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Winter 01
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Departing Ground Zero
Tom Fast

Our own naked man treks across America after the September 11 attacks.

September 11th, 2001

9:30 am

A tremendous boom thundered over Manhattan, heard as far away as Queens, where I lay sleeping on a sofa. Perhaps it was that horrible noise that woke me. Hard to tell -- there are so many random explosions one hears in NYC. Either way, I got up and got ready for the day. It was supposed to be our last in a weeklong visit to the "Big City." I’d been playing tour guide to my girlfriend and her 2 friends from Japan. I’d told them not to worry about New York. "USA isn’t like what you see in the movies." I was about to be proven wrong.

I was in the bathroom when the first tower fell. I managed to catch the second LIVE on TV, thanks to Eric. He called to let me know that the world as I knew it, had come to an end. I passed the news onto the girls.

Not knowing English that well, could they fully grasp what was going on? Fortunately no. They would spend the days to come enjoying each other’s company and tuning-out the ongoing reports of "America’s New War." Occasionally, I gave them updates but they had difficulty comprehending the facts: How could this attack — as horrific as it was — result in a WAR? How could 90% of all Americans actually support more killing? Isn’t America a predominantly Christian country? Are all Christians this violent?" These were the thoughts that seemed to be going through their minds.

The girls wanted to have nothing to do with the situation. As for myself, I kept thinking about how odd it was to be back in New York. The city I called home for 6 very formative years has proven to be a difficult place to escape.


September 12th

During my last winter in the city (‘96), there was a major snowstorm. Traffic was shut down and you could walk down the middle of Broadway. There was an eerie yet peaceful mood. That’s the way it was today, only no snow. In fact, it was a perfect late summer day. It was as if an episode of the Twilight Zone had actually come true. There were no planes in the air other than the occasional fighter jet, and there weren’t a lot of cars, just dump trucks and ambulances -- fleets of them -- heading to and from Ground Zero. Those who were driving on the streets had American flags waving from their cars. In Queens, many had 2 flags: one American and the other, whatever other country they hailed from. It was a beautiful thing. On that day, it seemed that ALL New Yorkers were truly united. Walking down the street, people made eye contact (very unusual in NYC), as if needing some communion with fellow humans. "I’m OK. You’re OK." Retaliation was the last thing on people’s minds.

Before coming on this trip, I wasn’t all that excited to be staying in Queens. Manhattan wasn’t an option because we had no money, and my friends who live there have no space. But after the attacks, I was glad Fate had put us in Queens. Not only was it a safe distance from Ground Zero, it was a positive vibe. While in other parts of the world, different cultures, nations, religions may have trouble living together, right there in Queens we had everybody: Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Blacks, Whites, Asians, Latins, Egyptians, Russians, Uruguayans, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Argentines, Greeks, Irish, Colombians, Indians, and Filipinos — just to name a few — all living in relative harmony. Is this the America that Emma Lazarus envisioned when she wrote "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free" on the Statue of Liberty? I hope so. I wish more of the US could look like Queens.

That afternoon Eric and I made our first pilgrimage to Ground Zero. Brooklyn Heights was as close as we could get. By now you’ve all seen what we saw: The downtown skyline demolished. Many Americans liken the attacks to Pearl Harbor, but from this angle, the billowing smoke reminded me more of Hiroshima. Fortunately, the wind wasn’t blowing in our direction.

September 13th - 15th

The days passed slowly. Every morning, I would call the airport to find that our flights had been postponed again. There were rumors of imposters in flight crew uniforms being detained by the police. We were eager to get out of New York but flying was beginning to seem unwise, especially on the first planes out of New York.

I eventually reestablished contact with my NY friends. All had survived. Some of us wandered downtown to take in the aftermath. We got as far as Tribeca, where people seemed confused, not sure whether or not they should mourn, volunteer, or go out for dinner. Some sat at outdoor cafes, others walked by wearing facemasks and carrying rescue equipment. Smoke and dust and missing persons’ photographs were everywhere. With no cars being let into the area, lower Manhattan had become a bicycler’s paradise. As bicyclers cruised down Broadway on Friday night, I was reminded of China.


