By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I find my way to Astoria, Queens, to an Egyptian restaurant called the Kebab Café, in a section of town populated by Arab coffeehouses and hookah parlors. I am at a table eating broiled goat chops when hooligans burst through the door and start howling at the chef. He shrugs. It is not the first time this has happened today.
3 On Friday, the area south of 14th Street is reopened for the first time, and I go to my old neighborhood in Greenwich Village to walk around and visit some friends. It is emptier than I have ever seen it during the day — I’m not sure there have been this many open parking spaces in the Village since the ’40s — and somehow foreboding, like a grand-opera set when the curtain raises on the fourth and final act. I round the corner toward my old apartment building, and I gasp: The twin towers had been the dominant feature of the streetscape, as massive and as permanent as the Hollywood Hills, and it was almost as if I had turned around in West Hollywood and realized that I could see through to Studio City from Doheny.
A block away on West Street, the curbs are lined with young women waving flags and cheering, offering bananas and cold water to the ironworkers and cops who roll by in their convoys, chanting every so often, as if they were at an Olympic volleyball game instead of a disaster-relief site, “U-S-A, U-S-A.”
Where the intensest of paranoias had seemed barely adequate to the second day of the tragedy, the third day is heavy, sad, as the city seems to realize all at once that there is no secret pocket of survivors waiting to be rescued, that the thousands of missing are in fact gone. The missing-person fliers had multiplied yesterday, spread from the streets outside St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village to walls and storefronts around downtown, and covered two long walls outside the original Ray’s up on Sixth Avenue. Yesterday, the fliers had represented hope; today, they’ve become a sort of shrine, like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., and people would walk by the walls, run their fingers over names they knew, leave flowers, candles, little notes. At the firehouse up on 10th Street, home to a company of firefighters that was hit particularly hard by the buildings’ collapse, the improvised shrines on the sidewalk are as elaborate as anything left for Princess Di four years ago, and the grief of the neighborhood is a living presence, dense as lead. And always, the candles, tiny fires trying to fight off memories of the biggest.
Have you ever been to a candlelight vigil? It’s really an amazing sight, Union Square awash in stippled light, then up close thousands of young people bearing lighted votives and dinner candles, yahrzeitcandles and stubby tapers, which bathe the hardest faces in a gentle, beatific glow. The people who have been to these kinds of events before — this is essentially the same crowd that attends AIDS vigils and Take Back the Night marches — have improvised little shields for the candles, trimmed paper plates that protect their hands from the hot, dripping wax, while the newcomers make do with paper napkins and pierced coffee cups. There is no center, so the candles move in streams, toward what seems like a node of action, and then back again. Firemen are the heroes today, also police officers, even the officers growing increasingly agitated as the crowd swells, becomes restless and expands to fill the street. People hold hands, pray, sing softly — not “Give Peace a Chance” or “We Shall Overcome,” but half-remembered patriotic songs from childhood, “America the Beautiful” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” as the candle wax overflows onto the ground, and the arms carrying “War Is Not the Answer” placards grow heavy and tired.
On the way home, I look over my shoulder as I walk across the bridge and notice that the cloud still rising from the disaster site, illuminated with megawatts of emergency lanterns, glows as if lit from within.
4For days, the airline ticket in my pocket has felt like a rabbit’s foot, a lucky talisman that would sling me back to Los Angeles for a life free of toxic dust and CNN. Now, the ticket seems purely theoretical — the planes are grounded, and calls to the airline seem to be answered with a squishy echo that sounds like somebody wringing out wet swimming trunks in a porcelain sink. Television coverage of airport delays make the terminals look like Kampgrounds of America for business travelers. I feel like a traitor, a deserter, but I am almost relieved when I get a phone call from a young cousin in Queens who is anxious to get home to California but terrified of getting on a flight.
Many New Yorkers of my acquaintance say that it is unthinkable not to have a car here, that the idea of the city is incomplete without at least the notion of escape, the ability to jump into the driver’s seat, point west, and go. A car here is an ace in the hole, like a $50 bill folded small in a corner of a wallet, like your father’s favorite hat. And although I have taken my truck out of New York less than a dozen times in the couple of years I’ve lived here, the fact of the truck is worth even the fortune I pay to keep it in a lot — especially this week. The huge garage, in a pier on the Hudson not far from what is already being called ground zero, is being used as a staging area for the rescue effort, swarming with provisioners, squadrons of rangers, volunteer veterinarians, television reporters speaking Urdu, Bengali and French. Frantic residents of Battery Park City, locked out of their homes since Tuesday, try to get past the checkpoint to rescue their cats. A high school marching band wheezes “America the Beautiful” when a fire truck pauses at the barricade. My Dodge, to which I must be escorted by a uniformed ranger, could not have been a lower priority — nor should it have been.