When it all began, I was cinching up my belt, getting ready to drive out to Clay County to find a guy I’d heard about who raises pigeons. Lots of them. I always thought of pigeons as an urban hobby, something done on Brooklyn rooftops by guys with no other access to nature. I’d even profiled one of them for a New York newspaper before I’d come down to Alabama to report for The Star. I wondered why anyone in the expanses of Alabama would bother with the so-called “rats of the sky.” And so it was dirty, common birds that were my last pure thoughts that day.
The man on the radio said a small plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I wondered who was the bigger idiot: the guy piloting the plane or the broadcaster who must be getting the story wrong because, let’s face it, who could accidentally fly into a target so hulking in broad daylight. I was on my way out the door when I heard something about a fire in the Pentagon, but I didn’t stop to catch the whole story.
I was driving south on Quintard Avenue when my cell phone rang. It was Anthony Cook, then The Star’s metro editor. “I think you should come into the office, man.” I wanted to find my pigeon guy. A.C. nudged me a little harder. He knew I had spent time in New York. “You should come in,” he repeated, his voice stripped of diplomacy.
Back in those days, The Star was housed in that dusty old building on 10th St. When I got there, a lot of the staffers had already gathered in the rear of the newsroom, where the TV was. We were all slackjawed by the live feed, the image of the towers smoldering, that dirty gray smoke pouring through the pair of gaping wounds. I wondered how long they’d be closed for repairs. That turned out to be a dumb thing to think. Minutes later, the towers fell straight down, as though their legs had been kicked out from beneath them. My knees were weak. Only then did I get it.
I returned to my desk and fired up the AP feed. Reporters didn’t have the Internet on their computers, but we all had the AP, a wondrous thing in the era before Google News. I read that a plane had crashed — had been crashed — in Pennsylvania. Then the day went blurry. I recall doing very little as the staff around me gestated in short order a special afternoon edition of The Star. I didn’t really understand the point of doing that or anything else. I can’t even remember if I wrote anything for the special. A.C. probably took mercy on me. No acts of journalistic heroism here.
Days or maybe weeks later, I found my pigeon man, along with his 100 or so birds and assorted donkeys and cats in the community of Millerville. My feature ran on Oct. 15, 2001. Re-reading the piece now, I see that it was pretty unexceptional, maybe except for the last line: “A calico sits, licking its paw, as the pigeons coo nearby.” As moods went, you couldn’t go wrong with incipient violence those days.
A year later, I was preparing to leave Anniston. Two years after the attacks, I was back in New York. Ten years later, I’m still in the city, just married, slouching into middle age. I proposed to my wife in a park not far from where the towers stood, where there’s the Fritz Koenig-designed sphere that once sat in the center of the World Trade Center. It’s damaged but not as badly as you might expect. Pigeons, of course, are everywhere down there.
Matthew Creamer, a reporter for The Star in 2001 and 2002, is a freelance writer and editor living in Manhattan.