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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from PART 14}


In spring 1999, I told my supervisor, Julia Mitzelfeld, that I wanted to become a consultant. I knew they made low base salaries, but a number of them had incomes in the upper five figures due to the bonuses they accrued as they continued long-term relationships with JTS clients. I knew this because I had sat in on a job interview with Jon Seifferlein, the company president, while he made a speech to some prospective employees on a Web cam hookup with our Phoenix office. He expected me to be like a secretary, writing down the speech on a yellow legal pad.

Julia balked at first, saying, "You can't do that; you're a mom." We were both well aware that consultants were on the road three to four days a week. However, I continued to press her. Michael and I had two car payments; two credit card balances that never seemed to shrink, a larger mortgage bill; and a bank loan used replace the roof on the house. The debt was leaving Michael and me terrified as we went over our budget. I debated heavily with Julia, pointing out that Naomi and Christa were older now and didn't need Mommy always hovering over them.

After a couple weeks of this, she relented. I went into training a week after that, and a few months later was one of JTS's most promising quality assurance consultants. I learned the intricacies of the international quality system known as ISO 9000, including how to audit, to write system documentation, and tell companies how to align their operations with the standard. I found the interviewing and writing to be second nature, having drawn from my journalistic background.

I began to flourish, and the joie de vivre of my childhood of chasing insects and climbing trees returned. A natural high often overtook me when I completed a job and found myself on a jet for home. Sometimes this euphoria hit at the client's worksite itself.

I first realized this when I went to Chicago and had to see a client in the John Hancock Center. This skyscraper has 100 floors. I looked out the window high above the downtown Windy City and did not feel nausea, terror, chills, sweats, shaking, or any other acrophobia warning. I felt nothing but peace. Without words coming into my head, I knew it. My fear of heights had departed me. "Thank you, Chicago," I whispered as the jet lifted off from O'Hare, pretending I was saying it like a rock star at the end of concert.

My first New York client had been in Brooklyn, in August of that year. They were manufacturers, importers, and distributors of novelty products, which cracked me up every time I heard about it. I managed to keep a straight face at the client's office, but the idea of improving the quality of fake vomit and latex Bill Clinton masks lurked below and threatened to explode in uncontrollable guffaws. Just the nature of the company made it one of my hardest and most memorable clients of 1999.

The vice president of marketing of Empire Novelties, Inc., happened to know the vice president of a small brokerage in Lower Manhattan because they played golf together. This man recommended JTS and more particularly, my services, and suggested that his firm register to ISO 9000 as well.

This firm was in the north tower of the World Trade Center.

After getting through the visit in '96 with Aunt Ellen and Rocky, I had fallen into indifference again over Nelson and David. They just weren't important to a technical writer bound to an office outside Detroit week in and week out. That was a few years after the van bomb went off as well, and it seemed everyone, including the Twin Towers' denizens, had fallen into a complacency of daily existence.

Now, however, I had to face the towers again. I realized this would be my fifth visit to them. If the job with the client went well, I'd have to return who knew how many more times. At this point in my life, I was 37 years old and accepted the WTC complex as a place that was not going to go away and was not some set of fearsome monsters that would devour me.

ISO 9000 was being revised and about to appear in its third incarnation, which made follow-ups to this brokerage inevitable. I shrugged and went along with the program, flying to New York on a balmy Indian summer day in mid-October.

I was wandering around the Austin J. Tobin Plaza at this point, having wrapped up a day's work with the brokerage. I had a book in my hands that I read as I walked toward the Marriott Hotel between the towers and stopped before what looked like a low receptacle of quarried stones with a metal rim. This was the memorial to the six people killed in the 1993 assault. Their names were spelled out on the rim.

The book I was reading was not about the '93 bombing, but instead was Divided We Stand by Eric Darton. It had been published that year, and I had stumbled across it by accident at my local bookstore. Its subtitle caught my attention: A Biography of New York's World Trade Center. Darton seemed sardonic and subversive in the way he chronicled the complex's birth and development and was not always objective in his prose. However, the book was engaging, and I finished it.

I stopped before the memorial and took a picture of it with my brand new digital camera. This had been my reward to myself for earning my first bonus. I was determined to improve my photography skills and document my life and family more thoroughly. After meeting with clients, I liked to get out and shoot offbeat and original sites, especially in the major American cities. I moved about the memorial and got a few more images from different angles before walking onward.

I ended up at the northwest corner of 1 World Trade Center, where I knew my cousin Rocky worked, as well as the broker named Tanya, who had been so friendly and helped lift my spirits in 1996. The corner was beveled, massive, and scored with horizontal and vertical grooves. From my readings of other sources I knew these were for the automatic window washing machines that could clean the entire tower once a month. I also knew that George Willig, an inventor-climber from Queens, had custom built hooks and other tools to fit into them so he could successfully scale this tower back in May of 1977.

What had my attention at that moment though was a passage in Darton's book, where he said you could make a tower disappear. You had to press yourself against the skyscraper's flattened corner and close their eyes. You then slowly opened them and looked straight up. Darton claimed an optical illusion would occur that would make it appear that the tower had vanished.

