This post, written the week after September 11, 2011, is dedicated to Frank De Martini and Pablo Ortiz. Starting at the 88th floor on the North Tower, they went from floor to floor calling out to people who crouched in debris and darkness, without a clue as to what to do or where to go. “Is anybody there?” they called, gathering and shepherding people to hold on to each other and make their way down the stairs to the street below before the building fell. They are said to have saved 77 lives and inspired others to do the same. Their bodies were never found.
September 11, 2001, A Week Later
Since vacating my East Side studio apartment in June 2001, I’d visited the City almost weekly, but had not got to town last week. The initial numbness of the week of September 11 had eventually given way to tears that seemed to have no natural term. But on Tuesday the 18th I was able to get into the City, and would like to tell what I saw.
I arrived in Penn Station around 11:30 in the morning. Exiting the New Jersey train, I felt immediately that I was in a locality of Fear. It was not so much that people looked fearful or acted furtive. It was more a striking sense of collective vulnerability, of noticing things around one, beyond a New Yorker’s street smarts. No One Smiled. By the same token, no one was rowdy or obnoxious. People kept a space between themselves and other people. In fact, as I went up to the concourse, emptier by far than usual, and watched the walkers, what was striking to me was the return of a talent for walking intelligently, with the radar out, so as not to obtrude into the next person’s walking space, the gifted urbanity whose loss I had lamented in recent decades. The smart walkers of New York were back in motion.
I hadn’t planned to go downtown; it seemed voyeuristic. I’d thought just to do some errands, talk to a few people, and then stop at my Museum (the Met) and my Japanese tea house. But once I was on the asphalt, it seemed imperative to go down there, and get my bearings from the changed New York reality.
Wasn’t sure how to get downtown on the Lexington Avenue subway from Penn Station, but I asked a middle-aged, portly Irish cop behind a wooden enclosure on my way to the 7th Avenue escalators. He gave me his hypothesis (it was only roughly right), but gave it with such a direct look of kindness — like a warm gust, close and family-like.
Out on the street, heavy sadness in the air. New York of late has come to seem to me an inner place, more than the site of its artefacts — more than the artefact it itself IS. In the sad, sober, realistic faces of my City, in the snappily dressed young businessman on 34th and Park, directing me to the Downtown local, “Be careful of that corner with construction; it’s tricky,” with that same direct look of human kindness and care, there was love-laden sorrow.
On every street lamp and bus shelter the posted notices, with photographs and descriptions of the “missing” — missing one now knows, for the remainder of our lives.
The train was rather empty, its passengers disciplined and self-contained. The #6 local goes only as far as Brooklyn Bridge. One has to change there for the express. The express now skips Wall Street but stops at Fulton Street. Stepping onto the express, I asked a woman whether this train stopped at Fulton. New Yorkers are notoriously inaccurate or vague when answering such queries. But she said it did, enunciating clearly and quickly. My intention had been to walk around Wall Street. I supposed that, if the brokers could go to work, those streets at least would be accessible and I could get some feeling of how the streets had changed, closer to the crisis center.
Stepping onto the platform at Fulton Street, that expectation faltered. The air was acrid, even inside the station. At least half the people I saw had suddenly equipped themselves with paper masks to filter the polluted air. “Where did you get the mask?” I asked a young black girl. “At the hospital,” she said, puzzlingly. I didn’t think she was a nurse. They couldn’t all be nurses. It must be part of the urban equipment now. One had the sense that it was dangerous even to be in that vicinity. Air that thick and scratchy shouldn’t be allowed into one’s lungs.
Outside, crowds blocked the approach to Wall Street where I’d thought to go, streets were cordoned off (though you could elbow your way through if you had business, for example, if you had to do the trading on the floor of the bourse), National Guardsmen in fatigues and cops directed the massed crowds back to sidewalks to let the great trucks through. Their faces were young, objective, washed clean with sorrow. I was clearly in the way; and there was no place to walk. This was a danger zone. The men who are doing the heavy work there must take deep breaths, and often they work (as we see on TV) without masks. Each breath is an evident risk. The subway headed North carried people out of a war zone. As when Hemingway, in A Farewell to Arms, writes, “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more.”
Uptown in my neighborhood, I stopped at the “Allure” lingerie shop to pick up some camisoles. Janice, who owns the shop, said that her sister-in-law had begged her to spend some nights at her home in Connecticut, out of this scene. But Janice feels that to leave town is to betray our City. She couldn’t leave.
I stopped at my old building on 90th Street to talk to the doormen. Marcos was there and kissed me (now that our relations are no longer professional and I’m “Abigail,” not Mrs. Martin or “Doctor”). They’ve seen nothing, he and Manuel. They’ve been on duty at our door. But Marcos lives downtown in Brooklyn where there is a great view of lower Manhattan. Now he doesn’t like to look at the view. He said we have nothing to do but keep going, keep on with our lives. I asked him to give my fond greetings to Manuel.
