Learning How to Breathe Again: Leaving New York After 9/11

"The air is gray," he said.

"The air is gray," he said.

The hot, lively air, after the smoke cleared, smelled of molten metal and something indescribable—perhaps, if anything, it was the smell of blood iron one smells when one has a bloody nose—pungent, crisp, sickly-sweet, and bitter. Every place has its signature smells—there’s the tropical fragrance of eucalyptus and burnt leña that greets you when deplaning in Managua; the dry, desert aroma of grilled chilies that hangs in the air of Albuquerque throughout the fall.  I still recall exactly how the air in Washington Square smelled the night of 9/11.

9/11/2001, as everyone recalls, was an exquisite day—crisp, cool, and clear. Gilda had only just left for school: the subway took her from 96th Street Station down to the World Trade Center where she transferred to a train out to Stony Brook. My nephew Ryan had just moved to New York to begin college, moved into his NYU dorm room. I finished my first cup of coffee at around nine, sat down at the piano to work. The phone rang.

“Baby, turn on the television. A man just got on the train and said that a plane has flown into the World Trade Center. They’ve stopped the train. The conductor said there are no trains behind us. I can see the smoke.” “Are you okay?” I asked. “Yes.” “Okay. Sweetheart: stay off the phone. Call me when you get out to Stony Brook.” I squatted in front of the television and turned on CNN in time to see the second plane hit at 9:03. I called Ryan. “Where are you?” I asked. “I’m on the street, Uncle Daron,” he said. “The air is gray.” “Get up here as soon as you can,” I commanded. “Start walking north now, fast.” I sprinted out to the deli at 98th and Broadway and bought staples and three gallons of spring water. The sidewalk vibrated with the thunder of military aircraft streaking fast and low southwards over the west side.

Later: “I’m in Stony Brook. Everything’s locked down: nobody’s getting out or going in to Manhattan,” Gilda said. “You’re okay?” “Yes. I’m staying with Matt and Sally.” I walked out to Broadway. Tractor-trailer trucks hurtled south in convoy through the dark at top speed, ignoring all the lights. I followed them on foot. Smell of steel. There was a super-fine white film of grit on everything. Cabs with the back seats ripped out so that they could serve as makeshift hearses headed southwards like a fleet of ferryboats.

Like a lot of people, I was drawn south. Police barricades had been erected, a cordon drawn north of Little Italy. I approached a cop wearing a Kevlar vest and brandishing an automatic weapon as emergency workers struggled to move southwards between the blue sawhorses with NYPD spray-painted on them. “Where do I go to help?” I asked him. “Go home,” he said, remote. Then, for a moment, he gave me his full attention. “Oh. For God’s sake just go home to your family,” he said, anguished. I stared at him, wringing my hands. He softened. “They’re making sandwiches to send south in the park,” he said, pointing. “Maybe they need a hand.” I spent the rest of the evening standing stupidly at a broken folding Red Cross table, spreading bright yellow mustard with a broken plastic knife on one piece of white bread after another.

Any City. No longer mine.

Any City. No longer mine.

In spring 2012 I boarded the Staten Island Ferry for the first time since 9/11. Standing at the rail with Gilda, the harbor the color of an opal, I could have been looking over the water at Seattle, San Francisco, or Venice. Any City. No longer mine. We strolled around Battery Park City before turning east towards Ground Zero. The Freedom Tower, still unfinished, thrust into the mist on one side; dead ahead, the roar of falling water rose from the negative space of the World Trade Center’s footprint. I looked up into the sky and remembered looking out the window of Jim Kendrick’s Trade Center office, far, far down at the Staten Island Ferry and the Statue of Liberty, both rendered toy like; I remembered drinks at the Greatest Bar on Earth; I remembered a hundred trips to Erewhon and back on the Staten Island ferry, looking up at a skyline I felt mine.

Bone-chilling air swept up from the chasm. It smelled of seawater, traffic, subway, chlorine, and a dash of the hot, lively air bouquet of human sweat ginned up by a crowd on a sweltering day.  There came the familiar objectivity, the feeling of no longer being there. “My thirtieth year in New York,” I observed to nobody. Even after disenchantment with the art world had set in, I had continued to believe in the Jeffersonian notion that there is a “natural aristocracy” derived of talent and virtue. No more. “Wow,” said a bearded Millennial in front of me. He clutched a copy of The Fountainhead and his ear buds throbbed with Björk’s current single. Startled that he had overheard me, I made believe that I hadn’t heard him. “You must be old,” he said, meaning nothing by it. “Oh, I don’t know,” I replied. “Move along,” a cop told me, misinterpreting my chuckle. I looked up from the memorial. Reflexively, I dug in, and gave him a hard look. The cop frowned back. “Listen, pal, a lot of people are waiting to take your place,” he said. I chuckled ruefully, and said, “Yes sir! I really know that!” He shook his head, cocked his finger next to his temple as he shot Gilda a look, and turned away. I smiled at the hipster, who rolled his eyes, stuffed my hands in my pockets, and turned toward the Winter Garden.

In 2016, Congress acknowledged that “over 33,000 first responders and survivors are living with illnesses or injuries related to the attack.” Some of the illnesses (cancers, asthmas, respiratory diseases, etc.) were caused by airborne particulates.

