The Hole I Cannot See: Smoke and Fragments in New York City

Laura Hinton


My piece was written during October 2001, during a time of illness.  It was part of my indirect attempt to acquire a language to express physical illness, to gain an interior vision of the dislocations of body and mind.  This dislocation seemed to me tragically mirrored in the urban atmosphere that was the aftermath of the attacks upon the City of New York, where I reside, and continue to work and teach.

You saw nothing in Hiroshima.

                        — Screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour
                             Marguerite Duras



Like the majority of New Yorkers on the morning of September 11, what I saw, or did not see, was what I viewed on my TV screen. Many report that seeing those commercial jetliners crash into the World Trade Center towers, then watching them fall like paper fans, created an odd sense of déjà vu, of having seen that movie before.

            It was not like a movie to me.

            I saw nothing.

I rehearse again and again what I saw or did not see September 11. I make words serve as placeholders for the hole in what I perceived. I must have fed my crying cats that morning of the 11th. I must have tried to feed myself, determined to go about some physical order of the day.  I decided I should eat breakfast. Blueberries in cereal would be nice. I ventured down my walk-up apartment building to cross Third Avenue for the Korean deli. Hit by a sudden wave of light, I was hit by another wave, that of people marching up the street. People in suits with haircuts, women in high heels toting briefcases. People who did not belong to my no-name Manhattan neighborhood. Buy berries, I told myself, trying not to stare. Lingering in the light, I became one with the strangers streaming up the avenue, flowing like a river running backwards, like salmon swimming upstream.

They were the downtown survivors. Polished, dressed, they brought with them the ashen black smoke that filled the widening sky of lower Manhattan and the hole I could not see. They came out of the belly of the smoke automaton-like, mobilized in their unified stride. Silent, grim, they contrasted against the backdrop of my neighborhood denizens, who perched on corners and stoops, unshaven men, old women with bags, Indian restaurant owners wet from having cleaned their sidewalks.  

I entered the deli. It was bustling with business. Employees struggled to fill orders for take-out sandwiches — although it was not lunchtime — and coffee.  But a heavy silence penetrated the air. People waited in lines all too patiently for New Yorkers. A woman broke the silence, saying to no one in particular, “My mother, I called my mother.” She was walking to her mother’s house on 98th Street. She was wearing high heels.

“Where are you walking from?” I asked. Stupid question. I must have been thinking about blueberries. “I work at the World Trade Center,” she said. I glanced at her elegant, pinched pumps and I wished I could have given her my tattered loafers. But I said nothing.  It was my first venture into the hole, the place where I couldn’t speak. And I no longer could see her anyway, because my eyes had this watery glaze coating them, smearing my glasses lens.

Blinded, gagged, I felt useless to help anyone at all. Uselessness would define the rim of my hole, which now was a vortex. In the hole was a powerful dark channel that had swallowed up my power to activate, to create, to escape.

My will had been metaphorically fragmented into smoke.

The next 24 hours I spent more or less alone. Classes at my university were cancelled. The bridges and tunnels into Manhattan were closed. My son was stuck in Brooklyn, my husband stranded in Westchester.

I did receive an afternoon visit, however, from a long-lost friend.  She called from Penn Station. She had chosen this day to come in to Manhattan from New Jersey to buy her young daughter a snowsuit. The World Trade Center collapsed and she went to Macy’s to buy the snowsuit. She didn’t know what else to do.

Grateful to be helpful to someone, I said to come on over. A few minutes later, sitting on my sofa, she said, “What does one do on doomsday?” Indeed, what does one do?

We went to lunch. 

So while the World Trade Center blazed, we sat in a local restaurant and had a sandwich. Its bar was filled with the strangers in suits, their briefcases strewn haphazardly around tables. People were drinking. Television screens blared everywhere. Every two minutes the World Trade Center towers collapsed and incinerated over and over. Television reporters tried to say something new every time. They repeated themselves, just like the image. Their voices would be over-ridden by the buzz of helicopters circling the air. The strangers sat in small groups drinking and smoking. It was hard to get a sandwich. None of the restaurant’s workers from Queens and Brooklyn could come in to work, so the restaurant owner and a couple of friends were trying to manage everything. They were doing a lousy job. They were quickly running out of food. They charged my credit card someone else’s amount. The sandwich tasted like salt and sand. I couldn’t eat. Every few minutes I hopped from my table and saw some piece of the World Trade Center burn again and turn to dust. I saw the reruns. But I couldn’t stand still long enough to really see.