I wanted to try it.

I set down the book and the shoulder bag that I carried in my travels. I took my camera from around my neck and stowed it in my carrying bag. I stared at the plain wall with its deep cuts and rough surface. The flat expanse looked five or six times wider than me; I wasn't sure because I am no good at estimating the scale of stuff. I guessed at the center of the beveled corner and planted my two legs at a short distance apart to be as steady as possible. I stared at the wall for a couple minutes and hesitated about whether I really wanted to make body contact with a World Trade Center structure. I became self-conscious about being strange and thought I was going more toward Jill's goofy tendencies.

I had to do it. I could not care about what other people thought. I wanted to see what I truly thought of the brothers whose monolithic presence had woven in and out of my mind for nearly three decades.

I closed my eyes and pressed my body against the corner. The aluminum alloy surface was cool but not frigid. I reached my arms outward so that I appeared to be hugging the wall. I could feel myself firmly connected to the building from head to foot, a tiny remora clinging to the belly of a shark. I slowly opened my eyelids and peered upward.

The tower seemed to have become invisible. Darton was right - I could make it become nothing. I was shocked that Nelson had either ceased to be, or was now undetectable by the human eye.

Yet I could still feel the cool metal beneath me. My nerve endings tingled over my entire body as the tower and I seemed to blend. I closed my eyes again and pressed my cheek against the surface. My body jumped as I seemed to absorb the structure's vibrations, and waves of energy from its occupants, their machinery, and its own supporting infrastructure. I began to shake slightly as I felt myself align with the tower and imagined a low hum emitting from its core and penetrating my skull. My breathing sounded like a roar in my ears, and my heart was a thundering rhythm. My legs began to ache and felt as if they would give out.

Finally, they did succumb. My entire body was drained, and I could stand it no more. This edifice had sapped me. I turned and slowly sank into a sitting position, my back against the corner wall. My head felt light, and giddiness accompanied a ringing in my ears. I kept my eyes closed and concentrated on my breathing to make it slow and even again. I listened to my heartbeat fade as I began to relax. I cared nothing about if anyone had seen me or had been puzzled by my behavior. I had connected with the WTC in a way I never had since I had kicked the other building and cursed it in 1982.

I sat there about a half hour, my backside against the corner. I felt as if I were still briefly connected with the building for that time. I did not feel afraid of Nelson or his brother David. It was more of a feeling of respect or acknowledgement that the towers really were great structures of an innovative and memorable design. I could not say I loved the dragon brothers, but I could live with them and even pass them a compliment once in a while.

I did not know at the time, but someone did watch me intently. He was an artist based in a loft in SoHo who did performance stuff and oddball photography. I discovered purely by chance, during Internet surfing in spring 2000 that he had seen me communing with WTC 1. He took a number of pictures of me in a sepia tone and posted them on his Web site under the title "Towering Influence Series: A Woman's Spiritual Connection to Glass and Stone." Several showed me looking as if I were embracing the tower. My head was turned, one side firmly against the corner. My face had a tiny smile. The last showed me seated at its base, and the look on my face in this image shocked me.

I looked placid and euphoric, as if I'd just truly had some kind of mystical or religious experience. My head was tilted slightly and resting against the metal. I knew my contact with Nelson had been heavy duty, but I did not know my face telegraphed that much of it to the world.

I felt like writing to the artist, but I chickened out. Sometimes I still go back and look at the images. He added a line to the page that said "In Memoriam WTC: 09.11.01. I hope the lady's okay, too." After he added that comment, I did send him an e-mail in spring 2002, saying, "The lady is okay. She got out of the WTC alive on 9/11 and is resting in Detroit."


I tried to block out the intense session that Mom, Rocky and I had at the house in Troy. The Lehmans flew back to the Big Apple, and the Tuesday afterward I boarded a jet myself for Iowa. It would never completely go away and remained in my mind like an infinite mosquito whining at my ear.

I seriously debated when and how to tell my story. Pieces of it kept leaking out of my mind at inopportune moments, such as when I was trying to sleep or taking notes on an audit. Disparate fragments appeared. There was the silvery flash of the object hitting the north tower. The blur of stores as I ran through the WTC underground mall. An incongruous digital rendition of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik" in the north tower lobby. And "A is for Apple, J is for Jacks," a line from a Kellogg's cereal jingle uttered once to be silly, and again to avoid paralysis by fear.

It was going to rip the floodgates open soon, I knew. When, I could not say, but the way the cracks were opened more frequently in my block against the 9/11 memories, and the way they were more potently limned, I knew that inevitably I was going to have the entire day pour out over me and eventually be known to all.

Could I even dare to write about it? What about dictate it on tape? I noticed that my appetite had returned a bit. I had gained seven pounds since I had started consulting again, which Michael said made my face look less gaunt. I decided to practice with another memory. I thought about April of 2001.


