Writing: My 9/11 Time Machine

Like many of my colleagues, I am quesy about the full-scale media attack on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Of course, I understand the civic need to weight the event and personal need to recount our losses, but I am less sure about the form any media memorial should take.

Still, I’m going to take a risk and post a piece I wrote right after 9/11 for the Philadelphia Inquirer, if only to demonstrate to myself how words can erase a decade.

I was then a back-of-the-book arts editor, and though departments dissolved as we all pitched in to gather and edit every bit of information we could, we also had to put out a features section. For the first day, we decided on a package in which staffers could volunteer to each write a short piece about one emotion: anger, revenge, etc.

Although we were doing our jobs soberly, like Front Page pros, emotion was the elephant in the newsroom.

Here’s mine:

Fear

By Jeff Weinstein
Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer
Sept. 13, 2001

He told me he was going to the gym before heading to the office, and of course I thought nothing of it. You wouldn’t either. He worked out every other day, in one of two places: on East 13th Street, or “near the World Trade Center” when he wanted to swim.

Was it a morning he wanted to swim?

I write this with a photograph in front of me of one burning tower and a plane about to crash into the other. I can hardly keep my eyes on the keyboard.

And why, why had I never asked him just how near that gym was?

Reader, relax. He’s all right.

My body and my brain have been home to many emotions, but fear, thank goodness, has been something of a stranger. I have had guns pulled on me, and a few times I’ve almost died, but for the most part things came too fast or too shallow for me ever to have feared for myself. Fear, it seems, bares its teeth mostly when you’re afraid for someone else.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. When that “someone else” is as good as a part of you, fear shows no favorites. Him, you, all the same. He’s at risk, you’re at risk. He’s hurt, you’re hurt. He dies, …

Tuesday, that intolerable equation was my new math.

At 9 a.m. I tried to phone him, my partner for life, but as we now know, one terror of terrorism is that rapid bleep, or the “call cannot go through,” or the petrifying nothing on the line. I finally got through to his workplace, but by 10, and then 11, he hadn’t arrived. They hadn’t heard from him, didn’t know where he was.

So, without warning, without even a proper introduction, I came, as they say, “face to face” with fear. I did my best to make sure no one at the office knew he was with me.

Here is the reporter’s description:

He breathed short and hard, like an asthmatic without inhaler.

His skin was hot and damp. It prickled, too, in a way that would make anyone pray the feeling would stop.

His heart was audible, a permanent busy signal.

He was, physically, inside-out, as if every part of him, not just his stomach, were immersed in nausea.

I know that many others have met fear: mates and lovers of firefighters and police, pilots and train engineers. Parents – not all, but some – are thoroughly familiar. But fear so intimate was new to me.

What helps? Weeping blurs the feeling, but does not erase it. Around 2 p.m., the phones relented, and I reached my partner. I told him how worried I was. It turns out he had been evacuated from a subway into a street of thousands of ash-covered refugees, and he walked miles with a shirt over his head so he could breathe. He was unhappy, he said, that he had caused me worry.

He himself hadn’t been afraid, just “sort of numb.”

When I hung up, I looked around, and he was still there. He didn’t leave my side until I received this on the computer:

Hi Jeff. E-mail now working but can’t get long distance. 5:37 p.m. Most stores closed, since they are run by people who live in the boroughs. Sounds of sirens. Still big smoke billowing up downtown….St. Marks Bookstore open. Kim’s Video closed.

Am O.K.

Johnny

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