How I Wrote Songs Without a Guitar After 9/11
Exclusive song downloads, pages from Miller's notebook, and the story of how he composed music after leaving his guitar behind
I turned 31 on September 6, 2001. At the time, my girlfriend, Erica, and I shared a studio apartment in New York City, three blocks south of the World Trade Center. We spent my birthday on the West Coast, a beautiful day in Los Angeles. A couple of days later, I went to KFK Jewelers on West Third. The jewelers agreed to custom-design an engagement ring and mail it to me in NYC. Erica and I were headed there the next day.
Which was September 10, 2001. Sometime on the following day, I started keeping a journal.
88 Greenwich Street, NY, NY
Went to bed at three last night after writing a song, “Lovebird,” and making love with Erica. About 9 a.m., heard two loud explosions. Didn’t fully awaken us. Phones started ringing. Mom on my cell (I missed it) and a college friend of Erica’s on the landline. It’s all very confused at first. It’s not unusual to hear construction in the morning, and I think I muttered a sleepy complaint about the loud noise.
Me to Erica: Babe, I think a plane just crashed into the World Trade. I’m going to go up to the terrace and check it out.
She says: You’re getting up? Can’t I keep sleeping?
Me: I think this is a big deal.
Terrace is locked. A girl getting on the elevator says we can go stand in the stairwell. There’s an opening with a view. A half-dozen people already there. Australian couple. He has a video camera. Good view. Girl in red-checked shirt on cell with her mom: I’m fine, I’m looking at it right now.
Video: Rhett Miller performs a song he was in the midst of writing when the World Trade Center fell.
Flames shoot out either side of both towers. Flames shoot out of the building that houses the Amish Market, where we grocery shop. Bodies drop from a hundred floors up. One lands on the median, right in our line of sight. Firefighters and paramedics surround it, roll it on a stretcher, and carry it off.
I feel the beginning of something that’s hard to put into words. A mechanism that I developed during my adolescence, surviving in a broken home. I am distancing myself. I know it’s real. And I know it’s bad. But I’m not going to think, right now, about what it means.
I call my mom. She suggests we leave town immediately. I tell her she’s overreacting. For some stupid reason, I am thinking about our favorite local deli, Café World. How all the hubbub is going to make them sell out of sandwiches.
We go back to the apartment and turn on the TV. I’m on autopilot. I make a bowl of cereal and set it down on the table. A brown cloud full of debris engulfs our building. Our 14th-floor windows shake. The floor shakes. The brown cloud moves from the outside of the window in. The TV tells us that the south tower has collapsed. Our windows face south, away from the WT towers. My heart freezes. My asshole tightens. Erica starts screaming: We’ve got to get out of here.
We run to the door. The middle-aged couple across the hall is standing in their doorway.
E’s screaming at the woman: What do we do?
The woman’s screaming: I don’t know.
I check for my wallet and my keys before I realize that the only thing that matters is getting the hell out of there. We run out of the apartment. Erica wears little khaki shorts and a black Cancún T-shirt. I wear jeans and a white T. We are both wearing Birkenstocks. Bad running shoes. We make it down to the lobby, which is sardine-packed. Bloody, soot-covered people stream in. We go up to the second floor, where the smoke and soot are a little less thick.
I ask the assembled crowd: What’s the downside to going back up to our apartment? A guy sitting coolly with his back to the wall says: I wouldn’t want to be trapped up there if the building catches on fire. He’s got a point. A British guy says: Let’s go down to the gym in the basement. He takes off. Comes back a minute later and says there’s one stairway available to us and that it empties out onto the street 10 feet from an entrance to the basement. We gather our resolve and take off. The door opens out onto Rector. Normally, we’d be able to see the WTC from here. The air is thick and brown, rubbish and wreckage are all we see. It’s tricky terrain to navigate. Twisted metal, broken glass, scraps of burnt paper. We round the corner, pause at the basement door, look at each other and make a silent decision: Let’s just get the fuck out of here.
There’s no one else on the street.
I try twice to look back at the tower that still stands, but the cloud is too thick. We run. In our stupid Birks. Down to where the street dead-ends. South. Other people running. Now more in earnest. I wonder why. As I pass a cop (he’s wearing a face mask), he yells: The second tower just collapsed, get the hell out of here!
It occurs to me that if I had opened the outside door at the bottom of the stairwell two minutes later, we probably wouldn’t have survived.
We keep running until we get to the water. Smoking fragments of glass and metal rain down on our heads. E and I hold hands while we run. I pull her across the street and we use the FDR as cover, running beneath it so debris doesn’t land in our hair. I sneak two looks back. The smoke, the faces, the bloody people running and screaming.
