NEW YORK CITY: Visitors to New York will have no trouble encountering what has been so widely publicized in the wake of the September 11th tragedy: an openness to the visitor that is somewhere between courtly and home-spun. What is normally the world's busiest, noisiest, and most self-absorbed place -- Manhattan Island -- has developed small-town ways.
Example: I arrived in Pennsylvania Station from Washington, D.C., at 1 a.m. on Saturday. The mega-concert at adjoining Madison Square Garden -- the benefit for the families affected by September 11th, featuring a Woodstock-like panoply of stars -- was just concluding. The sprawling terminal abruptly filled with people, a youngish crowd, mainly -- not unlike the attendees at a high school football game -- hustling toward various exits or tracks. But the flurry didn't last long, and soon the terminal was virtually deserted.
Meanwhile, I was standing at the south end of the floor, in front of an area marked "BAGGAGE CLAIM." Its metal doors were locked shut, however, and closed off further by a pair of accordion gates. There was a cluster of policemen in a stand in the middle of the terminal -- a sign of the vigilant times -- and one of them assured me that when my train from Washington got downloaded I'd see the doors open and could claim my bags. It didn't happen. While I waited I wandered some 20 feet from my computer bag, which I had parked in front of the gated doors. Another policeman was patrolling the floor. "Sir, is that your bag?" he asked courteously. It was, I answered. "Well, please try to stay close to it." He all but tipped his hat.
Ultimately I was guided toward the building's far end, where in a corner I could see an overhead sign reading, "CUSTOMER SERVICE." Hoisting my computer bag, I walked the length of the floor and entered a room where a heavyset black man sat at a desk with a cellphone or walkie-talkie at his ear. He said hello politely, and, after he had finished giving directions concerning an outgoing train to handlers at some unseen location, he walked with me back down to the other end, making conversation about the concert and the crowds that had just poured through. When we got to the gates, he went through a side door and returned, saying with a look back over his shoulder, "He'll take care of you."
Soon the doors of the baggage claim swung open, revealing a pot-bellied, gray-haired man wearing a T-shirt above his rumpled uniform pants. He appeared to have just awakened. "Need your baggage-claim tickets," he said sleepily. I handed them over. Soon enough, he was at the side door and passed the bags through. "Have a nice time in New York," he said.
In its imagery, atmosphere, and dialogue, the whole thing might have taken place in Jonesboro or Junction City.
IN MORE SENSES THAN THE DIMUNITION OF ITS SKYLINE, New York has been downsized and has accepted it -- not least in its bonding with the hinterland and its apparent determination to become the ultimate Everytown, USA. Not once during my two-and-a-half days in the city did I encounter anything resembling hauteur or brusqueness or an unwillingness to be of service. Every cop, passerby, or straphanger, when asked for directions, gave them happily.
photo bY JACKSON BAKER
Some still hope to find survivors.
LATE OF A SUNDAY AFTERNOON, I headed south on Hudson Street in the direction of what is already known everywhere in the civilized world as "Ground Zero," shifting streets in the direction of south and east, as I was directed. Whenever I looked westward from an intersection, I could see distant speedboats on the Hudson River. My destination, of course, was defined by what I was not seeing, the twin spires of the World Trade Center. Before September 11th they would have guided me all the way to the tip of Lower Manhattan from the Village in the heart of downtown. In the absence of visual imagery, I began to rely on my olfactory sense -- imagining that it would guide me as surely as any beacon.
Even up on 12th Street, I had sniffed something that wafted into and out of my threshold of awareness. It came and went in faint, barely discernible whiffs, as if to give the most minimal possible hints of what I might soon be experiencing. As I walked, I sniffed away like some stereotypical wine connoisseur. First, I had a slight sense of scorched electronics, then, minutes later, one of crushed concrete, and -- interspersed with these at uneasy intervals -- an unmistakable whiff, even if infinitesimal, of what one smells around the house at home when a small animal has expired somewhere under a back porch. There was no way around it: The 5,000 deaths of September 11th were a part of the city's very atmosphere.
