September 14, 2016

The Wind in the Heights

New York, NY- WTC heavy winds cause a wind swept dust strom around the ring of honor at the bottom of ground zero during the one year anniversary of the tragic event. Photo: David Ryan

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

           -- Christina Rossetti

-- Headline, New York Post, September 12, 2001

AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY I lived in Brooklyn Heights in, of course, Brooklyn. The opening of the Brooklyn Bridge on May 24 of 1883 transformed the high bluff just to the south of the bridge into America's first suburb. It became possible for affluent businessmen from the tip of Manhattan which lay just over the East River to commute across the bridge easily and build their stately mansions and townhouses high above the slapdash docks below. Growth and change would wash around the Heights in the 117 years that followed, but secure on their bluff, on their high ground, the Heights would remain a repository old and new money, power, and some of the finest examples of 19th and early 20th century homes found in New York City.

When I moved to Brooklyn Heights from the suburbs of Westport, Connecticut in the late 90s, it was a revelation to me that such a neighborhood still existed. Small side streets and cul-de-sacs were shaded over by large oaks and maple that made it cool even in the summer doldrums. Street names such as Cranberry, Orange and Pineapple let you know you were off the grid of numbered streets and avenues. Families were everywhere and the streets on evenings and on weekends were full of the one thing you rarely see in Manhattan, children.

Brooklyn Heights had looked down on Wall Street and the tip of Manhattan from almost the beginning. It hosted the retreat of Washington from New York City during the Battle of Long Island, the first major engagement of the Revolutionary War. To be in the Heights was to hold the high ground and all the advantages that position affords.

Brooklyn Heights today enjoys a kind of armed hamlet existence in New York. Outside influences such as crime, poverty and ghetto life don't really intrude. Since it has long been a neighborhood of the rich and the powerful of the city, it has been spared some of the more doleful effects of city life. It doesn't have walls that you can see, but they are there, strong, high and well guarded.

Traffic, that bane of New York life, is controlled in the Heights. To the west, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, once planned to cut through the Heights directly to the Brooklyn Bridge, was rerouted by a deft application of money and power; placed below along the harbor. To the east, all traffic coming off the Bridge is pushed along Cadman Plaza to Court Street and off to Atlantic. This forms the eastern border of the Heights whose edge is further delineated by the ramparts of Brooklyn City Hall, Courts of all flavors and a rag-tag collection of government structures that exemplify the Fascist Overbuilding movement of the early 70s when, expecting 'The Revolution,' governments built towards gun-slits rather than windows. The south of the Heights is sharply drawn with Atlantic Avenue, a street given over to a long strip of fringe businesses and a corridor of Islamic-American mosques and souks and restaurants. The north is quite simply the Brooklyn Bridge and its approaches that shelter the now slowly evolving sector devoted to overpriced raw loft spaces and bad art known as DUMBO, for "Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass."

The best thing about the Heights is the Promenade. This is a long pedestrian strolling area that runs from Remsen on the south to Cranberry on the north end. It's a brick walk high on the bluff above the Expressway below. Over the baroque railing you can see far out into the harbor, beyond the Financial District and Wall Street on the tip of Manhattan, beyond the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island to the distant silhouettes of the cranes and wharfs on the Jersey Shore. You can see north up the East River past the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge to, maybe, the merest wisp of the Williamsburg Bridge. Across from the railings are a selection of gardens and backyards with water fountains and shaded benches. It is one of those hidden, off-to-the-side areas of respite that are secreted across all the seven boroughs of the city. You discover it by being taken to it by someone else who has already been there.

The Promenade is a fine place on any day but best on a Sunday afternoon when the weather is clear. Then you can stroll with your fellow citizens and catch a bit of the constant breeze or a bracing wind. Under most conditions, this wind is one of the best elements of Brooklyn Heights. Usually you just take it for granted -- as you do all the small mercies of life in New York City.

When the wind came from the south off the harbor those who lived on the Heights got to breathe the sea air first before the rest of the city had its way with it. And it usually did blow from the south even if there were days when it blew in from the west across the southern tip of Manhattan. At least, I think that it did on numerous days even if I only remember it from one.

I don't remember the wind from that day because it blew hard and long. The winter, spring and fall brought many blizzards and storms to the Heights with winds that would howl over the roofs and pulse in the chimney of my parlor floor apartment. In winter it would slam against the stones of the facade and rattle the windows while rolling snow so fine against the door that a dusty drift would work its way through the weather stripping and into the foyer by morning.

