Tuesday, September 11, 2001 (911--is
there intentional irony in the date?) The lights blinked. The
slight hiccup in the power supply, normally invincible in the
Wall Street area, is something that Ive learned to take
as a warning signal. At the same time, someone walking by pointed
at the television set we have hung from the ceiling
to catch breaking news. The camera showed smoke pouring from
one of the World Trade Center towers.
We had a TV on in my office and had the surreal
experience of watching an explosion and feeling it at the same
time. A war zone is the best way to describe what happened. I
did not see any of the awful sights, such as people jumping from
the towers or the actual collapse of the buildings. But what
I saw was awful enough. The sky darkened as the smoke rolled
over us, the crowds of ghostly people walking along the FDR or
over the Brooklyn Bridge. I joined the marchers (it was so quiet--only
sirens and the people from the missions offering us water and
bathrooms). It took me close to six hours to get home (usually
an hour commute). But true to the New Yorker-form, everyone was
orderly, quiet, and helping each other out.
I was horrified, and wondering if another jetbomb
was about to strike. A part of me didnt want to believe
the attacks had happened and didnt want to believe another
one could occur. I also didnt want to think that my part
of Wall Street could be a target. I chose to think about something
The smoke... the people who waited to be sure their
officemates were safe and those who fled without a backwards
glance... the walk to the Hudson River and the ferries...
The Spirit of New York dinner-cruise boat became
a ferry, moving 500 people at a time across the river. Thats
all we wanted to do: get across the river and away from the uncertainty.
Let me get back to New Jersey, became the motto of every person
patiently, quietly waiting in the hot sun. As if New Jersey was
a bunker that couldnt be penetrated by fuel-laden 767s
crashing down at 345 miles per hour. We believed that the horror
would not--could not--follow us home. Once on the boat, we sat
at a round banquet table with seven strangers, who were no longer
strangers. We were related by our journey out of the war zone.
Another act of kindness stands out. A
drifts through the crowded room offering rolls. Suddenly realizing
that it had been hours since breakfast, we grabbed them and chewed
on the dry rolls as the resculptured New York City skyline rose
in the background.Plumes of smoke had replaced the tall, silver
I'm glad to be home, but it's going to take forever
to forget the site of plumes of smoke coming up where those silver
towers used to be, or to wash the grit from skin, or flush the
odor of burning wires from my memory. I had planned to settle
down and work on my book after walking the dog. Instead, I'm
sitting here crying. Houses in my neighborhood have candles on
the front stairs (interesting, it's the houses of foreign-born
Americans...) Some of the houses have people sitting out next
to the candles. The one that did me in was the house that had
five girls, a mom and a dad standing on the curb holding burning
candles. I found myself compelled to go over and thank them (as
I did anyone who was sitting outside). The girls told me that
their teacher said they should fly the flag and burn candles.
Wall Street has been my home for about 20 years now--the
candles and the sad little girls were more than I could stand...
This is not a tale of epic proportions. You will
not find descriptions of collapsing towers, cascading debris,
or the horrific loss of life. Instead, this is the story of a
neighborhood. A place where ordinary people walked, shopped,
and tried to earn a living to support their families. They bombed
the neighborhood that I loved. That I still love...
My daily love affair started with the ferry ride
from Hoboken to the World Financial Center. In the morning, I
loved to walk through the plaza in front of the towers. I always
hoped the fountain in the center would be on. The fountain looked
like a black dinner plate with a black-and-gold globe standing
in the middle. On one or two special mornings, the fountain came
on just as I reached it. At first, water would creep to the edges
of the black granite plate, slowly wetting the surface and pouring
over the sides. The water flow would pick up
speed and, in minutes, would be flowing in rippling sheets that
frequently splashed out on the sidewalk...
One magical morning that will always stay fixed
in my mind, the plaza was completely deserted. The fountain wasnt
on, but the plaza didnt need it that morning. A light snow
started falling, turning the Italian-style piazza into a New
York City Currier and Ives print. I remember sending an email
to a friend in California describing the scene and saying how
lucky I was to walk through such beauty every day...
The concrete benches encircling the fountain were
empty in the mornings. The people hurrying toward their jobs
in the World Trade Center or World Financial Center skirted the
center, seeking the fastest, most direct route to their desks.
But my detour around the fountain let me watch the caretakers
water the trees and flowers and put in new plants as the seasons
changed. Where are those men who kept the flowers blooming? Did
The plaza was transformed for my evening rush home.
Once again, Id take the longer route and dodge tourists
posing in front of the fountain. On hot days, pigeons would wade
on the plate and a toddler would occasionally be tempted to follow,
only to be called back by a security guard. Tourists from all
over the world, especially young lovers, were drawn to the flat
space between the towering buildings. How many photos in how
have those towers in the background...
