Twin Towers as viewed from Calvary cemetery 1988
During the holidays I was going through some old reels of Super 8mm film, when I came upon a short piece of footage I had shot of the World Trade Center just before Christmas in 1988. It was filmed through the window of a bus, while passing through a vast swath of interconnected cemeteries that runs through the borough of Queens. I had come this way along the Long Island Expressway before and it always struck me how this sprawling necropolis—literally, a city of the dead—served as a kind of sombre counterweight to the manic vitality of Manhattan, rising up like an electrified escarpment on the other side of the river.
But on that day, riding into town from John F. Kennedy Airport, watching the ordered rows of graves as they passed through my little plastic viewfinder, the world felt somehow different—as though my eyes had been reincarnated and that even the most banal detail of what I was seeing was precious and needed to be recorded. The sepulchral landscape outside my window just added to the sensation that I was being delivered back into the land of the living, after an unexpected visit I had made to the border of the kingdom of the dead.
As I continued filming, my thrift store movie camera whirring reassuringly, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center popped into the frame—suddenly looming in the background behind the gravestones like the massive cenotaphs of an extraterrestrial civilization. Even at this distance, the towers exuded an unearthly adamantine quality, a kind of brooding force field, as if the mysterious monolith from Kubrick’s 2001 had landed in Lower Manhattan and cloned itself. Yet for all their imposingness, there was something melancholic about them. Their sheer hubristic massiveness made them look somehow out of place—shunned by the lesser architecture around them.
When I look back to the day on which I shot those grainy images of the towers, images that might now be quite unremarkable were it not for the catastrophe of 9/11, I realize that I had myself many times imagined their destruction and that whenever I looked at them, it was with a sense of foreboding. There was something in their very structure, in their brash crystalline supremacism, that hinted at hidden fragility. As every diamond cutter knows, a crystal, though hard, can be brittle and broken easily if struck in the right place. Not surprisingly, this perception was shared by others, including the terrorists. Baudrillard in his November 2001 ”Le Monde” essay L’esprit du terrorisme, suggested that the Twin Towers had become a kind of lightning rod, poised to close a circuit between globalization and terrorism and that their destruction on 9/11 consummated a kind of collective premonition of its inevitability. In that sense, many of us were at least unconsciously complicit in the imagination of their collapse.
And as for me, I had just had my own premonition of their destruction, right before riding that bus, as I flew around the towers inside a disabled aircraft, thinking I might soon die.
The day had started out calmly enough, just past dawn, when my girlfriend and I boarded an American Airlines flight at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, bound for LaGuardia. During the preceding months, we had again grown eager to escape the peculiar claustrophobia life in Toronto often evoked in us. I don’t know what it was exactly—the city, despite its outwardly cosmopolitan nature, could at times feel oppressively parsimonious. It was as if the ghost of Anglo-Saxon propriety always lay in wait for us, scrutinizing and judging with the cold, blue eyes of a baleful headmaster— ready to pounce on the slightest indiscretion. Peter Ustinov may have picked up on this when he famously quipped that, “Toronto is like New York, run by the Swiss.” Blame the Anglo-Saxons or blame the Swiss, fun in Toronto always seemed to come with too many conditions. New York City didn’t have that problem. It was unapologetic, exuberant, beguilingly evil and not afraid to make eye contact.
We had both noticed that occasional trips to New York inevitably improved our melancholic dispositions. The effect though temporary, would last quite a while after our return and so we tried to make the journey at least once a year, whenever our sporadic artists’ incomes would allow. This time we had saved up enough money for a four day get-away and we were feeling quite overdue.
Our plane took off into the gas-flame blue of the frigid Toronto winter morning. We banked over the fractal sprawl of suburban Mississauga and started out across the lake. Still a little bleary-eyed, I became mesmerized by the aircraft’s shadow as it tracked across the water’s preternaturally pristine looking turquoise surface. I was too tired for once to think about the pollutants that roiled and seethed beneath its waves. I sipped some of the orange juice the flight attendant had placed in front of me and started slowly to wake up. It seemed like we’d only been in the air a few minutes when already the snowy fields, gravel pits and little towns of upstate New York started passing beneath us. The view from this altitude in the clarity of the winter light, was making me giddy with a sense of new found perspective. There is something deliciously freeing about being in the unique kind of movement space existing in air travel—that interstice in time and location between having left and having arrived, in which anything seems possible and where one inhabits completely a landscape of anticipation. I felt as if I could finally breathe again, after a long and confining convalescence.
I started thinking about all the fun things we might do after our landing at LaGuardia. We’d start by catching the shuttle bus into Manhattan, drop off our bags at the Washington Square Hotel and then take the subway up to MoMA. My girlfriend was a painter with a particular passion for Monet and she was feeling like she needed to pay homage again to his Water Lilies.