The Drive

During the days that followed, an idea began to creep into my head: Drive back. I’d always wanted to do it — to make the trip from my East Coast home (NYC) to my West Coast home (Oregon). Time and money were always a problem. After the attacks, it was the natural choice. Besides, I felt somehow responsible for the girls, who would have been safe in Japan had their fates not gotten tangled with mine. Statistically, I was probably putting them at a much greater risk by driving 3300 miles as opposed to flying, but it certainly didn’t seem that way at the time. So we cancelled our flights and got probably the last rental car in the city. We left New York on Saturday, 9/16.

It was hard to say good-bye to my friends. Part of me wanted to stay and see the city through this tragedy. But I also knew that it wasn’t going to be ending anytime soon and I had to get on with my life. At 9:30am, the girls and I bowed good-bye to Eric and began our westward drive. There was a lot of classical music on the radio, especially Barber’s "Adagio for Strings." "Proud to be an American" was big on the country stations.

Day 1 we drove for 10 hours with not much to report, arriving in Columbus, Ohio that evening, where we stayed with my friend, John. The girls discovered German Sausage. Day 2 was another slow day. We made only one pit stop (Brazil, Indiana) before arriving to a totally DEAD St. Louis on Sunday night. Was it due to the attacks or is St. Louis always like this? The town was completely shut the down — except for the prostitutes who were out in force on the road where we took that wrong exit. I wonder what went through their heads when they saw a white guy and 3 Japanese girls drive by real slow (trying to find a landmark) with the car’s interior light on (so we could check the map).


September 18th

Day 3: After a quick stop at the Elvis Museum, we got back in the car and prepared for the mind-numbing boredom that is the Great Plains. Missouri was over in 5 hours. I was actually rather impressed by its vastness, as were the girls. Of course, they hail from a country where every available space is completely covered by cities and rice fields. And Kansas City’s jazz radio provided some of the best background music we’d had on our whole trip.

Once we crossed the state border however, our smooth and slightly dull sailing suddenly hit a heavy storm. Again we were living a Hollywood movie. Only this time it was Twister. Jet, black clouds dropped a payload of rain on the freeway, flooding it in minutes. Cars slowed down and most were forced to the side. We were in a massive carwash that pounded us for a full 20 minutes before finally letting up. By Topeka, the rains had died and we assumed the worst had past, but more thunderheads were rolling over the Rockies. And as if that weren’t bad enough, a tornado was swiftly approaching from the south and flash floods were flashing in every county we crossed.

The rains struck again. I could barely make out the taillights of the car in front of me. We hydroplaned our way to the next exit and the relative safety of a covered gas station. Much to my surprise, the girls slept through most of it. In fact Hiromi slept through probably 9 of the 13 states we crossed…

We sought refuge in a Best Western in Oakley, KS. We were taken in by the manager, his wife, and their 6 small, pure-breed dogs. For the girls they were one of the highlights of our trip. The only other boarder was a man whose car had been waylaid by golf ball-sized hail that had shattered his windshield and left the entire front end of his silver Jetta pockmarked like the moon. We were lucky to leave Kansas alive.


God’s Country

The rest of the trip provided some of the best scenery Earth has to offer. The girls were finally getting a sense of America’s true greatness. We’d traveled some 2000 miles from ground zero and the whole thing was beginning to fade like a distant memory — except for the flags everywhere. As you cross from Kansas to Colorado on Interstate 70, there is an overpass right at the border. As the area is so flat, we could see him from at least a mile out: A pot-bellied man on the overpass with a big American flag, raised above his head for all to see. He did not move from the moment we first spotted him, to the moment he finally disappeared beyond the horizon in my rearview mirror. He may still be there. Just doing his part, I guess.


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