. Gimme all your money.”
I took a deep breath as the man behind me tightened his arm around my neck. The odor of tons of smoldering metal still hung in the air, like a preheated oven with forgotten pots and pans stored inside. A street lamp pole five feet away was covered in posters of smiling faces with the word “Missing” below them. Over the horizon two long strands of smoke joined in the sky to form a mock cloud.
With trembling hands I dug in my bag for a few bucks, tearing through books, loose change, and packs of gum. As hardcore techno pounded all around us I stuttered repeatedly, “Please don’t shoot me. Please don’t shoot me. Please don’t shoot me…”
And then I remembered, through a woozy veil of panic and Malbec, the 900 dollars in my pants pocket that would save me from a future full of shit like this. I caught a glimpse of him over my shoulder as his wrist trembled against my Adam’s Apple. He was a thin man in his mid-thirties. His face was drawn and fragile, his eyes wide and hungry as they bounced around in his skull. I could sense his anxiety and a part of me wanted to be sympathetic, reminding myself that he was just trying to survive, even now more than ever.
"Hurry up!" he grunted against my ear, jamming the gun deeper into my back while eying the building door across the way. Quickly, while I had the chance, I moved the cash from my pocket to my bag, where it would be harder to find in the mess of journals, phone chargers and matchbooks. Impatient, he reached around me and into my front pants pocket, where I kept my credit cards and driver’s license. Just as he removed his hand, a group of five partygoers emerged from the building across the street. The man nudged me toward my front door, grunting, “Now go inside.”
He began to casually stroll away at the same pace as the five kids across the street, all of them heading toward a busy avenue 50 yards ahead. If he hadn’t said, “Now go inside,” I might have gone inside. But his presumptuousness felt like a greater affront than being held at gunpoint. Didn’t he know this was a time of solidarity and peace, that for just a few days he should be loving his neighbors, not mugging them?
So I followed him.
"Hey!" I slurred to the group across the street. "That guy has a gun and he just mugged me!” I said it incredulously, as if to shame him for leaving a bad tip. A girl with blond dreadlocks yelped in a way that was equal parts fear and "you’re-kidding-right?" The group followed us cautiously, wary about trusting the drunk guy with purple teeth and a giant bottle of wine sticking out of his bag.
The mugger began to fast-walk like an elderly person doing morning aerobics in the mall, as if full-on running would imply guilt. As he picked up his pace I dialed 911.
“911,” said the operator, sounding like she’d just been woken up from a nap, my gunpoint robbery probably one of the less urgent calls she’d taken in the last four days.
“I’ve been mugged!” I screamed.
“What does he look like, sir?” she asked through a yawn.
He was wearing brown slacks, a red and black striped sweater and a small, brimmed hat. “Freddy Krueger!”
“Um… Excuse me?”
“Freddy Krueger!” I broke into a full sprint toward my mugger.
“Sir, where are you?” the operator asked, finally sounding concerned.
“I’m following him!” I screamed, now brandishing the huge magnum of wine over my head.
“Sir, please stop pursuing the perpetrator.”
But I couldn’t. I wasn’t thinking of my safety or his gun. It was my time to vent, to scream and release. Now I wasn’t anyone’s waiter. I wasn’t a sounding board or a therapist. I was a victim, just like every New Yorker was however great or small their loss or sense of security.
We were almost at Bushwick Avenue when the mugger, running ten feet ahead of me, looked over his shoulder with frightened eyes and wheezed, “Stop.”No one had ever looked at me with fear before. And I liked it. For three days I’d been invisible, but now someone was seeing me. I wanted to catch him. And I was so close.
Right after he crossed the avenue, a throng of traffic zoomed between us and I watched him disappear into the darkness of an unlit park at the center of a housing project. As drunk as I was, I knew my limits. I accepted defeat. So at 4 in the morning I sat on the curb and, for the first time since that terrible Tuesday, I sobbed; not about the robbery that didn’t happen or the gun that was probably a candy bar, but for the monstrous tragedy I’d been attempting to ignore for three days while bringing people dessert menus and warm baguette.
I stumbled home drunk and emptied my pockets, realizing that the mugger had gotten away with my Texas driver’s license. Without that license, I couldn’t rent a U-Haul. Or drive one. I would have to wait for my replacement, which could take days or even months because every public service was suspended. Like airplanes from the American sky, rules and regulations had disappeared too. No one was making any promises, at least for a little while.
A few nights later I was awoken by screaming in the middle of the night. I looked out into my desolate, post-apocalyptic neighborhood from my second floor window to see a young blond woman in a short, sequined dress on her knees in the street. She was alone, rocking back and forth with her hands over her ears, her high-heeled shoes kicked off beside her.
"Their bodies were burning," she screamed, less like someone traumatized by actually having seen it than like someone who, after taking some very high-quality drugs at a nightclub, couldn’t stop imagining it.
“Hey,” I yelled, jolting her into catatonic silence.
She pulled her fingers from her hair and stood up before stumbling through the exterior door of her loft building across the street. I watched from my open window as lights came on in a room directly across the street. A giant, industrial window screeched open and she appeared.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said, wiping her eyes and lighting a cigarette. We leaned out our windows in silence, looking occasionally at each other but mainly at the sky above.
Ten minutes later she flicked her cigarette butt into the street and sighed, “Thank you,” offering me a dim smile before shutting her window.
The next morning I woke up to a loud, metallic thud. I looked out the window and saw a mustached man in his fifties securing the lock on a moving truck before getting into the driver’s seat. In the passenger seat was my blond neighbor in sunglasses, expressionless and static as the man I assumed was her father swept her hair from her face. She was prettier and paler than she’d seemed the night before, kneeling on the concrete beneath an orange streetlight. I waved, hoping she’d notice me. But the only place she seemed to be looking from behind her giant, black glasses was through the windshield at the road ahead.
Over the next week I had time to calm down. I started to trust the tap water again and thought, “Is the water coming from that high-pressure showerhead in Texas really so great? Like, is it Whitney Biennial-great? Or Tompkins Square Park in Spring-great? Or Bjork sighting on 9th Avenue-great?” I started to think that living in my parents’ garage sounded like a cop-out, the kind of step-back that would eventually send me into the middle of their quiet suburban street to psychotically pull my hair out.
A week later, in spite of my doubts, I had a going away party at a friend’s apartment. About 30 people came: work friends, neighbors, bar buddies, and a few people I’d never met. As the night progressed, I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that something wasn’t right; that maybe I hadn’t really made a concerted effort to do all the things I’d moved to New York to do; go to the MOMA, take an improv class at UCB, perform on a New York City stage. Within a few hours one of my friends offered me a lead on a new job. Another told me about a share in her apartment in Spanish Harlem. By the end of the party I announced, a bit embarrassed, that I wasn’t going anywhere. By midnight, my bon voyage party had become a welcome back soirée.
A week later I used that get-out-of-dodge fund as a deposit on a place on 116th street. If a man with a gun in my back couldn’t scare me away, why should I let faceless terrorists halfway around the world?
So I stayed.
A week later my mom called from Texas to tell me I’d received a letter with no return address. Inside was my ID, a little piece from the archive of someone’s life, scuffed and bent from blowing around the dirty streets of Bushwick.
Scrawled on the attached Post-It note was:
“Whoever you are. I hope you are okay. God bless you.”
Twelve years later I still have a Texas ID. And I’ll never replace it. It’s what makes me a New Yorker.