Before long, the captain’s voice came over the PA and announced we had begun our descent. The hour had passed by quickly and I now lurched from my reverie into a more concrete sense of arrival. We dutifully stowed our tray tables, returned the seat backs to their upright, locked positions and fastened our seat-belts. Outside my window, I could see the island of Manhattan spreading out below us— America’s mothership at berth in the mouth of the Hudson, moored to the edge of the teeming continent by the wire and steel of her bridges. We descended further, swooping southwards along the island’s spine. White puffs of steam spiraled up at us from the heat exchangers on the skyscraper roofs, the streets dropping precipitously into the chasms in between. We flew right over the Empire State Building; its cliff-like stone walls glowing the colour of white peaches in the oblique morning sun, and above it, its defiant, art deco needle— a mooring mast for zeppelins, long ago vanished into the air sheds of time. Its evil twin, the Chrysler building, rose up just beyond our right wing-tip; its sinister, triangular windows glinting at us like shark’s teeth from the stylized nested hubcaps of its automotively-themed superstructure.
What a fantastic way to begin our first day in New York, I thought. The magnificent panorama unfolding below us would be ours to explore as soon as we landed, in just a few more minutes.
Moments later, we passed just over the the Twin Towers. Unornamented, brutally mathematical and impossibly enormous; they completely dominated their surroundings like great blocky monuments to a cult of machine hyperbolism. The North Tower’s antenna prong, festooned with communications nacelles and flashing strobe lights, loomed alarmingly close to our trajectory yet I felt somehow confident our pilot knew what he was doing. In fact I was delighted he had taken advantage of this morning’s spectacular weather to give us this impromptu tour.
As we banked out over the topaz water of the winter Atlantic, I realized we were long past LaGuardia. Perhaps the airport was congested and we needed to circle around while traffic cleared up. We began to veer slowly to the left, in a long, languid arc back toward Brooklyn and what I hoped would be our final approach to the airport, a few miles to the north. We descended a little further and I could hear the hydraulic whir of the flaps deploying, but our trajectory seemed a little tentative—lacking in the acuteness and resolve of a plane that was really about to land. By now I could see the runways and terminal buildings of LaGuardia sprawling out ahead. Our descent steepened, then flattened out and we swooped low over the control tower before climbing again; sharply.
What was wrong? I wondered. Where we being turned back at the last minute due to a lack of runway space? We regained some altitude and banked across the East River toward Manhattan and its blocky cordillera of buildings.
The captain’s voice came over the PA:
“As you can see, LaGuardia has come and gone. We’re having a little trouble with one of the indicator lights on the landing gear. We’re just going to circle for a while, until we get it worked out.”
I could see the Twin Towers approach again and as we passed over them, they seemed closer than before, as if their gravity was gradually decaying our orbit around them, like we were a dying comet in the grip of an overpowering sun. As we arced over the sea once more, I looked back, catching a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, green with verdigris and looking somehow sullen, as though she’d been stood up by her date and left standing there to oxidize on her private island, angrily scanning the horizon with her torch. The plane banked right again and we headed back in the direction we had come, in what was shaping up to be a tight oval-shaped holding pattern around the bottom end of Manhattan.
By our third circuit around the World Trade Center, I started idly fantasizing about what it would be like if we suddenly veered into a collision course with one of the towers. It was a strangely familiar feeling because I, like so many others, had rehearsed the gruesome scenario countless times using Microsoft’s Flight Simulator.
Almost as soon as it became available, Flight Simulator become hugely popular with people like me— the first wave of fanatical personal computer users. By the mid 1980’s, its crude wire frame renditions of the Manhattan skyline had already become part of pop culture iconography. I would often spend hours a day, staring at the screen of my vomit beige Macintosh, flying virtual planes, taking off and landing at virtual airports, using the mouse as a simulacrum for the aircraft’s control stick. I was deeply addicted to Flight Simulator and like anything else one does over and over again, the images of it replayed endlessly in my mind, long after leaving the screen.
Vintage MS Flight simulator screenshot
The mock flight around Manhattan was by far the most beguiling and technically resolved choice on Flight Simulator’s menu. I had many times attempted to pilot its virtual 747 through the small gap between the World Trade Center towers and then circled the Statue of Liberty before landing on the pixelated runway of the ersatz JFK. At some point in the game I usually wound up crashing into the Twin Towers, sometimes even deliberately, because the sensation was so morbidly fascinating and of course, being an electronic game, completely without consequence. Even in this blocky, low-fi digital rendering, the towers had a strange magnetism to them, like bug attracting lamps to the inner suicide bomber. Having imagined it so often, when the real catastrophe of 9/11 happened, a quarter century later, it was all the more horrible— because on some instinctive level, I knew it was coming.
