What I remember most is the silence.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, began like every other day.
I was running a little bit late for work at my temp job on the Upper East Side, but it was a casual environment so despite the time I went ahead and walked across Central Park instead of catching the M79 bus to 5th Avenue because the weather was spectacular. It was warm but not especially humid, and the sky was a royal blue. There wasn't a cloud to be seen.
It was about quarter to nine.
I had my Discman with me (no iPods yet) and was listening to the second act of Parsifal (the Karajan, with Vejzovic and Hofmann) as I took my usual loop around the top of the Great Lawn, with its famous panoramic view of the wall of midtown skyscrapers rising from the tree-lined perimeter of the park. I was just approaching the lawn when a distraught-looking man tried to get my attention as he pointed southward to the sky. I figured he was just another looney, so I ignored him.
But a few steps later, I glanced out toward the city and noticed a small, black cloud over the tops of the towers, which like an inkblot began to spread ominously over the skyline.
At that time of day, the park is filled with unleashed dogs and their owners. At the top of the oval path, a few of us gathered to speculate: obviously a building was on fire somewhere. "Hope everyone's all right," someone said.
Then a park worker drove up in his big green pickup. "Do you know what's going on?" we asked him. "They say a plane flew into the World Trade Center," he replied.
We looked at the crystalline sky. What? How, on a day like today, could someone possibly fly into a building? I don't think any of us were thinking airliner. And we were certainly thinking accident. The guy turned up the volume on the truck's radio.
"Okay, ladies and gentlemen...we're...we're getting an unconfirmed report that a second plane has struck the second tower," the incredulous voice on the radio said.
Among the small group that had gathered to watch, there were various responses of "Nah, no way," "Someone's confused," "Couldn't be," "Just a rumor," and things to that effect.
Then the voice spoke again: "Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I can confirm it now, a second airliner has struck the second tower. Both World Trade Center towers are on fire."
You know that phrase, "weak in the knees"? In that awful moment, it became clear, without anyone having to say it, that the city was under attack. People were dead. A lot of people were dead. As I turned again to see the expanding plume of smoke speeding toward Brooklyn, my stomach clutched and my head reeled as I steadied myself on the fence surrounding the lawn.
Our small group dispersed quickly and silently.
As I headed toward my job on 75th Street, I passed a playground on the south side of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; toddlers were running and swinging and chasing each other and squealing with joy, while Caribbean nannies and stay-at-home moms sat peacefully on benches in the shade. I envied them their collective innocence, short-lived as it was about to be.
By the time I reached the job, the Pentagon had been struck, as well, and the media were warning of hundreds of airliners still in the sky. As the company was housed in a national historic landmark, we soon received a phonecall from the police ordering us to evacuate.
The subways were closed and the buses were mobbed, so there was nothing for it but to begin the seven-and-a-half mile walk home, and I headed across Central Park once again. The noxious plume from the catastrophe, like the darkness that wends its way out of Mordor before the final siege of Minas Tirith, hung like a banner of death over the city: the funeral pyre of nearly 3,000 innocents.
No one was walking their dog in the park now. No children were playing.
At the corner of 86th and Central Park West, an elderly man was standing in front of the building, tears running down his face. "It fell down," he said to me, his voice quaking and cracking with anguish.
"What?" I asked, unsure of what I'd heard.
"The tower...it fell down." My mind could not wrap itself around the imagined vision of a 110-story skyscraper, a global icon, falling down. I simply could not picture it; could not accept it as belonging to the realm of the possible.
When I reached Broadway, the owners of a bodega had set a television set on folding chair on the sidewalk so passersby could see the news. I had missed the collapse of the second tower by seconds; all that was visible was that awful, boiling grey cloud of debris where there ought to have been gleaming silver buildings.
The city had been sealed off; the bridges and tunnels were closed, and there was nothing for anyone to do but go home (if you could). There was hardly any traffic at all on Broadway, save the occasional loaded cab or jam-packed bus. Now and then there would be an ambulance, sirens wailing.
What was remarkable was the silence. No one spoke. There was no music playing anywhere. Only sirens.
Two and a half hours later I reached my apartment. I called my parents to let them know I was okay, and then spent the rest of the afternoon in stunned, silent grief, nauseous and scared, as I wondered what was next, and tried to come to terms with the discovery that there were people in the world who wanted to kill me.
I would spend nearly six years wondering what was next. From that moment on, I never once set foot on a bus or a subway or a plane or stepped inside a theater or any other public place and didn't worry about a bomb or other atrocity. Though I had been, thankfully, far from the World Trade Center at the time and never in any danger, I began to have nightmares and panic attacks. On the subway, my chest would constrict, my heart would begin to ache and I'd have to get off at the next stop and walk around above ground until the nausea went away. I was often late for work.
Some days I called in sick, because I just couldn't get on the train.
Once I fled a performance at the Metropolitan Opera, mid-aria. The sweat began pouring down my brow and the familiar, tight-chested "I think I want to puke" sensation overtook me, and I headed for the exit.
I think it's no coincidence that I lost my voice in 2002.
I don't speak often of these things. It hurts to remember; it hurts to remember a day when strangers came among us, into the heart of my beautiful, beloved city, to hurt us. To kill people, to incinerate them in a blinding red-orange flash, or to strand them with the options of leaping to their deaths or waiting for 100 ceilings to come crashing down on top of them. It hurts to remember how this tragedy was appropriated to justify a war of utter insanity. It hurts to remember the previously unknown anxiety that began to haunt me daily, manifested in a physical disorder which, slowly, night by night as I suffered through recurring nightmares of being blown apart on the subway, dismantled my dreams and a decade of hard work, literally eating away my career aspirations in baths of stomach acid.
Now, 3000 miles and six years later, I realize that in many ways, I'm still fleeing the attack.