The wind shifted last night at about eleven and acrid smoke filled the apartment. The air conditioner is only partly successful; I wake up with a sore throat. I am fine, everyone I know is fine, and none of my friends are missing anyone close to them. Nonetheless, the city is in shock.
I woke up on Tuesday when my neighbor Hearn pounded on the door to say that one of the World Trade Center towers had fallen; he had heard the explosion and gone up to the roof, then gone for a run along East River park and when he came back only one tower stood. At about this time the other must have fallen.
I’d been out at Tompkin’s Square Books the night before to buy records (Tompkins, perhaps my favorite store of its kind ever, had its closing party Monday night) and had been preocupied with both an extremely large work project with an absurdly looming deadline and with Heather Woodbury’s performance, and had woken up every few minutes in a state of panic.
The shift from personal preoccupation to crisis took about five minutes. I said (to the news) groggily, “Is it real?” and then switched on the tv. At this point they didn’t have the dramatic footage we’ve all now watched ad nauseum; but they were reporting eight planes hijacked. I made some coffee and felt both isolated and in disbelief watching news in such an oblique, impersonal way when these events were perhaps a mile and a half away. I went out on the street with my coffee (holding the ceramic mug). I’m roughly on 5th St. and Avenue A. As I walked down Avenue A, a bizarre atmosphere, a mixture of locals shopping and having breakfast at outdoor cafes, and somewhat zombie-like procession of business-people in suits walking doggedly north.
Now, this neighborhood doesn’t get streams of commuters; it’s atmospherically far from that sort of midtown or Wall Street bustle, so the first sense on the street of something very very wrong was this marching parade of people. I now think that most of them were in shock, because they walked without interaction, without drama or explanation. Residents weren’t stopping them or providing comfort, either, it was as if the two worlds, the quotidian and the crisis, were in parallel universes; merely coexisting in timespace as if superimposed video. I saw no shouting, sobbing, screaming.
My idea was to go to Tim’s, a favorite coffee bar, to be with people, but Tim’s was very quiet. I walked down to Houston to a small concrete park. At this point, once I sat, things got very real. A snack shack there had a radio on and people were gathered around it like some 40's Americana image. The sirens, which I had somehow tuned out before, were incessant. At this point, there was still heavy weekday traffic and cabs. At every corner, 20 or 30 people tried to hail cabs. The march of people up Essex (avenue A south of Houston) was incessant and silent. It was hushed, even with the hundreds of pedestrians. I have never seen that many people on Essex, ever.
There had been a huge line at the ATM when I went by, which was the only local behavioral anomaly so far. The day was stunning with a blue blue clear sky, but what looked like a diagonal white cloud streamed east in a fat band. I sat at an outdoor table. Everyone (and I mean everyone) around me was using their cellphones. Directly in front of me was the 2nd Avenue F train stop. People kept going down and then reemerging, and I wished I had paper to make a sign to spare them the trouble.
Most people had no idea where they were; these were mainly commuters who come in by train, leave by train, and maybe have lunch in the financial area, so people kept coming up and asking how to get home. One woman came over to ask where the nearest bridge was. At this point, via radio, most people seemed aware that subways, trains, and incoming traffic were halted, and were ready to walk home.
What struck me was how no one wanted to just sit and rest, have some water. And how none of us residents were pressing for details or stories. Interactions were very New York in the sense of… two or three of us disagreeing about how best to get to the Manhattan bridge walkway. At this point, I decided I wanted to walk more freely, so I went home to get my bag.
I walked up first Avenue and saw quite a few people covered in soot. Lots of people had smudges on their pants or jackets, and most men were in shirtsleeves, but now I saw people encrusted in soot, or holding scorched briefcases. I saw one man whose hair was matted in soot and who had dried blood on his white shirt. I asked him where he was going. He kept repeating that he had to get to Penn Station. I told him that no trains were running and that it would be a hurry-up-and-wait situation and suggested that he sit down and have some water and clean up a bit. I asked if he had friends in Manhattan. He just insisted he had to get home to Jersey. He seemed disoriented as to up and down town.
I asked how he’d been hurt and he said he’d been stupid. He worked nearby and when he heard the first explosion, he and a few coworkers decided to go over and see what was happening. They were nearing the base of the towers, the plaza area, when there was a huge rain of debris and shockwave; there was no cover. A coworker began smashing in the window of a building on ground level, and they all used their hands to smash the window (hence the blood) and crawl through the window for shelter from the flying debris. He kept saying “That was dumb. I was stupid.”
We were now at about 4th Street and 1st Ave, and now cops were everywhere directing traffic. He asked the cop where Penn Station was. The cop was like, just walk north, and then.. “are you all right, sir?” The guy just waved him off in a resigned way and continued trudging. This struck me later, in the sense of how eager the media I saw everywhere was to locate people with stories like his, or people showing blood and soot, and yet, in the initial disbelief, those of us in immediate position to provide comfort, water, shelter, just gave directions as if to a disoriented tourist.
I regret that I did not make that man sit down and get him some water and cloth to clean up. It was only hours later that businesses began donating supplies, and hundreds of volunteer health care workers swarmed, hoping for some people to treat. But all of the people to be interviewed, the shocked and slightly injured, had walked by us before noon, and the thousands of people, later anxious to volunteer, to help, calling hotlines and thronging hospitals, who felt they had to be close to ‘it’ (what the media calls ground zero), were left with no victims to assist.
