911 Revisited

The summer immediately after 911, my niece came to visit me in Connecticut, and we hopped on Metro North and rode south into the city. We only had a few hours, there was a lot to see, and I was worried about how we were going to fit it all in.

First stop: Ground Zero, where now, in place of the Twin Towers, stood a canyon-sized hole in the ground. Except for the occasional Midwestern couple bizarrely commanding each other to “Smile” and “Say Cheese” as if they were standing in front of Cinderella’s Castle, the atmosphere – despite thousands of people – was freakishly silent.

Next, the Empire State Building, which was apparently on everyone else’s to-do list, too. As we dejectedly turned away from the three-hour line for the Observation Deck, we happened to see the following sign, propped on an easel like a fine piece of art: “Avoid the Wait! Only $10 More! Unique 20-Minute Flight-Simulated Skyline Tour! Observation Deck Immediately Following!”

A special tour of the city AND get to the Observation Deck in record time?

After reassuring the man at the ticket counter that neither I nor my 12-year old niece was pregnant, we’re ushered (with about 50 other people) into a very small movie theatre equipped with special rows of seats that looked like they’d once belonged on a roller coaster. Once we’re all seated, a large bar stretching the length of each row is lowered over our laps, and we settle in, prepared for a boring yet educational tour of the city’s most important sights.

As the movie starts, however, it immediately becomes clear why pregnant ladies were banned from the “tour.” The take-off is fast and furious, and we catapult through the city at a speed so great that any landmark, even if the pilot had bothered to point it out to us (he hadn’t), would have been unrecognizable, lost in a dizzying cinematic blur.

First we fly into the East River, and as we bounce in and out of the water’s surface, the seats wiggle and jiggle wildly, and it feels like we’re actually there, prisoners of a drunk or incompetent pilot. We shoot off the river, straight up into the air at a 90 degree angle (“Whoa!” screams the audience), narrowly missing the side of a bridge (we aren’t told which one).

Next we’re racing towards the Financial District. The Twin Towers loom large in the distance, and we’re headed right at them, at breakneck speed. Given the pilot’s track record of crashing into things, I begin to fear for the fate of the World Trade Center. And then it hits me. Are we really sitting in this theatre pretending to be riding on a plane that’s about to crash into the Twin Towers? Didn’t that … ummm … already happen, but for real, and didn’t … like … thousands of people die? Couldn’t this “ride” be considered a breach of some patriotic code of honor?

Everyone starts laughing, or at least I think they’re laughing, so I start laughing too, hysterically, loudly, the loudest in the theatre, and I don’t know why but I can’t stop. “HAHAHAHAHA,” I scream. It shouldn’t be funny, it’s not funny, but I don’t know what’s come over me. It’s like I’m stuck in church having a mildly funny thought and I’m not supposed to laugh but knowing I’m not supposed to laugh just makes it that much harder not to laugh, only a hundred times worse and with a handful of crazy thrown in for good measure.

And then, it happens. We crash right into the Twin Towers! We slam into the side of one building, and ricochet off into the other one. There’s an on-screen explosion … a simulated crashing fuzziness … but that doesn’t stop us. We just keep going, like cartoon characters who get run over by a bus but who get up and run away anyway. Disoriented from the blow and unable to control the plane, the pilot swoops through the city, plowing into anything that gets in his way. The scene on the streets is panic and mayhem. People see us coming and try desperately to get out of our way. They run from us in terror, some to no avail. The casualties are numerous. A pizza delivery man gets side-swiped, and as he goes rolling into a gutter, the pizza boxes fly from his arms and land with a cardboardy thunk on our windshield.

Despite, or because of, the horror, I laugh so hard and continuously that I start feeling it in my abs. For a total of twenty minutes, we plow through the city, too fast to notice any sights but at this point, I’m enjoying the sight of flying and harried bodies so much that I don’t even care anymore about Alex’s lack of an educational experience. “Look at that woman! We’re going to hit her!” I scream. “Hahahahahha, we did! Did you SEE how she landed on that fruit cart?”

Suddenly, abruptly, the tour ends, and we’re back at the launch pad. The lights come on, and the bar across our laps goes up. We’re free but none of us move. We sit there in shock, me with a huge grin still frozen on my face. Now that the lights have come on, it almost feels like I might have imagined the whole thing. As soon as we’re able, we file out of the theater.

“You were laughing so hard,” Alex says to me with her teeth clenched. She’s walking slightly in front of me, and has eyes affixed firmly to the ground. “Why?” she spits.

“Uh, what?” I say. “It wasn’t just me. Everyone else was laughing pretty hard too.”

“No,” said Alex, angry and accusing. “YOU were the only one laughing. All of the kids were crying, and EVERYONE ELSE was screaming in terror!”

We finish off the night with tickets to Beauty and the Beast, but even the cheerful singing of dancing candlesticks cannot get my mind off the ride. I spend the rest of the weekend in a mild state of shock, and on Monday morning, I call the NY Times. “Someone has to check this out,” I say, “It’s unbelievable,” which is perhaps the wrong thing to say to a guy who doesn’t sound like he believes you in the first place. The more I try to convince him, the more I sound like I’m making things up. Eventually, I don’t even believe myself anymore, so I just hang up.

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