Stopped in to Food Liberation, my health food store and social club. John Miklatek, the young owner, was there and said he’d often thought about me this week. He asked what I thought of these events, and I told him, more or less. That I had not been able to pray or find guidance in meditation all week. There’d been only tears. That I had to be here. That I felt a tremendous spirit in the town. That I felt God was not above, not a transcendent Being in this story, not mere Spirit. That God was in the rubble, broken but unimpaired, in it. Not in the pure air, but in the acrid air — not where people have no cause to fear, but here where they have cause. Where they rightly fear. He said the spirit of the City has been tremendously upgraded. He felt this a defining event for his generation, and that it would lead either to World War III or perhaps a better world. I said, a little of both. We kissed hello and goodbye.
Very hungry by then, I thought I’d taxi to the Met and have lunch there. Flagged a cab with a driver with an Islamic name, the cab flying two small flags at half staff. But then I remembered that I’d wanted to stop at the local fire station with a donation, so I paid the driver and got out at 86th Street. Walked to 85th between Lex and Third with a hundred dollar check in hand made out to Engine 22 / Ladder 13 Firefighter Family Fund. The sidewalk round the fire station was forested with flowers. Not simple bouquets that you can pick up for $6.50 at a neighborhood grocer and lay against the wall, but flower pots of some size, expensive floral and garden offerings from the wall to the curb, and on the wall papers hung with messages of the God bless America and You Are Our Heroes kind. The fireman who took my check when it came my turn in the queue waited till my hand was free, then took the time to shake it warmly in personal thanks. I said nothing, just looked at him and nodded, but felt another gust of kindness.
The Met was as empty as it used to be in my teens, as I’d often wished it to be since, but somehow the emptiness seemed ominous, as if the presence of milling throngs had protected the art, which now stood naked to its enemies.
I know several waiters in the café. Alfonso told me the restaurant had been even emptier on Sunday, the people fearing that any prominent building could be a target. On September 11th, parents had been phoned to come pick up their children, but no public transportation moved on the streets, only emergency vehicles. Alfonso had walked from the Bronx to midtown Manhattan to pick up his daughter on her first day in high school, 93 blocks there with heart in mouth, and 93 blocks back. 186 blocks or eight and a half miles. On the way back, he and his daughter had stopped a few times for sodas.
“What will these kids think?” he asked. He spoke of six-year-olds who now talk of “bad men who destroy buildings” — having to absorb concepts like “bad men.” He said that psychologists advise parents to talk to their children and not let them watch too much TV.
I said, “Your daughter will never forget that day, September 11th, her first day of high school. But she will never forget that her father walked 186 blocks to get her.” I added, “Your wife must have been so worried while you were gone,” picturing a young Latin wife with apron tied in back, desperate in a small kitchen.
“Yes she worried while I was gone,” Alfonso said. “She’s a dispatcher for the Transit Police. These days she works 16 hour shifts at the crisis center.”
I looked at some of the art, all the same. There is a crucifix at the entrance to the medieval hall that legend ascribed to a sculptor who’d been an eyewitness. One sees why. It’s Byzantine in style, maybe 10th century (I don’t quite recall), open-eyed, “triumphal” rather than historical. But very much eyewitnessed, it seemed to me; on target, on location, and “with it.”
The stone Shiva upstairs too, of course, with its profoundly unsentimental teaching: God is in the carnage as much as in the formed civil orders — in the carnage not as Kali, mere destructive energy, but as the pity in it.
The growth of the spirit necessarily traverses the darkest of trials. The thing that I greatly feared has come upon me, Job said.
Noted on the Fifth Avenue bus going downtown: Bergdorf Goodman, Tiffany — no displays, only flags. Brooks Brothers, a huge flag. All the stores, flags at half mast. St. Patrick’s, some diocesan flag, also the flag, both at half staff. Saks: 14 flags at full staff, plus two large ones on an upper story at half staff. “With Sadness,” in darkened windows. Lord & Taylor the same. With what look like giant white shades pulled down, flags hung in front of the white shades.
On the crosstown at 34th Street the bus driver greets a young National Guardsman climbing aboard like a colleague. Turns out the bus driver works with FEMA in the rescue effort. I saw a fire truck pass on 34th Street. Thought I’d look away. These guys must be overwhelmed with adulation. One starts to get jaded, I imagined. But then I looked, and no. Their faces were illumined with sorrow.
So much for my day in the Big City.
It remains a very good piece. You feel you know that great city intimately, Abigail, which gives this column its authority and poignancy.
Ah yes. It’s a love letter to New York.