I now walked in a zigzag pattern southwest. All cabs were full at this point, sirens incessant. The local police precinct (whose facade is the image for the fictitious NYPD Blue precinct) was now barricaded off. It must have been about 11:15 am and I was able to walk through that block; later it would be entirely sealed. Again, I saw no panic or displays of emotion. There were, however, police on every corner waving traffic and pedestrians through. Every ground floor business had a tv on, many many people on the street were holding radios.
As I got over to Lafayette and then Broadway, there was an ominous sense of suspended animation; Tower records annex was closed, Other Music was closed. The streets felt very much like the night, how many years ago now, after the LA riots, when they feared copycat riots here, and the whole place was barricaded and anticipatory. I’d worked that night at The Blue Willow, a cafe on Broadway and Bleecker, we were one of the few businesses open, and people kept coming in just for human contact and to say “it’s spooky out, it’s eerie out.”
Now I walked downtown on Broadway. At the corner of 4th and Broadway there was a very large crowd. People had cameras and video cams and were holding them high. In the center was a woman who looked like one of those clay sculptures; you know that guy who makes life-sized, hyperreal gray figures in normal activity or in conversation?, well, like one of those. Her hair was completely matted in soot, like a shell, and she carried what must have been a cloth duffel bag, probably once floral or cheery, but that was now encased in soot.
No one was touching her; they were gathered as if in a science fiction film around an alien ambassador. It looked like the crowd had formed entirely organically from the nucleus of one man who had stopped her to ask is she was ok, and she began pouring out her story. She showed no emotion, nor did the crowd. There was no group hug or crying or sympathy; everyone stood utterly still, probably no one but that one man could hear what she was saying, but no one interrupted or asked anyone else to clarify. It was a tableau, sort of a respectful witnessing. I did not want to add to the sense of claustrophobia, so I walked south. But I had never seen a crowd of New Yorkers either so silent or so compelled; people usually make a point of being utterly unimpressed, even disinterested or annoyed, by the curious, the bizarre, the famous.
Broadway was deserted. It was at this point that I wondered how the hell they’d made all the traffic disappear. And I’m impressed and grateful at the good judgement cab, delivery, and personal vehicles made to leave the streets without organized police direction. There were no cars parked or abandoned, and that proved to be the case throughout downtown; people really got their vehicles out of the way.
The stream had thinned. While I still saw businesspeoplewith sooty jackets over a shoulder, many holding hands with coworkers, or frequently touching the other’s arm or shoulder, there now were more people going downtown, people like me, most often on bikes with videocams. Every few feet someone would be sitting on a business stoop or the curb using a cellphone. I was amazed how quickly the businesses had closed as well. The deli before Broadway and Bleecker was open, and very busy; the cafe on that corner was open. Houston, as I crossed it again, was now entirely emergency vehicles, and I was seeing logos from every borough, New Jersey. Lots and lots of people, as this is the Broadway/Lafayette subway station. Everyone was already aboveground, milling about, shouting to other people that the subways were closed, and asking each other for directions, or how to get out. Broadway below Houston was even more eerie. Canal Jean, Old Navy closed, almost no pedestrian traffic north now, but a steady stream of rollerbladers, bikers, and pedestrians south.
I walked all the way down to the cordons and was about four blocks away from World trade 7 when it fell, at a triage center there, and then over at the West Side Highway among the miles-long, three lanes of emergency vehicles; I was further down then the stand-up news you saw; they had them penned in up at Houston where there are still scores of satellite vans.
I stood at Washington and North Moore for six or seven hours, near a triage center, waiting for all the lined up ambulences and fire engines to be given the all-clear to go in (anyone not directly on the scene already had to wait until about 6 pm when WT7 collapsed).
I watched the fire leap from floor to floor, zigzagging at a rate of about a floor every five minutes), waiting for the injured to come for care and comfort (all the ripped-open bandages, makeshift guerneys, stacks of ivs and sterile dressings, every sort of volunteer cleric, nurse, medical student, doctor) and not one patient.
Those hours felt like minutes. Why was it getting dark? And why was everyone waiting, rushing from Pennsylvania and Rhode Island in a blare of sirens, to wait in a line of flashing lights that stretched for miles.
The utter arbitrariness of cordons; duck into a bar at the right time, and you were ‘legitimately’ in one zone, pockets of even casual-seeming passersby in increasingly dense dust, crowds further down, the cadre of police manning my barricade paying a delivery guy for a bag of takeout food on the street, him turning around and walking back into the cloud; the mix of mundane and urgent; the crowds of guys on bikes with cameras, angling over and over for a break in the cordon, a cute gen-y guy with no shirt on rollerblades writing in the inches of dust on a parked rescue vehicle; the stringers with notebooks interviewing anyone, everyone, a guy I thought I was just talking to as a person trying to get my name for attribution, then losing interest when a woman near me claimed to have been inside one of the buildings.
A sense of pockets and pockets of such penned, impotent voyeurs and would-be rescuers in little deposits closer and closer to what must, surely, be frantic activity. We couldn’t all be waiting like a post-apocalyptic de Chirico, could we?
