Tuesday, September 11, 2012

F&C Rewind: September 11, 2001; A Tale of Three Towers

Musee Rodin, Paris 9/11/01- Photo R. Lhulier

It crept up on me this year, I have to admit.  So many things going on- school starting, the campaign, your life.  The first reminder was a crystal blue sky and slight chill in the air.  Or so I'm told.  I wasn't even in the US on 9/11, but the dichotomy of that beautiful, blue sky and the sheer terror that rained down on it will forever be etched in all Americans' memories who lived it.  

When the anniversary nears, I hear and read words like "dredge up" (as in feelings), "unhealed wound" and other ways of trying to put that day in to context.  We all can attest to the effect it had on us, and for each, the healing process has been at a different pace.  I waited 10 years to put mine on paper.  And when I did, I felt a calm release.  Here is that story.  My hope is that each person has their chance to tell theirs.  It's part of the healing process, and one of the critical things that make us uniquely American.

I'm not going to write anything.  I am gonna write.  I'm not going to write something.  No- I am.  I should.  No:  I'm not.  As the days counted down closer and closer to this Tenth Anniversary of September 11, I felt the grim milestone inch nearer and the pull of its weight like 110 floors of concrete and steel.  It would be naive to say I was profoundly struck by what I had witnessed and felt on the day of September 11, 2001.  Because, all Americans were.  But, just like the days following the attacks, we had to seek the therapy that came with telling where we were when it happened.  Ten years later, we feel the same stirrings- viceral and wholly unnerving- to relive those feelings, whether we want to or not.  So, I've decided to write.
My mother and brother share a birthday.  On the morning of September 6, 2001, I called to wish them well on their day and finished packing my bags.  I left Philadelphia early that evening on a flight to meet up with my two traveling companions and good friends, Dan and Kasia, for a 10 day vacation to the city I had always dreamed of seeing in person.  I had spent the month leading up to that day watching live webcam shots of the Eiffel Tower throughout various stages of the day- sunrise, sunset, rain storms, fog, lights on, lights off- I was enraptured.  

Courtesy of SketchPlease.com
From the moment I landed in Paris, I began to search for my precious icon.  When I finally spotted her in the morning rush hour traffic from my cab, I didn't take my eyes off of her until the morning of September 16 when I left.  In the city that twists and turns and climbs and falls, there are no straight streets.  But, once you've positioned in your mind the location of the Tower on a map of the city, you can get your bearings in the instant you spot the spindly, iron landmark.  It was most comforting.  I felt no fear or apprehension walking the city, day or night.  It was like having a second sun on the horizon.  Always at your side, warming to your skin, nudging you through the shadowy streets.

It made sense, then, that it wasn't until I had been in Paris five whole days before actually making my official visit to the Eiffel Tower.  I had lots of time and she wasn't going anywhere. 

In the shadow of le Tour Eiffel~ Photo R. Lhulier
We had spent the days leading up to that ill fated day gregariously embracing the gustatory history of the city.  Each meal was spent discussing where the next one might come from.  So many bites and sips were taken with eyes at half mast, it felt every bit like the final minutes of a dream you never want to awaken from.  And as I now know, that's exactly what it was.  

But, as dreams fade, memories last.

Marble Study~ Photo R. Lhulier

What was a crisp, blue September morning for this side of the Atlantic, was a greying Tuesday afternoon for us.  We three decided to visit the Rodin Museum near Les Invalides, the glistening gold-domed Hotel of museums and monuments that was a former military hospital. And, which happens to be a short, but spirited walk away from le Tour Eiffel.  Dan and Kasia had already made their pilgrimage a day earlier and decided to spend the afternoon strengthening the French economy by visiting the world famous shops of the area around l'Arc de Triomphe. And why not?  It was Dan's birthday today. 

As we approached the high-walled Musee Rodin and gardens, the day took on an austere quality.  In retrospect, it was the perfect weather to do the museum.  Afterall, it's hard to concentrate on paintings, marble and bronze when golden sunlight is streaming through the windows.  

I started on the ground floor looking through the sketches and small bronzes, instantly recognizing so much of what I had studied in school.  Rodin's human figures were the most real for me.  No vaunted, ideal, bigger than life beings- just gorgeously sculpted muscles and bones beneath a thin skin of marble and bronze.  I don't recall any floors in between the ground and top, just that when I reached the top, I was struck with an urge to stay for as long as possbile, alternating between the life-sized studies and peering at the lush gardens, which I could now see spralling out in all directions, the city not far behind.   

I began to shoot.
Marble Study 2~ Photo R. Lhulier

Walking around sclupture gives you a sense of the real.  But, framing a figure with a lens helps put those figures in perspective and can make them a bit dreamier.  Or nightmareish.   I moved between Rodin's impossibly silken-skinned figures rendered in grey marble with arched backs, tilted necks and delicate limbs- and the lurching, twisted, tortured faces of his studies for The Gates of Hell.  Clenched fists, taught triceps and gaping mouths of sorrow, despair and pain.  

