Remembering 9/11 from a first-hand perspective

Posted on 08 Sep 2011 at 6:29pm
Paul J. Williams

Earlier this week, I wrote this post here on Instant Tea about my personal memories of 9/11. And I had planned to write a second one about Mark Bingham, one of the heroic passengers of United Flight 93, who also happened to be gay. And I had planned a third about Father Mychal Judge, chaplain for the New York Fire Department, who had gone into the World Trade Center North Tower to tend to victims and was killed when that tower collapsed. Father Mychal was gay, too.

But then Hardy Haberman wrote this Viewpoints column for the Voice, and I decided doing those planned blog posts would redundant, since Hardy had already done it so well.

So instead, I want to share with you something that local comedian Paul J. Williams sent to me. Paul was in New York on 9/11, living in an apartment in Queens,  working in a Lower Manhattan during the day, and performing his comedic routines in the clubs at night.

Paul had a first person view of the tragedy of 9/11. He was there as history unfolded. Here’s what he saw, and did:

“On Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, I was going through my usual “get ready for work” routine in my apartment in Astoria, Queens. At the time, I was working as a long-term temp secretary for a law firm in Manhattan, but I didn’t usually go in until 10 a.m.

“After taking a shower, my routine consisted of coming back into my bedroom and turning on the stereo to KTU for their morning show while I was getting dressed. It was a little before 9 a.m. Rather than the usual hilarity, the KTU DJs were very seriously discussing the fact that the World Trade Center has just been hit by a jet. I went into the living room to turn on the TV, still only half dressed.

“I sat in front of the television for the next few hours, getting up only to get my cell phone to try to call my parents, or to go to the door to talk to my landlords who lived downstairs. My roommate, who also worked in Manhattan, always left for work early in the morning and was already at his office in Midtown when the first plane hit.

“As the reality of what was happening began to sink in, New York began to shut down. All subways ceased service. All bridges and tunnels closed to vehicular traffic. Bridges became pedestrian only, and only leaving Manhattan.

“No one was allowed to enter the city. My roommate began his long walk home.

“After I was able to reach my parents on the cell phone, we talked and watched the first tower fall together. My mother began to cry on the other end of the phone. Assuring them that I was safe at home in Queens, I hung up, but continued watching television coverage.

“When the second tower began to collapse, I truly thought I was watching a replay of the first tower’s collapse. Now, I was overcome with emotion as well.

“By noon, I had to get out of the house. With no public transportation running in the city, I got on my bicycle, not really knowing where I was going to go. I stopped at a bodega to buy a disposable camera. I rode as close along the water’s edge of Queens as I could, stopping occasionally to take pictures of the smoke filled air of Lower Manhattan in the distance.

“I kept riding. I kept stopping to take pictures. Eventually, I found myself at the Promenade in Brooklyn, directly across the harbor from Lower Manhattan.
‘This is all so surreal,’ I kept thinking.

“I rode up to the Brooklyn Bridge, which was a mass of humanity, all trying to flee Manhattan. Police everywhere were trying to maintain some sense of order. More pictures. I was grateful that the wind is blowing the smoke from the towers in the opposite direction, yet the burning smell was everywhere.

“I was absolutely in awe: ‘What has happened? Lord, please let there be survivors of all this.’ My adrenaline had begun to wane and I realized how glad I was that I could put my bicycle on the subway to get back home.

“‘No. Wait. All public transportation is shut down, remember?’

“I began the long bicycle ride back to Astoria, arriving to find my roommate safely at home. We just looked at each other and say, ‘Wow. What has happened?’
We spent a quiet night at home, glued to the TV.

“I actually went to work the next day. As a temp, I didn’t get paid time off and I needed the money! But not a lot of people came to work. It was a pretty quiet day.

“That night, Wednesday, Sept. 12, I decided to get my bicycle and explore Manhattan. The subways were running again, so I put the bike on the train and went to Times Square. It was dusk. I started riding south.

“Police had completely shut down access to anything south of 14th Street, unless you could prove you live there. I found an unguarded street blockade and slipped past it, riding down to the Village. I called my parents on the cell phone to report in.

“The word I kept using over and over was ‘surreal. This is all so surreal.’

“There was absolutely no traffic. The city was quiet. I sat, cross-legged, in the middle of Seventh Avenue at Christopher Street. ‘Has the Rapture occurred, and I’ve been left behind? Where is everyone?’

“I rode over to Sixth Avenue, which runs north. There, at the intersection with Houston Street, was a crowd of New Yorkers — neighbors and residents of the area who had lined the streets to cheer on the police cars, fire trucks and 18-wheelers that are carrying debris away from the World Trade Center.

“Surreal.

“People were holding handmade signs, thanking the police and firefighters. Already, people knew. This was changing New York forever. Mayor Giuliani had been encouraging citizens to get back to work. New Yorkers would not be defeated by this.

“Again: ‘This is surreal.’

“Twenty months later, I found my life changed immensely. The temp market dried up. I wasn’t performing as much. I was still creeped out about living in a city that has been such a target.
In my own ways, I started to self-destruct. I needed a change. I moved back to Dallas.

“All because of 9/11? Who knows? But that one day has colored my entire existence in many ways.

“Now, when my office building in downtown Dallas has a fire drill, I seem to be the only one here that takes it seriously. Planes taking off from Love Field often look like they’re headed straight for my building. I can hear the sound of these same planes flying seemingly close, right over my condo. Daily.

“Do I remember 9/11/01? You bet. Every day. Surreal.”

— Paul J. Williams
— 09/08/11

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