The City So Nice They Named It Twice 

Wednesday, Sep 19 2001
It is surprising how ordinary everything seems on the day after the catastrophe in New York, although each movement is articulated as if it were blocked out in a play. We walk through daily routines trying to believe that careful attention to detail could somehow contain the enormity of yesterday’s events. We are all too polite. We put $5 bills into the cups of homeless people. We nod to policemen. We take our recycling out to the curb and our shirts to the laundry. I suspect that the frayed seam on my blue button-down will be repaired without my having to say a word.

But we don’t look anybody in the eye. Because we are tired, we are edgy, and we have been watching television for 18 hours straight. Some of us have seen things that no person has ever seen before, and all of us have sat awake through dreadful sirens, answered a hundred e-mails, inventoried both our friends and the boxes of cereal that sit on the kitchen shelves. The tragedy lives on in our bodies and in our apartments, vile, fleshy, burnt-plastic fumes that seep under our windowsills and into our lungs. Burnt documents float into streets as far away as Flatbush. None of us is more than a few seconds from collapsing into tears.

On the subway this morning, I meet a young Haitian cook, a Hasid on the way to his job in the diamond district and a security guard with a hardhat who works for a brokerage firm downtown. This would not ordinarily seem unusual, but I am not sure that I have ever spoken to a stranger on the subway before. When the train inches out of its tunnel to trace a long, arcing path over the East River, we strain our necks to look at the stained cloud that rises where the twin towers had been, the smoke all but obscuring the newly graceful skyline. It is clear that each of us had been hoping that the day before had been nothing but a vivid dream, and we do not resume our conversation even when the train plunges back underground.

When I finally get to Times Square, the area is as still as it was after the last blizzard, stores closed, eerily unpopulated — you could lie down and take a nap in the middle of Broadway if you wanted to — except for the dozens of police officers, young as Explorer Scouts, massed on each corner. A man offers me $10 for the copy of the Times folded under my arm. Zippers from Reuters, The Wall Street Journal and ESPN blare disaster news in speedy, silent 1,000-point type. Upstairs at the office, almost everybody has shown up to work, and we hug, and we trade inventories of the missing, stories by now worn as smooth in the telling as river-polished stones, but there is that formal distance here too. Then my friend Lori — who had spent last night shuttling from hospital to hospital looking for her brother’s fiancée — rushes through the halls, face flushed and bright, distributing fliers that look like the art-directed equivalent of the runaway-child posters you see stapled onto Sunset Strip telephone poles: photographs of the missing woman hugging her fiancée, a terse accounting of the floor of the tower she worked on, a few contact phone numbers. The office publicist promises to get the information in the newspaper columns. Perhaps the fiancée is unconscious at Bellevue, Lori thinks, or maybe she was taken by boat to New Jersey — so many people were. All at once, the abstract grief of the tragedy becomes too real to bear.

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At a restaurant later that night, a woman at the next table yells at a friend for chatting too loudly on her cell phone. Just a few hours ago, being called a yuppie would have been a mortal insult, especially being called a yuppie by somebody who pays for her dinner with a corporate platinum card. Now it sounds more like a vital sign. New York might stick around after all.

2 Where Wednesday had been numb, Thursday is jittery, three-coffee jittery, like that moment when the Novocain wears off and you wait for the inflamed nerve to act up again. At my labyrinthine local subway station — in New York, everything starts in the subway — passengers are directed to an entrance several blocks from the main one, and the smelly, overheated passageways have a grim-faced officer posted every few feet. Times Square is backed up and snarling. Employees of the law firm that shares the building with the company I work for pour out into the street. Two shadowy bomb threats had been phoned in here that morning, and dozens more had been phoned in elsewhere around Manhattan. Whipping through the building are whispers about mysterious vans filled with explosives, massive devices found in the Empire State Building, subway tunnels marked for destruction. I am drawn into half a dozen conversations about Al Qaeda, a consortium of which I am quite unaware. Half of the front page in the next day’s Times, stories about unintentional hijackers, weapons that didn’t exist, rescues that never took place, will turn out to be inaccurate. A co-worker sees a man running down 42nd Street — “There’s a man running down 42nd Street!” she shouts — and suddenly half the office is at the big windows, watching the man lope down the block until somebody remembers that there is always a man running down 42nd Street. We are told to go home for the weekend. Most of us do. On foot.

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