By Victoria Looseleaf
The phone rang at a few minutes before 7 a.m., Los Angeles time. I was in the shower and hadn’t heard it. As usual, my radio had been tuned to KUSC-FM, which only broadcasts classical music and arts-related news. It was just another day.
But it wasn’t.
The phone rang again. It was my sister calling from Cleveland, telling me to turn on the TV. And there it was. Planes hitting the towers. Giant mushroom clouds rising. Panic spreading like the Ebola virus. Replays of the first tower, the North, going down at 8:46 a.m. Now the second, 9:03 a.m. Bodies hurling towards the ground… specks of dust…trying to escape the flames, the fumes, the sheer horror of it all. The horror. Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz had nothing on this.
I didn’t know what to do. What to think. What to feel. My family was not in New York, but many friends were. I tried calling. Couldn’t get through. Then I started calling friends in L.A. One, my psychic masseur, called me. He said we should meet at the French Quarter in West Hollywood. (I know: psychic masseur; that he used to work on dancers, including Nureyev, had nothing to do with the reality or surreality of the day that neither he – nor anyone else – could ever have predicted.)
Have some pancakes and coffee, he said. This seemed insane to me. I went anyway. Ashes were coating New York and I felt like I was walking through my own soot-laden existence. A cloud of gloom. Uncertainty. Abject fear. We were all zombies floating in a collective fog in this normally danger-free zone of a coffee shop.
Couldn’t eat the wild blueberry pancakes. The Beach Boys were spewing from the sound system. Surfer Girl. What was I doing? Gotta go, I said. Back home I tried calling NYC again. To no avail. Decided to go down the street to a friend’s. An actor. Gregarious. Brilliant. Prone to melodrama. This WTC shocker was the real melodrama. Sans the melo. More people began showing up. There was a pool. We didn’t swim. Somebody named Carlo from the Bronx decided to make spaghetti. We put on a Frank Sinatra record – vinyl. It was scratched. We danced around. The end of the world is here. The end of the world as we know it. What else could we do but dance.
Calling NYC again, I managed to get through. Everyone was OK. As far as they knew. It would be days before I learned that a friend who worked in the South Tower was safe. She would eventually suffer a breakdown and never hold down a job again. Then there was American Airlines Flight 77 that flew into the Pentagon; and United Airlines Flight 93 goes down in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. “Let’s roll,” became a new anthem.
We kept dancing. Barbra Streisand’s People. More Frank. Strangers In the Night. I talked to my sister again. It’s strange, because when I lived in New York it was my sister who called from Cleveland to tell me John Lennon had been killed on that awful night in December. Now it was an awful day/night/eternity in September.
September 11, 2001. 9/11. 911.
My brother was a captain with Delta Airlines. We talked about the hijackers and how one had trained at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the same school he attended before enlisting in the Air Force to learn how to fly jets. (My brother had been an anomaly: a Jew in the Air Force.) Several days oozed by. The New York Times began publishing its profoundly moving Portraits of Grief. I couldn’t stop reading. Watching the news. Sobbing. Pat Ast, an erstwhile Warhol star (pictured above with another Warhol icon Joe Dallesandro), would die from diabetes, but mainly grief, in L.A., having learned her dear friend Berry Berenson had been on American Airlines Flight 11 that launched itself into the North Tower like a guided missile. Each day following that day was filled with the same kind of nothingness, a gap that remains unfillable. Unknowable. Unfathomable.
Then there was Gilbert Gottfried’s post-9/11 Hugh Hefner roast three weeks later. “Too soon,” hecklers hissed during his joke about wanting to catch a plane but couldn’t get a direct flight, because “they all stopped at the Empire State building first.”
Irony was dead. I went to New York in December, as I always did, making a wobbly beeline to ground zero. I felt empty. Would we ever all be okay again? My pain was everybody’s pain. It was a primal cry rising up from the great abyss of Why.
We moved on. Or have we? Irony returned. We have the first African-American president. Steve Jobs blankets the world with iPhones. Twitter is king. Facebook brings billions of us together. Wars rage on. Bin Laden is dead. And on this September 11, 2011, I go see Eiko & Koma at the Skirball. They’re performing Water. I’m bringing Kleenex, an open heart and the impenetrable memories of that day. A Tuesday morning in September.