My sixth visit to the World Trade Center was to a shipping company. This client was one of the last of original tenants in the complex linked to its original goal - to be a mart for the great global exchange of goods. Most companies like Abel Shipping & Trade had long since departed, pushed aside by the financial firms and corporations that arrived in the booms of the 1980s and '90s. However, Abel stayed on, finding its niche in helping small businesses reach foreign countries. There had been a gap between visits to the Trade Center, because my fall 1999 client had gone belly up, which eliminated the normal follow-up calls I had with clients.

I opened Microsoft Word on my laptop one night a couple days after my meeting with Rocky in Texas, at a small hotel in a suburb of Dallas, where I had to go to an industrial park and work with a client who made ball bearings. I began to look back 10 months earlier, when the weather was getting agreeable in the East and Midwest, and I was in New York City once again. My fingers worked the keyboard as I imagined a Manhattan of relentless verticality, the greatest of all those twins that forcibly grabbed the visitor's eyes nearly every time. I revisited a place that had no mourning and no Ground Zero. I stepped into the financial center of that city, and, as many will say, the whole world.

My second day with Abel Shipping went on into the evening with three people - two men named Perez and Newton, and a woman named Carlisle. I designated clients by their surnames alone, because strangely enough it helped me remember their entire names. They were recorded this way in the notes I put into my day planner. First their full names were listed, then only their last thereafter.

We were all quite happy as we wrapped up the day in the cramped conference room in their office, which wasn't far from some of the Port Authority offices. Newton suggested that we go to the greatest bar on earth.

"And where is this greatest bar on earth?" I asked. "Some people back home in Detroit would say certain spots there are the greatest bars on earth."

Newton burst out with his horsy laugh. He was a thin guy with protruding ears and close-cropped, straw-colored hair. I had to keep from calling him Dumbo the Geek. "Not just the greatest bar on earth, the Greatest Bar on Earth, Joanie. That's the name of the bar."

"So where is it?"

"It's here," Carlisle said. "It's up on the 107th floor."

"Oh," I said. "Good grief." I could still be caught off balance by things linked to the Trade Center. "You mean by Windows on the World?"

"That's exactly what I mean." Carlisle was auburn-haired, milky skinned and on the chubby side. She wore sharp pantsuits.

"Guys, it's Latin night," Newton said. "Why don't we take Joanie up there as a reward for a job well done over these last two days?"

Perez smiled. He had dark hair combed straight back with streaks of white. On the days that I saw him, he always had expensive looking shirts and silk ties on, and tailored suits with patterned suspenders. "Why not?" he said. "She's going to make quality experts out of all us. I can't make it, though. You two take her."

I sighed. Newton said, "How about it, Joanie? Want to attend a dance party in the sky?"

Well, I liked that my debts were being paid, and saw that pleasing clients only continued the process. I shrugged. "Okay, folks. Let's go to this Greatest Bar on Earth and see if it really lives up to that hyperbolic name."
Greatest Bar on Earth
the establishment had a lot of tropical looking hardwoods ranging from blond to chocolate brown...

"Hey, hey!" Newton said. "She used a ten-dollar word. She's classssy!" They laughed when he elongated his voice and made it guttural. I smiled a little but did not laugh. I have never been of the comedic type.

We spent most of the night there, dancing as a group, to the Latin band. The Abel Shipping people told me the Greatest Bar often had live entertainment. They told me the tavern attracted a wondrous cross section of New Yorkers. Newton pointed out bond traders, artsy fartsies, a couple models, cruising singles, and curious tourists.

The establishment had a lot of tropical looking hardwoods ranging from blond to chocolate brown in walls, tables and the bar. Some mirrors on the ceiling reminded me of tacky 1970s bedrooms, though in this place they blended just fine. The bar area had what resembled golden concentric circles above it, which confused me the more I drank. Most of the outer walls were the distinctively narrow floor-to-ceiling WTC windows. More than one person paused by them or sat at a table nearby and gushed about the views. There were these pillar-like sculptures, with several stripes on them, at different places on the floor that looked like obelisks or missiles. They were crazily reminiscent to me of another place in the sky - the home of George and Judy Jetson.

Newton broke off and hung out with a plain-faced blonde with a black dress that from my point of view was too short.

Carlisle danced with me, or I went at it alone. She was divorced, a mother of three, and shared joint custody with her ex in Hoboken. She showed me some Latin dance moves, and after a couple of margaritas I gave it the old college try with gusto.

I lost track of time and location. I sang like an idiot along with Carlisle to the band's cover of Ricky Martin's song "Livin' La Vida Loca." We yelled the lyrics out on the top of our lungs, arms around each other like pals.

"Well, that was awesome," Carlisle said. She still had her arm around me and guided me to a table. "You know you can really dance, Joanie?" Her voice slurred.

"Some have said that to me," I barely managed to say. My voice sounded crooked. Oh, brain's in La-La Land here.

A waitress stopped by the table. "Would you like to order something?"

"Sure thing. Tom Collins, please."

"Another Singapore Sling!" Carlisle said. The server nodded and went toward the bar

Carlisle and I chatted for some time, our voices uneven and rambling. We laughed and talked about college and old television shows and commercials. How we watched MTV for hours back in the early '80s. We talked about the silliest clothing we ever wore as kids growing up in the 1970s.

{To PART 16 of Persistence of Memory}