As I’m writing this, I’m realizing how much I actually took in. I’m also trying to remember my path and the sequence of events. I had a notebook, but felt sure I’d remember without notes. But even writing I feel anxious. I have the same compulsion to watch the news as everyone, as if I’ll “miss” something, although I know firsthand that the news reporters are further from the events than I was (geographically as well), and the same compulsion I felt both Tuesday and Wednesday to go OUT, DO something, take it in. I will say that the disjunction between the generalized reporting, the built-in language and story form and “reports” of the news, and the actual moment-to-moment feeling on the streets is absolutely astounding.
It’s as if.. I go out and it’s one reality, and then come in and have that reality explained, organized, distanced, and codified for me by the media, and it’s as if I get sucked in and thing “ah. that’s what’s happening”. But then I go out and, for all the 24–7 reporting, believe me, nothing that you see on tv, the capsule interviews of tourists at midtown, the images of rescue vehicles lined up for miles on the West Side Highway, the stand-up interviews at St. Vincent’s, none of that gestures towards how it feels to be here. We have no papers, and the grocery store is running out of whole sections of food. The smoke is nauseating. No one can carry on a conversation without becoming vague and distracted. So much aimless wandering; everyone feels like they are in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing. I think that right now I will watch a short bit of tv and then walk a bit. I’ll write more in a couple of hours.
SEPTEMBER 16, 2001
On Wednesday night I was in Soho. South of Houston was closed, in fact, you needed ID to get into my own neighborhood, and until Friday there was no traffic, no traffic laws (emergency vehicles came right through red lights, pedestrians walked the center of the streets), no air traffic, silence.
I was past the cordon and able to wander through and entirely deserted Soho, like NY in the 18th Century probably, given that it’s cobblestone streets down there and the old, famoust iron-facade architecture.
I saw only two open restaurants, both thronged with locals watching the news, I felt like an interloper going in. A couple of bodegas, but food and necessities for people south out Houston on the West side were hard to come by. many buildings, like all of Battery Park City, were evacuated. Canal street was entirely heavy equipment and rescue vehicles, a nighttime scene of purpose and urgency, no activity that was not somehow related to the operation.
I’m waiting for Vogue magazine’s subtle evocation of rescue chic. A model hanging off a fire truck, walking down a debris-filled street flanked by admiring construction hunks, special ‘heroine’ spreads of real EMTs in hard hats and Versace.
I saw a bit of hard-hat chic as early as Wednesday the 12th in Soho. Along Canal, entirely a rescue vehicle and heavy equipment zone, tripped a skinny young thing in a strappy, tight black dress and a yellow hard hat.
Writing that works for me right now: Times article on the chaos and randomness of the initial rescue scene. Comes closest to capturing the haphazard personnel (bike messengers tagging body parts; specialized rescue emts cooling their heels on the west side highway; casual vandalism, total contamination of the later sacrosanct ‘crime scene,’ and elastic time).
SEPTEMBER 17, 2001
I guess people do what they can. I’ve not gone above 14th Street all week; I feel compelled to be close to the event even though the Met and the Frick are free and Hearn went up to a vigil in Central Park on this lovely day. I’ve not been to 14th street where you see all the candles and pictures in the news, nor to the armory where the families gather, and only briefly by St. Vincent’s where people waited for the ambulences that never came, and every specialist in the world gathered hoping to be called on often and for a long time.
I’ve been on the highway, breathing the diesel fuel, the smoke, and the dust, since the highway side is a gravel construction site. We work hard and earnestly and with more courtesy and cooperation than I have ever ever seen a group of people sustain. We ignore the groups of people singing America and the flag-wavers and the jingoists and the occasional “Kill Bin Laden” t-shirt. We don’t don hard hats and vests and try to pose as rescuers to get inside, as some creepy people do. We organize donated goods and hand them to trucksful of workers, to the cops, to EMTs just in from driving all night from Alabama and looking for surgical scissors.
Young hispanic kids in do-rags clean up the area as assiduously as if they were getting 30 bux and hour and their own MTV special for it; drag queens with green hair stress over whether we have enough batteries for the flashlights; a single mom from New Jersey drives in every day. All of us feel responsible for the little areas we’ve carved out. We are surrounded by mountains of desirable consumer goods, and no one even thinks of appropriating any.
When I came back today, after calling around to the Red Cross and Emergency Management and even the press about the chaos, it was to find that the overnight crew had organized everything beyond belief, that individual toiletries packs were being requested by crews, that someone had donated a tent for sleeping and a tent to serve as an office; that all the areas had signs and we had compiled inventory lists; it was to find that everyone is feeling as responsible about this as mega-Virgo me.
In fact, at the Javitz Center, where donations and volunteers are coordinated by the Red Cross and the city, they had such chaos that the National Guard took over the operation. And Shea Stadium is overwhelmed and far away. The Red Cross itself brought things by our site (now with a name, called “Clarkson”) because we, in the haphazard ad-hoc way I so bemoaned, are apparently the only effective distribution center for the crash site.
