The City So Nice They Named It Twice

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.

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.

 

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, yahrzeit candles 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.

4 For 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.

I have never heard a sweeter sound than the roar of the engine when the attendant turns the key, and it is good to be in my old familiar truck, good to be able to spend some uninterrupted time with my cousin Erin, whom I really hadn’t seen all that much since she moved to New York. When we finally roll onto the George Washington Bridge, the length of Manhattan spread in its magical geometries along the Hudson below us, the toxic cloud in the distance still curling into the red, early-evening sky, the deep-throated hum of the engine melts into the hollow sound of our sobs.


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