From my apartment’s north-facing windows on the 31st floor, I could see the picture-perfect morning awaiting me. But walking through a school playground to a polling station from my apartment on the far West Side of Manhattan around 6:30 or 7 a.m., I looked up at the sky and said to myself, “What a beautiful day!” It was as if I was seeing the world with high-def eyes. Everything appeared sharper than usual. More beautiful than usual. The cloudless sky was incredibly blue. And the temperature? Well, the temperature was just perfect.
It was Sept. 11, 2001. Primary day in New York City. The first step in the Big Apple’s move from the two operatic terms of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. I was working as a policy adviser to billionaire businessman Mike Bloomberg in what would be his successful quest to succeed Giuliani. After casting my vote, I hailed a cab to our 56th Street campaign office.
In typical Bloomberg fashion, my desk was in a bullpen setting. Windows overlooking 56th Street were to my back. On the wall in front of me was a bank of televisions set on different stations. My office spouse Kathy Cudahy was in her cubicle to my right. Researcher Ethan Davidson’s cubicle faced mine. We were all going about our tasks when I looked up at the monitors and saw something odd.
“Look, the World Trade Center is on fire!” I said.
The rest of the day was a literal nightmare.
We saw the second plane hit the second tower, the South Tower, live on television at 9:03 a.m. We watched the South Tower collapse at 9:59 a.m. We watched the North Tower collapse at 10:28 a.m. We watched the fire roaring at the Pentagon. We saw the plume from the field in Shanksville, Pa.
Bloomberg huddled with senior advisers Patti Harris, Kevin Sheekey, Bill Cunningham and others under a television in his spot one row over from mine. I don’t remember when the question was asked — “Has anyone seen the mayor?” — but when it was, a chill shot through me. New Yorkers had grown accustomed to seeing Giuliani during times of emergency. He was nowhere to be found.
When Giuliani emerged, soot-covered, walking the streets of lower Manhattan, the man who was reviled by New Yorkers on Sept. 10 became “America’s Mayor” on Sept. 11. He was a visible and confident marker of continuity in a world turned upside down and in a nation where President George W. Bush would spend most of the day hopscotching air force bases for his safety before making it back to the White House for an evening address to the nation.
Later that afternoon, on my walk home across town, I got to see from a distance the destruction I’d watched unfold on television. The Twin Towers no longer graced the downtown skyline. Smoke drifted south. And people were everywhere with some semblance of shock, confusion, pain, uncertainty or fear etched into their faces. The city had been attacked. The nation was at war.
But you wouldn’t know it from my apartment windows. From my northern perch, the day appeared as beautiful as it did in the morning. I’ll never forget the serenity and security of that northern view. It reminds me of a fearless city and nation where the sky was the limit on promise and prosperity. And it reminds me of a city and a nation that no longer exist.