Writings by John Reuter
One year later and the empty sky is always present. All the shock and horror, the memories of that day, they still speak silently in an empty sky.
The year has been long, the year has gone as fast as all the others do now, but the differences lie in an empty sky.
In trying to grasp what meaning can be found here I wonder how much I ve really changed, how much any of us have really changed. Can we appreciate what we have more, is having what we are here for?
I think mostly of my family now, making art or doing business is still secondary. I find myself watching my children more, the color of my daughter s eyes or the shape of my son s face and I feel these moments are what living is all about. I don t erase their voice mail messages on my phone for weeks, I listen to them again as I wait in yet another airport, wishing I were home instead.
The barrage of remembrances has begun and I am beginning to feel the same way as I did in those awful days. Any reference on television pulls my attention even when I don t want to watch. I feel obligated to read any story, to look at any picture that comes my way, because to not do so seems to deny that loss. But that loss is always present, in the most painfully meaningful and selfishly superficial ways. It seems too early to commemorate, in many ways it just happened. It is useful to stop and think, but we are always reminded. At every cross street in Manhattan, from across the Hudson or the East River, there is that sky. There is that empty sky.
World Trade Center 2003
This past weekend I was teaching a Polaroid Transfer workshop in New York while staying in Jersey City; four blocks from my old house. For over two years I have had to take the 33rd Street line into Manhattan and then downtown on the subway. But this weekend was different; the Port Authority has reopened the World Trade Center line with a new station built back where the old one was.
As I waited for the train in Journal Square in New Jersey I felt very apprehensive. Here it was as if nothing had changed. The signs all said WTC, Track 1 just as they used to. As the train approached, the head car lit up with its WTC sign. I boarded the train and it quickly went through the Grove Street and Exchange Place stations and I was reminded how fast this train was. But now the next stop would be World Trade Center. In the past the train used to circle under the Trade Center in darkness and finally pull into the station, 70 feet below the Trade Center floor. What would it do now? The wheels squealed as it rounded the last turn and the train suddenly emerged into bright light amidst swirling snow. I realized we were exactly where we were before except that there was open sky and the awesome sight of the bathtub walls holding out the Hudson River, the massive tie bolts into the bedrock emerging from the concrete every few feet. We were still 70 feet below in the bottom of the pit. As we exited the train everyone looked around in amazement, was this really real? As I headed for the R train I climbed stationary stairs that replaced the first level escalators but soon came upon the extraordinary bank of 10 escalators that used to move thousands up to the Trade Center. Now there were only dozens of us and everyone just seemed to be looking around, a little bit confused. As I hit the top I realized it was the same concrete floor, it had survived. As I headed to the R Train I walked past the spots I had known so well, Hudson News, Tourneau Corner, the Gap, the Warner's Brothers Store, but they were not there. Most of the old mall now gave way to sky and swirling snow was blowing in through the open walls. One could see from one end of the pit to the other and it amazed me how big this site really is. It difficult to describe the emotions of that ride, thoughts of the day itself, the lives lost, the spirits of souls forever tied to that open pit. And I thought to myself, even though I don't live here anymore, I am forever tied to this place.
I'm not sure why I feel compelled to write about my experience on September 11. I have read many accounts sent by others and could not connect with them but I am having a very difficult time moving past this and hope that articulating some thoughts may help. You are free to read it or pass on by.
I have lived in the New York area since 1986. I settled not in Manhattan but in Jersey City, 5 miles away from Soho and in constant view of the World Trade Center. When you live outside of Manhattan even if you work there, you always feel that you are slightly outside, even though you spend your days in the heart of New York. The Trade Centers were so tall that they were visible from 15 miles away. In Jersey City they always seemed at the end of the block. I could see them from the park near my house, from the Pathmark grocery store and many other spots in Jersey City. Whenever you drove around my vicinity they were always there, the beacon reassuring you that you were only minutes away from Manhattan, an important feeling for those of us who chose to live outside of Manhattan to have more space for babies and life in general.
My commute used to take me from the transportation hub of Jersey City, Journal Square, under the Hudson River into the very bottom of the World Trade Center, the PATH Station at WTC. This daily commute was shared of course by hundreds of thousands of people, many taking elevators up to the towers. Before changing trains we would ride up a spectacular bank of escalators 12 wide that carried so many up to street level. It was the quintessential commuter journey; I was always amazed at the scale of our movement. I would then walk through the concourse under street level to the N or R trains uptown to Prince Street where our 20x24 studio was located.
In 1993 the terrorists struck the first time, on my birthday and on a day that I was scheduled to send the camera to Los Angeles to work with film director Tim Burton. We did make it out all right and the damage to the trains only took a few weeks to fix. While several people died and many were hurt it pales in comparison to last week. One of the terrorists lived four blocks from my house. We never really thought they would try and strike again.
On September 11, I was scheduled to fly to Chicago from Newark at 9:05 am. I had just returned from Florida on Sunday and wasn't all that thrilled to be flying again so soon. It was a beautiful late summer morning as I waited for my cab outside my house. The cab was late by nearly 20 minutes and I actually worried that I wouldn't make my flight. Everything proceeded fine once I arrived at Newark and I finally settled into my seat, happy that no one else was in my row and I had three seats to myself. Seconds from pulling back from the gate the pilot came on and announced in a very odd delivery that the P1ort Authority of New York and New Jersey has closed Newark Airport and everyone of course groaned anticipating delays to their business day, and he continued because 2 planes have crashed into the World Trade Center.
