(Starting here, the narrative was written mostly in 2003)
Wednesday, September 12 started early, mostly because we hardly had any sleep. I ended up on the sleep sofa, which had one of those “Seinfeld” metal bars that runs right through the middle of the bed. Right outside the window and across the street was a waterfront park that attracted people all night, too, with lots of traffic noise, talking, and radios.
As soon as it was light enough to see, I looked out the window. The smoke and dust stream was much lighter, so that we had a better view of Manhattan. The wind had shifted, too. Yesterday, the wind was out of the northwest, which blew the dust and smoke over Brooklyn, in a left to right direction as we looked across the Verrazano Narrows to the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn. Today, the wind was out of the northeast, and the smoke headed off to the west of us, back towards the Ferry and New Jersey.
Most everyone at the bed and breakfast was awake, and the dining room was full. I took my breakfast out to the front porch to eat. The elderly British couple were out there. We talked a little bit about their chances of getting their flight home that night (none) and a little bit of what they remembered about the “Blitz” during World War II.
It was another beautiful clear day, and as I sat out there I heard a plane. Instinctively I looked up, and saw an Air Force or Navy jet circling overhead. This was another one of those moments when I felt everything had changed. Just nine days ago, on Labor Day, we had gone to downtown Cleveland to watch the Blue Angels during the Air Show. At that time, we were watching the military jets fly overhead for entertainment. Now they were flying overhead, albeit much higher, to protect us. Although the military was always “protecting us” it was somewhat abstract. Now, the protection was right in front of us. Listening to the news a little later, we heard that an aircraft carrier was being sent up from Norfolk for additional protection.
What I was really listening for on the news was info on transportation. We heard that Amtrak was running, as were New Jersey Transit trains. That was good news, because I knew there was an extensive train network in New Jersey, so if we could just go west across the river we could probably catch a train, any train, headed west. My general plan was to get somewhere that was out of the immediate affected area, where we could find things like rental cars or buses. The not-so-good news was that the Staten Island Ferry was closed, since they were keeping everyone out of southern Manhattan. Express buses were also limited, so it looked like it might be difficult to get off Staten Island. We could see traffic on the Verrazano bridge, so we knew bridges were open.
I noticed a New York City policeman out in the park across the street, so I went over to talk to him. First, I told him that we had been staying at the Marriott World Trade Center Hotel, and was there somewhere to call where they were tracking missing people, survivors, etc. He said that we should probably call our hotel to see. I was about to say something sarcastic about the existence of our hotel , given how it almost touched the two buildings that fell, but then I figured why bother? So I asked my second question, which was how we might we get back to Cleveland.
His first piece of advice was to take an express bus from Staten Island to Brooklyn, for those buses were running. Once we were in Brooklyn, we should make our way via bus or subway to midtown Manhattan, and then Penn Station, where we could get trains west. I wasn’t thrilled about that plan. For one thing, it probably meant finding our way on subways or buses through some bad parts of Brooklyn. Once we achieved that, we are back in Manhattan, which didn’t feel that safe to us. Plus, for at least part of the time, it would put another river and set of bridges between us and home, which increased our chances of getting cut off again.
I asked about buses into New Jersey, and he said that as far as he knew, there weren’t buses from Staten Island to New Jersey. But he did say that there was a taxi company garage about two blocks east of us, and we may be able to hire a cab. That seemed like a better plan to me. So we went back inside, packed up our few belongings, and got ready to leave. At that point, I started to think about how well off we were, with a room, enclosed porch, and private bath last night, compared to sleeping in a gym or church or something like that. If we weren’t able to get off the island, we wanted to be able to retreat back to our room. So I paid for another night at the Harbor House, we said good-by to the Filipino ladies and the Dog Couple, and we left.
It wasn’t good news at the cab company. Earlier, I had looked at towns across the river in New Jersey, and it looked like Elizabeth was the closest, and was sure to have a train station. So I asked the dispatcher if we could hire a cab to the Elizabeth train station, but we were out of luck. He said they weren’t sending any cabs off the island, especially to New Jersey. The reason – they were afraid that another alert could cause the bridges to be closed at any time, and if a cab is stuck in Jersey, it wouldn’t be able to operate (no taxi license) and they would be out a day’s fares. I asked when we might be able to do so, and he said tomorrow.
Our next strategy was to head back down the Ferry building. Although the ferries weren’t operating (in fact, we had heard that they were being used as makeshift morgues, although I never saw a confirmation on that) it was also the main bus and train terminal for the island. If there was a public transportation way off the island, it was probably there.
Before we did that, we needed to stop at a bank. Yesterday was supposed to be the day we went home, and after four days in New York City, our cash supply was running low. We weren’t broke, but given the uncertain trip ahead, it would be a good idea to stock up on cash. On our walk yesterday to the Harbor House, we had passed a number of banks. Although the city buses were now running on Bay Street, we thought we should walk to one of the banks first, and see if our ATM card worked.
We thought that the banks were fairly close to where we stayed, so we set off walking back along our route of yesterday. The banks were actually much closer to the Ferry than we remembered, so we ended up walking the whole way back. As we walked, I started to worry about the banking and payment system. The southern tip of Manhattan had been cordoned off – that’s where the New York Fed was, and many of the bank headquarters. We hadn’t watched a lot of the news last night or this morning, and I had no idea on how well the electronic payments system was working. Yesterday, the credit card machine was down at the restaurant where we had our pizza, but the POS terminal was working at the CVS drug store. But when we got to a Chase Bank branch on Bay Street, the ATM machine took my KeyBank card and spit out the $200 I asked for. Thank you, Chase and the New York Fed. It’s much easier being a refugee when you have a wallet full of cash and credit cards seem to be working.
Copyright 2001-2003, Bruce Kratofil