Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
“Of all those unaccounted for, who would you miss the most?” The question was thrown at me over dinner in Charlotte on Sep 18, 2001. It had been a long day, and the question gave me a pause. I could only think of her though I did not even know her name.
For four years starting late 1995, I would save my pennies so I could come to New York for day-trips. No, the fabled lures of the Big Apple were not the ones that got me back about once a month – I could not even afford more than a few slices of pizza when there. I would take the late evening bus on Fri, arrive at Port Authority early morning and spend all of Saturday just walking, avoiding even subway rides if I could to stretch my dollar. Late that evening I could collapse into the return bus back. Manhattan skyline would burst out of mundane topography right about the time I would wake up on my way in. I would ogle at the necklace of light on buildings if it was dark out, or sometimes it would appear as a ghostly other world through the haze, sometimes the morning rays would reflect to welcome the bright day ahead. If I would crane my neck at the right time, I could make out the Twin Towers far to the right.
Twin Towers framed my existence from the very start since I moved to NYC in the summer of 1999. My office was in the World Financial Center, across the street from the Towers, and I would walk the concourse of the WTC from the Subway to my office every day. For my lunch I would sometimes walk two blocks north to Bangal Curry, which still exists, and most days I would come to the Plaza for a walk and some cart-food. My work did not involve much client interface at the time, but throngs of my colleagues would frequent offices in the Towers and the other way round every single day. Ever since I knew of New York as a teenager in India, I never knew of the times before these edifices.
By September of 2001, I was living in a walk-up in the Upper East, and I could not see the towers even in the brightest of days. But I could see the smoke, and felt the dust even that far up north afterwards. We all lived in a daze in the aftermath – we all had walked home that day caked in dust and debris, we all lived in fear of the unknown – paying heed to every single conspiracy theory and playing possible doomsday scenarios in our heads – and we all saw the pictures of those missing. At a downtown hospital where I volunteered as the offices stayed closed, I had the vaunted position of manning the desk where people would swarm in with pictures and identifications of the missing, those beseeching eyes praying I had a morsel of information – but I did not. Many days I would throw up after my shift, numb with feelings I could barely contain.
I went to Charlotte almost as an escape. We were told to expect a flight cancellation at the last minute, and I was indifferent. Living in the city as a brown man I never for a moment felt unsafe, or unwelcome, and this trip was no different. I was seated in 2A, but nobody gave me a second look though I admit my radars were up more than usual. I was being recruited heavily by the Charlotte based shop, though through my meetings all I spoke about was how it was living through an experience few outside had a real grasp about. The dinner was a last-minute addition, and I was to meet the head of the vertical, a man very well known and revered to this day. The conversation moved soon to the towers, and he asked me the question I started with today.
I remember seeing her most days at the basement level of the WTC concourse, right next to the flight of escalators, clad in all black. Her torso would be covered in a drape-like heavy cloth over a white or cream-colored blouse, through the years colors were barely recognizable. Most days she would wear a long gown that covered her to toes, but sometimes she would wear a skirt with black leggings over a school-girl boot. Three things I remember most about her – her posture, her glasses, and her books. She would be standing straight up, a dignified lady by any count. Her glasses were thick and round, so thick that you could see the dark pupils from far, glasses so big that they almost covered her caramel-colored chin right up to her thick lips. I never could make out what she was reading, standing still in the melee, but the book had a thick black leather-bound with worn-out pages. Near her in a pile on the floor were a few other books, all in thick black hide, and a large black tote that obviously had her belongings. I never knew if she was a preacher, the certainty of her being there – especially her calm and dignified poise – was my antidote every morning to the fire of the day’s work I was about to throw myself into.
That evening in Charlotte, all I could think of was her!!
Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) Officer Will Jimeno was one of only two people rescued alive from the rubbles of the twin towers. Officer Jimeno was brought up in a rescue basket around 11 PM that night, after spending almost thirteen hours as the two towers – all 220 stories of them – fell on top of him and his fellow officers. After months of hospital stay, physical therapy and PTSD related issues, Officer Jimeno has found peace, even happiness, by concentrating on key ingredients – faith, love and hope. “(L)ook at it that these two individuals, who were not supposed to come out from underneath these immense towers, but they did. And they’ve been able to somehow, someway find happiness.”
Long before I knew of Jimeno’s story, I rediscovered a piece of my puzzle that night. The good life is not just in the chaos of the world a thousand feet up, the good life is also in the peace of dignified presence in own self. It is in having a mooring strong enough to stand on one’s feet unmoved as the world passes you by. It is about enjoying the symphony when it sounds like a cacophony of the mad bad world around you. Happiness is having a slight smile when nobody is paying attention – in the midst of the tsunami, even as you are barely moving. It became apparent that I found peace in the city if I looked right and that moving away at that stage – when my city was at its most vulnerable – would be an act of treason. I stayed back, even joined a firm that used to have an office in WTC area before moving to a nearby location because of the dislocation.
I never saw the lady in the seven more years I lived there. I did not forget her, though I did not make any specific effort to search her out. In 2010, almost three years after I moved to Los Angeles, I was returning to midtown after some engagement in the Upper West Side. Just as I walked down the stairs to the platform on 72nd Street and Broadway, I saw her, again! The same round thick glasses, the same poise, the books. Her hair looked more white than black, and there were visible wrinkles in her forehead. I had the impulse of running forward and hugging her, but I restrained myself.
It was best if she stayed an enigma, a myth almost, just like a state of the united peace we dreamed the morning of 9/12. That does not make it any less desirable. The lesson of 9/11 is to keep searching for it till it emerges for real. Amen!