It was a photograph so ‘try-hard arty’, so predictable, so pretentious, according to a friend, that I used to flick past it like a kid would a bunch of footy-card spares. The twin towers of the World Trade Venter, taken lying on my back as a jet airliner flew overhead: it was my second day in New York, summer 1995, and my umpteenth twin towers shot. My travel partner Chris, a Minnesotan I had worked with in Prague, could take it no more. ‘Ooh, gee, wow!’ he moaned in his best mocking Homer Simpson voice. ‘Plane between buildings. Ooh, Mr Arty. Aren’t you done yet? Honestly, man, you’re giving me the shits!’
Chris had a right to feel this way. For two hours he’d watched his normally calm, rational friend run about like a man possessed, snapping the towers from every vantage point, through every conceivable prop, his sunglasses included. Chris thought it quirky at first, offering a playful ‘crazy bastard’ while I lay beside puddles, in laneways, or stopped passers-by for what he called the ‘busy strangers rudely interrupted for portrait before towers series’. But the novelty wore off as Manhattan’s cauldron hit 102 ̊F on the mercury, 200 ̊F on the soles of your feet. ‘Just one more, mate, I promise,’ I’d say, always avoiding eye contact. ‘Oh, oh, hang on, just one more.’ The plane pic was the final straw. ‘You’re a selfish fucker, man,’ Chris snapped. ‘This twin towers thing you’ve got going’s full of shit,’ and off he stormed, arms and legs chugging like a steam engine, smoke pouring from his ears. ‘Pissed-off friend power-walking away past north tower’ made a great snap.
Admittedly, as architecture goes, Chris had a point. the World Trade Center was hardly Gaudi-inspired. It wasn’t guarded by the Gothic Chrysler building’s gargoyles, or adventurously shaped like the ironworks or sculpted, as if in sand, like the Woolworth building. About the only thing it had in common with its uptown rival the Empire State building was King Kong. But it was bold, brash and so impressively tall it barely fitted in my wide-angle lens. Chris was right, I had a twin towers ‘thing’, had had recurrent dreams about them for years. I never really understood why. but it wasn’t full of shit!
My first twin towers dream, the first of hundreds, was also the most vivid. I was twelve at the time, a year 7 student with little knowledge of or interest in New York, let alone its 110-storey twin monoliths. But I knew they didn’t belong outside my bedroom window, towering over Heidelberg in the distance, casting a shadow that blanketed neighbouring Bulleen. I watched them glistening over the tiled rooftops and Hills hoists and waited, in awe, for the shadow to reach our Lower Templestowe back yard. The dream was beautiful, and so, so silent. And then I woke. A month or so later they reappeared, dappled through the canopies of a dense jungle. To longer content to stare idly at them, I feverishly started hacking my way towards them, but to no avail. The foliage was too dense. And when they showed up, mirage-like in a vast orange desert, the closer I got, the further they’d move away. And in New York—at least in the crazy concrete madhouse that my subconscious envisioned as New York—the traffic was always at a standstill, or the pavements filled with bizarre locals keen to block my path. By my late teens, reaching the twin towers, craning my neck skywards and actually touching them, became the ultimate night-time challenge. I could fly in dreams, I could speak to my dead grandfather, I could become half-man/half-fish, why, Richmond could win premierships, but be buggered if I could reach downtown Manhattan.
I envied those who did. ‘Wow, are you going to the twin towers?’ I remember asking a friend embarking on a Manhattan holiday with her parents. ‘Do you think you could chip me off a piece?’ ‘Ah, um, yeah, sure,’ she replied. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
I discussed my dreams with anyone who’d listen. Sensitive friends considered them a calling; an obvious symbol of a city I simply had to visit. For sceptics, it was penis envy gone horribly awry. ‘Obviously you’re not happy with what you’ve got,’ they’d goad. ‘But two?’ Dad cut to the chase—and to the quick: ‘Son, you’re nuts!’
I wasn’t nuts. I knew that, until 1995 at least, when, after four attempts to reach New York from Europe failed for one reason or another—sickness, an important job offer elsewhere, a cancelled flight, stolen money—I started to see dark portents in the twin towers. Perhaps I’d die trying to reach them, either in a plane over the Atlantic or in one of those heated dream arguments I had with that taxi driver, the one with lizard-like skin, one eye and no teeth. Maybe some super sniffer dog would smell three-week-old dope on my breath and have me detained at JFK? I entertained all sorts of calamity, everything but the twin towers crumbling. that was way too fanciful. And besides, if a tonne of explosives couldn’t level them in a 1993 terrorist attack, what could?
So words can’t describe how it felt when, around 5pm on 2 july 1995, my Czech Airlines jet tilted right to reveal Manhattan, or when it touched down safely and came to a halt. It’s hard to convey the heat that struck me—like a radiator burn—in my New York mate Scott’s beat-up old wagon, or the intersection in grungy, tenement-strewn Brooklyn where I snapped the first of countless photos over the next three days—girls skipping, kids splashing in a busted firehose—or Scott’s anxiety when I asked them to smile. ‘Jeeesus, man,’ he cried. ‘You wanna get us killed or what?’
