Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I.
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
— Christina Rossetti
10,000 FEARED DEAD
— 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 wharves 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 soot-stained 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 weeks 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 leaping 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 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 ever 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 was 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 — gold.