“It was like a big rumble – first I thought another train had just passed, but then after a few minutes, the rumble just got greater and greater. Shit, Dimitri, I was less than two stops away from being turned into human sawdust.” Arnie Goldstein, Dimitri’s brother-in-law, a Princeton professor and thoracic surgeon specializing in pulmonary trauma, had invited the family to his six-bedroom, four-bath Toll Brothers mansion in Hamilton for Rosh Hashanah dinner. Dimitri usually arrived last at family gatherings, and was first to leave. His father, Maksim, still could barely say a full sentence to Dimitri without mentioning his disappointment as an immigrant parent on the choices Dimitri had made. This time, because Arnie had made a point of befriending Dimitri while engaged to Dimitri’s sister, Dimitri came early in order to spend some man-time, free of the status differences between them.
“Yeah, I had a prep first period. The kids in my second period are always the hardest, because they’re the Russian and Ukrainian kids. They know I’m Russian, so all they want to do is jabber on in Russian with me. So I’m sitting at my desk, trying to get some materials together to try to keep these guys from going off on – “
Dimitri slowly became cognizant that he had just disrespected his brother-in-law’s near death experience for a full fifteen seconds and…
“Arnie, you were WHERE!?”
“Yeah, Canal Street, headed south. Another two minutes and I’d have been rubble.
“JEEEEzus!! What happened!?”
“The lights go down, flicker, then off. At first, I say, Damn. I am not going to make it.”
“I had an appointment with a partner at Cantor Fitzgerald. He wanted to look at my research for stenting a collapsed lung for commercial viability. I think I mentioned that when I was at your parents’ house for Passover.”
“Right. That was one of the few things I remember. You know how much I like those gatherings.”
“Give ‘em a break, Dim. You really never know what might happen.” Arnie’s half-hatched dodo of a thought needed no completion. Not this New Year. Not this September. As Rabbi Amnon of Mayence said about the Book of Life – and Death, “the seal of every man’s hand is set thereto.”
Arnie continued as Dimitri looked pensive – and oddly receptive.
“I never thought of what a cocoon the subway is. You just check out of the world, cocksure you are going to emerge – like Jonah and the whale.”
“From Hebrew school. You know, the whale picks you up in the maelstrom and uncertainty of Manhattan life, and then it vomits you out on dry land, hopefully safe and sound, right where you should be. Not this time.”
Dimitri inched to the very front of the taupe fluted leather Chippendale chair in Arnie’s drawing room. With his elbows on his knees and his jaw resting on his fist, he looked for all the world like Rodin’s sculpture, “The Thinker.”
“When the lights went out, and the subway stopped, I was thinking only of what the suits at Cantor Fitzgerald would think about me showing up late. The whale never sleeps. You can make an appointment anywhere in Manhattan at 4:30 am. The next thing I remember was the blue glow of all the cell phones. Rows of blue rectangles. Then, a buzz of consternation.”
“Right, duh. If you just can’t get a signal in the beast’s belly at a random train stop on a good day, what made us think that we were going to get any action out of our devices in an emergency? Someone did it – a conductor, I think – the woman made the announcement in our car to pay attention to her voice only in this car. She instructed us to save our batteries, and turn the cell phones off, because we were safe where we were, and that she would bring the news to us as soon as she got any. She had the wisdom to suggest that we get to know each other, The woman must have known something. She suggested we tell our seatmates or fellow straphangers what work we did in seven words or fewer.”
“So what did you say?”
“I came up with something like, ‘pop balloons in lungs to heal walls.”
“I bet that one crossed some eyeballs.”
“May have, but I couldn’t see. Nobody could. I thought that it would be a good idea to follow up by asking people questions, but all they wanted to hear about were my balloons. The I. P. lawyers at Princeton – I. P. means “intellectual property” – buzzed in my ears, you know, if I release the information into the public domain, I can’t get rich off it, but I told them anyway. One of the passengers, I guess a college student at NYU, created a good laugh when she called it “a condom that goes down the wrong way!”
“Did you tell her you’d copyright that line if she didn’t do it first?”
“Good one, Dim. The weird thing is that it started a discussion of different ways to die – like a kind of gallows humor. Sex and death. I mean, it was sick! Sick, but funny. I think that the whole car picked up on the theme. I overheard the blessed, “I want to pass out of consciousness in bed with my beloved,” to the sick, “I saw this cartoon once that had someone beheading his boss in a file drawer and sticking a bunch of daisies in the empty neck.”
“Too bad someone didn’t have a recorder on. Or maybe they did.”
“If so, you’ll be able to find it on the Internet soon enough. It’s amazing what people will say when they’re contemplating the end.”
“My students would love it. Maybe I’ll teach a lesson on black humor. I might even ask Mom if she remembers any in Russian.”
“Ask your dad instead. Your mom seems way too polite.”
Dimitri fidgeted at the thought.
“How long did you sit in darkness like that? How was the air?
Arnie lifted his head ever so gently, slightly, as if to remember the olfactory sensations of the day.
