Not surfing on 9/11
- September 11, 2001 changed the world as we knew it, more so for New Yorkers who witnessed it first hand
Sep 12, 2017-A large but widely ignored presence in New York City on the eve of Sept. 11, 2001, was Hurricane Erin, its cyclonic swirl starkly visible in weather maps like an ominous asterisk just off the coast. Two groups noticed: meteorologists, who mentioned the storm in passing, if at all, in news reports; and surfers, who chattered breathlessly about it.
The meteorologists were blasé because at no point in its journey from the tropics had Hurricane Erin threatened to make landfall, except briefly as it brushed past Bermuda, and it was now poised to be blown out to sea by a powerful cold front. But the same winds that would be flushing the storm away from land would also be grooming the big waves that it had been steadily producing in its crawl up the East Coast. This was to be a once-in-a-decade swell. Surfers were, as they say, “frothing.”
That these glorious waves would be arriving on a Tuesday, a workday morning, was a problem but hardly an insoluble one. Like many other surfers in the area, I planned to call in sick. In my case, however, this was complicated by my having recently been named director of the writing program at the college in Brooklyn where I taught. Tuesday, Sept. 11, was the first day of classes.
I had scheduled myself to teach the main writing seminar taken by freshmen, which met at 10 a.m. When I pictured these eager new arrivals reading the sign posted on the classroom door announcing my absence, then turning away in disappointment, yes, I felt guilty—but nowhere near so guilty as not to cancel class. A class, after all, could be made up later in the semester; a once-in-a-decade swell was an evanescent natural miracle of sorts. I wanted to make a good first impression, a solid directorial debut, but I wanted to go surfing more.
Thus the disruptive power of surfing, which exerts an allegiance to itself and a faithlessness to the rest of the world that is capable of ending romantic relationships and terminating gainful employment at the rise of a swell. If I had never learned to surf, Tuesday would have dawned like any other workday and I would have fulfilled my teacherly duties ignorant of the oceanic joy on offer.
But I had learned to surf—in the Vietnam era, in Florida. I was a surfer before I was a writer or a teacher of writing, before, in a sense, I was a citizen. In the surf is where I feel most at home, most alive, most at peace. I remember as a boy looking back at shore from the lineup on a day of good waves, at the houses and stores, the cars passing along the beach road. How foreign it seemed, how little I cared about its striving and admonitions.
On that Tuesday morning in 2001, I stood at my living room window and watched impatiently for the arrival of my surf buddy in his car. We had been making the journey out to Long Beach, on Long Island, together for years. He was dropping his daughter off at nursery school, then driving over to my neighborhood to pick me up. But it was 8:45 a.m. and my friend was supposed to have arrived at 8:30. I was trying not to think about the waves we were missing—a grinding anguish that is the dark side of surfing’s sunny insouciance.
I lived in a faculty house on the edge of campus. Students were now streaming past on their way to 9 o’clock classes, colleagues and administrators pulling into the parking lot in their cars. When my friend finally rolled up, I would have to carry my surfboard through this throng. Nothing says “I’m blowing off work” like strapping a board to the roof of a car. But there was no helping that.
I was half-listening to the local public radio station as I waited. An announcement came over the air about some kind of incident at the World Trade Center. Then the FM signal went out. My wife eventually found the station on AM. A witness was reporting having seen a plane fly low across the city and into one of the towers. We turned on the TV to find an image of a tower with gray smoke pouring from an enormous gash high up, like a fatal head wound.
Years before, I had worked in the World Trade Center, on the 82nd floor, teaching English to Japanese businessmen. I’d had to change elevators on the way up, like transferring on the subway. I could remember the sunlight coming in through the narrow windows. To see this tower burning was like looking back at the shore on that day of good waves in my youth, when I found civilian life so foreign. Only this time I could see myself there. I was up there in the sheer, pitiless air of the 82nd floor.
The phone rang. It was my friend. He said he had noticed the smoke in the sky after dropping his daughter off at nursery school. When he got back to his house, he went up to the roof and saw a long streak of smoke with bits of white glitter in it—office paper, he realized. It led all the way back to the tower. He was weeping as he told me.
Then the second plane hit.
The college canceled classes. I walked over to my class and told my students in person, as if I had had every intention of teaching. I had little else to say. I was too stunned. They went up to the roofs of the campus buildings; I went home. Later, I heard their shouts as first one then the other tower collapsed.
The next day there were small leftover waves from the hurricane swell. I did what I usually do when I’ve lost my bearings: I headed for the ocean, driving out to Long Beach on my own. I was thinking about stories I had read on the internet about surfers who had called in sick to jobs at places like Cantor Fitzgerald and lived. I took a wrong turn and wound up on one of the ring roads of Kennedy Airport. When I realized my mistake, I tried to make a U-turn. A cluster of plainclothes policemen staking out the intersection angrily waved me down, leaning into the windows of my car to ask why I turned around when I saw them.
“I got lost,” I said. I pointed at my board where it lay in the back. “I’m just trying to go surfing.”
—©2017 The New York Times
Published: 12-09-2017 08:23