Bracing for the inevitable, I pushed on the revolving door of my comfortable building lobby with a deep sigh. My clearly defined personal space was immediately replaced with the bitter cold of the pushing and thrusting mob that was that year’s tree lighting. This particular event created an overly concentrated area of the city full of people whose sole intention was to hold their ground; as if they’d purchased a numbered spot on the glittering concrete directly from the trio who organized Christmas. Keeping my head down as I wondered what vegetable my fiancée would try to sneak into tonight’s dinner, a collective cheer builds as the tree lights explode to life in my peripheral vision. I wade through the crowd, not making eye contact with anyone, headed toward the station entrance as I am pushed violently into my neighbor resulting in a cascading effect across the people stew. No apologies are heard, nor expected in its wake as I am reminded to move my wallet to my front pocket. I’ve long since lost my appreciation for the city, especially in these celebration moments. Though the friends I’ve made are wonderful individuals, the mob changes people into a collective hive of undesirable miscreants.
Not until after writing this story had I realized there was an entire body of research devoted to the definition and analysis of the unorganized mob psychology. I grew up in New York completely unaware that my actions in various group consciousnesses had been extensively predefined more than a century earlier. This wasn’t something most people think about in dense urban areas, it’s just a daily way of life.
The subway commute to school and work was the everyday mob fighting for limited resources – seating. Not much noteworthy happened; other than the day I ran into John Favereau who cautioned me with a shake of his head not to alert the rest of the train to his presence. I suppose the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center is a more civil gathering as an organized event, though civility usually isn’t on the menu as small groups struggle to stay together while inching slightly closer to the main event every time someone breathes in. Then there’s the other type of crowd; spawned from fear and panic and facilitator to a different kind of mob mentality.
One seemingly ordinary Tuesday morning shortly before 9, the few of us who pitted sleepiness against coffee in the conference room each morning were taking bets on why the sky was littered with papers. My guess being an old school paper the city campaign, since the mayoral primaries were voting that morning. Leaving my colleagues behind to gawk, I made my way to my desk to start my day. En route; the receptionist lets me know that my father is on line 2; picking up the pace a bit as I wonder what he needs since he’s never called me this early before, I tapped the flashing light as I pick up the receiver.
“Hey dad, what’s up?”
“Did you see what just happened at the trade center on your way in?”
“No idea, I come from the other direction, whats going on over there?”
“The Carolina news is reporting that a plane just flew into one of the towers…”
“Seriously? Seems like quite an obvious thing to miss through the windshield; I thought it was just the ferry captains who could sneak a flas….”
The building’s emergency siren comes to life making it difficult to hear myself or the other end of the call.
“Hey dad, not sure if you can hear me but I think we need to head downstairs, I’ll give you a call later.”
Descending the stairs I’d considered that this may have been slightly more than a Captain Morgan scenario as we made our way down to the lobby.
Emerging from the slowly revolving door felt like being transported to an alternate timeline of the street I had just entered the building from just twenty minutes earlier. The squeaking of rubber on glass was quickly stifled by the reign of silent chaos that had taken over the city. A few dozen people were walking slowly and calmly towards Wall Street, without much thought I pivoted left and began to walk, wondering what would greet us around the first corner. No-one discussed where to go or what to do, or anything for that matter. Beyond a block was obscured by smoke slowly unfurling in our direction. It moved slower than the people did, or it was such a charged moment that my perception of time was skewed. People emerged from the smoke. Covered in dust, and sprinkled in blood; limping; they joined our silent walk.
Where it penetrates the city, the sun is still warm, even with fall approaching. The small group I started walking with had become several thousand in the span of a few short blocks; and it was increasing exponentially. The glittering concrete, dulled over with a fine layer of soot is discernible mostly due to the footprints the congregation leaves behind. The crowd densifies as we walk and I look into the faces of the people around me. Fear, concern and shock look back. I bump into someone on my left; a woman, clearly distressed like many others, apologizes as I ask if she is ok.
I remember being on the Brooklyn Bridge shortly after we were there already. Looking back towards the city every so often; the smoke from the points where the planes impacted was slowly obscuring the sky. About halfway across the bridge, a noise like the inside of a ship under sea pressure caused many to turn and stare. We watched in a semi-petrified state as the top of the first of two towers folded in on itself as it disappeared from the skyline. The eerie sound of settling dust is broken by screams from the crowd. Terrified, they run past me as I continued to walk slowly backwards not knowing what to think other than this wasn’t the reason I wanted to be walking across the bridge, let alone the first time I’d ever stepped foot on it. Without averting my vice like hold on the vision before me, I lean down to help a woman back to her feet; “we have to keep moving” I say to her, still walking backwards, unable to look away.
By the time we got to the other side of the bridge everyone was covered in a fine layer of white dust as the smoke cloud from the tower forced its way through the city streets exiting downtown at speed and overtaking the fleeing crowd. It wasn’t until we were a few blocks off the bridge into Brooklyn that my cell phone rang. The tower must have been the primary cell station in the area and I’d finally crossed into another towers sphere.
It was my fiancée speaking far too rapidly to interrupt.
“… swear to god i’ll never make him eat peas again if he just answers the goddamned phone.”
“Oh my god, you’re there; you’re ok; what happened; are you ok; where are you; there were two planes; it’s a mad house downtown mobbed with people coming off the bridges; where are you; are you ok?”
“I’m ok; coming off the Brooklyn Bridge now. I can meet you at Sands and Gold Street in about ten minutes.”
Despite the thrusting mob at the tree lighting, I pause my solitary sojourn through the crowd to the subway to appreciate the moment. It occurs to me that when I stop trying to fight my way through the crowd, the atmosphere of incivility wanes just a bit. On the surface, it seems like the mob comes together when life goes a-wreck, and that same concept of civility is conspicuously absent when there’s no crisis to face. If you just take a moment to immerse yourself in the shared experience, it’s your perception that shifts.