Manhattan, the Days After
Pierre Tristam/Daytona Beach News-Journal, September 30, 2001
Ten days ago, New York’s mass transit authority released a new subway map for lower Manhattan. A swath of stations on the west side of the island had disappeared. Cortland, Rector, South Ferry on the 1 line, all closed. A half dozen stations on the N line, closed. And of course the World Trade Center station, on Duke Ellington’s A Train, closed. The 4 and 5 trains are still running but don’t stop at the Wall Street station anymore. It was only one of many maps being redrawn in the city.
That same day I was riding the 4 beneath the financial district, a few blocks below and to the east of what’s now commonly referred to in New York as The Site. Evening rush hour was peaking. We were standing shoulder to shoulder, a commute of crumpled looks and five o’clock shadows surprisingly routine for a neighborhood that had been blasted out of every routine less than two weeks before. It looked like normalcy was filling Manhattan’s underground veins again.
Then the train stopped. Not a normal, gradual stop but a sudden halt and an expiring heave from the breaking system, then total silence. No engine noise, no AC, no fan.
We were inches from the (temporarily) condemned Wall Street station. The neon lights stayed on, so we could see each other’s blank looks until the conductor’s voice came on: “The emergency break has been pulled. Please be patient. We’ll be moving shortly.”
In seven years of riding the New York subway daily during the 1980s, I don’t remember the emergency break being pulled even once.
The minutes—not those fast New York ones but more like the torpid, Deep South kind—passed. Beads formed on passengers’ foreheads and upper lips. My imagination started taking morbid turns, the unfortunate product of double-whammy memories: Sept. 11, of course, but also a childhood rocked to the rhythm of car bombs in the early days of Lebanon’s civil war. Finishing my adolescence in New York had been the escape.
But here I was, thinking how this train was the Next Target. A suicide fanatic’s dream. Those unguarded turnstiles so easy to pen etrate, a $1.50 fare and no metal detectors. The train crowded to the gills. No escape. They could indulge their penchant for coordinated madness on a dozen trains.
No, they wouldn’t. The attacks wouldn’t be photogenic, and natural-born terrorists these days like their mayhem broadcast to the world, “Hi, Mom!” with a blast.
“We hope to be moving shortly,” she said again, and still we didn’t. By then I was wondering why I’d left my cozy, authentic routine in Daytona Beach for this pilgrimage to my old town at this strange time. If fears that would have seemed ridiculously irrational two weeks ago could become as real as cold sweats just because of a silly emergency stop, then it was obvious that not just maps but life as we have known it was being redrawn, for all of us.
I drove up to the city in the aftermath of the attacks for two reasons: because it’s as close to a hometown as I’ve had and to see whether the attacks had really changed the city beyond the site. To me, if the city had been changed, then the country would be changed, if only because what we understand to be the heartland has also shifted. We’re all New Yorkers now, as a drive anywhere in the nation reveals: All road signs lead to New York City.
Volusia and Flagler counties share more than metaphorical roads with New York City—U.S. Route 1, which cuts through the Bronx and Harlem in Manhattan before getting lost in Jersey sprawls to the south or in New England’s spires to the north. And I-95 follows nearly the same path.
It was 2 o’clock in the morning when I reached that point on the Jersey turnpike where Manhattan first appears. Whatever time of night, it is usually a skyline ablaze with the burns of a million midnight oils lighting up those “high towers of the land,” as Jack Kerouac put it, “the place where Paper America is born.”
But not that night. The skyline looked no more impressive than Tampa’s or Omaha’s, as sparse and subdued as its diminished midnight oils.
I swerved off the turnpike to take the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan. And there was the gash. Where the Twin Towers used to stand tall as Manhattan’s bookends, only the interrogation-like shock of white floodlights shone from between lesser buildings and through that hazy smoke that just wouldn’t go away. They were the floodlights of rescuers, who by then had almost completely become mere excavators in a 24-hour, $100 million-a-week cleanup. There would be no more survivors.
Emerging on the other side into mid-town the city looked as it always does up close and pot-holed at 2 a.m.: Cabs whizzing by like not-so-smart missiles, utility workers using the night’s relative calm to dig holes in the middle of avenues, the few remaining outposts of adult license (survivors of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s moral mopping) beckoning with X-filled marquees, 24-hour delis beckoning with more fruity displays, and pedestrians, always those New York pedestrians pounding sidewalks whatever the time or the neighborhood.
What was I expecting? A vigil on every block? Barricades? Humvees? Actually, yes. And it is exactly what I saw, but all in its “right” place.
New York is still a city of 8 million people filling 300 square miles. Like its neat grids of streets and avenues, the city knows how to section itself off, which is just what it did in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. What I found over the next three days were boundaries, imagined and actual, corral ling the areas where the radical change has taken place—and where, New Yorkers hoped, it wouldn’t be allowed to take place.
Three blocks away from the site, the barricades begin to lose their exigencies and voyeurism by tele- lens has free reign. The first day I happened on the scene I came out of a subway stop onto a street of silence and ash in spite of hundreds of pedestrians making their way between police barricades.