“Funny you would ask that. I expected to notice a slight staleness of the air as time passed, but quickly I saw people taking Kleenex out and sniffling or sneezing. I didn’t think that we were under attack at that moment, but I guessed that a part of the subway had collapsed. Then I thought about all the redundant construction techniques in there, and I thought, “Naaah. No way. An airplane could hit the Amsterdam Gardens and the people in the subway would feel a shock, but that’s it. No breach. I read a briefing once that covered that kind of accident.
“So I stopped thinking about above-ground accidents, and started wondering about a bomb. You remember the last time they tried to bomb the Towers, right?
“I was in Israel at the time.”
“Well, ever since then, I’ve been looking for a truck bomb to go off in the Lincoln Tunnel. A hundred million PSI of the Hudson River washing away half of Midtown. Now I was sure in my own mind that some Khaled Abu Jihad or somebody had planted a bomb on the subway. I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t want to freak anyone out. I’d be the one who would have to tracheotomize the victim. After a good twenty minutes, our conductor comes back, and confirms what I already knew. She says ‘There’s an explosion up ahead of us that has cut power to the subway. It’s a mess, but MTA has all their towing engines on the job, and all the trains are being towed out of the area. Please stay calm, and wait for more instructions.’
“Well, we weren’t about to jump out the train and wage war against the rats. So there was little to do but sit while our conductor kept whispering to the motorman. Looking back, I can’t believe that I made it out alive.”
Dimitri put his hands on the curved leather wing of the Chippendale chair. He shifted positions, not from boredom, but from dead sensation he was feeling in his legs from the pressure of the edge of the seat on his major blood vessels.
“After a while, we heard a pneumatic gasp from a valve open, which I guessed was the motorman’s door. I looked up, and noticed a spotlight falling out of the front cabin. Recognizing what was happening, I told the other passengers that the motorman had put on an emergency helmet with a spotlight, and he had jumped out of the cabin. Someone suggested he committed suicide. I calmed the moron down, ‘cause I knew he wouldn’t have put a hardhat with an emergency lamp on if he were planning on offing himself.
Dimitri interjected. “So how long did you have to wait until someone said something?”
“You read my mind – again, ” Arnie continued. “Practically before the parabola from the guy’s headlamp stopped, our conductor announced that they had hatched a plan. They were going to shut the emergency brakes, one by one, and assuming the third rail was still live, they were backing up to Canal Street and evacuating from there. I was really concerned about my appointment at this point, so I called above the murmuring, ‘Will there be alternate service to Cortland Street from there?’ She replied that the explosion had shut down the area, and that people were being evacuated from the World Trade Center area.
“What happened next could have been an acoustics experiment in reinforcing and dampening harmonics, because everyone gasped and went, “What happened?!” in the same moment, some loudly, some soft, high, low, but all at once. The conductor had put her hard hat on. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it was pretty good. Like they’d rehearsed this scenario.”
“Well?” Dimitri urged, leaning forward into history.
“She said something like, ‘It’s no surprise to anyone in this car, but something big has occurred. First, our evacuation plan will put you on Canal Street, where you should turn toward the docks. The air is filled with dust and ash, so make sure you have one hand free and something to cover your face. What I know is that the World Trade Center has been hit by a plane, and that one of the towers has collapsed.’
“The buzz on the train now sounded like crowd noise on a sitcom. The conductor repeated that a tower had collapsed, and that burning debris was everywhere. ‘I have been given no further information. I need to know what’s happening too, and I will relay information the moment that I get it and have been cleared to do so. The motorman has reentered the cabin, and we are reversing to the next emergency brake.’ Did I mention that the low hum of a generator served as a soundscape for this insanity?”
“No,” responded Dimitri, “but it would make sense.”
The pause that fell on Arnie’s drawing room felt like a news broadcast over which the camera had lingered just a bit too long. Like everything this week, things just weren’t right. Dimitri did not follow up. Arnie was supposed to go next, but he sat still for a moment, pendant from the moment that just passed and the moment that was to come.
“Well, now the hum increases in pitch – I swear I thought it was coming from inside my head, and maybe everybody felt the same thing. We back up with a start – and then a stop. It doesn’t take much to travel the sixty feet between emergency brakes on the subway. This process repeated five times in all, and then what a sight when we got out at Canal Street! Imagine a snowstorm had hit Manhattan, and you were getting off the subway after drifts of snow had blown down into the subway. Only it wasn’t snow, Dimitri, it was ash.”
Dimitri gasped. “Bozhe fucking moi! It’s like the Towers were two giant crematoria, but they got the gas wrong and blew up the building along with the Jews inside. If it had happened tomorrow, the Black-Hatters would have trumpeted that this was the punishment for the sin of not observing the Lord’s Festivals or something.”
“Yeah, as it was, we felt pretty much like a marching herd of zombies. I guess you could call it a “life march,” instead of a death march. I think the people at MTA were just doing what they had been trained to do, but by my account, they sure did it well. I don’t think they were coordinating with the Coast Guard, but by the time we got out of the ash-trap called a subway entrance, there were two ferries and several riverboats waiting to take us to Bayonne. “