In a chapter of her bestselling book, “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” Natalie Goldberg writes of hearing about a yogi in India who ate a car.
“Not all at once,” she wrote, “but slowly over a year’s time.”
I think of what it would take to eat a car. Swallowing it, one nut and bolt at a time. Using metal cutters to snip off little bits of fender. Smashing the plastic dashboard into tiny pieces, and wrapping those bits in a piece of soft bread so they’ll go down the throat more easily.
September 11, 2001, is like eating a car.
Fifteen years out, and I’m still swallowing bits of metal. There’s a metallic taste in my mouth when I think about 9/11, a sharpness in my gut.
I was a reporter at WNYC Radio. Our studios were less than a mile away from the World Trade Center, about a 12 minute walk. I covered the events of that day, or tried to. It was hard, from my vantage point at street-level, to figure out what was going on. I had my tape recorder, microphone, and, to my deep dismay, an uncharged cellphone. I had no way of communicating with my newsroom. I didn’t know we were under attack, that the Pentagon had been hit, that planes were missing, that military jets had been scrambled, that U.S. airspace had been shut down, until much later.
The undigestable shards of that day are not from what I saw. Those memories are a blur, and seem almost drab, unremarkable, when compared with the now-infamous images of the second plane flying into the South Tower, or of the North Tower collapsing in a chrysanthemum cloud of debris.
“Up and down Church Street, a gray dust was settling,” I wrote in my journal in late January 2002, nearly five months later. “Papers were flashing white against the blue sky. They were lying thick on the ground. There were little nuts and bolts, tiny pieces of — aircraft? building? And shoes. People had run right out of their shoes.”
I had headed to the World Trade Center after hearing that an airplane had hit one of the towers, but was in the subway, underground, when the second plane struck. Staring at the burning towers, I could not figure out how one plane could have caused all that damage. It took a few minutes before I even thought to ask the people around me.
“I knew people were jumping,” my journal entry continues. “Three men, standing near the southeast corner of Church and Fulton, told me that. ‘At first I thought they were dolls, but they were people. Some flapped their hands like they were flying!’ said one stunned man, who was watching them sail by his conference room window in the 4 WTC building.”
Had I remained standing there with them, at that intersection, for another 20 minutes, I would have been engulfed in the debris from the falling South Tower just two blocks away. I left to find a pay phone. I ended up just walking back to the radio station, the only reporter in a newsroom that had been evacuated. When the South Tower fell, I watched it on TV. I felt our building tremble.
I thought, “Wow, a lot of people just died,” but that was all the reaction I could muster. And this is one of the many pieces of 9/11 that still stick to my insides, like shards of a rearview mirror.
I should have felt something, I think. I should have charged my cellphone. I should have grasped the situation faster. I should have interviewed more people, should have remembered to ask their names and their phone numbers, so I could check up on them.
I should have done a better job. I could have helped more people, served our listeners better.
I don’t like to talk about this. It seems self-absorbed. I have been content to let the day slide into history. Time, and distance from New York City, have allowed me to let 9/11 be just another day, in the same way that Dec. 7, the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, is.
But I was there on 9/11. I owe it to myself and my country to remember.
This year, I read my journal. I paged through our now-yellowed copy of Sept. 12, 2001, issue of The New York Times. I hung red, white and blue bunting from the rafters of my porch. I wrote this column.
Natalie Goldberg never said whatever happened to the yogi as he digested the car, only that he ate it. The sharpness in my gut never goes away. And maybe it shouldn’t.
Reach Amy Eddings at 567-242-0379 or on Twitter, @lima_eddings.