Thursday, September 11, 2008
After Sept. 11
Two days after the terrorist attacks in 2001, I wrote this column about what life in New York was like at that moment. I wrote it for the newspapers I work for, but none of them used it, being deluged with more urgent and less reflective stories. In retrospect, I probably tried to be a little too optimistic -- it sounds a bit forced -- but let's face it, I was still in shock. At any rate, here it is, never before published.
The wind shifted Wednesday, finally bringing the black, burned-rubber smell of disaster to the upper reaches of Manhattan.
Until then, many like me – living on the Upper East or Upper West sides, working in the concrete canyons of Midtown – had little direct exposure to the unspeakable destruction in the city’s financial district. Some could see the World Trade Center from their office windows, but I work on a lower floor and can’t see that far downtown. Like the rest of America, I watched everything on television.
I learned what happened when I emerged from the subway in Times Square on Tuesday morning, into a standstill crowd gazing up at a massive TV screen. Both planes had already struck. I walked the block to my office, past unknowing pedestrians who seemed perplexed at my tears.
By Tuesday night, a plume of smoke was clearly visible down the broad avenues of the Upper East Side, set off by an eerie urban glow as it drifted south over New York Harbor.
But the tangle of metal, the ash and crushed concrete, were all out of sight, miles away from the tony apartment houses of Park Avenue and the tree-lined terraces of Fifth Avenue, or the more humble apartments of Yorkville.
In upper Manhattan, life is resuming a semblance of dampened, shell-shocked routine. Many people are going to work again, even as they protest that there’s no way they can concentrate. Subways are running, at least partially, and some bridges and tunnels have reopened to New Jersey and Queens.
Of course, that’s not to say we’re removed from the carnage.
On the door of my gym, for example, relatives of one young man – a 26-year-old broker who worked on the 86th floor of one of the World Trade towers – posted a sign seeking information about him. I don’t recognize him, but I wonder who else is missing. How many other people I saw every week, there or at Gristede’s grocery or in the hall of my apartment building, will I never see again? How many windows in the apartment houses around me will remain dark?
When I see a familiar face I’m thankful, even if I only know the person by sight – the blond woman on the treadmill who works out every Thursday, for example. She was there this morning, one element of a fractured daily routine in its proper place. I felt like hugging her, and I don’t even know her name.
Aside from the burned-out smell, we see other reminders. A woman on the subway read The New Yorker, her arm bandaged after a blood donation. A man sat holding an orange safety vest and a surgeon’s mask, headed south to the disaster zone. Supermarket shelves are devoid of bread, and bogus bomb threats continually empty buildings.
A prolific street artist chalked “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” on the sidewalks along Lexington Avenue. Someone scratched that out and wrote beneath it, “No tolerance for terrorism.” It’s anyone’s guess what will happen next.
I wonder whether we will ever again build on such a scale. Will we still erect monumental testaments to engineering, freestanding vertical cities in themselves that make such easy targets?
Yet the green peppers are piled high in the grocery, and the man who sells toy cars from a card table at the corner of 87th Street and Lexington was back at his post Thursday. I watched a woman stop on Columbus Avenue to examine a display of Calphalon cookware in a store window.
We are all balanced precariously between shock and daily life, uncertain how to proceed with what seems so trivial. Today I am less likely to burst into spontaneous tears, as I did repeatedly Tuesday and Wednesday. I slept six hours on Wednesday night, after two the night before. I’m unbelievably lucky, because all my friends seem accounted for – even those who worked in the fallen twins.
As has often been said, none of us will ever be the same. The world is a different place, and I feel older, less naïve, more able to believe in evil on a colossal scale.
But I also think the door to this dark room I inhabit will open. The smoke will clear – as it did Thursday in upper Manhattan when the wind shifted again – and while I and my neighbors are forever changed and uncertainty rules the moment, I think we’ll see light again. Even here.
(Thursday, Sept. 13, 2001)
(Photo: 9/11 mural in the East Village, c. 2003, now painted over.)