Writing: 9/11 Essay, “Aloft”

This essay came about as the result  of an assignment while I was at the BreadLoaf Writer’s Conference in 2002. I took a Creative Non-Fiction workshop that year and was very fortunate to have the wonderful Terry Tempest Williams as my workshop leader –Terry is an incredible writer, outstanding teacher, & all-round terrific person. Her assignment to us was “write about 9/11 without actually mentioning it.” I think this is the best thing I’ve ever written, and a good friend & writer described it as ‘very nearly a perfect essay.’ As this person was very hard to please (& was a huge part of my life at the time), this praise has stayed with me as a warm and meaningful little glow, down deep. He also used it in his graduate Creative Writing classes, which yet gives me a lingering starburst of pride.

I’ve had several people express doubts about various things described in the piece, like the wedding proposal or whether I really walked that far. I was a tremendous walker in those days, and everything did happen as described, including my anonymous (and tragically disappointed) Italian suitor. The five days I spent in New York that spring remain astonishingly vivid, like a particularly wonderful dream; I even spent an afternoon of perfect weather riding a rented horse through Central Park –and the traffic jams to and from it from underground stables. And the day I relive in the piece was positively magical; overworked though that word is, it’s the only one that truly fits.

Anyway, when Terry gave us the assignment she was met with groans & blank looks, but it was a mark of her genius that it produced some great pieces. Thank you, Terry, and I hope you haven’t been stuck with so much green, for so long, again.

(copyright kelly howard)



I tried, at first, to go the the top of the Empire State Building.

It was a gorgeous morning in May of 1999, the sky clearer and bluer than I had been led to believe it could ever be in New York City. I wanted to see the City from up high and the sense of history from the Empire State was richer than that of another, albeit higher, vantage point. As a teenager, I spent many hours with old Life magazines, looking at the epic black-and-white pictures Margaret Bourke-White took of skyscrapers and the men who built them. I remember a photo of her, sort of hanging into space over an enormous gargoyle, holding a black camera the size of a microwave oven (which was unimaginable back then) and wearing a baggy pair of trousers that looked as if they’d been made for a man. That was in the 1930’s, I believe. I couldn’t recall if she ever actually photographed the Empire State Building itself, but the era was right. Once I got to the Empire State Building I waited in line for nearly an hour for the trip to the top. When my turn came, a guard said they were closing –a broken elevator or something.

Disappointed but still determined to get an eagle’s view of the city, I decided to walk to the World Trade Center. I had glimpsed the towers several times as I walked toward the Empire State, their boxy pillars jutting into view at unexpected intervals above the rim of concrete canyons. The Towers seemed absurdly young and somehow unseasoned to me, lacking the accumulated memories of nearly seventy years. However, I could at least remember some of their history first-hand, like when they opened and when the nutball French tightrope-walker teetered between them with his long pole. And the long walk let me spend more time immersed in the City, see more of her without the insulating glass of taxi or bus windows.

I passed boutiques and fragrant restaurants, scores of them, ranked shoulder to shoulder along the sidewalks; I wondered how there could possibly be enough customers to keep them all in business. I paused and watched a three card monte player, his rapid-fire patter witty and utterly convincing. I knew I could win, so I kept my money firmly in my pocket because I also knew I was a rube. Closet-sized shops in Chinatown featured rows of tiny bottles labeled in a script that looked more art than language, tiers of cheap trinkets, and glittering piles of jewelry in the prescribed abandon. In Little Italy, a throng of celebrants buffeted me at a street festival for Saint Somebody and a genuine dark-eyed, handsome Italian man sprang from the crowd, exclaimed at my beauty, and asked me to marry him. By the time I reached the World Trade Center I had the surreal feeling that New York City, that supposedly surly entity, had deliberately arranged to provide me with every picturesque Big Apple cliché ever known. The city was seductive that day, to the inclusion of a few appropriately unsettling street persons and menacing, hard-eyed young men, for spice.

I stood at last on the Trade Center Plaza, rooted, mouth falling open as my gaze traveled up the length of a tower. It was a long journey. The Twin Towers looked impressive in movies and pictures. They looked enormous on posters. But in reality they appeared impossible, comprehensible only when classed with Everest: elemental constructs of Earth itself. I stood a long time, head tilted far back, kept from toppling over by the pull of the concrete through which the towers thrust their mighty bases. Gravity felt stronger there.

Inside the lobby, the long, zigzagging line in the cavernous space slithered slowly toward the elevator. I could hear at least a dozen languages being spoken, several of which not only could I not understand, but couldn’t even identify the continent they came from. A woman fainted from standing so long and identical expressions of concern spoke in different ways; “Oh dear;” “Elle fait mal;” “Sha, sha;” “Na, sey?” When she proved to be fine, there was a burst of relieved applause, though some snapped their fingers in lieu of clapping. Everyone was cheerful that their fellow sightseer was well, smiling and nodding to each other, sometimes talking at each other in mutual incomprehension and laughter. We were all at the same picnic even if we used different sounds for the goodies.

I started my digital watch as the express elevator zoomed up one hundred and seven floors. Others heard the beeps and by the time we reached the top, the fifty or so people sardined into the car were craning their necks, asking “How long?” in half a dozen languages. I think it was fifty-three seconds. I had to torque my wrist around every which way so those who couldn’t understand my words could see for themselves. Everyone had identical expressions of amazement. Justifiably so; I later estimated that the elevator moved somewhere around twenty miles an hour. I couldn’t find a guard or guide to verify that, but one hundred and seven floors in under a minute was pretty zippy for a box full of people.

At the top, I was disappointed to find the gift shop did not have a book on how those eternal towers were built. I wanted a sturdy new book to stand along those by Margaret Bourke-White, one with photographs to gawp at again and again, with the graceful geometry of the words of the designers and of the sweaty, strong-fingered workers. They had only videos, ephemeral bits of ribbon in meltable plastic. Images on a screen, I thought, could not stay with me the way photographs do.

The Tower seemed even more impossible when I stood on the observation glass of the one hundred and seventh floor, staring between my feet. I’ve always loved heights. This was the view from Olympus and I was a god for a time. Several people were uninterested in being gods and huddled far from the windows, backs pressed to the walls and complexions strangely hued. It was surreal to be that high and not be soaring in a plane or balloon, to remain tethered to the Earth yet appear to be halfway to space. I stood on the glass and leaned my head against the window and marveled that the Statue of Liberty looked as if she could hang from my charm bracelet if only someone put a little ring on her head.

I stayed at the top for more than an hour, gazing at the toy boats, the game-piece buildings and invisible people. Now I realized who ate at all those restaurants, how many thousands lived in the tall buildings beneath my feet. All the Oriental shops would fit inside a pea and the block-long street festival in a matchbox. Had my amore asked another to wed? I wondered at all the lives being lived in such concentration, people atop people, reaching skyward.

When the elevator sped us at crashing speed back to the ground, part of me stayed up there. Aloft, where the only languages now are those of the wind and of the gods. Part of me floats there, still.