New Milford, New Jersey is a small town, a very small town. As a child growing up there, the town boasted two grocery stores, several bars and convenience stores, a few gas stations and of course, the usual banks, pizza places, churches and fire houses. The majority of school age children attended public schools and the entire town was served by five elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. Yes, it was a bit like Podunk with one large exception; we were 8 miles out from Manhattan as a bird flies. Taking a quick ride up to the Palisades meant you could be standing on the cliff looking across the mile wide Hudson River clearly seeing the lights from Yankee Stadium illuminating the sky.
We lived so close to the big city, but it was hard to believe we could be so near that center of the universe without being part of it. We were just like everybody else in the world; we lived the New York City life in tv sitcoms, news broadcasts and movies. From Mayor Koch to Son of Sam, the Brownout of 1977 and disco dancing at Studio 54, we read about life in the Big Apple as if it were in a foreign country and we were convinced that none of that stuff could ever happen over here in Jersey.
One of the biggest events from my childhood was the completion of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. Briefly, it was home to the worlds tallest buildings but for many of the folks looking across the river at New York City’s skyline, the towers were a bit like the mythical Emerald City. Growing up, I never gave the buildings a huge amount of thought. Yes they were there, yes I knew of them; my grandfather worked in one of the towers. That was as far as it went. Honestly, I didn’t think of them that often. Then I grew up and graduated from The Culinary Institute of America, and suddenly found myself working in building 3, the hotel that sat between the two towers.
To get to work each day, I took the Path train in from my apartment in Jersey City to the World Trade Center. After a quick ride under the river, the train stopped at a platform deep down under the street. Commuters would have to climb about two stories just to get up to the basement of the towers. From there, a long and steep escalator would climb slowly up about 4 stories just to get to street level on the concourse between the towers. The seemingly endless crowd of people would file onto the escalators, some standing patiently to the right while others passed them on the left side of the slowly rising treads. Still, others preferred to walk up the less crowded staircases that also rose up to the concourse; the tapping of their shoes echoed loudly. The concourse was a destination in itself since it was the only enclosed shopping mall in Lower Manhattan. And like the rest of New York City, if you could think of it, you could probably find it in the many shops that lined the walkway between the towers.
|looking down from the indoor observation deck|
First time visitors to the World Trade Center were easy to spot; they were looking straight up in the sky at the top of the towers, mesmerized by their size. At first glance, the center seemed to be a never ending collection of staircases and escalators leading to concourses and elevators that took you higher and higher. It was the big city equivalent of a country corn maze made of plate glass and polished stone. Both towers consisted of 110 stories that were nearly an acre apiece and when added up, it was well over seven million square feet. By some accounts, 50,000 people worked in the towers each day and it required its very own zipcode, 10048.
|the view of the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge from the indoor observation deck|
Working second shift as a pantry cook in the hotel, then known as the Vista International Hotel, I would arrive at the hotel about 2:30pm each day. Because of a lack of seniority, I had to take my break no later than 5 o’clock. Considering that I started my shift at 3, I frequently was not ready to walk out for an hour break but had little choice in the matter and had to make the best of the situation. The employee cafeteria was down in the basement, 2 floors below street level and it was often smoky since tobacco free zones were not yet the norm. Having relatively few real friends to sit with during my break, I frequently chose to go outside during nice weather.
There were many outdoor areas perfect for sitting and reading and watching the passersby. After a quick trip to the locker room, I would head outdoors to soak up the sun before having to jump back to the line and the dinner rush. Just after 5pm, Monday through Friday, the doors to the plazas and the buildings would open and a steady stream of people would make their exit. Like a swarm of bees or termites, they would head out of the towers and walk to the various buses, taxis and subway stops that surrounded the entire center.
|the plaza between the buildings and the Sphere sculpture|
One by one, two by two, or in some other configuration, they walked, quickly. They had homes to get to, dinners to prepare, families to spend the evening with. Not a minute was wasted while making their escape. Just as surprising was the fact that they also entered the buildings each morning with that same sense of purpose and urgency. This I learned on the few rare occasions that I wandered through the center in the early morning hours while covering a vacationing co-worker’s scheduled shifts.
It was like a beehive in almost every way. Workers focused on getting to the office on time and getting the job done so that they could make their way towards home again. And like bees, if you impeded their progress at any point, you got stung. It was best to keep moving and moving quickly at that. People watching had to be done from the sidelines where you could minimize the risk of being run over. What I saw, who I watched, I cannot recall much. A vague recollection of a few of my co-workers lingers but I have been gone for so long they no longer have names I can recall. The buildings are gone too and that is something I still find hard to believe even though I traveled there and saw the pile of rubble that must have stood 8 stories tall. However, I don’t dwell on that much since it feels like part of my heritage, part of my history fell with the towers. But when it is quiet and I do take a moment to think about that place and that time in my life, echoing through my memory is the sound that so many thousands of shoes make as they strike polished stone concourses and concrete sidewalks.
|my husband, Darry, on one of our many trips up to the outdoor observation deck|