Fifteen years later, we remember 9/11 with a prose poem written in 2001 by L.A. journalist and musician Solvej Schou, reverberating with the grief, confusion and sadness she felt while living in Williamsburg, New York.
The Manhattan skyline was clear.
I could see the Empire State Building
To the right, the Chrysler Building
I looked left, across from Williamsburg, across to lower Manhattan, and saw nothing.
I had danced at Windows on the World to 1960s go-go music and rock ‘n’ roll
The first enormous stack of lights on the way back from JFK
Now all I could see from my rooftop was a floating cloud of gray smoke.
Williamsburg was calm.
Kids playing on South 4th Street
No soundtrack for tragedy here.
Brett said he saw the second plane crash
He looked up into the sky
Saw a fat jumbo jet run straight into the side of the first building
Clean, like a knife through cake.
Patrick, my roommate’s boyfriend, woke me up at 9:45 a.m.
He pounded on my door, and I pulled myself out of sleep to hear him say it
I didn’t believe him, thought he was kidding as usual
I’d had nightmares about this, a dream similar to war, when an earthquake shakes Manhattan
Or, in this case, two buildings larger than mountains — quick — disappear.
Patrick and I went up to the roof
My hair greased sideways, chest and legs loosely covered
Smoke stretched from Manhattan, over the water, to Park Slope, to Brooklyn
It was black, long
It covered the sky
I wanted to throw up.
I reached Frosty hours later
She was as okay as someone could be, seeing the sky fall
She had been in Brooklyn the past two days.
Manhattan seemed so far away, so close, like death.
Frosty had stepped off the subway as the first plane hit the tower. She went toward her work, 7 World Trade Center, not knowing what happened, what to do. Another plane sliced into the second tower, burst into flames. Frosty ducked into a liquor store, started heading north. At Canal, the two buildings collapsed, and people filled the streets. She crossed the Williamsburg Bridge by foot, ran home to her boyfriend, Gian Carlo, to her records, her bass guitar, her life. I called her, hysterical, and Frosty told me how good it felt to drink her sixth beer.
This war felt unreal because I didn’t see it begin.
I only knew the pictures on TV, the second-by-second footage
My friends in Manhattan, safe
As safe as one could feel, as the country broke in half.
I could have been on Wall Street, temping at a financial company, running, screaming
Looking up and seeing people drop out of windows.
The couple with collapsed hands, jumping, jumping into silence, relief.
This was an image on TV, the initiation of what was coming.
When your physical world inverts and becomes an extension of your mind
When a movie-perfect dream evolves into a nightmare
And the image of reality reflects back your mind. The line becomes diffused.
I knew what I should live for, and for whom
I knew I was completely alone, and at the same time, not
My resources as an individual exhausted.
The squeal of kids shrieking past me, trampling grass, squishing flowers
Wreaking havoc on concrete, but knowing freedom of their bodies
One kid screamed, “I’m a monster!”
But the reality of play is pretend fear
Yellow toy guns
Mimicking TV, Jackie Chan, that man-boy patriotism of bloodless violence.
I went down to Ground Zero with Melissa last Tuesday
Before they declared the victims dead, not merely lost.
We walked down Broadway, took the W train to Canal
Past that would be a straight ride to Brooklyn.
The smell hit me first
Metallic, the smell of steel and rot. Tangible enough to taste.
I could feel it on my tongue.
My head hurt as we walked closer to the site
Melissa had asthma, and wondered about the glass and metal we were breathing in
Particles of dust and death.
The firemen in their suspended gray pants, like football uniforms
I thought of children’s books, the fireman who saves your cat from a tree. A hero.
Streets blocked off, a cop checking IDs
He flirted about our dyed hair, red streaks sadly hip at the time.
The skeleton rose up like a modern sculpture, twisted grid of window frames
Each block revealed more, and each block closed off by buses, wooden barricades
I took my camera, but couldn’t bring myself to buy film
How could I document this?
An image would be false, another voyeuristic screen.
The stream of people around us craned their necks to the mess two blocks away
I couldn’t find the words.
Block one revealed the Barnes & Noble sign, still intact
Even layers of dust couldn’t hide the storefront’s lasting reminder
A building once rose 110 stories above this
You could squint and almost see it, shimmering like a ghost, condensed space, a dream
Five floors of window frames streaming up
Windows blown out, a dense honeycomb, black.
Block two grew abstract.
What remained of the second tower bent around itself
Hitting the 3:30 p.m. daylight almost pristine, a clean swoop of steel siding
A surreal image, a memorial already.
This is what a building does when it dies
It becomes a shell, gutted out beyond its use
Empty of life, or full of death.
Melissa and I didn’t speak
Nothing to say, everything not to say
We walked back through the financial district
Through narrow streets of shoe stores and liquor marts open and dusty
Ready for business.
Gas masks, the air thick with this smell, plunged down your nose, into your lungs
Bitter, acrid, invisible.
We wandered because we couldn’t think
Heads hurting, soft skulls, soft skin
Vulnerable to anything.
Impossible to realize without experience.
We climbed down, gratefully, to the 6 train
Escaped back to our dazed semblance of reality. The city above.
We stopped off in SoHo, returned to Williamsburg
Grateful again to be away, across the river, imagined “safe.”
I could feel the smell every time I breathed in.
Nili suggested I coat my nose with Tiger Balm
The menthol stench broke through.
I sat on the living room couch
Breathing in, breathing through,
Trying to relive and know that I could smell
That I was alive
That I must know that, if anything.
Days that bled, leaked into one another until day and night collapsed
Time arced into slow turns
I pulled myself out of bed, unready to abandon soft dreams, fantasies of normalcy
I looked at my clock. 12:30 p.m.
I would sleep more, return to picture wombs and streaks of color
Floating like beach balls, a smiling mouth, a horse, a plane.
After terror, TV, The New York Times, headaches, nausea
I wanted to sleep, forget my heaviness, aching breasts, thick legs
I hugged my pillow like a person, like my grandma, my comfort friend
Dribbled spit onto previous stains.
Solvej Schou is an L.A.-based writer, musician and journalist, and Hollywood native. Her work has appeared in The Associated Press, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among many other outlets. She has been writing poetry and short stories, and singing and songwriting, since childhood. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from Barnard College and a master’s degree in journalism from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. To find out more about her, visit her website at www.solvejschou.com, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.