People are enterprising. One woman brought a shopping cart of toiletries to Battery park city residents standing in line to be escorted to their homes for ten minutes only to get their things. She said that at first just one man said okay, but then when they saw toothpaste and shampoo and aspirin and eyedrops, the packages went like hotcakes. The police come up for coffee and we now have a few of those round industrial spools as cafe tables. This is all civilian, all volunteer, started just as a juice and water distribution from a few people. And any continuity is merely from people’s own initiative; there are no founding organizers, no contact numbers. I find it very rewarding right now.
This particular effort I got sucked into is very near the crash site, and I think I go there over and over because, increasingly, it’s the only place where the outside matches the inside. Where the level of anxiety and activity, urgency and emotion, approximates or respects what I feel. Monday I went inside the perimeter with supplies for the MASH unit for the dogs ( too cute, a mobile dogggie hospital. And even construction guys and emts love dogs; big crowd of guys standing around in “awww” mode as one was worked on).
Although it was oddly exciting to be “inside”, I did not choose to go back on any other runs. We located the FEMA command station (tent full of serious communications equipment) and told them we needed some help coordinating. All the uniform guys were very nice, escorting us around and making sure we got to talk to someone useful. But the smell, the noise, the pile of rubble that close (I was on Chambers, after that the National Guard forms a cordon), an overheard comment that “even the dogs are getting depressed. They’re trained to find survivors and they’rer working so hard and can’t find anyone and they don’t understand.”… all of this was really too much.
I’m not sure I can go down and help any more, even if I have the time. Is it so omnipresent or self-evident or taboo that the sickening smell intensifying in the air is rotting, burned bodies? Five thousand people buried under rubble, baking in the sun. I had a few retching episodes yesterday, and when I got home, showered and showered and threw all my clothes in the laundry bag, and took my shoes and bag which were encrusted with dust, some of which, I’m sure, is creamains, and tuckjed thgem behind the door, near the kitty box. But I could not get rid of the smell and smell it now.
This is your west side highway correspondent signing off (from exactly where you see the stand-up NY reports on the news, the vans are all up and down the street, last night they built a platform right behind us. the camera lights illuminate the work.)
SEPTEMBER 24, 2001
Things are “getting back to normal”, although I’m having moments of cognitive dissonance, seeing full sidewalk sushi bars of chattering young people, repressing or blithely accepting (as if repetition into numbness turns reality into an image file) that less than a mile from where they sit lies an open funeral pyre. The local newscasters are chirpy again, after two weeks of rising to the occasion and acting like real journalists (Pablo Guzman breaking down as he reported the transcript from the level-headed flight attendant who gave the most useful information about the hijacker’s methods and identities… “what would you have done? he cried. “she had two young children”. The anchors patted him. “Oh, Pablo” they said.)
Returns to ‘normal’ were evident as soon as Sunday, when I first heard a conversation that was personal gossip rather than hushed sharing, and have, in slow increments, accrued. More traffic, horns and signs of impatience, music rather than news coming from cars and businesses, a disinterest rather than urgent acquiescence when I present our rquest for chapsticks and vap-o-rub, hip-hop in the courtyard, laughter, planes, a man annoying the hell out of me for no reason (“what does that flyer say? what kind of music do you like? where are you from? really? with that nose? and I mean that as a compliment. your shoe is untied, want me to tie it for you? you have an attractive look, for a skinny woman”).
This weekend I took a long walk that basically etched the perimeter, beginning on the West Side Highway, where the sprawl and activity of our relief station has been replaced by a few white tents for newscasters and only a few scattered buckets and boxes of miscellany (waterlogged sugar, a few batteries, one glove, 50 or so “I Heart NY” bags) remain. I wound down through Tribeca, joining crowds of tourists clutching flags and cameras.
No vehicle traffic and the swarming curiosity-seekers approximated a macabre street fair. Peanut and hotdog vendors, a gumbo stand. Few of the real eateries open, as delivery trucks have been barred. Yaffa’s however, was jammed, with a line for the outside tables, now perhaps 700 yards from the carnage. The financial district defies description; the streets deserted of traffic, clean as a whistle but covered with an endless fine silt, swarming and lost tourists (it’s as confusing as Greenwich Village down there), huge generator trucks, cranes, ConEd vehicles parked all along venerable financial alleyways, no restaurants open. How can anyone ignore what’s happened who works there, there are no delis for the morning bagel and no power-lunch bistros.
Cracked windows and lots and lots of “for lease” signs as if companies took one look, saw their worker productivity sliding into the toilet, and moved shop. The pedestrian barricades to the ever-popular “ground zero” are irregular. You can get very close around liberty and jane streets, and looking west, into the setting sun, the red glare caught metal and broken glass like some apocalyptic heavyhanded movie symbolism. Most people wanted to get good pictures, some were trying to explain the former layout to one another (I wanted a map, it’s profoundly disorienting.. where did what used to be?), too many had brought young children, and only one man sobbed, collapsed on a police barricade. Battery Park is a National Guard encampment. City Hall Park is locked up. I walked down to more deserted southeast areas and it was very creepy; nothing open, all dust and echoing footfalls, a mix of civilians and military, all with i.d. necklaces.