So if I think about the storms I can say they always came to the Heights on the big shoulders of a bigger wind, but I don't really remember any one of those winds. In my memory, I just assume they were there, a part of the storm. Winds always are a part of any storm. Just as the French say "Never a rose without a thorn," so "Never a storm without a wind."

Except once and then the storm came later. And even if that wind has now become a faint foreign breeze moving over a distant landscape of sand and rubble and blood, it rolls along still and will in time make its way back to where it began.

The wind came when the pillar of fire became, in what seemed a moment outside of time, a pillar of smoke. We had been standing on the Promenade that morning in our thousands watching death rage at the center of a beautiful September morning. It was a morning with a clear and washed blue sky; the kind of rare New York morning when you can believe, again, that anything is possible in that city of dreams that so often dissolve into disappointment.

Anything, of course, except the two towers whose peaks were engulfed in flames.

Anything, it would seem, but what we were seeing.

And it was a morning, as I recall, that had no wind at all. That was why the flames and the smoke from the flames went almost straight up into the sky, a long sooted streak that bisected one side of the blue sky from the other.

It was, except for this one insane thing happening in the middle of our panoramic view from the Promenade, a most beautiful day; made even more so by the absence of any irritating noise from passenger jets overhead.

The last two jets into New York airspace that morning would be the last for days to come. In New York you become so used to the sound of jets overhead in New York that you don't really hear them. What you did hear on that day was the silence of their absence. When the sound of jets came back later that afternoon it was not the sound of passenger jets but of F-16 fighters, and we were glad to hear them.

But in that mid-morning all we could see and think about were the souls trapped in the twin torches about a quarter of a mile away from us on the other side of the East River.

At a certain point in that timeless time you noticed that specks were arcing out from the sides of the buildings from just above or just below or just within the part that was in flames. Looking again you saw that the specks were people flying out from the building and plunging down the sides to disappear behind the shorter buildings that ringed the towers. You tried to imagine what must have been going on in the offices and rooms of that building that made leaping from 100 floors or more above the ground the "better" option, but you didn't have that kind of space left in your imagination. And so you looked on and watched them leap and distantly, silently fall, locked within that morning that had no time, in which all of what you had known, believed, and trusted in came, at once and forever, to a sudden frozen halt.

And then the first tower came down.

We've all seen, most of us on television, what happened next. We've all seen the dropping of the top floors into the smoke and then the shuddering impact and then the rolling and immense cloud of ash that exploded up the island of Manhattan overtaking thousands running north and laying thick slabs of ash over everything in its wake. The tape was played and replayed until, by order or consensus, it stopped being played. World Trade Center and north up the island -- center stage in death's carnival on that day.

That wasn't for me. I was part of the sideshow in Brooklyn Heights.

Lower Manhattan is a welter of thin 17th century streets lined with tall 19th and 20th century buildings. When you take the mass of two buildings the size of the Twin Towers, heat it to the point that steel bends, and drop it straight down into the center of this maze, it does not all go just one direction even if that's where the video cameras are. It moves out radially in all directions. Standing on the Promenade you are in front of many different channels for this atomized mass and the plumes of smoke and what it holds will come at you. And it did, very fast and very dark.

It seemed to come out of the streets that opened onto the South Street Seaport like some Titan's grime clotted fingers, and roiled across the river as if the distance was a few hundred feet rather than a few thousand yards. You saw what was coming and you turned to flee from this black wind with no storm, but there were thousands of others who had come to watch and they too were turning to run out of the exits from the Promenade that had, moments before seemed broad, but now impossibly narrow.

As the wind-driven cloud came over us and things became murky then dark, panic began and shouts and screams could be heard inside the dense smoke. Through some miracle, the crowd ordered itself and those who had brought children with them were eased out in the sudden darkness and others followed in a rapid order. The cloud lightened and then darkened again and the wind rose and fell away and came back. It rippled your clothing, and the smoke must have had a smell to it because it hurt the lungs when you breathed, but I don't remember the smell only the sensation of small needles in my lungs and the gray mucus that came up when I coughed.

The wind pummeled my back for the five minutes it took me to make my way to my apartment, get inside and shut the windows. I stood there at the windows and watched the others rush by, blurs in the smoke, and noticed when, as suddenly as it had come up, the wind died away and the air was almost still. The smoke and the ash still moved in the street outside and high overhead. The day was still darkened but the initial violence of the blast and the wind had passed.

