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Pamela Ross is a survivor of 9/11


A Hoboken resident looks back at 9/11

by Pamela Ross
Originally published in THE HOBOKEN REPORTER

I haven't always lived in Hoboken, although sometimes it feels as though I have.

For most of my life I lived in New York City. I was a "downtown woman" who planned on staying there forever. Nothing I could think of could possibly get me out of "my" New York.

On the morning of 9/11/2001 I was playing my piano in my apartment near the World Trade Center, rehearsing for an upcoming tour of my Off Broadway one-piano show, "CARREÑO!," when I heard an ear splitting thud, followed by a crunching sound that for the moment I could only envision as an alien megamonster picking up Lower Manhattan and squeezing it until it cracked. Almost simultaneously there was a rapid fire series of explosions that sounded like a million firecrackers going off on the Fourth of July. Then everything went black. I screamed "we've been bombed!" to my husband who was in the next room and who thankfully had not left for work yet. The TV said there had been an accident and that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

We rushed to our front windows which overlooked the street, and helplessly watched as streams of frantic people tried to flee to safety, carried along with a storm of debris, papers, pieces of burning buildings, chunks of wreckage, pieces and parts of things I couldn't think about until months later.

And then it happened again: the thud, the crunch, the firecrackers, the debris storm, the blackness followed by the whiteness of an ash blizzard. "Not an accident," the TV said, "terrorists." Numbly we waited for evacuation instructions. The ground floor of our building became a triage center where victims straggled in, looking for help, friends, explanations. I managed to reach a friend in Greenwich Village by phone. "We have to come up there," I shrieked. By 11 AM we had lost power and phones. At 3 PM we were evacuated. With wet towels on our faces, credit cards and toothbrushes in our pockets, we slowly made our way uptown, picking our way carefully through the rubble, trying not to look at it, trying not to look back. I felt that, like Lot's wife, if I turned around I would be changed into a pillar of salt.

World Trade Center Building 7 collapsed behind us as we walked: a silent, steady procession of refugees laboriously plodding to safety.

I suddenly remembered I had forgotten to close the top of my grand piano. I had forgotten to protect my big 9 foot ebony long-time faithful musical partner.

In my jacket pocket I found my portable CD player with a CD in it of the piano wizardry of 20 dead pianists whose brilliance had been captured and re-recorded electronically on the same concert grand Steinway... as if 20 dead pianists were summoned to play different pieces on the same night, on the same piano. For the next week I sat mostly in a trance, listening to these masterworks over and over again, in my waking hours and in my sleeping ones, and thinking in desperation "they can't kill this music, too... can they?"

We barely ate, we barely slept, we moved like zombies in the molasses world of the stunned and confused.

One night we walked down to the Chelsea Piers to look at the water. I could see the clock on the Maxwell House Coffee building in Hoboken. I could see lights twinkling in the Hudson Tea Building, just a little to the north of it. A double caffeine fix in the midst of turmoil, I thought. It almost made me smile.

A week later we went home, to such as it was. The next several months were isolated in a time warp. We cleaned up, we existed. We had no phones until January 2002. I closed the lid on my piano. I cancelled performances, postponing them indefinitely. We put our apartment up for sale. "We're moving to Alaska," I told my husband, "or as far away from here as we can possibly get." "But I work in the city," he said, looking at me hopefully. "You'll commute," I said. "How about New Jersey?" he countered. "There's nothing in New Jersey," I said, "just cemeteries, cows, oil refineries, and a defunct coffee and tea factory."

Meanwhile Ground Zero turned into a zoo. Thousands and thousands of people came daily to look around, to see the greatest debacle of the century, to see how the "natives" were living. Streets were cordoned off like lines at a Broadway theatre on opening night. Potential "buyers" came to look at our apartment not so much to buy, but to see what was left standing downtown. There was a steady stream of "lookers" from morning until night. The acrid odor of burning carnage kept us mostly inside. We replaced 4 air conditioning units in 6 months. We replaced windows where they had cracked under the intense heat of the 9/11 blast. We waited to leave.

In March 2002 we had a few offers on our apartment. We could finally think about moving. On a lark one day I suggested we take the ferry from the remains of the World Financial Center, and see what Hoboken was like. I was really just humoring my husband.

The PATH train at the World Financial Center was, of course, decimated.

As we disembarked from the ferry, I was struck by the silence. I could hear birds sing. I could hear flowers beginning their spring bloom. This was a bustling little town, but it seemed so calm in comparison to lower Manhattan. I could almost smell ghosts of coffee beans and tea bags past as we walked towards north Hoboken, on the shore. I could see Ground Zero, but somehow looking at it through the far end of a telescope seemed to ease the pain.

"OK, "I said to my husband.
"OK what?" he asked.
"OK let's live here for a while," I said.

In early summer 2002 we relocated to Hoboken. I meant to stay about 6 months, then move on to Anywhere Else, USA, anywhere far, far away from that year of living dangerously.

I put my ebony grand 9 foot musical partner into storage. I replaced it with an electronic imitation of its sonic grandeur. I resumed performing, but not locally, and it was almost perfunctory, as if I had set myself on auto-pilot. The joy was gone.

Three years have gone by and we're still in Hoboken. This sleepy little multicultural enclave with the quiet streets and friendly people has lifted our spirits.

Hoboken is a place I can hang my hat on. It's a place I now call "home."

This month I will finally take my grand piano out of its exile in storage.

It's time to celebrate again.

It's the least I can do.



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