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[whitespace] Brokenhearted Borough

Contemplation follows catastrophe in New York

By Tai Moses

IN NEW YORK City last month, I visited a friend who works in the financial district. On our way to lunch we passed by the World Trade Center and he indulged me in one of my old rituals.

Standing at the base of one of the skyscrapers, facing away from it, we tilted our heads backward to gaze upward at that perpendicular expanse of concrete and glass. From our upside-down vantage point the colossal tower stretched impossibly high, a dizzying optical incongruity.

Today a void of destruction exists where World Trade once stood. The city that is my adopted second home is changed forever, in ways that are still incomprehensible.

On Sept. 13, I was finally able to reach my friend Katie on the telephone. A transplanted Santa Cruzan, she works as a television editor in Soho and lives in Washington Heights with her husband and daughter. All the anxious questions I'd been storing up died on my lips when I heard her voice. She sounded subdued, muted, as if she were talking through a bolt of cotton, and I let her tell her story without interrupting.

"When I was coming back from downtown that day there were just thousands of people on the street and most of them were business people, so you saw thousands and thousands of people in suits and carrying briefcases on the streets, all walking in silence. No one was talking, there was no screaming, no yelling, no crying, everyone was just moving, like roaches, moving north. There were men in suits hanging onto the sides of trucks. People were walking from Soho to Harlem, if you can imagine that.

"One of the things that's happening in the community--even people just living in a building is a community by itself--you get into an elevator and strangers will just look at you and someone will say 'What can you do?' and the other person will say 'Nothing.'

"My neighbors, usually people we talk a lot with, about our kids and schools and movies and what a beautiful day it is--now we're just looking at each other. Everyone is quiet, looking at each other in the eye, and there's no small talk being made. We're not even talking about what happened. It's too big for small talk. No one's saying 'Can you believe what happened down at World Trade?' The feeling in New York is so huge, the grief is so huge.

"There is a difference between the people you see who are weeping just because of what happened and the people who have actually lost someone. It's pretty easy to say that everyone in the city, if they don't know someone who was there, they know someone who knows someone who was in the World Trade Center who either died or got out.

"When you see these people on the streets with flyers and photos pinned to their clothes, you just know their loved ones are not coming back. They're wearing pictures of their dead relatives. They may have hope, but no one looking at them does. There's a couple thousand beds made up in Chelsea Pier for survivors and they're all vacant. We were turned away from giving blood because they don't need blood because there's nobody to give it to. That kind of thing in the city is causing a lot of helplessness.

"I hear people crying, on my floor. Outside the windows where I live is very quiet. It feels extra slow and quiet. It's like a blanket of grief over the city. Doormen and residents are embracing. Even when you see the mailman, you just look at each other. Usually it's 'Hey how you doing!' Now it's just 'Hi" and a stare in the eye and a loss for words.

"Even up here in Washington Heights, you can smell it in the air. Kind of an acrid chemical smell that might burn the back of your throat a little bit. And even though you're not smelling bodies, you feel like you're smelling death."

Katie stopped talking then. There was nothing more to say.

Later that evening on the news I heard a New Yorker say something that seemed, unintentionally, to express the anguish of the entire city. This woman worked near World Trade and on the morning of Sept. 11 she was looking out her window when the first smoking tower collapsed. Her 20-year-old son worked in the mail room of an investment firm on the 96th floor.

"I saw the building fall," she said, "and I fell with it."

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From the September 19-26, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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