I was struck particularly about how the intense emotional energy has been expressed at a remove, and this very close crowd reminded me of the very people who’d be in line to go up to the observation deck on a Saturday. This is saddest around the very closest financial district fire stations. The largest spontaneous memorial/vigil was on 14th St. because that’s where the initial cordon zone began. And in Tribeca and Wall Street, which has just opened to civilians, the most decimated firehouses are the most bare of the profuse floral and candle tributes which have turned the city’s firehouses into mexican-catholic style shrines of color and excess.
And yet the poor working firemen down near the crash site are beseiged by tourists, endlessly snapping their pictures. If you walk from here west along Great Jones, you pass the Great Jones firehouse on the right. Don DeLillo delighted in the firemen and used them as ballast/contrast for his debauched rock star antihero in “Great Jones Street”. I walks that block to and from yoga and pass the guys playing catch, calling out to the locals, leaning cross-armed against the bay doors. Fourteen of those men are dead. Continue west and pass the 3rd Street and Sullivan house; 11 dead. At sixth avenue, take a brief right to the Sixth and Houston station. Banks of floral tributes, candles, messages, pictures along the facade over head-high. I did not go closer to read how many dead.
On third street between 1st and 2nd, the largest American flag I’ve ever seen hangs down from a wire stretched across the street at 3rd-floor height, out from the Hell’s Angel’s NY chapter house.
Ceremony is important. As in “standing on”. As early as Saturday the 15th, I saw one stand-up journalist on network news declare that “there is no hope of any survivors.” It was possible that we all agreed, might even say that privately, but it was a huge gaffe. I understood why there are protocols then. It’s up to the clergy, the mental health counselors, the friends and family of the bereaved, and the leaders of the rescue units, and our mayor, to gently ease us into that awareness until the pronouncement, when it comes, is already accepted, almost a relief and a release.
I get up and close the windows and put on the air conditioner. What I want is fresh, new air, not chilled stale air. The bed alcove is still impossible to draw a breath in. Now I find a fan and plug that in. Each of these tasks is absurdly difficult, as though I’m being put through some sadistic obstacle course. I would cry and cry and cry had I the energy.
The landlord had called last Wednesday the 12th, and called again this Tuesday. He wanted his money. “We must all cooperate and help one another during this terrible crisis,” my landlord said, “You must pay me my rent.” To wake up to that after the incredibly dreamlike, utterly exhausting world of gentle interactions and focused physical exertion, was like being socked in the solar plexus. I began to cry as I hung up. “How mean! How can he be mean!”
Until I finish the freelance work, I have no money. And I do not know how fast I’ll be paid. I thought I was doing okay, the best I could, and all of a sudden, between Tuesday and now, it’s as if everything accumulated and gathered and crashed on me like a wave.
This, the horrific air quality, and the ersatz ‘security’ everywhere, is so tawdry and sad a fallout from this overwhelming and occasionally ennobling tragedy.
These are the days that routine, a full-time job, structure, family would be of enormous help. The way that things have not changed, and yet the ways they have, would be more evident, less solitary and subjective. Freelancing is lonely and amorphous. Oh, to end a fractured workday of mutual distraction and unproductivity with a beer and some friends. Oh, to be a scholar or policymaker or have some position of responsibility and decisionmaking that matches my desire to act with purpose.
Today’s Times had an article about people returning to their apartments in lower Manhattan and had a picture of Yaffa of Yaffa’s, the ubiquitous doyenne of weird (she was on the cover of the style section around the time of 100 dalmations, in her cutout ragbag black and white outfit and her brace of dalmations). I was hoping to spend last tuesday afternoon at Yaffa’s, where I worked and met Heather W (a fellow waitress). I thought being with a group, having a beer, that close (Hudson and N Moore) would be the right way to spend that day, but the street was already closed and remains so.
It’s pretty amazing, what’s happened to businesses close to the world trade.. those areas are so quiet, like some older frontier town feeling, and the restaurants have become gathering places for only local residents, as no one else can get in. I crave that feeling, because things matter so directly there. Yaffa’s had an amazing mixed clientele; many big-name artists and filmmakers with nearby lofts, and fedex people and warehouse workers from the remnants of industrial downtown. When I was in Soho a week ago, the only open restaurant of that entire chi-chi bistro zone was Fanelli’s, a nice old bar and basic Italian food joint where I’ve spent quite a few good evenings (similar vibe to the Ear Inn on Spring). It was almost deserted but open and intimate and inviting, although I felt a trespasser as I didn’t live in the area.
I do believe that although I’m not ‘directly’ affected by this tragedy, that we here have absorbed and are still absorbing the energy of a lot of close-by suffering, that we are breathing the molecules of destruction and death, that in some non-mystical way (more akin to how we have levels of sub-rational senses) we felt that wave of intensely and violently released energy, of souls, perhaps.
I now feel closer to understanding what was in the buildings and the character of the people in Berlin, a place of seige and fear and betrayal and rubble and rot. Just two blocks from where I lived was the Sophienstrasse, once the heart of a Jewish quarter, now with plaques commemorating days of massacre. I’d walk down there because it’s pretty and cobblestone-y, because it has a wonderful local bakery and an English fish-and-chip place where it intersects with Orienenbergerstrasse.
