Jake McDonald shares his 9/11 story in Flights and Failures for our Op Ed section.

I’m walking over a bridge with tens of thousands of people of all races, creeds, and ethnicities.  Scared straight, with the fear of the almighty, we move as one.  Altered, I imagine a new life, one of meaning, dedicated to world peace, to common understanding among all peoples.  I’ll live with a higher purpose, with the urgent imperative to transform my individual reality; to participate in a global magnum opus that will reshape the world!  I…

I see the day as a series of scenes.

First, just another morning on Wall Street, and just off the train from Brooklyn, I’m in line at the Country Kitchen cafeteria in the JP Morgan Atrium at 60 Wall.  I’m buying my daily sticky bun and iced coffee, guarantors of at least one small pleasure in what will likely be another day of investors hemorrhaging value amidst a bursting market-bubble inflated by massive conflicts, lies, and greed.   “Choose your poison,” the saying goes.  And while half of Wall Street anesthetizes with Zanex or an under-the-counter drug of choice, I manage money on sticky buns.

Then, I’m chewing and sipping while standing with a bunch of people in the middle of Wall Street looking back, up, and overhead at plumes of black smoke floating against a glorious blue sky.  Reams of paper, pieces of paper, computer printouts of paper, are surprisingly distinguishable within the black streams of smoke, and they’re drifting along, visually stunning, if only a little eerie in their remarkable silence.  I and the guy on my right speculate that there must be a fire on the next block uptown.   Two young women in jeans and backpacks rush

towards us with panicked expressions, and in charming German accents, inform us otherwise:

“A plane hit one of the trade towers.”

“A small plane?”  I ask.

“No.  A big plane.”

In the elevator in my office building on Wall Street, another interesting visual, as I imagine a plane lodged in the side of a tower.  It occurs to me that a pilot, an actual human being, has made a mistake.  But do I even think of his death, of the passengers that must have died, or the people in the towers?


Maybe for a second.  But it’s the visual that holds: two geometric shapes, one collided into the other.  An abstraction.

In the office, my coworkers and I sit around nonchalantly speculating about what’s going on.  We’re a small firm, and Kermit, our president, and Richard, our silver-haired compliance guy, are following the story for the rest of us, time-delayed over the Internet.  We don’t yet have televisions in our new space that we’ve just moved into on another floor, so no CNN effect.  And we face east toward Brooklyn, so we can’t actually see the World Trade Center behind us either.   Most of us prepare for the day, with at least me privately hoping that the market will close.  I’m enjoying my sticky bun, even cautiously enjoying the electricity of this bizarre, unfolding development.  Intermittently, I gaze across the river at Brooklyn Heights against a cerulean sky.

What a gorgeous day.

Then we learn that a second plane has hit a second tower.  It’s clear now that these crashes have been by design.   Someone says the word “commandeered.”   I struggle to remember its precise meaning.  Kermit announces, “The market will be closed.  Anyone who wishes can go home.  Though you’re all welcome to stay here, if you feel safer together.”

Stay?  We’re still not really getting it.  Richard pivots his monitor to show us an image of President Bush being whispered the news of the morning’s events in his ear as he’s sitting in a classroom full of 2nd graders in FLA.  He’s striking a serious expression that comes off looking forced and ridiculous, as he looks more at home with the unaware school kids than he does prepared to deal with the enormity of what this all could be.  But there we hip NYC liberals are, laughing at him, smug in our sophistication, sitting cavalierly just around the corner from the target – the world’s two largest buildings, now blazing infernos.

My dad calls from Massachusetts.   “Lower Manhattan is under attack.  Get the hell out of there and call me as soon as you can.”   He was in law enforcement, I think to myself.  He knows how to recognize danger.  He’s also watching it on TV and clearly has a greater appreciation for what’s going on.  But none of my coworkers are leaving, and I hang up thinking he’s overreacting.  Living in the big city, we’re accustomed to big stuff happening around us.  We don’t get riled up too easily.

Then the sound of a huge explosion, our building shakes violently, the lights flicker on and off, Richard yells, “They got the Stock Exchange.”

The stock exchange is right across the street.  I become my Dad.  “Kermit, that’s it. We’re obviously under attack.  Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

Next scene, exterior, a vortex of soot, ash and black smoke cascades down Wall Street enveloping the slower amongst the herds of people running in its sweep.  The George Washington statue at the site of the country’s first inaugural is shrouded in smoke.  Wall Street’s ubiquitous American flags helplessly surrender to the all-encompassing soot.  Just one coworker has followed me outside, our office manager, John.  Telling me it’s unused, he tears a handkerchief apart, and gives me half.   How bout that?  John carries a handkerchief, the perfect accessory.  And I receive my half not entirely unlike an actor grateful to be handed the perfect prop for his next scene, because this can’t be real.

