Featured Essay   

Cells

by Marcia Butler

One day in the early 1970s, a friend and I played hooky from conservatory classes at The Mannes College of Music. Diligent, disciplined and hopeful about our future careers in music—mid-semester blues had nonetheless descended upon us. We’d had just about enough of music theory and solfeggio classes for the morning. So on a lark, we left the comfort of the upper-east-side and ventured down to the vast construction site where the Twin Towers were being erected. Somehow we were able to slip into an elevator in the South Tower, punch a very high number and ride up to one of the top floors still under construction. A few workmen were milling about, but no one stopped us or paid any attention to our wide-eyed shenanigans. The site was surprisingly deserted, at least on the floor we happened upon.

Walking out into the yet-to-be-constructed offices, we felt simultaneously inside and outside. The wind was whipping through the open space, because the windows, all stacked up against those now famous thick interior columns, had not yet been installed. Curious and brave, we walked towards those huge gaping cavities, and for a moment we really did feel on top of the world. Hand in hand, we ventured right to the brim, without fear or hard hats. We felt giddy as the building swayed, and we gripped each other more tightly.

The Trade Towers had been controversial, considered potential eyesores in the Wall Street area. No one wanted the towers to be built, just as years later, no one wanted the Time Warner towers to be built at Columbus Circle. But these behemoths ultimately do get built, and eventually everyone gets used to them. We forget about the resistance and drama surrounding new construction in our city and the worries of how it will impact our beloved skyline, which is always changing like cumulus clouds. The New York City skyline is imbedded in our consciousness and yet, it slowly undulates with the gradual and inevitable new construction that is the hallmark of progress.

Through the years, I developed a curious sense of personal ownership of the towers, remembering them as the enormous lumbering babies I met when I snuck into that elevator and walked to the very hilt, looking out onto my vast city. I saw a view that few had yet seen. That view was just for my friend, the construction guys and me. As we looked out of the wide-open holes in the walls, we were inured to the height and the expanse and the potential danger of the tower’s verticality.

Out and about in the city, I found myself looking southward often, and feeling comforted; there they were, just as they should be, a solid visual homing beacon. At times, thick moisture laden clouds obscured the tops, and I imaged them as chunky steel legs connected to a robot-like body overlooking the city—protecting its territory. The skies always cleared to reveal spires soaring upward to points unknown.

The Twin Towers were my towers. I loved them so. No matter the weather or my particular day’s coordinates, they grounded me. They were just there, looming over the Woolworth Building and 40 Wall Street, dwarfing those eschewed edifices of the past by dozens of floors.

On the day they fell, imploding a bit too perfectly into themselves, I hunkered down in front of the tube, feeling ghoulish and selfish, watching the horror unfold less than a mile away from my house in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens. I’d endured a yearlong battle with dive-bombing personal terrorists in the form of cancer cells, and was furious that the balm of normalcy through music and those ever-present towers had been ruptured. I had just begun jogging again. My skull was sprouting what would become a fantastic plume of gray hair. The demand of upcoming concert schedules had returned to my life. But with a white hot prick of awareness and then the dulled iron clad concession to fate, all hope of a normal day of rehearsals for upcoming concerts evaporated. All I wanted to do that day was play the oboe—play music.

I’d lobbed a few grenades of my own just a few months before. The target: my oncologist—in charge of pouring toxic chemicals into my body under the guise of saving my life. The treatment felt nonsensical, uncalled for and surely sadistic. Railing into him during one office visit, he took my attack with a grim, knowing smile. He’d heard this rant of “re-transition” before. The next week I sheepishly apologized and accepted the red chemo like a soldier suffering from battle fatigue but willing to follow orders for my greater good.

Anger and grief, for the city and myself, folded onto each other like cake batter and I was once again brought to my knees for my off-target emotions. A grim and selfish thought began to surface at the edge of my chemo-brain. On 9/11/01, what was really on my mind was the appointment scheduled at my radiologist’s office for 9/12/01. At 9 AM I was scheduled to have my brand new baseline x-rays, which would tell the new story of my now non-cancerous breasts. My rehearsals never transpired; all concerts were called off. What if my appointment was cancelled due to the Twin Towers collapsing?