Alone again in the early evening, I wandered the streets toward lower Manhattan. I went as far as police barricades would permit, to 14th Street, where the cops stood like tin soldiers all on alert. A few people were escorted in and out of the metal barricades, wearing facemasks. Others there at the barricades were snapping photographs. I couldn’t see what they were trying to see through their camera lenses. There was no marked gape in the skyline, for everything was darkness, everything covered in a huge black pall. Then I thought I saw the outline of the World Trade Center towers hovering in the air. It quickly vanished, a mirage of smoke. Of course, I saw nothing.

I worked my way back through Madison Park, where the street people were rolled up in their tattered blankets. There were other people, as well, a crying woman here and there, sitting alone in the descending dark on a park bench, wearing tennis shoes and nylon hose, perhaps a leather bag propped against her. These were the new “homeless.” Perhaps they couldn’t get over the bridge to husbands in New Jersey, perhaps they had lost someone downtown and were searching for him, for her. Really, who were they? Their heads in their hands, they looked unattached to the landscape. Women in nylon hose don’t sit in parks alone, at night, in New York City.

I turned again to see what I wanted to see — the outline of the World Trade Center. The black pall now blended without distinction into the black of the night sky.

I wandered from Madison Park to Gramercy Park, through one of its wrought-iron gates usually closed to outsiders. Tonight, exclusive, lush Gramercy was an open oasis. Inside, students were holding a candlelight vigil. They were singing “Amazing Grace.” I joined them on a chorus of what I would later e-mail my friends was “Amazing Grave.” I had absorbed Mayor Guiliani’s unintended pun from morning television news broadcasts, describing unknown but “grave” casualties.

I had seen the smoke. I knew those people had vaporized.

In the days that would pass, I did not watch TV. I could not watch the towering crematoriums burn and smoke, spin and turn to ash.

But I did read the newspapers in search of information. I wanted questions articulated for which politicians had already made easy answers. Experts on Islam came out the back alleys of university corridors and wrote eloquent columns on the page. Yet I was combing for another sort of information. I was looking for mention of exactly who those people were at the World Trade Center on September 11. I was looking for some understanding of how to interpret so sudden an arrested fate.

I reconstructed stories and put them into my hole. This act was futile. The hole had swept through them. It was growing wider. Stories require a beginning, a middle and an end. We had the beginnings, we had portions of middles. But we had no ends. No closure. Many have no identities. Those engulfed by the World Trade Center are still called the “Missing.” As of now, most have not been legally declared dead.  Relatives wait, hoping for better news.  There are shadows but few bodies. No closure is in sight.

Without bodies, we cling to fragments. I cling to the fragments of stories I read, for example, in the New York Times. There, a daily page, euphemistically entitled, “Portraits of Grief,” provides short eulogies about the World Trade Center’s “Missing.” This page might better be called, “Fragments about the Dead.” It is part of a new Times section published for the occasion of terrorism and war, which, too, bears a euphemism: “A Nation Challenged.” This title might also be more aptly rephrased. I would call it, “A Nation Filled with Anguish and Horror,” or, “The Nation of Paranoia” section.

I open up today’s Times. One “portrait” is about a young Yugoslavian immigrant who had fallen in love with New York City.  He recently had matriculated at Baruch College, one of the colleges constituting the City University of New York. I teach at another CUNY campus. This young Yugoslavian could have been one of my students. He could have been my neighbor. I teach uptown, but I live near Baruch. I could have seen him at the xerox store on Third Avenue, where the students duplicate textbooks at registration. I could have bumped into him at the checkout stand at Duane Reade Drugstore. I could have passed him en route to the subway as he kissed his girlfriend on the corner of Lexington and 26th. According to the girlfriend, “He loved everything” about New York. Apparently, he loved her, too. She is inconsolable.

Then there is the junior high-school sweetheart who did not propose to his wife until they both had turned 26.  When they finally married, the formerly wild party-boy and drifter settled down to a nice steady life as a bonds trader, at Cantor Fitzgerald, in the World Trade Center.