Gates Detail~ Photo Ken M Photography

I kept shooting.

Bronze Study~ Photo R. Lhulier

The walls started to feel closer now.  And the crowd was thinning as we approached the early afternoon.  I went out into the gardens.  Almost empty, I took a deep breath and let my camera rest at my side.  If you're an audiophile like myself, you always carry a messenger bag when traveling to keep a discman and selection of changes on hand.  I had done some recent music shopping, too.  Aqua Bassino is an electronic band who produce atmospheric instrumental and vocal music.  Their just released album "Beats and Bobs" was in my player at the time, and I decided to walk, my soundtrack at my side.  Its tracks are all over the map, musically, but Moonlight (listen below) was playing while I strolled the gardens.
How is it, you say, that you can recall what was playing at that time?  

Well- listen to it.  It's profoundly reflective and haunting.  It's a soundtrack for sadness.

It is said we can detect when "big" things are about to happen.  Even feel that something is happening while it unfolds without knowing that it is.  I remember what it was I was listening to, therefore, because as I sat in disbelief a full 24 hours later, it struck me that the song that played in those lonely gardens would stay with me until my final hours knowing what was unfolding (or about to) at the exact same time some 4,000 miles away.  It even feels tragic.  A story unfolding, a slow montage of wiping and fading images, telling a terrible tale of epic proportions.

I was done with Rodin.  It was time to get on with my day.  And, as I looked over my shoulder, there she was.  It was time, at last.  

Different music, different attitude, different walk.  I was on my way to see the Tower up close.  

As you approach, she becomes more exhilarating, her web of iron beams woven into a constantly changing lattice of steely, sensual beauty.  I spun around as I reached the underside of the Tower, snapping pictures furiously, giddy with pleasure.  The mall before her stretched northward toward the Trocadero, a popular gathering spot for viewing and taking full scale photos of the Tower.

Courtesy of FulcrumGallery.com
There was a tremendous buzz of activity at the foot of the steps at the plaza.  It was a gathering of people from what seemed to be every nation on earth.  All races, colors and creeds- hugging, posing for pictures, arms entwined, laughing and smiling.  Jugglers, musicians, and hacky sack.  It was magnificent.  After I shot a dozen or so photos, a young girl asked if I wanted my photo taken.  It seemed indulgent, but I was completely caught up in the touristy moment and said, "yes".  I wasn't really prepared for my photo to be taken, but ready or not, it was.  It was approximately 3:30 pm, Paris time.  The photo serves as my "moments before it happened" portrait.
The Carousel at the base of the Eiffel Tower~ Photo R. Lhulier

I was feeling really energized and happy.  We would be meeting back at the apartment in a little while for some Champagne, perhaps a little nap, and then off to celebrate Dan's birthday in style.  I walked all the way from the 7th, back to our flat in the 4th and eyed up a little boutique that cut hair just around the block.  On a completely spontaneous whim, I ducked in and asked for a haircut.  

I was ready for a change.  

Normally, English is spoken all over Paris, but my little shoppe was inhabited by all Parisians.  And in Paris, if you don't strike up a conversation with someone, they'll just assume you aren't interested in any light banter (quite the opposite of US cities).

There were only two chairs in the salon, so there was a bit of a wait for a walk-in. Carefree and my mind on our evening, I thumbed through a magazine from my bag and didn't pay attention to anyone else.  Finally, it was my turn.  I began with a quick wash, and when I sat in the proprietor's chair, le jig was up:  I was an American.  I had to explain what I wanted done, so in my worst broken French, I used a combination of Charades-like hand motions and "snipping" sound effects, punctuated with "un peu" and "un petit peu" to explain.  As he began to cut, I started to tense a little.  Just then, a very voluptuous and stylishly dressed Madame came in, flitting around nervously and speaking very quickly in French.  Again- sometimes I'd tune it out when I didn't need to listen- and so I wasn't.  But the word "American" kept slipping into the conversation catching my attention, and my curiosity was peaked.  My cutter kept darting his eyes back to me in the mirror, and mine to him and back to her.  

"You have heard what has happened, monsieur? In New York?"
"Umm- no?" I squeaked.
Madame was next.  "It eez terrible- two airplanes- they have crashed into zee towers, and they come all the way down- all the way down."  Whether or not she uttered the word Pentagon was completely superfluous, because I was now fixated on whether she was a crackpot, or telling the terrible, horrible truth.
"Yes- this is true", said my guy.  

At this point, my entire body locked up and my eyes shot to my ashen face in the mirror, wondering how much longer this haircut could possibly take.  As the snipping continued, I began to feel the blood drain out of my limbs, straight through my feet.  My palms were sweaty, and I couldn't fathom what it was that had really happened and why, to say nothing of the real magnitude.  

What seemed like the longest 25 minutes of my entire life, was finally over.  I paid what I now believe to be $75 for my haircut and burst out the door.  I feverishly ran through the curving streets that only days earlier might have taken me an hour to navigate.  I began looking around at the people on the street, sitting in cafes, walking, talking on their phones and to each other. They all knew what had happened- except for me.  