I encountered the first barricade on West Broadway, the thoroughfare up which, I had read, Mayor Rudy Giuliani had raced with his immediate aides on September 11th to escape the cascade of falling rubble from the collapse of Tower One. Not all of the mayor's party made it. One or two members of his rear guard had been lost in the avalanche. In that same small-town way with which I'd grown familiar by now, the cops manning the first set of barricades made a point of suggesting I could get closer by shifting over to Broadway and heading further south. Later, on Broadway, racing through one intersection to beat a red light, I heard one policeman say gently, "Sir, you don't have to run." Whether he meant that in the small or the cosmic way remained to be seen.
EVENTUALLY, ON BROADWAY, I would come upon the barricaded intersections at Fulton and John, and further down, where the clumps of tourists foretold their vistas even before I got there. One of the cops who had directed me earlier had assured me that my press credentials would get me as far in as I wanted. Whatever. When I got there I was content to see what I could from the same vantage points, generally a block or two away, used by the rest of the visitors. And that proved instructive.
PHOTO BY STEVE COHEN
One of many belaureled checkpoints near Ground Zero.
But even as this solidarity with matter and moment and clime was taking place -- this ultimate "Ich bin ein New Yorker" -- another realization was filtering in. Phase One of the disaster and its aftermath were over, and Phase Two, during which the horrific tragedy and destruction would cease to be fresh and become part of the ordinary, had already begun. You could see it in the paper and graphics that had been pasted and tacked across impromptu storefront bulletin boards. These had once teemed with pictures of the "missing" (a sad euphemism, that), along with heartbreaking handwritten requests from their survivors begging to be told they had been sighted somewhere. Now there were only a few of these left, replaced by remembrances of various kinds, poems, prose, and even articles of their clothing -- all totemistic efforts to conjure them up for one last collective paying of attention; it was the tragedy of Willy Loman writ large, a kind of public funeral for these deserving nondescript, and it would have to do.
The people who came to the barricades and intersections and stole their glimpses of the destruction and of the largest burying ground in American history were not so much pilgrims as they were tourists. As they stopped at peddlers' stands and purchased their souvenirs -- the NYPD and FDNY caps and the keychains, placemats, and posters bearing the likenesses of the lost twin towers -- they were reminiscent of those who might be visiting the Alamo or Gettysburg or the scene of some other long-ago site of American grief. "Come on, honey," one man told his apparent wife, "let's go down to the next corner. You can see Building Number Six better from there." And the never-ending smoke from deep beneath the smoldering surface of the ruptured fundament hit some middle between Yellowstone Park and Arlington National Cemetery.
ALTHOUGH NEITHER OF US KNEW IT AT THE TIME, state Senator Steve Cohen was in New York at the same time as myself, possessed by the same instinct as mine, to be there at Ground Zero and experience this pivotally important American moment, whatever it would prove to be, before it cooled and turned into something else, before it became, in fact, history. Acting on Mayor Giuliani's public suggestion that "every government official" should come and see the site personally, Cohen secured an escort from the mayor's office and, soon enough, was treading on Ground Zero itself. I will leave it to him to describe what he encountered in whatever detail and venue he wishes. For me, it is all summed up in an interchange he reports having had with his guide:
At one point, the mayoral escort, trying to provide a running commentary on the tangled, flattened, deconstructed plateau on which he and Cohen trod, began, "This is ... "
"This is hell," Cohen replied.
ON THE NIGHT TRAIN BACK TO WASHINGTON, I wandered back to the club car, which was filled with homebound firefighters from the Baltimore area. I struck up a conversation with some of them, who -- like so many other firefighters from so many other places in America -- had worked as volunteers with the FDNY's own recovery teams and made a point of serving as an honor guard for the funeral rites that still occurred at Ground Zero whenever the identifiable remains of another policeman or fireman were found. There had been six such occasions during this team's brief visit. All the firefighters, men tempered in various cauldrons themselves, agreed they had never seen horrors on such a scale before.
One of them was willing to spell out what it meant when the remains of once-living human beings were turned up. The nature of it all could be imagined from the fact that one victim was identified from the engraved Rolex watch on his arm -- the only part of him that was found. This is why visitors to Ground Zero will so frequently report, "I wasn't prepared for what I saw."
Eventually, the man turned back to his mates, who were ordering one beverage after another, letting it hang, and heading home with an obvious edge to their club-car hilarity.
"How about it, dudes!" he shouted. "Who's ready for another round?"