There is the young father that my stepson knew, another Cantor Fitzgerald employee. He would show photos around of his baby girl when coming in on his New Jersey train. His wife was quoted as saying, “He was enamored of fatherhood.” He wanted nothing more than to be at home with his new daughter.

There was the fireman who also loved to paint. There was the police officer who spoke four languages and worked part-time as a translator. There was a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker. There was a security guard who would feed the homeless every week at his Seventh Day Adventist Church.

These are the Missing, whose lives we try to narrate, as we excavate them, piecemeal, from newspaper accounts. We see their smiling faces everywhere on posters around town. These paper fliers, announcing they are “Missing,” are tacked to walls, to store fronts, to light posts, to telephone booths — the sexy glances of the “Missing” catch my eye as I pass the New York Armory at Lexington.  The Armory was made an official “Crisis Center” in the first days after September 11. Two blocks from my apartment, it was the place to which family members were asked to bring toothbrushes and hairbrushes, along with descriptions of their “Missing.” Innovative family members brought fliers, too, then vied for the media cameras and sensational spotlights that flooded street corners around Lexington for days. They thrust their “Missing’s” smiling photograph into the media’s face. They did not smile themselves.

Along the brick wall of the Armory, the fliers begin to shred and peel.  The family members and the media are long gone. But the “Missing” fliers remain, a shrill call for help. “Anyone know Diane?” Or, “Call if you have information about William.” “Diane,” we learn, was born in upstate New York in 1964. She would have been 38 years old when she joined the Missing. A handsome man of 28, William, we learn, is a father of two, who worked as an accountant on the north tower’s 92nd floor. Call his wife if you have any information, his flier pleads. Information?  I have none. Increasingly whipped by fall winds, some of the letters in “Missing”disintegrate, losing an “h” or an “n.” The faces of the “Missing,” however, steadfastly smile on.

The hole where the World Trade Center stood is hallowed ground. They are talking about making what was once the World Trade Center a memorial site.  But, of course, they also want to rebuild Manhattan’s prime office space; they want to rekindle the economic energy of a dying downtown. Politicians speak out of two sides of their mouth, as the fragments of the World Trade Center are moved in truckloads to a Staten Island city dump site. There, on Staten Island, they sift for pieces of identifiable objects. Retired police detectives and other volunteers pass gloved hands tenderly through rubble moving along a conveyor belt. They feel for fragments of a leather shoe or golden ring. On a good day, they find a warped police badge or a credit card whose numbers are intact.

This is the Amazing Grave of Staten Island, where they also find pieces of bone welded to fragments of fabric and steel.


It is the evening of October 11, 2001.

Tonight, for the first time, I went down to the World Trade Center. To where the World Trade Center once stood.

I went not as a tourist, and not to gawk.

I went to honor the dead who were my neighbors.

I went to Fulton Street and Broadway, where, over the grid-like barriers, the still-standing high rises are masked with huge protective canvas nets like veils of mourning, and where “rescue workers,” who are really rubble diggers, make their way further into a hole I cannot glimpse from Fulton and Broadway, whose cavernous place I can only imagine.

I see the blown-out bits of what must have been World Trade Center 7.  Beyond, I see a hulk of steel that I recognize from newspaper photographs, the remnants of one of the towers.  It does not look like a tower at all. It looks like giant shark teeth propped against a faded sun.

The light becomes, for an instant, falsely luminous, and the twisted gauntlet of steel turns purple, then is shot by rays of pink. Red lights flow on the surface of the Hudson, which one now sees from Fulton and Broadway. Then, red flecks reach the shark’s teeth, more surreal than real.

More nightmarish than dreamlike.

To face the vanishing lights, the traces, of the World Trade Center, I confront the hole I cannot see. The sun dips its belly into the fullness of the new horizon. There are dark eddies and swells and pools. Then the Hudson deepens and becomes part of the sea.


Bio: Laura Hinton is an Associate Professor of English at the City College of New York. She is the author of The Perverse Gaze of Sympathy: Sadomasochistic Sentiments from Clarissa to Rescue 911 (Albany: SUNY Press, 1999), and co-editor (with Cynthia Hogue) of We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics  (University of Alabama Press, 2002).  She has published articles on film, feminist theory, the novel, and experimental women’s writing.

forum index

table of contents