When we reached Scott’s Park Slope warehouse, I was warmly greeted by other New Yorkers I’d met in Prague, given a beer, blindfolded and steered up to a communal rooftop. They sat me down, shoved a genuine Nathan’s Coney Island hot dog in my hand and opened my eyes to a vista that sent my heart racing: downtown New York, with the World Trade Center no more than five kilometres away—closer than I’d ever managed to get. But I and they knew it wasn’t close enough. That night, when I ran to and finally touched the object of my dreams—felt the still-warm concrete in my fingertips—I burst out crying. Silly, really, a bit embarrassing, but not full of shit. For at that moment I was as happy, confident and, above all, relieved as I’ve ever been. ‘Let’s go,’ I said to Scott and Lawrie. ‘I’m meeting up with Chris tomorrow. I’ll photograph them then.’
I returned to new York in the summers of 1996 and 1999, but while I photographed the towers it was more out of sentiment than any burning necessity. I’d stopped dreaming of them. My feelings about this were mixed. On one hand, I was ecstatic to have finally ticked the World Trade Center off my subconscious wish-list; on the other hand, I was saddened it hadn’t been replaced by something else. There’s nothing in the world these days I could ever imagine myself sprinting to touch.
MY September 11, 2001, my ‘Kennedy assassination’, as Dad put it—‘you’ll never forget where you were, son’—went something like this: Woke, rode to work, worked, rode home (nice sunset, I recall); dinner with my wife, bath, compilation-tape session, West Wing, Newsbreak (jim Whaley pictured beneath a burning north tower) and a knee-jerk call to David Nanasi on the Upper West Side. Word for word (for he kept the answering machine message),I blurted:
Dave? Dave? You there? it’s Steve in Melbourne. Dave? You’re not there. Listen mate, i’ve just seen some pretty heavy shit on the tellie. one of the twin towers is on fire, it looks pretty bad, it looks fucking bad! Like a bomb. can you give us a bell and let us know you guys are all right. i’ll call you later, okay, Dave? cheers, mate!
The next six hours made the most surreal twin towers dreams look positively mundane. I called and woke my father, then my brother (who thought, by the tone of my ‘have you heard?’ that Dad might have died), then walked two doors down to wake my best mate, another Dave. ‘Dave, two planes have flown into the World Trade Center, another into the Pentagon and a fourth is apparently heading towards Washington,’ I said. ‘Shit, full-on,’ was all he could mutter, before, incredibly, heading straight back to bed. My wife and I clung to each other like children afraid of the boogieman. Not until we went to bed at 5am did we become conscious of the framed twin towers photos above the television and above our bed or quite take in the fact that these iconic buildings—and possibly countless thousands of people inside them—were gone.
The following morning I rode to work down Canning Street, marvelling at the funereal pace of the cars and motorists’ moribund faces and expecting at any moment a flying kangaroo to plough into Nauru House. At 11am, after a mournful cab ride, I arrived at the Mont Albert podiatry clinic where I was to photograph Humphrey B. Bear for foot health week. At one stage, while staff scurried about looking for the room with the best available light, I found myself alone with Humphrey in the hallway. I gave him a nudge. ‘So, mate, did you see it unfold last night?’ I asked. The least I expected was a whispered reply; a ‘Yup, shit hey’ or ‘Can you believe we’re doing this today?’ But the person behind the bear wasn’t about to break the Humphrey code of silence for anyone, not even to discuss the biggest news event in recent history. He placed his paws on his head, gave it a shake and wiped imaginary tears from his eyes. It was surreal, but strangely comforting at the time to know that some things remain constant.
That night I called Scott in Brooklyn. He was distraught and, at 6am new York time, hopelessly drunk. He’d gone to ground zero with his dog, thinking he could help out —‘you know, Steve, how he can smell’—but they’d been turned away. He’d spent most of the morning in a bar filled with people who looked, and spoke, like they were concussed. That’s how he sounded:
You know, man, we were there, and someone might change the topic, you know, and we’d get lost in it for a moment and then [he broke down], then you’d all suddenly look at each other and realise and you’d feel stupid, and someone would cry and then, then someone mentioned, you know, about the dogs and ‘who was going to look after the dogs’ and people knew people and people who knew people who hadn’t come home.
He must have cried four times and sworn vengeance twice as often. ‘You know me, man, I’m normally a peaceful person, but if I get my hands on that Osama bin Laden fucker, I swear, I’ll cut his throat so slowly.’ Later, as a stiff coffee took hold, he remembered my ‘thing’. ‘Oh hey, buddy, I forgot, the twin titties, you loved those buildings. Now they’re gone … fuck, are you okay?’
If ‘okay’ is not thinking about planes slicing through buildings 24/7, not feeling a stab in the guts whenever a newsbreak comes on the tellie or worrying about Armageddon, then I was probably okay about three weeks after September 11. I’m off to New York this December. Winter, thank God. I can’t imagine snow on the ground, or wearing thermals, or the downtown skyline without its twin towers. A few months back I dreamt of them again. This time I was not only at but in the south tower as ‘the first plane’ struck its slightly taller twin. I was up around the eighty-fifth floor and knew, by the clock, that I had roughly seventeen minutes to get below 70 and to safety. I was hurtling down the stairwell when I woke. And that’s it. I’ve had none since. I miss the days when September 11 was simply the date following my brother’s birthday, when paper cutters did little more than cut paper, when visits to the Rialto weren’t accompanied by a niggling sense of trepidation, but most of all, when friends didn’t say ‘ooh, gee, wow’—and mean it—whenever they saw ‘plane between buildings’.