Over the years after 9/11 I gradually lost the ability to breathe through my nose, let alone to smell. I ended up in my doctor's office. “Breathe in,” he commanded. I did. “Your lungs are congested. You’re remarkably healthy for a fat man. Stop drinking so much. Lose some weight, okay?” He looked up to gauge my reaction. “I know,” I said, wearily. “But the sinuses,” he continued. “You’ve got to have them fixed. A man has to be able to breathe.” Beat. “Uh huh,” I agreed. “It’s hard not to interpret this as a metaphor,” I quipped. “Maybe this is a sign. Maybe there’s no air left for me in New York.” He stared at me, unsmiling. “This isn’t Art. It’s Life,” he said, coldly. I looked up at him, startled. “I know—,” I began. “Listen. Let me remind you of something that you seem to have forgotten: art is important, but breathing is imperative. There’s a membrane thinner than a sheet of paper separating your sinuses from your brain. I suspect that most of your sinus cavity is badly infected, necrotic even, and has been for a long time. All that has to happen is for that infection to cross through that membrane and—.” I raised my hands up, and said, “I get it.” He looked at me incredulously. “You’ve got to fix this,” he concluded. I promised him that I would. “I’ll refer you to a friend of mine. I trust him.” He tore the prescription he had just scrawled off the pad and handed it to me. “In the meantime, maybe this will give you some relief.” He looked up, half smiling. “Now, go away and write more music.”

Days later, a surgeon extracted from my sinuses “the most polyps [he had] ever seen.” He pointed out, to my surprise, that he had also removed several turbinates, straightened my deviated septum, and excised an enormous amount of dead and diseased tissue—nearly the entire surface area of the interior of my sinuses. “So, was it like mowing my front lawn in there?” I asked. He wasn’t amused. “This has been chronic for a decade or more,” he said. “You were suffocating. You had use of less than five percent of your sinuses.” I whistled. “So, it was like mowing the lawn of everyone on my street?” He looked at me queerly. “No,” the specialist said, flatly. “It was more like napalming your entire neighborhood.” My nose was stuffed with gauze; I breathed through tubes for weeks. Followed months of steroidal weight gain, antibiotics, bleeding, and more pain, as the tissue regenerated. 

I thought then of the Big Cedar House back in Wisconsin in which I had grown up. Of course, it had been rather small and only special because I made it so in memory. It had just been like a lot of houses, on a street like a lot of other streets, in a suburb like a lot of other suburbs. We had played out our dramas just like countless other families just like us. I’d raced away from it as soon as I could, as hard as I could, and as fast as I could, to the coast. 33 years later, as we crossed the West Side Highway, a cabbie leaned out of his window and swore at us in Punjabi. I was delighted. As I refused to relinquish my soul to the city, it had become time for me to relinquish my place in it.

Relinquish it I have. And, in doing so, I have begun learning how to breathe again.

This morning, in June 2017, I rise from the table to pour some more coffee from the pot and look out into the large backyard surrounded by a white picket fence. I revel in the smells of Upstate New York, of the small village to which we moved a few months after visiting the 9/11 Memorial—freshly-mown grass, coffee, peonies, and the tang of an early summer shower just passed mingle comfortingly as a light breeze passes through,

Spring in Rhinebeck.

Spring in Rhinebeck.

Everyone is still asleep. I can imagine at these moments without regret what things will be like here after I am gone. My boys’ tears, and laughter of operatic intensity, will issue forth like feathers from burst pillows. Bath times and bed times will meld into one bright, thrumming, activated chord. Hair will be tousled, favorite books read, lullabies and secret songs sung. Screen doors will get slammed and mended, weeds pulled only to return, hair will be cut, pebbles pulled out of nostrils, ticks removed, leaves raked, gutters cleared, shutters painted, memories forged, wounds cleansed and Band-Aids applied, nascent personalities shaped and encouraged. My sons will know the childish comfort of having observed that their parents love them and one another. Despite the wickedness, the unfairness, and the madness of the world at large, they will feel for a few wonderful years that their world is safe, and that nothing will ever change it.

My sons will enjoy the safety of living in a village where they may walk home after dusk illuminated by the soft, peaceful, flickering golden light streaming from the windows of the homes of neighbors that know, love, and will help to protect them. They will feel good, clean dirt between their toes. They will run in the grass barefoot without the risk of stepping on a used syringe, or slipping on used condoms. They will feel over-ripe tomatoes burst in their hands when on a soft summer afternoon, they pick them from our garden. They will experience languid summers, grow loopy with sunshine; enjoy the healthy silkiness of their own skins. They will spend entire days building dams across the brook behind their Grandparents’ house, drawing treasure maps, catching and releasing bugs, making believe that they are La Longue Carabine in the woods, crying “My death is a great honor to the Huron, take me!” to no one. Dog day cicadas will sing their burring songs by day, crickets their chirrups by night. My sons will run into the middle of the lawn, close their eyes, lean their heads as far back as they will go, feel the sun on their faces, spin around, and imagine they've awakened after a seventeen-year-long slumber to swim in the hot, lively air.