article 23

Issue of 2001-09-24



Taking a long walk home.

On the morning of the day they did it, the city was as beautiful as it had ever
been.  Central Park had never seemed so gleaming and luxuriant -- the leaves
just beginning to fall, and the light on the leaves left on the trees somehow
making them at once golden and bright green.  A bird-watcher in the Ramble made
a list of the birds he saw there, from the northern flicker and the red-eyed
vireo to the rose-breasted grosbeak and the Baltimore oriole.  "Quite a few
migrants around today," he noted happily.

In some schools, it was the first day, and children went off as they do on the
first day, with the certainty that, this year, we will have fun again.  The
protective bubble that for the past decade or so had settled over the city,
with a bubble's transparency and bright highlights, still seemed to be in place
above us.  We always knew that that bubble would burst, but we imagined it
bursting as bubbles do: no one will be hurt, we thought, or they will be hurt
only as people are hurt when bubbles burst, a little soap in your mouth.  It
seemed safely in place for another day as the children walked to school.  The
stockbroker fathers delivered -- no, inserted -- their kids into school as they
always do, racing downtown, their cell phones already at work, like cartoons
waiting for their usual morning caption: "Exasperated at 8 A.M."

A little while later, a writer who happened to be downtown saw a flock of
pigeons rise, high and fast, and thought, Why are the pigeons rising?  It was
only seconds before he realized that the pigeons had felt the wave of the
concussion before he heard the sound.  In the same way, the shock wave hit us
before the sound, the image before our understanding.  For the lucky ones, the
day from then on was spent in a strange, calm, and soul-emptying back and forth
between the impossible images on television and the usual things on the street.

Around noon, a lot of people crowded around a lamppost on Madison, right
underneath a poster announcing the Wayne Thiebaud show at the Whitney: all
those cakes, as if to signal the impotence of our abundance.  The impotence of
our abundance!  In the uptown supermarkets, people began to shop.  It was a
hoarding instinct, of course, though oddly not brought on by any sense of
panic; certainly no one on television or radio was suggesting that people
needed to hoard.  Yet people had the instinct to do it, and, in any case, in
New York the instinct to hoard quickly seemed to shade over into the instinct
to consume, shop for anything, shop because it might be a comfort.  One woman
emerged from a Gristede's on Lexington with a bottle of olive oil and said, "I
had to get something."  Mostly people bought water -- bottled water, French and
Italian -- and many people, waiting in the long lines, had Armageddon baskets:
the Manhattan version, carts filled with steaks, Häagen-Dazs, and butter.  Many
of the carts held the goods of the bubble decade, hothouse goods: flavored
balsamics and cappellini and arugula.  There was no logic to it, as one man
pointed out in that testy, superior, patient tone: "If trucks can't get
through, the Army will take over and give everybody K-rations or some crazy
thing; if they do, this won't matter."  Someone asked him what was he doing
uptown?  He had been down there, got out before the building collapsed, and
walked up.

People seemed not so much to suspend the rituals of normalcy as to carry on
with them in a kind of bemusement -- as though to reject the image on the
screen, as though to say, That's there, we're here, they're not here yet, it's
not here yet.  "Everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster," Auden
wrote, about a painting of Icarus falling from the sky; now we know why they
turned away -- they saw the boy falling from the sky, sure enough, but they did
not know what to do about it.  If we do the things we know how to do, New
Yorkers thought, then what has happened will matter less.

The streets and parks were thinned of people, but New York is so dense -- an
experiment in density, really, as Venice is an experiment in water -- that the
thinning just produced the normal density of Philadelphia or Baltimore.  It
added to the odd calm.  "You wouldn't put it in a book," a young man with an
accent said to a girl in the Park, and then he added, "Do you like to ski?"
Giorgio Armani was in the Park -- Giorgio Armani?  Yes, right behind the
Metropolitan Museum, with his entourage, beautiful Italian boys and girls in
tight white T-shirts.  "Cinema," he kept saying, his hands moving back and
forth like an accordion player's. "Cinema."