Of course, no one was in the doctor’s office to answer my repeated calls. The phone service all over New York City was sketchy at best. I felt sheepish and embarrassed to even bother with this detail in my small life. My gigantic baby towers were gone and my breasts needed to be photographed. The Towers and The Breasts: like the title of a bad soap opera, just cancelled by the networks.

As the wind shifted into the evening, my house began to fill with the smell of smoke and minute detritus of God knows what. I went to bed that night with the windows closed, trying to ward off that odor of death and pulverized computers, the particles of vaporized documents and other ephemera of life that made up the Trade Towers and everything and everyone trapped inside. The very concrete that I may have stepped on as I emerged from the elevator that day over 40 years ago might have been crossing the East River and seeping into my house in Queens on the night of 9/11/01. As I tried to sleep, I inhaled my baby towers—an odor that I imagined contained my own young and ancient footsteps.

On the morning of the 12th at 6:30 AM, the call came from my doctor: they would see a few patients who needed crucial scans and I was one. "Come on in, if you can."

Walking to the subway, I sensed a tentative calm in the air, not yet to be trusted. The streets and stores were empty, save for a few stalwart Korean delis. Most people had undoubtedly been glued to the TV all night and were still watching, or were drifting off to sleep into an unwanted day off. Miraculously, the 7 trains were running and I boarded the Manhattan-bound subway with a few others, our eyes meeting, but mostly behaving as if we were going into work as usual.

I sat on the side of the train that faced north. As the elevated subway went into its big turn just after the Queensboro Plaza station, it suddenly occurred to me to turn around and look south. The gesture was an instinct. My southward view had just cleared the Citigroup Building. With this building in the foreground, the Twin Towers would have emerged. But they were gone. What appeared in their stead was the most beautifully sculpted double billow of thick smoke imaginable. They were solidly planted where the towers had been, almost as if they were new structures, and not going anywhere. Casper-like billows: ghostly. Monumental bulbous balloons of grey steely smoke, the wind unable to dissipate their sheer density. The towers had been rearranged into a softer effect; not the huge phallic-like structures that everyone griped about in the 70’s when I was a music student. No, these might be kind and gentle and forgiving towers, because they were now not only made of concrete and steel, but also of lives lost. Mixed up in the chaos of these gentle smoke stacks were countless bodies, pulverized into a massive, vertical sandy compost heap. Is that what I inhaled the night before? This thought roiled in my guts and I bent down to retch onto the floor of the train. My fellow commuters looked away.

The radiologist’s office was on Madison Avenue, a building of solid steel, concrete, granite and glass. The elevator let me out into an intact hallway. Doors to the offices were wide open; a few bald comrades sat, waiting. Angels disguised as doctors in white coats had flocked to this solid building to quell my fears and complete my treatment, taking the pictures that would become my breast’s new baby pictures, to gaze at and refer to in subsequent years.

9/12/01 was the end of my cancer journey. On that day, I began my final stage of healing. I heard the somber music of death knells throughout the city. The killing of my cancer was complete, and my beloved baby Twin Towers had died too.


Marcia_Butler.jpgMarcia Butler’s life has been driven by creativity. For 25 years she performed throughout the world as a professional oboist. She was hailed by the New York Times as “a first rate artist” and performed with such luminaries as pianist Andre Watts, soprano Dawn Upshaw and jazz great Keith Jarrett. In 2002 Marcia switched careers and began her interior design firm, Marcia Butler Interior Design. She has served well over 100 clients in twelve years and her design work has been published in shelter magazines. She resigned from the music business in 2008. The personal essay “Cells” is part of a memoir Marcia is currently writing, whose working title is My Isolde. She lives in Sunnyside Gardens, Queens.

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