The Borders at the World Trade Center opened in 1995. I'm told it might not have been very profitable on account of the size of the rent, but it was the company's first store in Manhattan, an important presence for a publicly traded company just a few blocks from Wall Street, and Borders made money in those days. There are worse things than if your face to the world is a store with huge throngs of shoppers selling tons and tons of books.
Lower Manhattan wasn't in the beaten path for me, but because Borders World Trade was such a bustling and prosperous store that sold so many copies of so many books by so many JABberwocky clients it was a store that I liked to visit at least every several weeks. Even if it meant making a special trip, it was a pleasant destination. And on a beautiful day, what better really than take the occasional walk through Greenpoint and Williamsburg, over the Williamsburg Bridge, down East Broadway through Chinatown, down Park Row beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and past City Hall, and around 1:40 after leaving my apartment I was there.
Tuesday September 11, 2001 was a beautiful late summer day. The sky as blue and near to cloudless as you might like, the temperature perfect, and I hadn't been to Borders World Trade in several weeks, can't remember if it was early August or late July, but it had been a while. So the plan for the day was pretty simple, to try and escape from the office a little bit early if I could (and in those days, I could almost always escape from the office a little bit early and not worry anyone would miss me), be out the door by 4PM or 5PM and I'd have that nice walk with the setting sun looming behind the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan as I headed over the Williamsburg Bridge, and have a long overdue visit to the Borders.
Those plans changed.
There was an e-mail from Elizabeth Moon, mentioning this plane that had flown into the World Trade Center.
Like most people, my first thought was that some guy in a Cessna had lost his bearings and had an accident.
I sat in front of the TV for a while. Wondering what was going to happen. It wasn't a Cessna. It was a pretty big fire. It was 1000 feet in the air, and is there any way to fight that besides letting it burn itself out?
And then however many minutes it was after I turned on the television, there was that puff of smoke and then it cleared, and there weren't twin towers any more. And then there weren't any towers at all.
And then I went back to work, kind of.
Denial, distraction, avoidance, whatever the mental state was that was there, I couldn't do much but try and bull my way through whatever happened.
I went out to cast my vote in the mayoral primary NYC was having that day. I shouldn't have bothered, the primary was called off not long thereafter.
I went to the UPS depot with a box of books to send. I shouldn't have bothered. UPS had summoned its trucks back, they were rushing into the yard, they were pulling the gates shut.
I went to the Post Office. The Post Office was open. But a little bit down at the end of the block, you could see the sidewalk on Queens Boulevard full of people who'd walked over the Queensboro Bridge and were now walking however many miles they needed to walk in order to get home. Forest Hills was another five miles away, Kew Garden was six. It was one of those eerie sights you think you might see only in the movies.
I had lunch. I did have the TV on in the kitchen but I didn't sit perched in front of the TV for the rest of the day. One of the things I've learned is that there isn't much to gain watching the telly in times like this. Comes from hours of watching after Challenger, waiting for that NASA press conference that kept getting pushed back and pushed back, and you realize for all the time you're spending watching you're watching for hours and hours and there isn't any actual news.
I called Elizabeth Moon, and we discussed some revisions to her novel The Speed of Dark.
That night, it was hard to sleep. The next day, it was hard to concentrate on anything, to do any work at all. The mind was someplace else.
My synagogue had a memorial service that night. I walked into Manhattan over the Queensboro Bridge. You could look south toward Ground Zero, and how could you not, really. The winds were blowing most of the stuff from Ground Zero some other direction, but there was a smell in the air all over the city. Burnt metal, burnt flesh, burnt something. I don't know what it was, I don't like to think of what it was, I don't want to be reminded of it. But it was everywhere. It felt weird walking into Manhattan, but it felt weird not to, like whatever it was that happened yesterday it was necessary to still be doing something like what I often did. And Manhattan was, of course, eerie. Quiet, empty. I stopped by the Whole Foods in Manhattan (back then, there was still just the one in Chelsea) after the service, it was open and it felt good to buy something there even though they had signs up that they'd be closing early, that they might not have some things because they hadn't gotten any deliveries that day, but it was open and it was good.
The #7 train was running. And of course it was a weird ride back, especially as we headed out of Grand Central and under the East River. Everyone was looking at one another. What were you doing on the subway on this evening?
Those of you who know me know I have a puckish sense of humor. It was gone for the next three weeks. Nothing really seemed funny. There was this pit in stomach instead. Every time I was in Manhattan. Coming back on the LIRR from my annual September bookstore rounds of Long Island, sitting on the train heading back into NYC and kind of not wanting to do it.
Looking at some of the pictures from 9/11, New York Magazine has some in their current issue, I realize just how well I've managed to suppress some of the imagery of the day. Not my memories of the day, I don't talk about them or think about them very much, but I can always summon those images quickly, always there right below the surface, never far away and always a part of me. But the images of the twisted steel, the haunted faces, the people racing up Broadway, the jumpers, all of those things that were part of the day, but not of my part in it.
I can still give a guided tour of the Borders that was there. Head off the E train, past the newsstand, turn right in the World Trade Center concourse (some of the tiling of the section between the subway and the concourse survived), I think it's closed off now while they rebuild the PATH station, but will be back) and there was the small lower level entrance a little bit down, up the escalator to the main level by the main entrance doors at Church and Vecsey. Main cash wrap at the north end of the main level. The mystery, romance and horror lined up on the shelves there. A few steps up to the entrance into 5 World Trade Center, this was where you had your displays of new books. In the southwest corner of this main level was where you had your sf/fantasy, the new hardcovers and trade paperbacks wrapped around a column, three sections of low shelving for the mass markets, full of backstock all the time. Shel, one of the booksellers, had some old sf/f covers that he hung up in the section, they'd be part of that smell I could smell. He ended up at the White Plains store. The magazines were also on the ground floor, near the escalator up, which led into the cafe. After one of those walks to the store to meet up with a friend, it's that cafe where my friend and his wife were sitting, and I could kind of tell by that morning sickness look on her face before he said anything that they were expecting. The music was off to one side, this store had a smaller music section than most stores of that vintage. And then a long, narrow upper level with the non-fiction categories spread each side of an aisle that led back to a relatively small children's department at the far end. The store is gone ten years now, but I can still take you there.
So I didn't visit the Borders at the World Trade Center on September 11.
In fact, it was another six months before I went to Lower Manhattan at all. Shortly before I left for London Book Fair in March of 2002, I kind of forced myself to go down to Lower Manhattan, for every reason and for no reason at all. To walk by Ground Zero. To look west down Fulton Street, to this wonderful view of the World Financial Center that was never supposed to exist. To stand near the corner of Church and Vecsey.
As once upon a time, they were.
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.