Hands with kerchiefs to mouths, we’re running with hundreds of others toward the East River where uniformed service people from God knows what branches of federal, state, and local authorities are evacuating people onto boats.  There are John and I, in line for a boat to take us off the island, and we learn that the stock exchange hasn’t been hit after all.  That explosion wasn’t an explosion.  It was the sound of a trade tower collapsing.

What?  Huh?  That hadn’t even occurred to me.  It wouldn’t have occurred to me had three planes been lodged in each tower.

And I couldn’t decide if I liked the trade-off anyway:  the comforting knowledge that the explosion wasn’t that of a still ongoing attack, exchanged for the information that a tower was effectively no more.  The very architecture of my mind was now under attack, as I struggled mentally to visualize this new landscape.  Instinctively, I’d already retreated far from it.

“They just got the Pentagon,” says the guy next to me with headphones.   So we are under ongoing attack!  So much for the trade-off, and it’s not just here.  They’ve gotten the Pentagon? The Pentagon.

Meanwhile, you can determine the earlier proximity to the towers of the people around you, based on how high the soot is on their bodies.  A lot of the people covered head-to-toe have blood caked on as well.

Coastguardsmen assure us through blow horns that the planes we can hardly see overhead are ours.  Not to panic.  None of us do.   We can’t.  We’re in an emotional no-man’s land.  Like in a purgatory of stupefying confusion, we’re stuck between two places: a surreal film and reality itself.

Only this time, the real is depicting the surreal.  And in the swirl of smoke and planes and blow horns and soot and disbelief, John turns to me, lowers the hanky from his mouth, makes deliberate eye contact, and says, “You know, our lives have changed forever.”

In the space of half a second I go from thinking, “Boy John really is more the dramatic type gay man than I thought,” to “he’s absolutely right.”

We don’t take the boat to Jersey.  I actually feel guilty about having left coworkers behind.  This is a character-defining moment, I think, and I’ve acted ignobly.  I insist that I walk back to the office and attempt to get the others to leave.  Maybe I’m the dramatic one.  John comes with me.  The building is locked.  But we’ve tried.  We walk up town on the FDR.

A rather large, black, overweight woman walking next to me, half covered in soot, with a West Indian accent, rants.  “This is just the beginning.  This is a wake-up call from God.  It is time for the US to pay for its sins.  The stock market will tumble, buildings will topple, God will visit justice on the land of greed.”

And I think, where the hell’s she been?   The market’s already crashed.

Another massive explosion.

“Tower number two,” says John.

I give him an “of course, that’s what it was” kind of look.  But truth be told, I hadn’t even conceived of that either – my imagination’s inhospitality to even the simplest of destruction’s logic.

Though not for long.

Calculating that the Brooklyn Bridge is an iconic landmark and more likely a target, I take the Manhattan Bridge home, instead.

I’m with thousands of people of all races, creeds, and ethnicities.  Three professionally dressed African-American women walk behind me.  The gist of their conversation is that people are pissed-off at us, probably in the Middle East, and we, the US Government, have got to stop bullying so many people.

I begin thinking that this has all changed my life.  It’s the final coups-de-gras of my stint on Wall Street.  I’ll see my clients through whatever ensues from this.  But this is a wake-up call.  I imagine an entirely new life: one that has meaning.  I’ll dedicate it to world peace, to common understanding among all peoples.   I’ll be broke, but I won’t care.  I’ll live with a higher purpose, with an urgency and passion.  Wall Street is corrupt.  It is about greed.  This day is a tragedy, but one long in the making.  It’s also an opportunity, an imperative to transform my individual reality and to participate in a larger conversation that can reshape the world.  There is great work to be done.  I’ll be part of it!

It’s October 2003.  I’m still a broker living in New York.  It’s comfortable.  I did march in the anti-war demonstrations to little avail.  I believe our government is pissing-off allot of people, but what can I do about it?  I can’t change the world.  And I realize that in this regard, my imagination is failing.  Its flights of 9/11 have been grounded by the sticky-buns of capitalist comforts.

At least until the next wake-up call.


Staring up at the One World Trade Center, the main building of the rebuilt World Trade Center complex in Lower Manhattan, New York City. It opened November 3, 2014.