In time, everyone had passed by as well and the street was empty except for the settling smoke. I looked outside the window where a Japanese maple grew and noticed that its wine-dark leaves were covered with small yellow flecks. I looked down at the sill outside the windows and saw the yellow flecks there as well.

At some point in the next few minutes it dawned on me that there would be few bodies found in the incinerating rubble across the river. I knew then -- as certainly as I have even known anything -- that all those who had still been in the towers had now gone into the flame and the smoke and that, in some way, the gleaming bits of yellow ash were their tokens, were what they had become in that plunging crematorium.

And I knew that all they had become had fallen upon us as we ran in the smoke; that we had breathed them in when the wind reached us; that they were covering the houses and the sills and the cars and the sidewalks and the benches and the shrubs and the trees all about us.

What they had become was what the wind without a storm had left behind. Now that the wind had passed everything was, again, silent and calm. The blue sky above the houses on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights were beginning to emerge from the fading smoke as the breeze of the harbor shifted the plume away from us, moving it north, uptown, into Manhattan, leaving the Heights again as an elite enclave, above and to the side of New York City.

The yellow flecks remained, resting like small stars on the surface of everything in the Heights for three days until the first rains came on a late afternoon to wash them away. I walked out into that rain and back down Pierrepont Street to the Promenade where for months yet to come the fires would burn across the river.

The rain came straight down that day. There was no wind. As I walked down the sidewalk I noticed the rainwater washing those yellow flecks off the trees and the buildings and moving down the gutter to the drains that would take it on to the harbor and on to the sea. And that water was -- for only a minute or so before it ran clear -- golden.

Posted by Vanderleun at September 14, 2016 12:21 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Mr. Vanderleun, you have captured in a very short essay, all of the tragedy of 9/11 in New York. Thank you sir, from the bottom of my heart.

Posted by: GM Roper at September 6, 2007 1:36 PM

This says a great deal about grace, sacrifice and more. It reminds me of this:

“Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole burnt offering on an altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all nations during World War II?” - Dr. Takashi Nagai 1908-1951, on Martyrdom, from All Saints by Robert Ellsberg

Posted by: The Anchoress at September 6, 2007 2:33 PM

Every day, sometimes several times a day, I log onto American Digest, and I am disappointed that there is no new essay. And then, when I am almost hopeless, there is today's beautiful writing.

Thank you, thank you, thank you

Posted by: Bob Sykes at September 6, 2007 4:41 PM

Wow. Just... wow.

Posted by: B. Durbin at September 6, 2007 5:56 PM

I've written to you once before to compliment you on your writing skills and on your very good humor. I write this time to say that I, too, had a view of that day, only after the events, from midtown where I work, and from the ferry that took me from 12th Avenue on the west side to Port Imperial in West New York. From there I walked a couple of miles to my apartment where I still live. The utter and complete disbelief I experienced that late afternoon as the ferry backed out onto the Hudson and the view of the entire southern half of the island engulfed in a white/gray cloud of smoke is still more than I can really comprehend. The fury and the sorrow I felt was even deeper than I knew in those horrific moments. I don't know that I have or ever will get over it. My neighbors, my countrymen, reduced to ash and smoke. Your description here is beautiful and so very painful. I was a mere 34 years old that day. I plan to live to be a very old woman, and for as long as I live I will never forget that day, the fury, the sorrow, and the absolute insanity that engulfed every single one of us who saw it up close. I thank you for not forgetting it either.

Posted by: Kerry at September 6, 2007 8:14 PM

The quick intake of breath, the shock, the wide-eyed stare and later, the panting, grunting labor in the pit opened our bodies to receive their remains. They will ever be part of us, but our tears, still clear, never ran gold.

Posted by: at September 6, 2007 9:10 PM

The Angel in thw Whirlwind.

Posted by: Keith at September 6, 2007 9:55 PM

The Angel in the Whirlwind.

Posted by: Keith at September 6, 2007 9:57 PM

I am without words, except to say thank you.

Posted by: saltydog at September 6, 2007 11:31 PM

Thank you.

Posted by: Jack Collingsworth at September 7, 2007 7:17 AM

I consider myself very lucky to have found your blog. Thank you for sharing your talent.

Posted by: Big Mo at September 7, 2007 10:18 AM

Beautiful and evocative. The best essay I've ever read describing this time and place.