It does hurt that Stefan has not called. I believe he has a new child by now, with his American wife. I miss the community I knew there, how it was always group dinners with freely flowing grappa and long nights of clubbing in the unmarked hinterhof illegal kneipes. It’s so possible to fall through the cracks of your own history as if through wire mesh. I read that Ann Carson is collaborating on a performance/opera. I’d like to call her. Suzanne called, wrote, and invited me to visit. Nathan called to report anti-Arab sentiment in his mixed-recent-immigrant neighborhood. Anger from Carribeans who’ve wasted their Lotto dollars in Arab-owned bodegas, anger, oddly, from Chinese-Americans.
SEPTEMBER 25, 2001
The sky is a bright, yellowish gray; again I wake up to such an intense noxious smell I am sure the building is on fire.
We are too accustomed to peace and prosperity to take in at a deep level that our lives and priorities might change, whatever our obsession or information-gathering around disaster, war, safety.
Witness the customer at the deli where I got a morning coffee berating the counter-guy “Everyone shops here! Annie is so sweet. But you.. you’re.. horrible! Crabby! You never get my sandwich orders right, either!” She stalks out, leaving her sandwich and the Korean counter-guy takes it out on a black youth who asks for a straw for a soda he bought elsewhere; “Why you ask for straw! Why you want straw from me?”
Collateral damage at such deep levels and widening, flat surface ripples. What if you were the person who called a meeting that brought people to the WTC? What if a friend covered your shift at Windows on the World (where everyone who was there died, and everyone who was not lost their livelihoods).
The Times coverage of this has done a good job of contrasting the backgrounds and resources of these largely-recent-immigrant victims with the top-notch mid-life professional demographic that dominated the WTC workers.
Movingly, the Windows on the World workers, from dishwashers to freight-elevator operators, were inordinately proud to have arrived at the defining symbol of American culture, sending money and pictures of themselves at their recognizable workplace to far-off family.) What if you’d asked a friend to run an errand in the Plaza? What if you sold the hijackers their ticket and told them “have a nice day, sir”? What if you’d lost a loved one at Oklahoma City or in the first WTC bombing and had to hear politicians and rescue workers, cornered by the press to describe that which we have no conceptual framework for say “those disasters pale in comparison.”
What if you’ve had a loved one die in a traffic accident over this last week, where it seems as though the country’s love and attention is focused on one group of fellow citizens and has forsaken others? What if you have memories of previous personal trauma that are surfacing or torturing your dreams? A fire at your house that seems never to have ended now that everything smells like burning, all the time?
SEPTEMBER 28, 2001
I wanted to experience what the financial district is like now on a workday, before all traces, both physical and emotional, beyond the cordon are erased. Here, things have returned to a more level of testiness, to which I am much more sensitive.
On edge, I took a train to City Hall where things still matter. I wanted to see whether the dusty streets rife with barricades and police were yet bustling with people in suits. In fact, no. Business is not as usual. The Fulton mall area (wall street’s answer to 14th St; discount stores, cheap clothing and fast food) had about half the businesses shuttered. I asked two cops whether service vehicles could get in yet. They said yes, trucks of goods and food usually restocked the local service businesses in the early morning. The then told me it was more a question of having customers. “I seen maybe two people go in that hat shop all day.” They seemed in a way to want to talk ‘about it’ as much as me. Did I work in the financial district? Had I been down that first week? Well, I’d never believe how much better it is now, how much better it is than anyone thought possible, all the rubble gone from surrounding streets. I told them that first week was one of the most intense periods I’ve lived though. They shook their heads in concurrment.
I walked south, several blocks east of the site perimeter, past the Stock Exchange. Traders in blue jackets leaned against police barricades with their cellphones. Almost every large building had yellow barricades blocking all entrances but one. Lobbies and plazas were deserted. The cordon from the crash site was pushed farther back that it was last weekend, I believe to prevent crowds of gawkers from obstructing the entrances of businesses already disrupted in every way.
I passed those old-two-storey brick remnants of old NY, now tony restaurants and private clubs; they were open but not at all bustling. The streets seemed about a 2:1 ratio of tourists/curious and people in their workdays. So while it was about as crowded as the financial district usually is, the demographic and tone were entirely other. Verizon vans offer free phone calls; gangs of hard-hats and national guard roam around, buildings are inexplicably cordoned off. Even the expensively dressed businesspeople I saw moved slowly, seemed distracted, and were drawn to the streets with the most appalling views, there to stand still. Most overheard conversations would be things like “..but it was the second tower hit that fell first” and, between two clerical-seeming workers sharing a smoke-break at the foot of a fancy tower “..so you coping any better yet?” She shook her head briefly ‘no’ in reply.
I walked straight down to the water. East of the Staten Island Ferry building is blocked for a bit, but finally one road offers egress and I passed under the final off-spur of the FDR Drive (still closed to incoming traffic) and walked through a narrow parking strip to a harbor walkway. There, facing Brooklyn, directly to my right, were a line of flat boats with gigantic cranes mounted on them.
