The cab ride into Manhattan is always thrilling for a kid from San Francisco. The air is much warmer and thicker than out West in fall. The affable Middle Eastern gent driving the taxi serves proudly as welcoming committee for this tourist on a hard-earned holiday. In three days, he would quickly attach an American flag, like many of his colleagues, to his radio antenna to show his patriotism for his adopted homeland.
In the back seat, I check the travel book for the fifth time; acting cool just to make sure I knew where the hotel was. Part of the adventure of a trip alone to New York is posing as an unflappable New Yorker, not an easy task for Californians. To us this mysterious island is still the center of the world is so many ways. Each moment is recognizable, but not personally familiar--cinematic.
The New York I had come to see was mostly a personal myth. Andy Warhol’s Factory, the Talking Heads at CBGBs, Stonewall, the Mafia, cops on the take, Woody Allen and Dianne Keaton, punk rock, immigrant enclaves, beatnik artists in the Village, the Velvet Underground, poetry slams, Hello Deli; many of the things vanquished or replaced during the Gulianni era. I hope to find some underground New York discoverable only by the most determined traveler. I want authenticity. I got more than I ever bargained for.
Monday, the day before the terror begins, I line up with hundreds of other tourists to visit the Empire State Building. The view at the top is phenomenal. Skies are clear enough to see Brooklyn, New Jersey, Harlem, the Bronx; I admire the World Trade Center towers, and look forward to salsa dancing in the restaurant on top with friends a few nights hence. I eat a ‘Paul Schaefer’ sandwich made by Rupert G. on the steps at Rockefeller Center. That night I go to see a young bluegrass band play at an alternative hole-in-the-wall bar in Brooklyn. There is reason for the buzz. These native Nuyawkers can pick and holler as well as any band south of the Mason-Dixon. I drink and watch the local twentysomethings wiggle out new urban folk dances to traditional American music, a daring acoustic alternative to corporate pop that we are force-fed. An amazing night of American Roots music – I feel unusually proud of being an American, and drunk enough to need door-to-door taxi service back into Manhattan.
Tuesday morning stricken with a hangover but happy, I am awaken by a shrieking civil defense siren. Turn on the radio to hear Howard Stern explaining what he is seeing on TV, suicide airliners have slammed into buildings just 25 blocks down the street from my hotel. I stand in front of the CNN naked for 10 minutes horrified. And Washington too. And there are more planes unaccounted for. What the hell was going on? Who do I know down there? Where’s a towel? I’m freezing.
Outside, Fifth Avenue is crowded with people looking downtown, watching the great symbols of American financial strength burn and collapse to the ground. Grown men fell to their knees, sobbing. Cell phones come out, and then realizing no circuits are available, long lines formed at the phone booths. Within an hour hustlers are selling radios on the street ($10 with batteries.) There are many buyers. Ashen faces walk north, crying, and holding one another, just walking as far as they could from the horror they had just witnessed, in a city without subways, taxis or busses, just sirens. People finally begin to talk. Strangers approach one another for the latest news. The big rough city becomes a small town in just an hour. A woman dressed in an emergency orange jacket runs down the street yelling that everyone should get to the nearest hospital and donate blood. As stories of lost firemen hit the streets women begin to sob uncontrollably.
By that evening and for the next 4 days, everything south of 14th street is closed off, the Village, SoHo, Battery Park, ferries, subways, everything had become a staging area for the battle to put out fires and search for survivors. Giants stadium across the water becomes an ambulance facility. The Chelsea Piers become a makeshift morgue. All bridges and tunnels into the city had been sealed off. The cars that could leave were gone. The city is quiet. In the business-class bar, workers turned away from their offices watch the headlines on TV and drink and smoke as fast as they can, not knowing how they will get home today. The bartender is worried and sweating until he gets news that his girlfriend who works in the WTC is alive and well having walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge to safety.
On Wednesday, folks walk around stunned, sharing stories with strangers, answering cell phone calls from relatives from around the world. Military in camouflage with machine guns direct traffic on Park Avenue. The movie had become too real and many people have become overwhelmed. Neighbors open the private Gramercy Park to the public for the first time in decades and people gather as to not be alone with their televisions. Like the rest of the world, New Yorkers not involved in rescue efforts, watched TV for 30 hours straight trying to discover exactly who, what, and eventually, why?
Midtown New York is empty of all vehicles, except for the occasional ambulance, fire truck, or busload of medics from Upstate. Acrid smoke billows from the space where the mighty towers once stood. The streets are so quiet one can scarcely remember honking taxis, car alarms, power suits or bike messengers. Those left in the City are locals and stranded tourists; by September 12 everyone is exhausted already.
I rent a bicycle and roam the city. Every neighborhood is quiet. The five lanes of Fifth Avenue have become a promenade and bike path. Neighbors talk on their stoops, hug, offer comfort, and generally try to take account of how many friends and family are missing. The misery mounts quickly. Xeroxed flyers with handwritten messages and family photos go up all over town. “Have you seen Judy?” “Missing, My Dad. Please call” Men drink beer from paper bags. An angry Italian guy in the park has determined it’s the work of “the fucking immigrants who have no respect for the country. Blow them all up!” he screams.
I meet a young couple from France, in New York for their honeymoon. We share a cup of coffee as they recall the view from their hotel window just 6 blocks from ground zero. They have relocated to Midtown. All flights home to Europe are cancelled. As tourists we will stay for at least a week, regardless of plans or commitments. We witness history as Gotham becomes a village before our eyes. Heroic deeds are everywhere. People do whatever they can to contribute or just comfort their neighbors. I meet another couple, he a lawyer, she in PR, who have spent the last 12 hours on the crisis phone line. They recall the anguished calls, “We had nothing to tell them. We just collected names then picked up the next call. It was just horrible,” she sobs.
Amazingly there is no looting, or trouble. One feels only a profound sadness and a rich sense of family among strangers. I suppose to the Golden Gate Bridge being blown up at rush hour would cause an equivalent unity in my hometown. Thousands of families are torn asunder, hoping for a miracle, and the great city’s self-confidant, swaggering pride is undone in minutes while the whole world watches on live TV.
A week later the airports across the nation reopen, after waiting at JFK for 12 hours I find a flight home. As the plane turns to fly west, I look back over the Manhattan. Where the towers once stood a cloud of smoke still billows yellowy-white into the darkness, lit from below by floodlights, while emergency workers pull fallen their comrades and countless fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, and children from the rubble. Hope is fading. Thousands are already dead. The world is forever changed.