Even urban geography is destiny, and New York, a long thin island, cuts
downtown off from uptown, west side off from east.  (And a kind of moral
miniaturization is always at work, as we try unconsciously to seal ourselves
from the disaster: people in Europe say "America attacked" and people in
America say "New York attacked" and people in New York think, Downtown
attacked.)  For the financial community, this was the Somme; it was impossible
not to know someone inside that building, or thrown from it.  Whole companies,
tiny civilizations, an entire Zip Code vanished.  Yet those of us outside that
world, hovering in midtown, were connected to the people dying in the towers
only by New York's uniquely straight lines of sight -- you looked right down
Fifth Avenue and saw that strange, still neat package of white smoke.

The city has never been so clearly, so surreally, sectioned as it became on
Wednesday and Thursday.  From uptown all the way down to Fourteenth Street,
life is almost entirely normal -- fewer cars, perhaps, one note quieter on the
street, but children and moms and hot-dog venders on nearly every corner.  In
the flower district, the wholesalers unpack autumn branches from the boxes they
arrived in this morning.  "That came over the bridge?" someone asks, surprised
at the thought of a truck driver waiting patiently for hours just to bring in
blossoming autumn branches.  The vender nods.

At Fourteenth Street, one suddenly enters the zone of the missing, of mourning
not yet acknowledged.  It is, in a way, almost helpful to walk in that strange
new village, since the concussion wave of fear that has been sucking us in
since Tuesday is replaced with an outward ripple of grief and need, something
human to hold on to.  The stanchions and walls are plastered with homemade
color-Xerox posters, smiling snapshots above, a text below, searching for the
missing: "Roger Mark Rasweiler.  Missing.  One WTC, 100th floor."  "We Need
Your Help: Giovanna 'Gennie' Gambale."  "We're Looking for Kevin M. Williams,
104th Fl. WTC."  "Have You Seen Him?  Robert 'Bob' Dewitt."  "Ed Feldman --
Call Ross."  "Millan Rustillo -- Missing WTC."  Every lost face is smiling,
caught at Walt Disney World or Miami Beach, on vacation.  Every poster lovingly
notes the missing person's height and weight to the last ounce and inch.
"Clown tattoo on right shoulder," one says.  On two different posters there is
an apologetic note along with the holiday snap: "Was Not Wearing Sunglasses on

Those are the ones who've gone missing.  On television, the reporters keep
talking about the World Trade Center as a powerful symbol of American financial
power.  And yet it was, in large part, the back office of Wall Street.  As Eric
Darton showed in his fine social history of the towers, they were less a symbol
of America's financial might than a symbol of the Port Authority's old
inferiority complex.  It was not the citadel of capitalism but, according to
the real order of things in the capitalist world, just a come-on -- a desperate
scheme dreamed up in the late fifties to bring businesses back downtown.  In
later years, of course, downtown New York became the center of world trade, for
reasons that basically had nothing to do with the World Trade Center, so that
now Morgan Stanley and Cantor Fitzgerald were there, but for a long time it was
also a big state office building, where you went to get a document stamped or a
license renewed.  No one loved it save children, who took to it because it was
iconically so simple, so tall and two.  When a child tried to draw New York
City, he would draw the simplest available icons: two rectangles and an
airplane going by them.

Near Washington Square, the streets empty out, and the square itself is
beautiful again.  "I saw it coming," a bicycle messenger says.  "I thought it
was going to take off the top of that building."  He points to the little
Venetian-style campanile on Washington Square South.  The Village seems like a
village.  In a restaurant on Washington Place at ten-thirty, the sous-chefs are
quietly prepping for lunch, with the chairs still on all the tables and the
front door open and unguarded.  "We're going to try and do dinner today," one
of the chefs says.  A grown woman rides a scooter down the middle of LaGuardia
Place.  Several café owners, or workers, go through the familiar act of hosing
down the sidewalk.  With the light pall of smoke hanging over everything, this
everyday job becomes somehow cheering, cleansing. If you enter one of the open
cafés and order a meal, the familiar dialogue -- "And a green salad with that."
 "You mean a side salad?"  "Yeah, that'd be fine. . . . What kind of dressing
do you have?" -- feels reassuring, too, another calming routine.