Posted by: Eric Gagnon at September 7, 2007 10:26 AM

A beautiful piece. And heartbreaking.

Posted by: RebeccaH at September 7, 2007 10:30 AM

Remember . . . THEY want you to forget.

History is coming for us all . . .

Posted by: gabrielpicasso at September 7, 2007 11:04 AM


Thank you.

Posted by: leelu at September 7, 2007 1:18 PM

We forget why we went to war, why men and women are in foreign lands giving their all---even their lives---to stop such things from happening again. Not just for us, but for people around the world.

What happened Sept. 11th 2001 was the act of bullies, an act of arrogance. It was done by men so sure of themselves and their motives they were convinced we would fold like a badly built tower of straw. And, with their greatest enemy made low, they would march on to glorious victory over a quavering world.

Thus is hubris brought low by its own deeds. A pustulent ambition cut off by the essential rot within and the work of those it treated so shabbily.

We made mistakes, we've lost good people, hysterics and control freaks slime our freedoms, but overall we've made progress. It would be a far different situation at home had the administration made the Iraqi violations of the armistice the causus belli, but we must live with what the administration did instead and continue with the struggle to save a nation and its people.

People insist that we complete the job in months, giving no thought to the possibility it may take years, if not generations. Are we ready to spend generations preparing a distant land for true independence? Are we ready to send our grandchildren and their grandchildren to the land between the rivers to work with the people there. Are we ready to make the Iraqis American like us if that's what it takes to get things working again?

On a morning in the late Summer of 2001 the world changed. Since then it has continued to change. What it will become is still to be determined.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at September 7, 2007 3:43 PM

just to state the are a damn fine writer. Thank you for taking the time to maintain your blog.

Posted by: Barnabus at September 7, 2007 4:38 PM

Note that the specks almost never made it onto television. I only remember one, and the horror I felt at that hemisphere of gray and pink. Later that day, someone on NBC said that the networks had decided not to show any of the victims falling or hitting the ground -- because to do so would make us angry.
Thus spoke our owners.

Posted by: Bleepless at September 7, 2007 7:22 PM

As a young lady in the 70's I lived on Pierrepont St. in a beautiful brownstone apartment. Just the other day I was telling someone that the windows in the apartment were huge, the quality of light inside was fantastic and I had house plants as drapes. I regularly ate in the Middle Eastern restaurants on Atlantic Ave. and walked the promenade frequently.
Now a Long Islander, I also remember 9-11 as the day the air traffic stopped to be replaced by the distinctive sound of F-16's running a racetrack pattern out over my home and back in again.
What a beautiful essay. More so because I see through your eyes a horrific sight from a place that I know and love.

Posted by: Babs at September 9, 2007 12:37 PM

A haunting, melancholy essay. Thank you.

Posted by: Mike Lief at September 9, 2007 8:01 PM

Gerard, there is something about the legendary, but even so much more about the legends which are true. We are blessed to live in a time in which there is a legend which we are able to believe because we were there.

That is to say, many legends are true, but over the years they get painted over so many times that we can casually disbelieve them. This, not so.

What is more saddening is that there even exist people who cannot believe what is right in front of them.

Posted by: RiverC at September 9, 2008 8:02 AM

Beautiful. Thank you.

Posted by: Hannon at September 9, 2008 9:10 AM

May I add my voice to the eloquent remarks above?

It is a joy to experience such powerful writing.

The juxtaposition of pictures featuring Barack on his bike and the whirlwind of dust at ground zero congealed into a that scariest of childhood emblems of evil: the wicked witch peddling through the Kansas tornado in The Wizard of Oz.

Posted by: Cathy Wilson at September 9, 2008 3:45 PM

I remember this one. And I remember it every time I see dust blowing on the breeze, catching the light.

Sad, isn't it, that in only seven years people are already forgetting/disbelieving?

Posted by: Obi's Sister at September 9, 2008 5:26 PM

To comment is to stir the calm, and yet. . . just beautiful.

Posted by: Joan of Argghh! at April 28, 2009 5:55 AM

Some saw the Devil's face in the smoke.
Others don't believe in such things.


Posted by: jwm at April 28, 2009 8:33 PM

The words I'm typing are just standing in for bowing my head.

Posted by: Van at April 28, 2009 10:07 PM

My country tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, Of thee I sing.

Thank you Vanderleun.

