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by Philip Martin | September 12, 2021 at 2:29 a.m.

I woke up groggy on the morning of Sept. 12, 2001.

I'd taken an Ambien the night before. It hadn't really worked but had given me a bit of a zolpidem hangover. Since commercial airspace was shut down, I spent the wee hours making futile calls to various rental car places around Toronto and finding that they'd all been booked, presumably by the Hollywood elite trying to make it back to Los Angeles from the Toronto International Film Festival.

Then Karen suggested we try the bus station.

I didn't want to; the last thing we'd heard was that the border was closed indefinitely. I was willing to accept that, to lay down and give myself over to oblivion. After all, it was the day after a hole had been blown in the world. It was the day after everything had changed forever. I wanted sleep.

I fought it off and called the Greyhound station. They had a bus scheduled to Buffalo, N.Y., leaving later that morning. Actually it was running to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, to St. Catharines. Normally passengers could change to another bus to take them into Buffalo, but nobody was sure that we'd be allowed to cross the border. This was the first bus they were sending that way since the attacks; we were welcome to try.

There were hotels in St. Catharines. It was better to move than stand still. So we got our rolling bags--in those days we typically spent five to seven days at the Toronto film festival--and walked the mile and a half downtown to the station.

We got on the bus with 12 other people. Most of them were like us, inexperienced bus riders. One guy had his golf clubs stowed beneath the bus. Another guy had one of those big tennis bags like the pros use that could hold a dozen rackets and a couple of changes of clothes. We were all subdued and gentle with each other.

It was an easy ride, maybe a little more than an hour. When we got to the station, the border guards and customs agents seemed surprised to see us. They waved us across with little fuss; it took about 10 minutes for all 14 of us to clear customs and board another bus bound for Buffalo. No one looked in the golf bag or the tennis bag or into my rolling bag. Nothing was unzipped or swabbed.

The New York sky was blue and touched here and there by high faint clouds, the kind that disappear when you look at them for long. It was the same as the Canadian sky, but the American air was different, freighted with the melancholy and familiar. We were surprised to feel relieved to be home.

When I was very young, we lived for a couple of years near Buffalo, closer to Syracuse. I have a vague memory of a visit to the city, a porthole window in a small restaurant or maybe a tavern, men in hats on the street, crunching snow and Christmas lights. Was that enough to provoke deja vu, or was it the drug still beating in my bloodstream that made me want to cry?

We bought sandwiches at a pretty little downtown shop on a square near the bus station and waited about an hour to board a bus to Cleveland. Its route followed the underside of Lake Erie past prisons that looked like high schools and high schools that looked like prisons.

There were single mothers with children and an older couple, the 80-year-old husband dressed in his old Navy uniform. There was a salesman named Mohammed on his way to meet clients in Cincinnati and then in Birmingham, Ala.

Karen dozed. I took out a notebook and a pencil and wrote a column. Her father met us at the bus station in downtown Cleveland and drove us back to his place where we did laundry and ate takeout pizza. There were no ball games to watch.

The next morning we booked the last Chevy Cavalier available and drove straight through, 131/2 hours to Little Rock. We listened to NPR and watched the empty skies.

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Three months later we were standing before the raw wound between Church and West streets in lower Manhattan. There was a smell, the exact same smell I'd encountered a few years ago when I used a Dremel tool to saw through a large ham bone someone had given our dogs. An organic tang hung in the air, it sliced through the traffic noise and stung my eyes.

It looked about the same as it had on television, though we caught it in the improbable slanting gold rum light of a late autumn afternoon, a light that turned the chaos beautiful.

It was still warm in early December. Someone said God deferred winter for the sake of the workers. If He'd do that, then why didn't he forestall the attack? Better to leave God out of this, His ways are mysterious, His concerns beyond our understanding. All we can do is look and grieve and wonder at the way we learn to love and hate and kill and die.

You wouldn't have thought the rubble would make a tomb. It looked like urban renewal, like a vast demolition project. The attackers took down 11 million square feet of office space, more than is contained in downtown Seattle. Pardon our dust. Watch us grow.

But we knew, and felt the black moths in our chests. We looked out to see heavy cranes stopped over a graveyard.

We walked along the perimeter until we came to St. Paul's Chapel where visitors had laid flowers and candles and children's drawings. We stood there with the gawkers and the stunned who had come to pay their respects.

An older woman who walked up to the young police officer standing by the fence.

"What happened here?" she asked him.

In a voice more patient and merciful than I could have managed, he told her how the terrorists had rode airplanes into the buildings and they had fallen down and people had died.

She looked at him with frank disbelief, shook her head and shuffled off, disappearing into the humanity, a drop returning to the ocean.

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We walked on a little further, down into Battery Park, where we watched the sun slide down behind the statue in the harbor. It was like a scene from a movie, with an old man blowing sax not far away and a hole in the sky where the towers might have been digitally erased.


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