The Deceptive Calm of a Cerulean Sky
By Naomi Serviss
I’ve dreaded this calendar week for 20 years.
The images haunted my dreams, almost wrecking my morning walks.
Who could fathom the horror unleashed?
Twenty years and a lifetime ago my family lived on Long Island.
My husband Lew was the New York Times' Metro Desk slot editor.
He worked nights.
I was a freelance entertainment/travel writer.
Our kids Emmy and Ben were teenagers.
September 11, 2001 was an election day.
A grueling slog ahead for Lew at the paper.
Here’s kind of a funny-not-ha-ha-funny thing:
We had no television.
After hockey season ended, we ditched the tube.
We were not in the loop that cerulean blue morning.
The phone rang unexpectedly.
It was my friend Diana, calm but forceful.
“Turn on your television.”
“We got rid of it.”
Diana said a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.
She saw it on TV.
A chill buzzed my lower back. She was dead serious.
Adrenalin racing, I tore out the front door and ran to neighbors across the street.
After an interminable amount of time ringing their bell and knocking hard on the door, it opened.
In a burst, I pleaded “Turn on the television now!”
We ran downstairs in the basement where the television lived.
We gasped, horrified, as we watched the second plane hit.
It seemed like an elaborate, very bad hoax.
How could this be happening?
Then I remembered Lew had to get to work fast!
I went back to the house and up the stairs to our bedroom.
He was tight asleep.
Unaware and at peace.
I gently rubbed his arm and one eyelid slowly peeped.
“I’ll be up all night with the election. Let me sleep some more, please,” he implored.
It was tempting to let him linger a bit longer, in ignorant bliss.
But my journalistic juices were running as I knew would his.
Lew drove to Queens and ditched the car.
He threaded through
an endless wave of dust-encrusted, shocked human forms
seeking refuge across the 59th Street Bridge.
He made it to The Times’ W. 43rd St. office and work began.
Our collective memories have been seared into history books.
I hope they don’t become footnotes.
Thomas F. Flynn, a CBS broadcast journalist and author of the epic poem, Bikeman,
then lived in Lower Manhattan.
Flynn’s stunning first-hand testament morphs human tragedy into art.
He will always be haunted by what he saw.
Flynn bicycled fast to the horrid scene,
fueled by adrenaline and the acrid smells in the air.
His reporter’s instinct drove him urgently.
The great smoldering maw
was dubbed, “The Pit from Hell”
He wanted to get on the fresh scene
before police cars and ambulances
flooded the streets and curtailed access.
Bikeman is an homage to Dante’s Inferno
as only a poet-journalist would write.
It was produced as a play in 2014 and starred Robert Cuccioli, a veteran Broadway actor.
He starred in Les Mis and Jekyll
& Hyde, among daring off-Broadway work.
Since the pandemic, he’s been active
in several virtual Irish Repertory Theatre productions.
A new project is an immersive audio version of Bikeman, available on the irishrep.org website.
Flynn and Cuccioli reunited on September 10th,
for an abbreviated
narration of the epic poem.
And a little Q&A after.
The memorial event was hosted by the Lincoln Center’s Performing Arts Library.
The simple production took flight
on the library’s terrace overlooking Amsterdam Avenue.
The sky eerily echoed the dazzling blue of 20 years past.
“It is a harsh attack, unsafe, unkind. Hastily, and with a purpose, I load the journalist’s tools: pen, note pad, phone, into a bag. “I am off to the towers. Go. Go. Go.” “I board my bicycle and pedal toward the unnatural clouds rising into the trembling sky.”
An audience of about 75 friends of the arts and library patrons
sat on unforgiving plastic chairs beneath
a simmering September midday sun.
Cuccioli’s narration was masterful.
He expertly waited out
piercing ambulance sirens
and blaring truck horns.
Afterwards, he chatted with friends and colleagues.
Lew had an opportunity to chat with Flynn, who listened eagerly
to Lew’s trauma that day and its aftermath.
I went into the city a few days after the attacks.
Not about to pass up my tickets to see the off-Broadway play, Love, Janis.
Walking to the theater
hundreds of missing persons posters were plastered
on every available wall or pole.
I’ll always remember the camaraderie of those walking in the city.
Strangers smiled and
said encouraging words.
We were all in it together.
A million “I Love New York” tee shirts
On the sidewalks in front of
Times Square tourist shops.
Little American flags appeared ($3 for $1)
and I felt a compulsion to buy some.
I still don’t know why I did.
Naomi Serviss is a New York-based award-winning journalist whose work has been published in The New York Times, Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Highroads (AAA magazine), in-flight publications, spa and travel magazines and websites, including BroadwayWorld.com