New Heathens

Ten Years Ago Today

On Sept. 1, 2001 I moved to New York City from Missoula, MT, a nifty mountain town where I was born and raised. I had never  visited the northeast until I looked out my plane window at Manhattan sparkling below me and then took a nerve-wracking cab ride from JFK airport through gnarly 125th street to a stuffy Harlem sublet where I met a high school friend who would be my first roommate in the city.

The previous night I’d gone out on a farewell tour of my favorite Missoula bars with a bevy of friends. I wore white jeans, black cowboy boots, a rattlesnake skin belt and a long, silver scarf. As I danced my last bastardized jitterbugs to my favorite honky-tonk bands, a series of friends, years my senior, pulled me aside and gave me advice. They knew I was off to a world far different than the one I’d known.

“Every day in New York you’re going to see things that blow your mind,” they said. “Things we can’t even prepare you for, things you won’t be able to fathom or believe.”

September 11th was my second day of work as an unpaid intern at Rolling Stone magazine; the reason I moved to New York. My main concern that Tuesday morning was getting on the right subway. Around 8:30 a.m., I left my grimy, one-bedroom apartment on 141st Street in Central Harlem, a block that was like a photo negative of my old reality, and boarded the 2 Train at 145th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard.

After I transferred to the 1 train at 96th Street, passengers just getting on board shared wild news.

“Did you hear? A small plane just crashed into the one of the World Trade Center towers.”

Then at 72ndth Street, from new passengers:

“It was actually two planes, a small one and then another one behind it, carrying a bomb.”

Then at 59th Street, more updates:

“It was one full-sized passenger plane.”

By the time I got out at 53rd and 7th the story going around my subway car was that two passenger planes had hit both towers.

I checked in at Rolling Stone, stepping inside editor Jann Wenner’s office for the one and only time during my nine-month stint there (he had the biggest TV). Then I employed instincts that would go on to serve me well as a stringer for the New York Times. I tried to try and get as close to the scene as I could.

I walked south on 5th Avenue toward that gray mess of smoke that covered the southern end of the island. I made it a few miles, as far down as Canal Street, where police set up a blockade. The curtain of smoke stretched almost to this boundary, and from it I watched ghostly figures emerge, men and women in business attire caked in pale dust. The men carried their briefcases, the women carried their shoes.

I watched for most of that morning and afternoon. Crowds gathered anywhere a car blasted a news report and also around every store with a TV. I gleaned that something momentous, something tragically historic just happened. As I walked back I remember being surprised by normalcy. People lunched at outdoor cafes. They walked dogs. They jogged. Parched from a day spent walking under a hot sun, I bought a can of grape soda for a dollar from a sidewalk vendor and puzzled as I guzzled at how I should be able to do such a thing on that kind of a day.

I even watched people pose for pictures in front of the wounded sky. They stood in the middle of the traffic-less streets, affixed their grinning mugs before the smoke and squeezed off souvenirs. Before I set out on my walk, I put a disposable camera in my pocket, but I never took it out. I knew people had died. I thought taking snapshots would be rude.

When it was happening, when I turned the corner to 6th Avenue from 53rd Street and became part of the sea of people who watched the inferno, I remember one scene above all the others. I saw those two skyscrapers belching plumes of gray smoke like giant, angry cigarettes. I watched the one on the left quiver for just a moment and then collapse into nothing. All I heard were sirens.

I was dumbfounded. All I could think of were the last words I heard before I left Montana, that I would see things every day in New York City that would blow my mind; things I could neither fathom nor believe.

Could this be what they were talking about?

I turned to a man next to me. He had his cell phone to his ear and like countless others was agape at what was happening. I asked him one question.

“Do things like this happen often in New York?”

Needless to say, he didn't answer me. He gave me a quick, pained glance that communicated the gulf between our understandings.

Today I think about the 2,977 Sept. 11th victims, including five that I profiled in Rolling Stone. Their stories were the first pieces I ever wrote for a major publication and the reporting signaled to me that I was better suited to write about hard news rather than music.

I also give thanks to the nearly 7,000 coalition soldiers, and remember the countless Iraqi and Afghani civilians, that died in the wars that Sept. 11th ushered.

And I think about myself then -- 22, clueless, homesick, in for some years of hardship – and now. Were the towers still standing, I would be able to see them from my new living room, this nook where I’ve put down roots and learned to manage my Montana pangs with rock ‘n’ roll and maybe an occasional book about trout.

Since I moved to New York just days before the towers fell, I tend to check off each new year I've lived here on Sept. 11th. This year I just got back from a grand Montana adventure; and it was glorious. But I'm still glad my home is in New York City. I kinda' figure that Al Qaeda tried to get me out within days of my arrival. If that couldn't get me to leave, not a lot could.

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  1. Nice article Mr. Nate…we be proud of you!

  2. Incredible story, Nare. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Yes, thank you, Nate. I cannot even begin to imagine.

  4. One word…wow!

  5. Nate, you do wonderful work. I always knew you would because you had insights way beyond the average 8th grader when we played an accompaniment-tuba/piano for Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer. I loved your humor then and your mind is still going in a million directions with great insight.

  6. This is a splendid piece. As your Papa’s friend of yesteryear, I hear his narrative about life. You sharpened your mind and honed your skill, so very well.

  7. An eventful 10 years for you – you have grown in so may ways and we are so proud of you and your work.

  8. Nana’s comment does not go far enough in telling you how proud and fortunate we are to be your grandparents. You are a complete and productive adult-adolecsence is far far behind you. You retain a sense of adventure and an ability to view the world around you with wit, wisdom and aretention of a sense of wonder. GO Nate!!!

  9. Amazing, well-written remembrance of that tragic, historic day and its impact on your life & career!

  10. “Now I know, ‘Spanish Harlem’ are not just pretty words to say.
    I thought I knew, but now I know that rose trees never grow, in New York City…
    …for unless they see the sky, but they can’t and that is why, they know not if it’s dark outside or light.”
    -Bernie Taupin

    I thank the lord there are people out there like you, Nate.

  11. Damn, Nate. You’re a *good* writer.

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