One of the towers’ jutting grid of steel shards hadn’t yet been carted off to be saved for a later memorial. It stood visible from many angles, the most wounding symbol of what had been wrought on the city. People stared, cops urged them to move along, the whole mass of people shuffled slowly away from the attraction in a long queue. The parallels with a wake were unavoidable.
The financial district is still mostly intact today, but picture a mini-city under occupation by our own forces (cops, national guard, the army of salvage workers). The sight is welcome as an assurance that order is here to stay. It is also unsettling. Regular life is forbidden without permission from someone in uniform.
Walking down certain streets, entering office towers, taking a picture or even lingering in one place, things we normally do without a second thought, now require explanations, credentials, proof of one thing or another we never had to prove before. We may all be New Yorkers. But we are all suspects, too. Some of us a little more so than others.
The barricade around the site aside, nowhere was the boundary between Before September 11 and After September 11 clearer than along Canal Street, which traverses the lower end of the island and demarcates lower, older Manhattan from its ampler north. Canal is as close as the city comes to a bazaar, its myriad shops and street vendors spilling their wares on sidewalks that are more like gauntlets for the thousands of pedestrians.
But walking Canal’s shopping frenzy from east to west had the same effect as walking from New York to Beirut and back from block to block, the contrast repeating itself at every intersection: T- shirts, bells, hats, $10 watches, scarves, $3 ties and $2 socks, then a police barricade. Cheap CD’s, perfumes by the quart, designer hand bags, Buddha figurines, then a police barricade. Salmon for $2.79 a pound, crab still squirming with Atlantic memories, Asian porn, The Wall Street Journal, primary- colored toys made in Taiwan, then a police barricade.
Those barricades will disappear in time, although the procedure itself—the sealing off of public spaces at the drop of a rumor, the much lower threshold for alerts and police controls—won’t. This is what we must learn to live with now, not just in New York City. Unique to New York though is a different kind of loss. With the disappearance of the Twin Towers from view, the sheer absence of what used to be a landmark visible from almost anywhere has unhinged the city’s identity. People look at the physical void as a reflection of a less tangible void they feel inside.
For the most part New York City is untouched physically, and the reaction to the event in the rest of the city is not significantly different than the reaction in, say, Florida or, I imagine, the Marshal Islands. North of a certain point in Manhattan television’s daily images and the collective displays of flags, of electronic choruses of United We Stand and God-Bless- Americana are dictating the feel of the tragedy rather than the personal experiences of people who were directly affected. In that sense a disturbing boundary has developed between the actual loss at Ground Zero and the collective loss that has since been turned into a 24-hour made-for-TV event.
The disconnect was strongest in Times Square where jumbo video displays have become gushers of patriotism by rote, and it is that rote—not the reality of the streets—that was increasingly inspiring the national message. It’s disturbing because the TV version has a scripted feel of emotions that has less and less to do with genuine grief and increasingly to do with a programmed response to events yet to come. Those being, of course, war. It is more propaganda than eloquence, or what the great critic Edmund Wilson, referring to America’s last domestic war, called “patriotic gore.”
True eloquence was in the streets: In the pictures of the missing taped to signposts, subway walls and shop windows, the carpets of candles and flowers in parks and in front of fire stations, the increasingly popular pictures and T-shirts of the Statue of Liberty showing the finger instead of the torch, under the banner of an even more offensive message to terrorists, and—my choice for next year’s Nobel Prize for perfect chemistry—the New York Post’s “WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE” poster of Osama bin Laden plastered on the rear end of the enormous bronze sculpture of the Wall Street bull, down in Bowling Green park.
But to me nothing spoke louder than the view of lower Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry as it crossed New York Harbor, the city looking smaller and smaller in the distance. It had never looked so small. The Twin Towers had lifted lower Manhattan’s scrapers even higher than they’d been, making them all look imposing together. Now the place looked more level, that Omaha feel again, except in the bright afternoon light. The ferry bypassed Liberty Island, deserted for days. The Statue of Liberty looked smaller, too, as lonely for tourists as for its twin brothers. We haven’t even begun to understand to what extent the skyline has changed.
It was after that round-trip on the ferry that I found myself on the 4 train, stranded by that mysterious emergency beneath Wall Street. Other trains kept passing us on the opposite track, which is usually a good sign. But men with flashlights were walking around on our side of the tracks and speaking their underground tongue nobody could understand, which was not a good sign.
On board a couple of men made jokes that fell flat. A couple of girls bared their midriffs to cool down, which briefly took eyes and imaginations in different directions. But not enough to dispel that nagging fear that something was amiss, that I—that we—weren’t even supposed to be imagining such fears.
Then the conductor again repeated her hope that we’d be moving shortly, and this time she was right. The train lurched, we braced ourselves for the usual rickety rumble up the east side of Manhattan, and the evening’s rush resumed, as crushing and routine as ever. Only our imagination had derailed.
If only we could say the same about September 11.