Breathing feels like chewing and swallowing. We don’t stop running until we get well beyond the Brooklyn Bridge, and the breeze off the water has cleared out the air. I’m wondering about our building. Did the windows hold? Are the others trapped in the basement?
We wander until we hit Houston Street, take a left. Sirens and ambulances and screaming cops.
After we discover that our friend on Mulberry Street isn’t home, a stranger lets us into her apartment. E has to use the bathroom. I do too. Wash the soot out of my eyes.
Call my mom, who starts crying, which starts me crying. E calls her folks. We don’t know where to go. So, reflexively almost, we go to Buffa’s for eggs and bacon. Sweet old waitress is very nice and concerned. Radio on, real loud. President saying: We will hunt them down and punish them. Palestinian teenagers on TV, laughing and waving flags.
Stop at grocery store to get tampons and toothbrushes. The line wraps all the way around the store. I also buy this notebook.
298 Mulberry Street, NY, NY
We spend the night on our friend’s living-room floor. I dream in the morning of the falling businessman with the flailing arms. He swims through the air toward me. When he’s right in front of me he says: I’m dead.
Over and over, this happens.
We go to the one open clothes store in the area. We walk in and, almost immediately, the Middle Eastern owners come through, announcing: We’re closed, we’re closed. I am holding a pair of Converse sneakers (navy), some socks, and a pair of boxers (that end up being the biggest Medium I’ve ever seen). I still intend to pick up some shorts, T-shirts, etc. I almost start crying, tell him that all I have is the clothes I’m wearing. He looks horror-stricken. “Of course,” he says. “You take your time.” We go across the street to Chase Manhattan Bank and I take out $300. I give half to Erica, who has no wallet. Walking out of the bank, I realize I’ve left my notebook on the counter in the clothes store. I take off running. When the only thing you have in the world is a red spiral with 12 pages of journal entry and a pair of Cons, those things take on an extraordinary significance. The store owners let me in to retrieve my red notebook. Back outside, I drop it into the shopping bag and notice, for the first time, the name of the store: Ground Zero.
Six weeks ago, E’s parents came into the city to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. One night, we got high on the roof of our apartment, looking over at the WTC, and discussed crises, catastrophes, and disasters. E’s mom, who fled Hungary as a young girl and lived her whole childhood as a refugee, got a little emotional, making the point that our generation would be ill-equipped to deal with a catastrophe of any magnitude. “I mean, I don’t think you’d have any idea what to do,” she’d said.
Erica’s brother has a place in the Hudson Valley. We go to Grand Central by way of the 6 train. Hardly anybody is out, especially on the subway. We take the 3:12 to Beacon. As we speed through the tunnels and emerge alongside the Hudson, I keep repeating, in my head, the line I intend to utter once we are up around the Cloisters: I feel so much better now that we’re out of the city. And I do say these words, as I planned, but I don’t feel any better …
I’m leaving New York without my guitar. I have no guitar. No backpack, no cell phone, no organizer, no CD player, no CDs, no tape recorder. How little these things feel now, things that seemed crucial to my existence a day ago.
Later that night, as we lie on the guest-room bed, E whispers: I keep seeing those people fall. I wonder if they jumped or they … She trails off and falls asleep, making soft ugh noises occasionally as she drifts down.
Before I’m able to fall asleep, I hear some friends, also refugees, in the room below us having sex. I’m surprised to be reminded of humanity’s finer points.
Whiskey Hill Road, Wallkill, NY
Morning in the Hudson Valley. The wind has blown the algae to the edges of the pond. Crickets and cicadas. Poncho the dog sleeps in the foot-deep yellow flowers. I contemplate fishing, but can’t stomach the thought of catching something and having to put my hand around its squirming body and wrestle the hook from its face.
I can’t breathe through my nose. E wakes up coughing, hacking. Thick congestion rumbling in her throat.
I try to put on my sandals, but I can’t, because of the places where they rubbed into the flesh on the top of my left foot and my toes.
Barefoot, Erica and I walk to the edge of the pond and stand there for a long time in silence.
I didn’t write a word about the engagement ring in the journal. I was afraid Erica would see it. And I didn’t want the ring to be wrapped up in tragedy. I was able to get in touch with the jewelers before they’d mailed it to our New York address, which was lucky, because the mail from that time was in limbo for months. We returned to 88 Greenwich a week later to collect whatever belongings we could gather in five minutes. We never lived in Manhattan again. We got married, had two kids, and now live in a quiet spot in the Hudson Valley. We don’t discuss the events of that day much anymore.
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