Long flatbed trucks were lined up, and each would move into position and, in a laborious ten-minute procedure, the crane would locate, grapple, and lift gigantic twisted metal beams from the trucks and swing them on the barges. The truck drivers would pull up about 50 yards to right near me, jump out, and sweep loose debris off their truckbeds. A helicopter flew in between two barges and landed at a helipad there. The farther crane seemed to be loading smaller debris, because with every grapple and transfer, huge clouds of dust would rise in the air. It was a stunning day of dramatic light and clouds. The cranes formed such clearly etched lines on the horizon.
On my left was a pier from which ferries continually loaded and departed, returning commuters to Brooklyn, to Weehawken and points north in Jersey. I believe those are running indefinitely and are free. I walked north now, along the water’s edge, and to my left, in neat rows perpendicular to the freeway passing overhead, were containers, gigantic generators. “Plug in to Cat Power” several boasted. (that’s must be where she got her name) There were like 100 of these gigantic container truck generators, with logos and license plate from everywhere, just sitting there.
Now I’m at the South Street Seaport. An octagonal ticket booth for Circle Line tours has a small sign “Tours are cancelled indefinitely because of the World Trade incident.” Instead, another set of ferries departs from the pier. Police everywhere. The restaurants and clothing shops are open, but, despite the zillions of tourists and curiosity-seekers, empty, as is the promenade (the crowds press west, toward the rubble). At the farthest extension of the promenade, three suited men watch with great interest a tugboat, its sides encased in buffer tires, as it docks and then casts off in an unscrutable errand. Perhaps a dozen people sit in the sun, most with cameras, weary, one woman chronicling in her journal. I go up two levels to the wooden deck where more people sit in lounge chairs, more snap pictures in every direction. The restaurants at this level are almost empty.
Looking back, south, at the cranes, they are more abstract heiroglyphics now, just bright yellow boy toys. Some of the views are so beautiful, the cranes with their glass-and-metal buildings backdrop, a view from between generator-containers straight up the canyonlike roads, framed in the distance by a suspended walk bridge. At one angle, improbable symbolism, stunning clouds and light backlit the pefect triangle a crane and its load make, perfectly framing, because of perspective and vantage, the Statue of Liberty.
I leave South Street Seaport on its service, ugly side, the north. A huge ship, “The Floating Hospital,” is docked there, along with its vans and ambulences, but aside from several dockworkers, it is silent and empty. And then, to my right, is the Fulton Fish Market, and, across the street, all its businesses. Turning left to re-enter downtown, I’m in a brick-paved ye-aulde-ny broad alley of chi-chi restaurants and tech start-ups. I see one couple at a sidewalk table, no traffic, and many barricades where phone guys are working to get service restored.
Now I’m on Pearl Street, lots of condos and terrace apartments as I walk north, just where the Brooklyn Bridge begins. lots and lots of flags on the balconies, and a bit of seige mentality, more trucks and sirens than buses, a verizon van with long lines of residents wanting to make phone calls. I take a left on Gold Street to get a bit more taste of financial district friday. A large building on my left displays a large sign “Yes, we’re open, welcome back,” but a large bulletin board just to the left is jammed with flyers for the missing.
Then I see why: cattycorner to the right is NYU Downtown Hospital, many ambulences parked in front, and its entire ground-floor front facade papered with ‘missing’ posters. I read these. Some of the people look so damn nice. Some of the flyers have a name and number, others have place of work, last seen, last time spoken to, last seen wearing, close-ups of tattoos and jewelry.
Two I found especially moving were side-by-side flyers of photocopies of identity cards and papers of two young Japanese colleagues. Clearly faxed, and more formal than the American flyers, the text was identical “Were supposed to be attending the Wolf Group Conference at Windows on the World with colleague.” The flyers gave both an American contact and a Japanese address and number for their company. There were also several flyers for EMTs and ambulence drivers. One flyer said “Is this man among your hospital’s unidentified males???”
I took a right then, moving west, and immediately passed a charming little firehouse on my right. The shrine was very compact, almost formal. I passed it, avoiding the gaze of the two firemen in front of the bay, and saw a simple notice up on the door. “Company # wants to thank the community for your love and support. Four of our men died on September 11. We have started a fund for their families, donations of any amount are welcome.”
I turned around and pulled out a crumpled $5 and handed it to one of the men. “Can I give you this? “ I said. I mean, I’d been feeling in a way as though the firefighters’ families have been receiving love, donations, and benefits out of proportion to several other groups of victims, but at that point I didn’t care if the guy turned around and bought coffee and donuts with that money, I felt very emotional.
I walked back west, straight along Fulton to Broadway, where one of the most striking and disturbing vistas dominates the rising street. It’s the entirely burnt-out shell of, I believe, WT4, black girders, a schematic monument to a building. South on Broadway and the businesses’ glass is covered with thick dust, still. A J Crew was open, or its doors were, its displays apparently now a memorial; several sweaters on torso forms link sleeves, all covered with thick dust.
A shoe store, still closed, its expensive shoes covered in silt like an archeological dig of a civilization of great luxury and excess. (I can imagine the ‘Nova’ narrative about this civilization). John Street frames the other famous view; a stunning single facade lattice rising over huge huge smoking piles, and the chopped-off (wires protruding, form sliding from rectangular to organic) end of WT4. Now I looped back north, walking toward city hall again, glancing west every once in a while for the slide-show, partial views enframed by every cross-street. I was very tired and did not think I’d be back, and yet I wanted my eyes to record, my body to absorb, every nuance of this moment of history, to register.
