By Stephanie Loleng, Stonecoast MFA alum
A week before the 20th anniversary of 9/11, I visited the memorial site to take photos for this piece. I thought photos would be a good accompaniment to words that I had yet to write. It was a beautiful late summer day—cinematic blue skies that reflected onto the One World Trade Center building, blending together as one like camouflage. It seemed strange and almost diabolical on nature’s part that just a few days before, flash floods tore through New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania as Hurricane Ida slammed into the Northeast with such a force that some areas suffered so much rain people had to wade through waist-deep water just a few hours after the storm had started.
I hadn’t moved to New York yet when 9/11 happened. I was living in Oakland, California, driving to a temp job at UC Berkeley. It was a beautiful day then, too. The skies so blue and the air crisp and clear. September in the Bay Area is the start of warm, summer-like weather, but with no humidity like in the Northeast. I remember thinking it was my favorite time of the year.
I turned on the radio to KQED, the local NPR station, and heard the reports of two planes hitting the World Trade Center earlier that morning. It sounded unreal, like a War of the Worlds broadcast. The Morning Edition host spoke in a subdued tone as new reports came in that both towers had completely collapsed. A reporter on the ground in Brooklyn told listeners that she could see the smoke rising from where one of the towers used to be and how it was a “spectacularly brilliant morning in New York.” I got to work and my manager told me that the department head was going to speak, so we gathered outside next to a garden underneath eerily quiet clear blue skies.
Years later, listening to the first part of the original broadcast that I heard that day, I immediately felt that original feeling of shock. At one point, the host said he felt vulnerable because the country was essentially shut down, his usual calm demeanor a bit shaken. You think of those times in your life when something stops you in your tracks. This was one of those times.
You may have never been to the memorial site, but you’ve probably seen photographs similar to the ones I took of the North and South Tower footprints, their outlines now memorialized in waterfalls cascading down into what seems like an abyss. According to the architect, Michael Arad, the pools represent “absence made visible,” and as the water flows down, the pools never fill.
If you stand in front of the pools and close your eyes the sound rushes over you like the water rushing deeper into the pools, a white noise softening or even blocking out the sounds of the city—the beeping of a delivery truck backing up, the scream of an ambulance siren driving up the avenue, the honking of an impatient taxi driver trying to get through a busy street. All the noises that make up the songs of the city are quieted just enough that you are engulfed by the sound of the rushing waterfalls. Standing there and listening to the water felt almost like a meditation. Looking around at the many visitors, they too seemed to be stopping for a moment to contemplate what happened on that very ground twenty years ago.
Seeing all that water surging down into those pools, I also thought of the major flooding a few days before, when Ida swept through. Images on the local news stations, Twitter, and other social media sites showed a waterfall rushing down the steps leading into the 28th Street Subway station as a few people stood on the platform taking photos. When I saw that, I thought, why aren’t you moving away from the water? Maybe they were mesmerized by the intensity of it, just as I was, standing before the waterfalls at the 9/11 memorial site, or even by the beauty a waterfall brings despite the destruction it may leave behind. Another image showed waterfalls cascading down into a different subway station as the L train pulls in, a wall of water blocking the doors as they open. No one steps out of the train as the waterfalls transform the platform into a river. I saw footage of streets flooded in Harlem and Brooklyn. Cars abandoned. Garbage bags floating on the water. People died trapped in their basement apartments in Queens or trapped in their cars in New Jersey.
I think of that concept of the pools and the absence made visible. The absence of a way out, of an escape from the flood waters that rushed in and engulfed the basements and the cars that trapped and killed people in New York and New Jersey, personal objects floating along with the flow of the current. And also, the absence of a way out for those who died on 9/11.
There are 2,983 names inscribed onto the bronze parapets framing the pools at the 9/11 memorial. Pocket-sized American flags and single rosebuds are placed inside the lettering of some of the names. I think about those who didn’t survive the 9/11 attacks and those who were left behind. I try to imagine what it is like for someone to come to the memorial and read the name they came to see, run a finger along the sharpness of the lettering, the bronze cool to the touch. Absence is made visible on those bronze parapets as water rushes into the abyss, the void never filled.
Linda Mahal: What did it feel like to confront the idea of writing this piece, at the beginning?
Stephanie Loleng: When I was asked to write something to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of 9/11, I immediately thought "Why me?" I wasn't even in New York on that day but 3,000 miles away in California. I've lived in the city for almost 13 years but I still don't feel like a "real" New Yorker. And so I felt ill-equipped to write about 9/11.
LM: I knew I was giving you a tall order and asking you to take a huge risk. Yet I also knew you had a talent for selecting and capturing the sensory details of a scene or situation. I knew you’d worked as a public radio reporter, and of course, that you were now on the ground in New York for the 20th anniversary. So while you were thinking, why me?, I was thinking of all the ways that you were well-suited for this assignment.
SL: Thanks, Linda. I have a tendency to not give myself enough credit, so I basically had to get over feeling like an outsider looking in. Yes, I'm from California, but I've lived in this city for over a decade—through the good, bad, and ugly that this city dishes out. So, I had to come to terms with the fact that I know enough about the city to write about it—not as someone who lived in New York during 9/11, but from the point of view of someone who lives here now.
LM: What steps did you take to find your way to a solution?
SL: I went down to the 9/11 memorial and took some photos. I'm a visual writer, so it helps for me to look at images or to try and remember what places looked like in order to come up with a feeling or an understanding of the story I want to tell. We’d talked about the idea of writing a reflection about the memorial and so I started from there. What I remembered the most and what struck me the most were the waterfalls in the pools. As I mention in the piece, a few days before, Hurricane Ida hit the Tri-State area, flooding subway stations and streets, trapping people in their basements and cars. The image of water flowing just kept popping into my head, so I used that as a thread to weave through the piece. It made it less overwhelming to write.
LM: How do you feel about the result?
SL: It came out better than I thought it would, but it took multiple attempts at different angles and a few freewriting sessions to get to a workable draft that I could then revise. I also read different news articles to get some of the facts right, but I didn't want the piece to be too newsy, so I also inserted some of my own thoughts and reflections throughout. I like doing research when I write, but I also don't want to get bogged down in the facts. There’s that quote “the only way out is through” that kept repeating itself in my mind like a broken record because at first this piece seemed so overwhelming to write. But as I kept at it I found the words started to flow and that I had to take it one word, one thought, and one sentence at a time.
LM: Thank you for taking on this project.
Stephanie Loleng graduated from the Stonecoast MFA program in January 2020 with a focus on fiction writing. She lives in New York City and is originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. Stephanie is currently working on a novel set in Monterey, California, and a collection of short stories inspired by her Filipino American heritage. When she’s not writing, Stephanie likes to run in Central Park, bake ube-infused desserts, and spend time with her husband Eric and their pug Hugo.