Posted by: France at April 29, 2009 8:42 AM

Gerard, I am curious about political transformations, as I too have undergone an 180. My sense is that for most of your life you were to the left of the spectrum.

Was this the day that did it for you?

Evocative piece. Well done.

Posted by: Adagny at April 30, 2009 7:48 PM

Well, I'd say that this was the day that did it for good, but I had been tending in that direction for several years before this.

Posted by: vanderleun at May 1, 2009 9:36 AM

Great piece. Thanks. And the site with the images is awesome also.

Posted by: retriever at September 12, 2009 7:12 PM

As a long time Heights dweller I can tell you that the locals voted for Obama in locksteps, notwithstanding the Arabic neighborhood 9/11 celebrations four blocks south ...

Posted by: g6loq at September 13, 2009 8:34 AM

What a beautifully written article.A masterpiece.

Posted by: clarice Feldman at September 12, 2011 9:16 AM

I can't add anything to what's already been said about this essay, but I'd like to comment on the lead picture. Of all the images and emotions I remember about the first anniversary of 9/11, the thing that stays with me most was the wind at Ground Zero. A strong, swirling, forceful wind; the kind that on any other day I might call "angry". I never mentioned it to the people I was watching with, but I saw them wince along with me every time it tossed up another wave of if thousands of unseen hands had hurled it. The distortion murmured into the microphones in a pattern that sounded like "remember...remember". Maybe I just imagined it. Or maybe it was a returning echo of the wind you lived through on the Heights a year earlier. Either way, it still haunts me.

Posted by: Ren at September 12, 2011 8:51 PM

I, too, was once a lefty, a New Yorker active in Democratic politics. While the political establishment is bad enough, the intellectual and cultural elite is much worse. Mr. Leif an must be understood in his cultural context. A case in point. I urge you to link to this cartoon that appeared in Sunday's Times. It is titled "The Unpleasant Anniversary Activity Page."

This appeared on Sept. 11, 2011.  September 11.

Here is an example of cultural rot at it's most advanced stage. From such smirking nihilism, only fascism lies beyond.

Once again, thanks for the eloquent words. They are necessary if we are ever to rebuild, Eliot-fragments of what once existed, in order "to shore up against our ruins"

Posted by: MPRyan at September 12, 2011 9:23 PM

I meant Mr. Krugman. The spell checker seems to spill out "Leif an" for Krugman. Go figure.

Posted by: MPRyan at September 12, 2011 9:27 PM

Lovely cartoon, MPRyan. It reminded me of a quote I heard shortly after the attack. Unfortunately, I don't remember exactly what it was. Something like 'from now on, we're going to be less flippant and more serious', but that's not it. Looks like McFadden didn't get the memo.

(That quote is really bugging me now. I wish I could remember it. I don't even know how to go about searching for it.)

Ex-lefty here, too. Welcome aboard!

Posted by: rickl at September 13, 2011 4:26 PM

Ripley: “I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

We are in New York City now. Last night they displayed the Towers of Light. It was overwhelming.

Like a the phantom of a limb amputated long ago, it continues to ache.

I still maintain that we were far too nice to the perps that day.

We should have nuked Mecca and Medina on 9/12/2001.

It was the condign penalty for harming the Homeland. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and it cost them two cities. The same rule should have applied to the Arabs.

There would not be another attack on the US for 100 years. Islam would have shriveled up and died.

Posted by: Fat Man at September 13, 2012 3:51 PM

What a beautiful essay.

Posted by: Scott M at September 13, 2013 3:57 AM

You know, Mr. Vanderleun, you're a pretty good writer.

Posted by: D S Craft at September 13, 2013 5:17 PM

I read this every year as a ritual remembrance. It touches on the exact right points, on truths that are unknown to barbaric peoples of the Islamic Borg; that personhood is conferred by a Person, not a system of belief, and to tread on that reality of Life is to sow into the wind. The whirlwind is theirs to reap, may God be the judge between us.

Posted by: Joan at September 12, 2015 5:53 AM

I wasn't there but my daughter was flying home from Japan on the 11th. I just reread her first email to me after we knew she had made it home alive. It was an insane journey as the plane could not fly into New York. The very last crazy thing was she had to convince the cabby to take her to her mixed race neighborhood because he thought she should obviously be going to a nice Jewish area.
Those were epic frightening days.

Posted by: pbird at September 15, 2016 10:24 AM