Yesterday Was Free, Today It's A Dollar-Fifty

Updated on September 20, 2019
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Steve Tyson is a critically acclaimed Australian songwriter, inspired by travel, family history, political satire, and tales of heartbreak

The Day the Rules All Changed


New York, New York

I think everyone remembers where they were, or what they were doing, on the 11th September 2001. It was early the next morning, around breakfast time for me, at home in Australia, when we woke up to the news. We, my family and I, sat unmoving, in our pyjamas, watching the continuing event unfold. We all knew the rules had just been changed, we all knew the world, as we knew it, would be forever a different place.

A few years later, I ran into a friend of mine in Paris. I was living there for a few months at the time, trying to be Ernest Hemingway, sitting in cafes everyday and making notes for a novel. We got talking. He had an incredible story waiting to come out.

Turns out Richard was living in New York at the time of 9/11. He worked in the fashion industry and had been based there for a couple of years. His apartment was literally across the road from the World Trade Centre towers. The night before the event that changed the world, he had made the decision to come home to Australia.

Excited by the prospect of this, he stayed up making plans, packing a few things, and before he realised it, it was daylight. He put on his roller blades, and set off past Battery Park to get in a few hours skating around that end of Manhattan. He was nearing home when the first plane hit.

He got caught up in the chaos of what unfolded next. As he tried to return to his apartment, he was hit with falling rubble, injured himself, and blacked out. He ended up in hospital in New Jersey.

When he checked himself out two days later, all he wanted to do was to get home – firstly to his apartment, and then to Australia. He got across back on to Manhattan, and tried to catch the subway back down to the neighbourhood where he lived. He was wearing the same t-shirt and shorts, now torn and dishevelled, that he was wearing when he went skating two days earlier. He had no money, and no ID.

On the day of 9/11, and the next day, the authorities were letting people ride the subway for free, obviously just to get them out of the area . Hundreds of people were still searching for loved ones, it was still an unholy mess. When he came to the ticket counter and explained his circumstances, the ticket seller shrugged his shoulders, and said – “yesterday was free, today it’s a dollar-fifty.”

An African-American lady standing nearby overheard the exchange. As Richard turned away, bewildered, she stepped up to the ticket booth and paid his fare. He thanked her, and headed back to his apartment building in Manhattan.

He couldn’t get near it. The building was severely damaged with the fallout from the crashing towers, and a policeman wouldn’t let him through anyway because he had no ID. Shock finally kicked in, and he wandered the streets, appalled at shopkeepers selling pictures of people jumping out of the towers. He suffered the indignity of “tourists” taking his photo as he sat crying on the sidewalk. He witnessed looting. To this day, he suffers from severe back pain.

There were of course, plenty of tales of heroism that emerged over the next few days. Firefighters, policemen risking their lives, people working around the clock to search for survivors and to uncover bodies. There was not so much written or said about this ugly dark side.

Richard’s story took several more days to unravel as he stayed in the home of strangers, waiting to collect his personal belongings, waiting for a new passport from the Australian Embassy. He limped home to Australia. He has never been the same.

His story deeply moved me, but above all else, the words of that subway ticket seller reverberated in my head. And this song emerged….

Oh, I never did write that novel. After Richard told me his story, I certainly went through a purple patch of inspired writing, but not a novel. I wrote Richard’s song, plus another seven or eight songs that would become the basis of a new record. My Hemingway period would have to wait.

The Lyrics

It was time

Two years was enough in this city

I couldn’t sleep

But the night was fine the sky even pretty

Packed some books

Made a rough plan to go home

Looked at my watch

It was dawn and too early to phone

Put on skates

Headed out past Battery Park

Felt uneasy

Didn’t know why but my thoughts were dark

Two hours later

Cruising back past the twin giants

A noise from hell

Screams all round sounds like a riot

Sorry I don’t have a dime

So can you please help me

He said, yesterday was free

Today, it’s a dollar fifty

I looked up

Saw the wings of evil strike the wall

Hell was real

Fire and ash and death began to fall

Chaos reigned

The roar of the giants crashing down

Lights went out

Woke up to see the paramedic’s frown

Spent two days

In a Jersey County Hospital bed

Guess I’m lucky

Heard about 3000 or so were dead

I checked out

Broken bones and all I couldn’t stay

Needed home

Made it as far as Penn Station on the way


That’s all the policeman had to say

Can’t go home

You’ll just have to find another way

Walked the streets

Full of ghouls and sick pedlars of grief

Screamed aloud

At the pain and indifference no relief

The Song

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