We stopped, stunned, and immediately assumed that two small private planes must have collided and hit the towers. We were allowed to return to the lounge and as I walked out to the east end of the gates I could clearly see incredible smoke coming out of the World Trade Center. It was clear that a severe fire was burning and that people were dying. I picked up my cell phone and got nothing for nearly 20 minutes. I saw other people talking on their phones and cursed ATT for their crappy service. I wandered over to the gate bar where a TV was on and saw the second plane hit and then the Pentagon crash. I was standing next to a pilot and will never forget the look in his eyes as he saw that plane intentionally crashed into the second tower.
I finally got through to the school where my wife is principal and my children attend and learned that they were ok and I said I was trying to leave.
I couldn't reach Ben or Polaroid for nearly an hour as we finally evacuated and hit the sidewalks of the airport, trying to get a cab. By the time I got out I was at the end of a line of at least 600 people. I waited for nearly two hours to get a cab, the police began checking every trunk for bombs before they let them through. People were amazingly patient, several high-powered types were able to cell phone for limos to pull up to them but most of us had to wait to get a taxi. It became clear that certain areas were off limits for taxis, Manhattan obviously, but also parts of New Jersey near the Lincoln Tunnel were subject to terrible traffic and nearly impassable.
A couple in front of me was from Weehawken, north of Hoboken and with a spectacular view of mid to lower Manhattan. I offered to let them come to my house in Jersey City, only minutes away and they said if they could not get out they would take me up on it. It was chaos on the line, not so much from the people waiting but from the cab drivers, who like in many big cities represent a cultural cross section of the world, many mid east immigrants included. The police were trying their best to control the situation and I worried that the thousands of us now outside on the sidewalks were sitting ducks if there was a second phase to the killing. While on line I finally reached my mother, a second call to my wife and maybe 1 out of 30 attempts to anyone else. I did manage to reach Barbara Hitchcock and let her know we were safe for now.
It was finally my turn for a cab and the driver was a Haitian who had been arguing with airport authorities about where he would take passengers. The normal ride from Newark to my house is only ten minutes, it is one of the reasons I chose the location of my home, 5 miles from Manhattan and 5 miles from Newark airport. Traffic on routes 1 and 9, the access to the Holland Tunnel was slow, bumper-to-bumper. My Haitian cab driver, the very one arguing with airport authorities was shouting in French to his compatriots as we inched by in traffic. I considered walking if things didn't improve, while he talked to another cab that contained the people in front of me in line from Weehawken. To the right outside my window I could now see the towers collapsed, only heavy smoke rising where the towers so proudly once stood. The Pulaski Skyway, an incredible edifice over Kearny, NJ (of Sopranos fame) was now closed, available only for emergency traffic and now blocking my easy way home. We finally drove over the two drawbridges to Communipaw Ave., only minutes from my house. We were stopped at Route 440; Communipaw was also now reserved for emergency vehicles. I paid the driver and said I would walk the rest of the way.
I walked through Lincoln Park, a beautifully restored park that abuts my neighborhood. As I walked the beautiful silence was broken by fighter jets flying over the area, reminding me that anything could still happen. The smoke of the World Trade Centers hovered over the trees where the towers once projected. I dropped my bags at my home and then bicycled to my children's school to pick them up.
At the Cornerstone School they had obviously heard some news but not much. I ran into our art teacher Mary Sweeny and she asked if they had put out the fires in the towers yet. I had to tell her that they were gone completely. She began to cry. Parents were coming in sporadically to pick up their children. Karen would remain until 6:00 pm to wait for parents, several of whom had made it out of the disaster. We were fortunate to not have lost anyone although there were some difficult moments.
I brought Hannah and Jack home, talking on our short drive that thousands of people were dying, something they had not yet grasped. Returning home we watched the devastating footage. After a while Jack asked me if he could watch Nickelodeon , and I couldn't say no to some diversion.
Our studio had clients up from Jacksonville, Florida. We worked on Monday with great success and Ben was to continue with them on Tuesday while I traveled to Chicago. I was going to work with Joyce Tennneson photographing Oprah Winfrey for Fortune Magazine. I never made it to Chicago obviously, and Ben was unable to get to the studio. Our clients were trapped in Manhattan after having witnessed the crashes and finally took a train home to Florida on Friday to be home with their young daughter.
We were not allowed back below 14th street until Friday. My new commute was now traveling on the PATH train to 23rd street and switching to the F downtown. It takes 15 minutes longer and has little of the charm of walking through the WTC concourse. It will be a daily reminder that things will never be the same. The streets around Soho were very quiet, with police ever present. Buses in Jersey City aren't allowed to enter the station, letting all passengers out on the street as 40 buses converge on one block to discharge and pick up passengers. State police patrol the station and memorials are everywhere. In all the subway stations dozens of missing flyers are taped to the columns, a heartbreaking reminder that so many people are suffering far more than I am. We struggle to get back to normal, but many shoots have been cancelled so we try to straighten up the studio, attempt mostly in vain to get online or call clients and hope the next phone call brings good news. At the end of the day as we walk out on Broadway we face downtown and see a huge gap at the end of Manhattan. It is almost like they were never there. I then turn the other way and journey uptown to get downtown and back to New Jersey. I scramble to find my bus among many. As it travels across Summit Avenue I glance across to Manhattan, and watch the smoke still rising where the towers used to reassure me.