By our fifth or six orbit around Lower Manhattan (I was starting to lose track), many of the passengers were beginning to get visibly restless; anxiously shuffling their newspapers and straining to look out the windows to see what was going on.
The PA crackled and the captain’s voice came on again:
“Ladies and gentlemen, just to update you on our status. We’ve received confirmation from the ground that our landing gear is extended, but we’re not yet sure if it is locked. We will be maintaining a holding pattern so that we can burn off enough fuel to attempt a landing. We will keep you posted as to how the situation is developing.”
Attempt a landing? As in we ”might” land? What was the alternative? Wasn’t locked landing gear a prerequisite to not dying in a ball of flames as we hit the runway? My girlfriend and I looked at each other, gulping simultaneously and reflexively squeezed each other’s hand. An anxious murmur rose up from among the passengers; the sound quickly reaching a fever pitch then subsiding into near silence as the gravity of our situation began to sink in. The businessman across the aisle started to furiously scribble what looked like a will on a pad of yellow foolscap. The look of panic was clearly visible on the faces of the flight attendants, eroding my already tentative composure even further. To make matters worse, a baby started shrieking uncontrollably somewhere near the back of the plane, piercing the protective bubble of the apprehension-laden silence.
I still couldn’t really believe it. One minute I’m absorbed in an idle fantasy about a computer game and the next I’m locked into a countdown toward my possible death.
Despite being forced to wince in time to the supersonic shrieks of the baby, the relative physical comfort of the situation made it all the more surreal— I was still sipping my orange juice, the weather outside remained scintillatingly beautiful and the air currents hadn’t even the slightest hint of turbulence. Below us, I could see the people of Manhattan busily coming and going, blithely unaware of our dire predicament.
We circled and we circled for what seemed like an eternity, burning off fuel to make us less flammable should the landing gear fail when we hit the runway. Our endless circuit around Lower Manhattan was giving the Twin Towers a kind of meditative quality; their hulking rectangularity the focal point for our sombre jet age procession around a vast and invisible cloister of the sky.
I’m on a plane, I’m circling the World Trade Center and I may die within the hour. Those were the simple facts to which my previously complicated life had now been reduced. Of course it might all work out, but the moment of truth—that bifurcation point between knowing and not knowing, dying or not dying— would happen in an instant.
My girlfriend, still squeezing my hand, turned to me and muttered “This sucks,” through tightly clenched teeth. “It does,” I replied, somewhat disheartened that this was indeed the most profound thing I could come up with.
The PA crackled and everyone’s heads bolted up to listen:
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We will be going to try to land at JFK instead of LaGuardia because of the longer runways available to us there. We believe we have isolated the problem to our front landing gear. We’ll take an initial pass over JFK and then make our final approach to land. Your flight attendants will be giving you further instructions. Thank-you for your patience.”
Thank-you for your patience? I suddenly had all the time in the world. Given the uncertainty involved, I wasn’t exactly in a rush to hit the runway.
The PA came on again. It was a flight attendant.
“Ladies and gentlemen, If you have not already done so, we require that you return your seat backs into their upright, locked position, stow your tray tables into the seat back in front of you and fasten your seat belts.” Most of us were still strapped in preparation for our aborted first landing, so it was kind of a moot point.
As promised, we veered off from our tight holding pattern around Lower Manhattan and headed southeast toward Jamaica Bay. We were over JFK within minutes and started descending rapidly, the viscosity of the air thundering against our extended wing flaps. It looked as if there were no planes moving anywhere along JFK’s great quadrangle&mash;quite unusual given that I knew it to be one of the busiest airports in the world.
We came in extremely low, just over the longest of the runways, around which I could see a rather disturbing amount of activity, evidently on our behalf.
Both sides were lined with yellow emergency vehicles, flashing their lights, with knots of what appeared to be firefighters or paramedics milling around them. Someone was spraying fire retardant foam onto the runway from a long hose attached to a tanker truck.
We climbed again, this time in a steep vortex along the airport’s ring of terminal buildings, ascending rapidly, then levelling out. I was already eyeing the American Airlines air sickness bag that was sticking out of the seat pocket in front of me, thinking I would be needing it imminently. The piece of hard candy I was sucking on, which the flight attendant had handed out earlier, tasted like a mothball and my stomach was lurching in a kind of energetic Romanian gymnastics routine.
The flight attendant’s voice came over the PA again, clearly nervous beneath her obsequious professionalism.
“Ladies and gentlemen, in a few minutes we will be making our final approach to JFK. In preparation we ask you to remove your eyeglasses, and bend forward, bracing your hands on the seat back in front of you or if you cannot reach it, put your head down as far as possible and wrap your arms around your knees. And while we’re doing that let’s all take a deep breath and think of the holidays.”
The holidays? And here I was thinking about what would happen when we hit the runway and the wheels collapse. Perhaps I was being too negative or maybe I was missing something here but wasn’t it a distinct possibility that we could all fucking die here? The holidays indeed . .