I ran faster.

Down the Rue du Bourg Tibourg , passed the Lizard Lounge and up to the heavy door, I pushed hard and stumbled to the lift.  As I got to the door, I burst in looking for a familiar face and found Dan sitting on the couch, putting on his shoes.

"Did you see? Did you hear?? Dan- Dan- put on the TV!"

The first images were of a city street strewn with fluttering papers and thick clouds of dark dust.  There were pictures within pictures on the screen, and I could see emergency vehicles, scrambling people and jittery camera shots.  A beautiful wide image of New York City sky was muddied by billowing black smoke, and then- right there, where the two most iconic of all American buildings once stood, there was nothing but blue sky and smoke. 

The replay showed in succession the toppling of the south tower and then the north.  I held one hand to my mouth and the other instinctively reached for Dan's knee as I uttered, "No.  Noo.  Oh, my God, Dan, no."  
The Next Day: A State of War~ Photo R. Lhulier

In France, we had the unique opportunity of seeing footage of the first plane hitting the first tower. If you recall from the miles of coverage, the only footage shot of the first plane was from a team of French film makers doing a movie on fire fighters in New York.  That footage belonged to them- and was subsequently transmitted back to the stations in France. In it the beautiful clear sky and towers are framed in the rear, the cameraman completely unaware of what was about to happen.  When the plane hit, it made a loud "POP", and the camera shook a little.  Smoke began to immediately pour out the sides.  

The footage then cut to the moments after the towers fell.  By then the brothers had turned their cameras to the streets beneath the shroud of ashes and smoke, a place that would forever be known as Ground Zero.  That's when it got surreal.  No movie or news footage ever looked as ominous or desolate as the images being broadcast.  Men in business suits, still holding their briefcases, doused in soot, stumbled the streets along side dazed rescue workers.  Bloodied women fought to keep ashes and tears from their eyes.  Glass everywhere.  And the paper continued to fall. 

It wasn't until we saw the next round of footage that we "heard" about the Pentagon and saw it burning.  

We had to get out and get information, we needed to get the story.  We went where we had gone just about every day since arriving, to the local internet cafe.  The tiny storefront was lined with Americans who had pulled up real-time footage and headlines as they developed.  Some were crying, some were dumbfounded.  All were petrified.  The picture was beginning to sharpen:  4 planes, terrorists, scrambled jets, a missing president, New York, DC, Pennsylvania, and always, the replay of that second jet hitting the tower.  

The only way to reach anyone in the States was through the internet.  And at that time, most people were using the wholesome community of AOL for chatting and email.  Phones were so jammed with calls, they didn't work until the next day.  When we signed on, no one- and I mean no one- was answering their chat.  We finally reached a friend who promised to pass on to our families that we were "ok". 

As we resumed a slow, dogged pace back to the apartment, we spoke little as the facts were settling in.

The world had changed.  In an instant.  There was no going back, and it would never be the same again.

We ducked into the Lizard Lounge across from our flat, owned and operated by American expats.  Our Champagne was replaced by big glasses of vodka over ice.  We talked of what was next.  What could we do with the little resources we had, this far away from home.  On Thursday of that week, we were supposed to leave Paris and head to the Loire valley for a wine tour for the rest of our stay.  That plan was quickly scrapped.  Would travel be disrupted?  Would flights be cancelled?  How long would we be "stuck" here (if there is such a thing as being stuck in Paris)?  Were we at war, and if so, with whom?  I don't remember exactly what else we talked about except one thing:  sitting in front of the television or computer wasn't going to change anything.  We were going to go out and celebrate Dan's birthday. 

The Metro and stops along the way to the hotel where we would eat was empty, and suddenly, it was easy to get a cab on the street.  The entire time prior to today, we three had done our absolute best to fit in among the French- using our French whenever we could, double-kissing, trying distinctly regional foods and drink, and buying clothing and eyeglass frames with a particularly Gallic feel to them.  Tonight, however, we decided to be the people we were:  unique, diverse and resilient Americans.  And, hungry ones.  

The appetite returned, the vodka kicked in, and we began to do what any red-blooded American would have done in our situation:  we made fun of and mocked our snooty French waiter.  After all, he was being a complete turd to us, so we let him have it- and we laughed and laughed over our opulent dinner.  We even managed to drag the young busboy/fromager over to our side, as he became clearly aware of what we were doing.  He managed to get in a jab or two at his maitre de salle in English. We had made a friend out of a stranger, and without his pity.

As we caught a cab back, we sat silently, drinking in the beautiful colors and amber lights of the city.  I kept a close eye on my now-illuminated, golden companion in the distance, her vigilant search light skimming the low-hanging clouds.  This was to be no dream I would awaken from.  And- yes, there was no going back.  We all lost something that day, some significantly more than others.  But, I was one of the lucky ones.  For even though we had just met, I would go to sleep knowing she was there, watching over me. 

And, it made it somehow a little easier to dream that night.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


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