The Twin Towers: A Personal History in Four Parts


by Erika Dreifus

AUGUST 7, 1974

I am five years old. Each morning a yellow van stops in front of our south Brooklyn apartment building.  On the ride over to my summer camp in Manhattan Beach I listen to the radio voice talk about the new Twin Towers, and the amazing event that has just transpired there: A man from France has crossed the space between the top of the North and South Towers by walking across a steel cable. Soon, I will see the Towers myself, because my father works nearby, and I am big enough to visit his office and play with the typewriters. He will work at that same office even after we move to New Jersey in 1978, and will continue to pass through the World Trade Center PATH station until he accepts a position at a midtown firm four years later.

SEPTEMBER 16, 1984

My parents host a special celebration, a “180th Birthday” party, marking a year in which my father turns 40 and both his parents, my Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Sam, turn 70. The festivities take place at Windows on the World, the restaurant located on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Naturally, my mother’s mother, my Grandma Rose, is among the guests. Although she hides it behind a crisp dress and under a stylish hat, and smiles as she sits beside me in front of an eponymous window for a photograph, she is not well. The next day she is admitted to New York Hospital. She will die there on September 30. My cousins, my sister, and I will not be allowed to visit her in the hospital, and our customs do not include viewing the dead. I am glad I have that last photo from Windows on the World.

SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

My father no longer commutes by train. He drives to and from midtown Manhattan each day, and he tries to avoid traffic. When American Airlines Flight 11 hits the North Tower, he is already at his desk midtown; my mother is back in New Jersey, visiting my cousin’s new baby; and my sister, a graduate student at Columbia’s School of Public Health, is preparing to leave for class.  Once my sister knows that both Dad and her boyfriend are safe (in fact, they will both walk the blocks to her Upper East Side apartment; my father cannot drive home and my future brother-in-law cannot return to his apartment downtown), she is able to reach Grandma Ruth, now a widow ensconced happily enough in an assisted living residence near our parents, on the telephone. They speak while they watch CNN; they witness the collapse of the North Tower together at 10:28AM. Grandma has always told us that her first memory is of hiding in the cellar while the Allies bombed the factories near her German hometown during the First World War. Since she, too, will be gone within five months, September 11 will be among her last.

I am in Cambridge. I am teaching. I don’t discover what has happened until, on a break later that morning, I check e-mail at the humanities building’s kiosk.

SEPTEMBER 29, 2007

I have been living in Manhattan for eight months. I’ve reconnected with a friend who now resides in Jersey City, and have been invited to a dinner party she and her husband are hosting at their home. My route to her house will begin on the Upper East Side, cross town to catch the C Train to Chambers Street, and proceed to the PATH train departing from the new World Trade Center station. I realize: I’ve seen Ground Zero many times these past months, but only from the safe distance of a passenger window in a car. I have not yet found the need—or the courage—to get up close and personal.

Now there’s little choice. It’s still light when we leave the station. Some fellow passengers—tourists, I suspect—snap photographs of the view. We are beneath ground level, but space yawns around us. I see cranes and tractors and machines I can’t identify; I see dust and dirt and metal and more.

After dessert the return trip begins. It’s eleven o’clock. Dark. The train snakes back into the World Trade Center station.  Everything is illuminated with spotlights. It seems Ground Zero does not sleep. By the time I’m home it’s past midnight. Despite the several glasses of wine I’ve consumed, I’m not sleepy, either.


A version of this essay was originally published in Quay 2.2 (July-December 2008).