So, I had this previous relationship to Hartford for this very simple reason, which is that the first woman I dated seriously after college was eight years my senior, and I was very naive because I got out of college when I was twenty, but also because I grew up an ultra Orthodox Jew who went to boarding schools until I got to school, so I stopped wearing a Yarmulke and started wearing a Portland Trail Blazers hat. And then a year after that I intentionally stopped dating. I had a bad dating experience my last year of college and I just wanted some space and I was working for a public theatre and we were at this bar across the street called Toast. We had an opening night party for this play called the Venus Hottentot, and I saw a woman I found very attractive. A short, pugnacious blonde woman was at the bar, and we started chatting. She gave me three ways to contact her, and so I got in touch with her. I also didn’t know what a relationship was at that age. This relationship became real after we went to the south of France together. She hated my writing, and thought it was offensive and said so, and I thought that was how relationships were supposed to be because I just didn’t know any better. She had huge anger problems. So when we came back, we moved in together in an apartment in Inwood.
We used to visit my Dad up in Boston, and he wouldn’t let us sleep in the same bed, which she wasn’t having because I was 23 and she was 31. At this point, I want to get out of this relationship. I’m depressed about my mother’s recent death, she’s taking care of me, she has anger problems. My landlord said to her one day, “Three wives! I’ve never hit any of them. If I hear more noise like that, you let me know and I’ll talk to him.” And then she came to me and said, “It’s so funny! He thinks you’re the one making the noise!” Which should have been my sign to flee. So, anyhow, my Dad on a good day is an awful cook, and on a bad day, he’s worse. So we would eat horrible food, and half-way home from Boston would be Hartford, and we found this restaurant (which is still open to this day and looks identical to what it did twenty years ago which is terrifying). So we would stop there and eat and we really fell in love with this place. It became our place because we were probably the only ones eating there mid-week other than insurance executives. We would sometimes rent a fancy hotel room and drink fancy wine. We had a strange relationship with Hartford.
Eventually, I came out of the depression around my mother’s death, and she wants me to move to Jakarta with her for her job. I thought, don’t worry, you’ll just write and she’ll take care of you. And then I thought, wait, I’m going to move to Jakarta right after the fall of Suharto to become a kept boy of this woman with a rage problem where I’ll know no other people. Fuck. I’m out. So I flew to France to break up with her and that was a whole big thing. She would call me from Jakarta to make fights. But, in all of this, the one thing I remember loving is the really nice restaurant in Hartford.
So, on my 26th birthday, I had ended this extremely dysfunctional relationship. Then we get back together. Then 9/11 happens and I work in the World Trade Center, which is an important to my re-encounter with Hartford, Connecticut. I was working for Oppenheimer Funds while doing a low-residency MFA. I had bought a bicycle, and would ride the greenway to work. I left early that day, so I could shower on the 34th floor. It’s 8:45, before anything has happened, and I’m showering. The other tower gets hit first, and I have no idea what’s happening because I’m in a shower in a cinderblock thing in the center of the building. I was naked for the biggest terrorist attack in America. I’m drying off and the alarm comes on and the emergency PA says, “There’s been an incident involving an airplane and tower 1. Tower 2 is a secure area, there is no need to evacuate tower 2, tower 2 is secure”. So I dry off, and I put my book and my cell phone in a locker and I walk calmly to my desk. I notice it looks like a ticker-tape parade outside, but I can’t see up to see what’s going on. None of my co-workers are there, and I’m not too concerned. Our floor’s fire warden, Phil Whitgower, says I should probably evacuate. “Cool”, I say, nonchalantly. And I’m walking down the staircase making bad jokes while people are crying. I didn’t realize what was going on. All my co-workers had been there in ’93, so they knew how to evacuate, which is why they weren’t there. When I’m on the 28th floor, our tower gets hit. There was a tremendous sense of impact and an explosion sound, and we couldn’t tell if it was above or below us. The foundation shook and dust rose up. We didn’t know if there was a bomb below us and if we should go down. Anyhow, pretty much everyone below the impact floors survived. It’s amazing, right? In our building, the plane hit in the 60s. When we got above ground, we were pretty far north. This is where people were freaking out. When you watch the videos, and you see our tower get hit from the south, you see a thing shoot across and hit the building on Church Street, and then land. That’s actually a jet engine. And the turbine minus the cowling landed on the corner underneath some scaffolding. And there was a cop wrapping caution tape around it. To me, that will forever be the image of a man who knows he’s supposed to do something, but has no idea what could possibly be done and is out of ideas.
So police barricades are set up just north of where we have gone out. So I walk up to them, and my lawyer and my boss are there. All the trains are stopped. We walked north together, up to Houston Street, and we heard a huge gasp and we turned around and saw a huge column of smoke. Our building was gone and the other one was still burning.
I finally get to my grandparents’ and get in touch with people, and walked up to Harlem, took the train the rest of the way home, and got wasted with Mick. The dot-com collapse happened simultaneously, and my girlfriend lost her job. She went back to California. I started working in my company up in Hartford where they had excess office space. The following week after 9/11, they send us to Hartford to go live in the Hilton and work four tens. This isn’t boding well for my relationship because it’s bad to begin with. That was the hard thing for all of us. We were so radically separated from anybody that could have offered us support. We had an enormous per diem and most of it went to booze. What I did to try to mitigate that was to go bike shopping. I had locked up my red bike next to tower 2, and it was obviously destroyed. And one way I thought I could reclaim some sort of agency was to buy a new bicycle. My friend Steve Gainer was super into cycling and knew a bunch about bikes. We would drive around in his fancy BMW looking at bike shops, which meant that we’d be in downtown Hartford which was dead after dark, and insurance people were walking around drunk. And then you’d have the band of incredible poverty. And then you get to the suburbs, which is all gated communities for insurance executives who don’t pay any taxes into the city, and there you would find the bike shops, super insane, high-end bike shops. Really expensive. On one of these trips we go past the courthouse, and we suddenly realize that there’s a park just past it, and you can see over the edge a river emerge from underground. So I begin to become sort of obsessed with this river. I think this must have been the time I was just finishing up graduate school and I was working on my first novel project which is never to be mentioned. During that time, my co-worker had given me a subscription to National Geographic Adventure, which no longer exists, and in there, this guy John Waterman (who ended up blurbing my first book) had written this article about his circumnavigation of the Arctic Circle, and he had kayaked the portion that was the Northwest Passage. So I had read that, and I had kayaking on the mind and so I became obsessed. I started asking these guys at the bike shops if people did anything in the river, and they were like, “that’s disgusting.” And in the end what happened was that we found a bike shop that told us we could kayak a section of the river underground. So that was my first kayaking trip. We put in a little bit above town, and we float into these tunnels, and it’s fucking petrifying. But it’s too early after my last great trauma to have any kind of panic or fear of anything. I felt resilient as a motherfucker. I’ve been going to therapy. I’m fine.
So we floated through this long dark thing. Completely dark with occasionally a little light coming through storm grates. It was about 20 minutes until we came out. It wasn’t really legal, but there was nothing really blocking it because they didn’t think anybody would want to because it’s gross and it’s a rarely managed city. So we had our head lamps, and it’s quiet and silent, and I think it was probably safer because we were going in the end of September. So, at any rate, we had this uneventful float through these tunnels, and it was this kind of moment in which I expected to be able to attach all kinds of crazy things to, but really in the end, it was just a thing on the way to buying a bicycle on the way to writing a book about kayaking, and then I came out the other end.