After a quick trip through the bridge connecting
to the World Financial Center, Id head for the ferry. Theres
no better way to go to and from work. How many times had I told
people of my perfect commute and the postcard-perfect views I
had every morning and every night. The trip was beautiful, especially
during the fall evenings. The ferry would pull away from the
dock and glide toward Hoboken. If I timed it just right, the
sun would have set and the lights of the World Trade Center towers
would shine, a new type of lighthouse. Not one warning of a treacherous
coastline, instead the World Trade Center called to people, inviting
them to enter. As
the ferry swam closer to Hoboken, the view grew more and more
There are other parts of my neighborhood that I
will miss. The bakery where Id buy scones and olive bread
for the weekend. The Lechters, which supplied me with many
of the gadgets in my kitchen, including the pepper mill that
doesnt work right but that I never got around to returning.
The Borders, which took way too much
of my money, and has left me with books all over my house that
are still waiting to be read...
I worry about people, like the women in Evelyns
who would slip me a cookie or two when I stopped in the morning
to buy chocolates for someones birthday, or a holiday.
Evelyns, which supplied the legendary two-foot chocolate
Santa Claus that sat in the middle of our Christmas table, was
two blocks away from the blast. The shop is too close to the
site; I wont be able to check on them when I go back to
The Greenmarket farmers. Where will they set up
their stalls? How many were out there on Tuesday morning when
the towers collapsed? (Im sitting here in shock--yet again.
It happens too many times. I decide Im okay, then a thought
like, what about the Greenmarket? hits and Im
plunged back into disbelief.)...
The Winter Garden--the wedding parties of Asian
men and women, posing in full wedding garb on the marble stairs.
My child-like anticipation of the Christmas decorations (strings
of white lights encircling the columns. The palm trees that never
belonged on the banks of the Hudson River. The Christmas trees
with their bow-tie ribbons as decorations) and looking forward
to seeing the floor being set up for the fancy holiday parties...
Today, Sunday--five days since the attack. I find
myself wondering and worrying about the casual acquaintances
of my daytime neighborhood. The fruit man, where I brought a
banana almost every morning for the past nine years? The man
in the coffee cart, who always got the right amount of half and
half in my coffee?
Thats a taste of my daily trip: so normal,
so breathtakingly beautiful. What bastard could do such a thing?
Random Thoughts Upon Returning
Monday, September 17, 2001--my first day back.
The seasick cop on the ferry. The view. The beautiful day and
wanting to puke over the side when I saw the bony steel fingers
rising up from the white smoke. The burning odor of burning electrical
wires that seeped into my house after the wind changed. My eyes
are still burning...
The ferry ride from Hoboken to Wall Street: how
is it possible to alternate between admiring the beauty of the
Carolina blue sky, the calm waters, the gleaming skyline--and
wanting to retch over the side
of the ferry as we pass through the smoke cloud, the gap where
the towers once stood, and the two bony skeletons of steel?
The smell followed me home. From my deck, my place
of refuge, the odor of burning electrical wire fills the air.
I close my eyes and see the wreckage, the lost acquaintances....
Tuesday, September 18, 2001
I am working in a war zone populated by cops who smile and say,
Good morning, as you walk past them, National Guard
troops with camouflage suits and respirators--and tourists with
pre- schoolers and long-lensed cameras. I want to rip the cameras
from their hands and expose the film to the brilliant sun...
We find ourselves in the bathroom fifty times a
day, washing our hands, trying to feel clean...
Wednesday, September 19, 2001
Weve almost forgotten where those shimmering silver towers
fit into the skyline--until a lung-full of choking, acrid smoke
brings it all back. We find ourselves searching the shops for
postcards that include the towers....
I joined the shuffle of the crowd along Broadway,
one block from Ground Zero. Like mourners passing
the open coffin, we flash quick glances at the remains. Keep
moving. Keep moving, the police order. The urge to rip
cameras from ghoulish hands and ground them beneath my feet is
Evelyns is still standing behind ash-covered
windows. The plaza is buried under the rubble...
The barge on the East River that is methodically
being loaded with long, silver strands of steel from the towers....
The ferry, observing a no wake rule
slows as it pulls even with the World Trade Center (will I ever
call it anything else?). Creeping by, as if part of a funeral
procession, the ferry gives us too much time to view the remains--and
to think. After four trips, I no longer want to look at the smoking
wreckage. I prefer to turn away from Manhattan and stare at the
Statue of Liberty, her torch gleaming in the sun. But I will
never be able to turn my back on Manhattan...
I walk into my house and slug down a glass of wine.
Then I take a shower to wash the smoke and grit away, and slug
down more wine.
The sorrow is never washed away. It fades and then springs back
when least expected, but sorrow has a sneaky way of doing that...
I am so thankful that I can write about this...