SEPTEMBER 29, 2001
Laminated poster of the twin towers, anyone? Available on street vendor stalls along with your flag pins, red white and blue ribbon loops right on Fulton and Broadway. Never-seen-before scenes of carnage! 11 o’clock news or linked by your intrepid bloggers. Shrines with burnt-out candles, dead flowers, rain-bedraggled missing posters, and streaked and dripping penned platitudes and poetry.
The world’s attention has moved on. Blogs, even those recommended by ‘blogs I trust’ spout or link smug left-wing rhetoric on intelligence (or lack therof), tolerence (ditto), warfare (one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter).
Meanwhile, we suffer from sick-city syndrome. I fully expect this illness to be ‘discovered’ and defined by investigative journalists to-come. Wanting to encourage business-and-tourism-as-usual, toxic levels of molten plastics, solvents, asbestos, and organic corruption are dismissed by government p.r. as ‘acceptable’; several million New Yorkers develop symptoms from autoimmune disorders to chronic asthma, birth defects shoe in the ‘terror sex’ baby boom (Salon sez: ‘best sex I ever had; we fucked as if it were the end of the world. to U2 as well’).
Last night was my first foray from the gravitational vortex of ground hero or whatever the fuck. 103rd St, El Tailler Latinamericano. Took the subway home, doors open on the second avenue F-stop and the acrid, humid, rotting smell is so strong. I tell myself it’s just the subway, the way it traps heat and humidity and odor along the tunnels with no ventilation. But the odor increases as I climb the stairs, and then I am home, or blocks away and my eyes sting and I want to retch. Is this what I’ve becomed accustomed to? Was 103rd St., Broadway, traffic city, Manhattan, the freshest air I’ve breathed in two weeks? The unsaid about the cloud. What they say in those invariably blue-collar communities where smoldering mines or tire piles have become the defining odor, the accepted. What they said in the communities of honest burghers during wwII: “we didn’t know anything about the camps. but there was this sweet burning odor.”
Listen to/watch the national media for the ‘inside the mind of bin laden’ special. See eggheads who’ve ‘lived with the northern alliance rebels’ opine. Take a gander at airport security. Now walk a block and a half to the candle and flower-outlined chalk memorial at Thompkins Square. Take the subway at rush hour, and in the Times Square station, one of the most push-and-shove of rush rush-places, crowds of shock-still witnesses to the mural of ‘missing’ flyers on tile walls. Even just around the corner, a score of flowers and candles. The police leave this encumbrance to pedestrian traffic; passersby respect the one or two silent candle-lighters with heads bowed.
The news machine has moved on to retaliation and security; we are a city in a pall. You can’t know, you shouldn’t know; may you never know. Let you who cast the first generality have tasted not of specificity, which admits no abstraction and does not ease.
I had my first nightmare two nights ago, after the most fun and best-organized, and human-positive of my 12-hour shifts on the highway. I dreamt that the Mayor gave a news conference, and, in the middle of it, he was attacked, almost castrated. Newscasters intoned “Well, this certainly is a shock. He may have to resign now that everyone has seen him publicly castrated.” He was ‘upstairs’, out of view, but we could hear his screams. Part two of the dream was that my friend Heidi had moved to New York some time previous (she has not) and had a lovely loft, all comfy and homey and inviting, as is her way. I was visiting, some sort of party. And in came another friend, Kathleen. Kathleen greeted Heidi effusively. “I was so worried! Are you all right?” Both of them ignored me. No one asked if I was all right. The feeling of being bonded in front of, and ignored by, two people who once represented ‘family’ to me, was so desolate. “Am I so bad? Does no one care?” my dream-self thought.
The third part of the dream was the most direct. The attack had just happened, but instead of towers, an entire neighborhood of two-storey houses was in flames. I was with a few people and we were the first on the scene. It seemed to be the ‘Russian” section of town. People called for me to ‘go in! pull them out!” I stood outside the flaming houses, pretrified. I could not do it. I could not see severely injured people, blood, screaming. I felt hollow and a failure. I woke up with that image, the burning and the screaming.
I want diagrams, time-lapse 3-d cutaways of who was where and who they spoke to and where they went and where they fell and why. A labyrinthine Rashoman of an hour and a halfs’ events. The kind the relatives are attempting to construct; the last cellphone signal, the last sighting. Inevitibly, the loved one was last seen “staying behind to help others.” How many people from, upper floors got out? How did they do it? Floods of survivor accounts just add more questions.
I want a computer-model interactive diagram where I can change the variables until everyone is rescued. The game would be “get them out alive.” The elevators that still worked, the ones that became hurtling fireballs. The escape door that leads to a rain of debris; the one that offers shelter. The eyewitness stories of sublime foolishness; the radio reporter who jumped into a cab and ended up running from debris three times, each time smashing open a boat, a store, in order to shelter. His report was billed as “one reporter who helped rescue victims,” but as far as I could tell, he ran, he ran back, he ran, he ran back, he took a cab to his mother’s.
All Things Considered Commentary, Thanksgiving 2001
(thank you to everyone who donated, volunteered, cared)
3 minutes, audio