Still circling over JFK, burning off the last iota of lethally flammable fuel, I felt a curious blankness descend over me. I had always expected in such a situation that my life would flash in front of my eyes or that I would have some profound last minute insight into the meaning of my existence— but nothing, absolutely nothing, except for a vague feeling of having been somehow cheated. I turned to my girlfriend and asked her what was going through her mind. “I need a drink,” she said. Although it was just shy of 10 am, I guess I couldn’t blame her.
The cabin warning chime sounded three times and the flight attendants started mincing down the aisle to make sure that we had all correctly prostrated ourselves into the crash position. I could hear someone quietly weeping a few of seats back, although it was mostly masked by the as yet unabated cacophony emanating from the back row baby. By now its shrieking had reach such a skeweringly high pitch that I felt as if someone was performing unanesthetisized brain surgery on me, driving a knitting needle through each of my ear drums. Death would at least liberate me from this, I realized, feeling oddly relieved.
The chime sounded three more times. The cabin crew scurried away, presumably to take up their own impact resistant postures somewhere in the much safer, back part of the plane. I was left to contemplate a close up view of my goat-like knobby, knees, bulging up from beneath my black Levis 501’s. Where my knees the last thing I would ever see in this life? I was hoping I’d at least get to see the Galapagos Islands. It seemed hopeless
I could feel the nose of the aircraft tilt forward sharply. The hydraulics whined as the pilot deployed the spoilers followed by a throbbing white noise rumble as they raked the air to decrease our speed. This was it. We were making our final descent. I took my girlfriend’s hand. Turning her head, she looked at me with an ironic expression and said:
“Well, it’s been nice knowing you!”
“Likewise sweetheart. Um, I didn’t think it would end this way,” I replied in the same nonplussed tone, feeling completely inadequate in the last minute consolation department.
We continued to descend, the roar of the turbines stepping up in pitch as our altitude fell in bursty, vertiginous increments. It was as if we were being rolled down an invisible flight of stairs with our faces on our laps, knowing that the last step would be a doozy or that there might not even ”be” a last step and we would be cast into a flaming pit. It also seemed to be taking an inordinately long amount of time. Not that I was bored exactly. Just anxious.
Then suddenly, just as the whining of engines and the roaring of disturbed air had reached a crescendo, I had the sensation, still staring at my knees, we had levelled out. I popped up from my crash position to look out the window. What the hell, I thought, I really haven’t got anything more to lose here, except my life. I was surprised to see that we were hurtling just a few metres over the runway, like a great pop-riveted metallic swallow delicately skimming across a tranquil morning pond. I could see the emergency vehicles, the fire crews, the mounds of frothy flame retardant almost level with my window and then—
The back wheels touched down. We were still moving along at an extremely high speed. The pilot was keeping the aircraft’s nose in the air until the absolute last second, like a kid popping a wheelie on a bicycle, in case the front wheels were to buckle on contact with the ground. The thrust reversers deployed, opening behind each engine like the stiff metal petals of machine age flowers, redirecting the hot blast of our exhaust gases forward into a deafening rumble of tortured air. The airframe shuddered with the rapid deceleration and I could feel my weight pulling forward into the seat back in front of me, as I pushed back hard with my hands.
The front wheel hit the runway and within a few metres, we rolled to a full and sudden stop.
Yes there was some applause. The baby even stopped crying for a minute or two as a yellow emergency vehicle raced over with a large metal brace, which was summarily jammed under the front of the plane. But basically, all of us, including the by now dishevelled looking cabin crew, wanted nothing more urgently then to get off that plane. The doors were flung open without any of the usual time-consuming formalities and we all shuffled, shell-shocked out onto the tarmac and into the golden light of the Atlantic winter morning.
We were ferried by bus to a distant terminal building, which when got there proved ethereally empty, giving it the unsettling feeling of being some kind of way station to an afterlife we thought we had temporarily avoided. All the other incoming flights had been held back at JFK, pending the outcome of our uncertain landing and it felt like our plane load of passengers had arrived, like the exhausted protagonist in Chris Marker’s La Jetee, not from another place, but from another time.
We must have gone through some perfunctory immigration and baggage procedures, but my level of delirium was such that I must have completely somnambulated through it.
Somehow we found ourselves on another bus heading toward Manhattan. I remember fumbling at the bottom of my knapsack, looking for my movie camera, thinking that if I filmed the landscape as it went by, it might somehow mechanically corroborate that we were still alive. I was a little sketchy on why this was so, but deeply convinced it was necessary. After filming the expanse of cemeteries on the Long Island Expressway with the Twin Towers looming in the distance, I collapsed into catatonic sleep. I was awoken by my girlfriend tugging at my shoulder, just as our bus pulled up outside Grand Central Station.