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February 26, 2024

9/11 Bicycle

By Sarah Ito

The black Trek model mountain bike, secured by a Kryptonite lock, sat tethered between the slots of the bicycle rack at the entrance to the PATH trains in the hip New Jersey suburb. Nine days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, acrid gray smoke still twirled like cyclones above the smoldering piles of cinder and molten metal, clearly visible across the harbor that divided Manhattan from Hoboken.

The bike, the sole occupant in the rack, had accumulated a chunky residue of grayish ash on its frame, ash that was horrifyingly warm to the touch, like the heat generated by a person's fevered body. From the look of it, the bike hadn't been touched for a while.

So what do you think, said the cop to the FBI agent. Do we tag it, cut the lock, try to track down the next of kin ...what?

The FBI agent glanced over at the smoking rubble and swallowed hard, a choking bolus of bile, rage and heart-stabbing sorrow. Let's just leave it for now. It's not evidence of anything at this time. Let's just leave it. You never know ...

October came, and the leaves fell, red and brown and mottled yellow, puffing up like a bruise around the bike. No other bikes appeared in the rack, and the black Trek maintained its solo existence into the Christmas season.

No festive holiday lights twinkled around the PATH station as snow swirled and peaked in low drifts against the bike's knobby tires. People passed by, stoically continuing their commute into the wounded city in a joyless quest to resume a normal life. By the time spring arrived, with almost no flora in bloom, and grass that was alarmingly off-color, the bike had lost air in the front tire and the spokes were rusting.

His name was Brad. Or it may have been Matt. Or Ryan. He was twenty-something going on thirty-ish. He graduated from a state college in New Jersey with one of those boring business degrees that guarantee gainful employment for life. He was fairly new at his job and he was doing well.

It is a freaking beautiful morning, he thinks, slugging down a glass of orange juice while getting dressed in his condo. Business casual is the order of the day, and he opts for khakis and a blue blazer, a prep school look. It is six a.m. and he has plenty of time to bike to the PATH station, get off at the WTC and grab a latte. The bond brokers meeting doesn't begin until 8. Plenty of time.

He loves riding his Trek to the PATH. The bike is primo and set him back a hefty paycheck, but hey, what was he working for, if not to score some quality stuff. Besides, he knows biking is good for the environment and keeps him healthy, too. It is fast and easy to bike to the station, and no one ever disturbs his Trek, locked securely into the protective rack and waiting faithfully for his return each evening.

On the ten minute PATH subway ride into the city, he is deep in thought ... not of the day's pending trades, an orchestrated digital chaos that erupts at the market's opening bell, but of his date later that evening, with the young woman who is a new assistant trader over at Merrill Lynch, and the pitcher of beer they will be sharing at an outdoors cafe at the Seaport. He hangs capriciously from the metal strap, oblivious to the bouncing car, but wary of his nemesis, another young man who always seems to stand close to him in the crush, slurping from a giant thermos of coffee.

If this jerk splashes coffee on me, I'm screwed ... should have brought a change of clothes with me for later ... at least a clean shirt.

He exits the PATH train below the South Tower of the World Trade Center, and it is still early. All the time in the world, he thinks, and he decides to go outside for a few minutes to enjoy the splendid morning weather in the plaza between the two imposing towers. It is Tuesday, and the local farmers markets are setting up tables laden with produce and flowers. A chubby older woman in a checkered pinafore is selling bouquets of daisies, and he thinks, Annie would really like these. He gives the vendor a five dollar bill and heads back inside Tower Two towards the bank of express elevators, wondering if he can scrounge a vase from one of the secretaries to keep the blooms freshly watered until this evening.

He is seated at his stack of monitors when the first plane hits, but he doesn't know it is American Airlines Flight 11, now embedded and melting in the offices of the adjacent North Tower. He feels the earth move and the tower sway, just the slightest movement, like dancing on the deck of a cruise ship, and he hears distant thunder, and he heeds the overhead announcement to Remain in the building ... There is no emergency in this building. And so he works on, even though he has no landlines now, and just flickering data on his four monitors providing scant light.

I smell gasoline, say some of his co-workers. Fuck this shit! I'm outta here, others shout, grabbing briefcases and handbags in a stampede to the stairwell.

He hesitates for a second. Just for a second. He sees pure panic; no, terror and confusion on the faces of everyone around him, and he doesn't know what to do. But it is already too late. He and his co-workers are thrown to the floor, violently, when the United Airlines jetliner slices Tower Two in half. People are screaming, people are crying, people are getting sick. He feels black smoke more than he sees it. His throat becomes a smokestack as he tries to reach his mother on his cell phone. Eighty second floor, Tower Two, rear office, he screams into the phone, over and over. I love you Mom. I'm gonna try to come over tonight, ride my bike over ... Eighty second floor, Tower Two, rear office ... But there is no cell service, and no one hears him.

There is a beam of daylight cutting through the black smoke and lapping red flames. He drags himself to the broken window overlooking Vesey Street. He thinks of his bike, and wonders who will come for it. He thinks of Annie, and if she is okay, and if she will be mad at him for not showing up for their date later. He thinks his clothes are probably stained. He is too hot, he is trapped in a furnace in the sky. He thinks his hips are broken. And then he feels like he's hopped on his black Trek, shifting gears on the derailleur, head down, wind gliding over the chrome of the handlebars. It's a freaking beautiful morning, and he's biking.

The firefighter pulls his partner back from the curb. Debris coming down, he calls out. Please God don't let it be a jumper, says his partner. They stand side by side in their turnout gear, eyes skyward. A handful of daisies float down, their petals mostly intact; their yellow cores scorched. And then, nothing.

With the blink of an eye, the unthinkable becomes a runaway train, ten thousand tornados, a mushroom cloud of atomized lives. The tower pancakes, taking its occupants, clerks and CEO's and kitchen workers and firefighters, to a place called Fresh Kills, where memories and smashed wedding rings are raked and sifted and, if luck holds and skill prevails, given a name.

His name was Brad. Or it may have been Matt. Or Ryan. He was twenty-something going on thirty-ish.

So we have to cut the lock on this old bike today, says the federal agent to the cop, overcoat turned up against the looming storm. It's been over a year, all the time in the world. Never did find the owner, or any family to claim it.

Damn shame, replies the cop. Looks like it was a nice bike, once. Well-loved. What's gonna happen to it?

Going over to the 9/11 museum, supposedly, says the federal agent. Going on display, with all the other stuff ...

The cop kicks some loose snow away from the bike with the toe of his boot. As he leans over, bolt cutters in hand, preparing to free the bike from its interminable vigil, he notices something stuck to the front tire, frozen to the deteriorating spokes. He frees the icy blob from the rims and holds it up to the waning sun for closer examination.

What is that? asks the FBI agent, stepping closer for a better look.

I think it's a flower, the cop says. Seriously, I don't remember this being here last time we checked. It's a flower of some sort ...

A daisy. That's a daisy, says the federal agent.

Article © Sarah Ito. All rights reserved.
Published on 2019-09-09
Image(s) are public domain.
2 Reader Comments
Eric Robert Nolan
08:23:19 PM
This is an extraordinary piece. What excellent storytelling about an event that many writers are hesitant to even approach.
Sarah Ito
02:39:10 PM
Thank you, Eric.
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