Terrorism, Religion, and Me

I went to a black hat yeshiva for high school, a boarding school, in fact, where Talmud study wasn’t just emphasized at the expense of secular studies, but largely replaced those classes altogether. I decided, to my rabbis’ great chagrin, to attend a secular university, SUNY Buffalo. That decision was also a decision to leave Judaism, but that process proved slower and more complicated than I’d expected. It isn’t easy to leave the cloistered faith that has defined one’s identity right up until age eighteen. I graduated college with little ambition other than to write. My writing focused on religion.

Because finance is the steel mills of NYC, and because I am not independently wealthy, I landed, haphazardly in that industry. Gradually, I worked my way from being a temp to managing a retirement product line for OppenheimerFunds, then located in Tower Two of the World Trade Center. All the while, I continued writing fiction, but my fiction lacked a kind of focus. My themes were religious, but I couldn’t put my finger on what was at stake for my characters. Meanwhile, to get fit, I decided to start cycling to work (I lived in Inwood, and the greenway along the Hudson River made the commute manageable).

When I commuted by train, I was invariably late to work. But, when I cycled, I had to arrive early enough to shower and change. And, so, on my third day of rdiding a bicycle to work, September 11, 2001, I surprised my more regularly punctual coworkers by riding the elevator to the thirty-fourth floor in spandex at 8:30 a.m. While I dried off from my shower, the emergency PA system sounded. Great, I thought, a fire drill, and I’m naked. Except that it wasn’t a drill, and it wasn’t just a fire. It was a frantic plea to occupants of Tower Two to stay put. Tower Two, they said, is a secure area. So, I dried off, got dressed, put my bike clothes, cell phone, and sneakers in a locker, and went down to my desk.

From the 34th floor windows, I couldn’t see what was wrong with Tower One. I could that office paper blanketed the roof of the Marriott as if there’d been a tickertape parade. All of my coworkers were gone – I assumed to a better vantage from which to watch whatever drama was unfolding – I still thought that the plane in question was a doctor-killer, a Cessna or some such, not a commercial airliner commandeered by terrorists.

Fortunately, a coworker who was the designated fire warden, Phil Whitkower, found me at my desk. He told me to evacuate. The rest of my company, many of whom had worked there in 1993, were long gone, which was probably why OppenheimerFunds was the largest company in the WTC to not lose any employees. I asked Phil whether I should take the stairs or the elevator. He told me to take the stairs. In the stairwell, I first began to realize that things were really wrong. I joined a group of broker-trainees from the fiftieth floor (I think they were Morgan employees, but I don’t really remember). I chatted with a very freaked out man from Georgia who was in NYC for the first time. He swore he’d never return. I joked that Tower One always had worse luck: look at ’93 for example. At which point, which I was just a few steps above the twenty-eighth floor landing, they hit our building. The tower rocked violently, a huge cloud of dust rose beneath us – enough hat many worried gthat a bomb had gone off below us – and the building corrected at a slight list.

Irrationally, I fell back on the PA announcement that my tower was a secure area. I’ll just get off on the twenty-eighth floor, I thought. It’s safe there; I don’t have to keep walking. Obviously, I kept walking. I got out unscathed and went on to work for Oppy for another two years before leaving to pursue a PhD at the University of Utah.

However, that moment of wanting to stop walking down the stairs and leave the stairwell clarified something for my writing.  Though I’ve used fancier language to describe the paradox that defines my characters’ worlds, that visceral moment of disbelief and fear, the refusal to acknowledge the announcement on the PA – the voice of authority, the word of God – is wrong, cannot offer protection, defines my characters’ crises. In my books, that moment has been both cause and consequence of terrorism.