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A Friend's Scar

Notes from Clifford A. Pearson Senior Editor

My wife and I weren’t sure we wanted to be on the “right” side of the plane. Like everyone else, we had seen all the television footage of the towers being hit, the towers on fire, the towers crumbling. We had seen the shots of wreckage piled seven stories high and the rescue crews crawling through it. After a week in the Canadian Rockies, surrounded by unspeakable beauty, we were coming home to New York, unsure if we were ready to see the horror firsthand.

We live just 20 blocks north of the Trade Center and had always told visitors to our apartment in Greenwich Village to look for the twin towers when they got out of the subway. Can’t use those directions anymore. The Trade Center wasn’t a beloved landmark of mine, but it was handy and was a distant but reassuring presence in our lives. In the 23 years I had lived in New York, it had always been there. So in my mental map it was as permanent as the Empire State Building or City Hall or Central Park. Like a lot of friends, it might not have been the best of its class or the most popular, but it was reliable. Always there. As I get older, I value that more.

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As our plane approached the New York, we saw the East River come into view. It was past 10 pm and the lights of the city sparkled through the crisp clear night sky. Many of the great buildings, however, weren’t shining that night. As precautionary measures, the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Citicorp, and other architectural icons were kept dark. They seemed to be in mourning, dressed in black, for their lost colleague. The plane headed south and we braced ourselves for the shock of seeing the familiar skyline disfigured. The first time you see a friend’s scar is always the worst, I told myself. Eventually, you get used to it, don’t notice it anymore. Right?

We saw the cloud at the same moment, a soft blur illuminated by batteries of cold floodlights. It looked like a cauldron filled with dry ice: part special effect, part vision of hell. It was quiet but angry, dwarfed by the towers still standing but profound in the absence it represented. We couldn’t stop looking at the vapor that once was steel and glass, gypsum and stone. The twin monoliths had literally disappeared in a puff of smoke.

Then the plane banked and it was gone.

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