Houston Street is the dividing line, the place where the world begins to end.
In SoHo, there is almost no one on the street.  No one is allowed on the
streets except residents, and they are hidden in their lofts.  Nothing is
visible, except the cloud of white smoke and soot that blows from the dense
stillness below Canal Street.  An art critic and a museum curator watched the
explosions from right here.  "It was a sound like two trucks crashing on Canal,
no louder than that, than something coming by terribly fast, and the building
was struck," the critic said.  "I thought, 'This is it, mate, the nuclear
attack, I'm going to die.'  I was peaceful about it, though.  But then the
flame subsided, and then the building fell."  The critic and the curator
watched it fall together.  Decades had passed in that neighborhood where people
insisted that now everything was spectacle, nothing had meaning.  Now there was
a spectacle, and it meant.

The smell, which fills the empty streets of SoHo from Houston to Canal, blew
uptown on Wednesday night, and is not entirely horrible from a reasonable
distance -- almost like the smell of smoked mozzarella, a smell of the bubble
time.  Closer in, it becomes acrid, and unbreathable.  The white particulate
smoke seems to wreathe the empty streets -- to wrap right around them.  The
authorities call this the "frozen zone."  In the "Narrative of A. Gordon Pym,"
spookiest and most cryptic of Poe's writings, a man approaches the extremity of
existence, the pole beneath the Southern Pole.  "The whole ashy material fell
now continually around us," he records in his diary, "and in vast quantities.
The range of vapor to the southward had arisen prodigiously in the horizon, and
began to assume more distinctness of form.  I can liken it to nothing but a
limitless cataract, rolling silently into the sea from some immense and
far-distant rampart in the heaven.  The gigantic curtain ranged along the whole
extent of the southern horizon.  It emitted no sound."  Poe, whose house around
here was torn down not long ago, is a realist now.

More than any other city, New York exists at once as a city of symbols and
associations, literary and artistic, and as a city of real things.  This is an
emotional truth, of course -- New York is a city of wacky dreams and of
disillusioning realities.  But it is also a plain, straightforward
architectural truth, a visual truth, a material truth.  The city looks one way
from a distance, a skyline full of symbols, inviting pilgrims and Visigoths,
and another way up close, a city full of people.  The Empire State and Chrysler
Buildings exist as symbols of thirties materialism and as abstract ideas of
skyscrapers and as big dowdy office buildings -- a sign and then a thing and
then a sign and then a thing and then a sign, going back and forth all the
time.  (It is possible to transact business in the Empire State Building, and
only then nudge yourself and think, Oh, yeah, this is the Empire State
Building.)  The World Trade Center existed both as a thrilling double
exclamation point at the end of the island and as a rotten place to have to go
and get your card stamped, your registration renewed.

The pleasure of living in New York has always been the pleasure of living in
both cities at once: the symbolic city of symbolic statements (this is big, I
am rich, get me) and the everyday city of necessities, MetroCards and coffee
shops and long waits and longer trudges.  On the afternoon of that day, the
symbolic city, the city that the men in the planes had attacked, seemed much
less important than the real city, where the people in the towers lived.  The
bubble is gone, but the city beneath -- naked now in a new way, not startling
but vulnerable -- seemed somehow to increase in our affection, our allegiance.
On the day they did it, New Yorkers walked the streets without, really, any
sense of "purpose" or "pride" but with the kind of tender necessary patriotism
that lies in just persisting.

New York, E. B. White wrote in 1949, holds a steady, irresistible charm for
perverted dreamers of destruction, because it seems so impossible.  "The
intimation of mortality is part of New York now," he went on to write, "in the
sound of jets overhead."  We have heard the jets now, and we will probably
never be able to regard the city with quite the same exasperated, ironic
affection we had for it before.  Yet on the evening of the day, one couldn't
walk through Central Park, or down Seventh Avenue, or across an empty but
hardly sinister Times Square -- past the light on the trees, or the kids on
their scooters, or the people sitting worried in the outdoor restaurants with
menus, frowning, as New Yorkers always do, as though they had never seen a menu
before -- without feeling a surprising rush of devotion to the actual New York,
Our Lady of the Subways, New York as it is.  It is the symbolic city that draws
us here, and the real city that keeps us.  It seems hard but important to
believe that that city will go on, because we now know what it would be like to
lose it, and it feels like losing life itself.