Tuesday, September 11, 2007

9/11: From the other side of downtown

I wasn't sure what kind of entry to post today, so I figured it might be interesting for some of you to read an excerpt from the letter I wrote my family and friends back home on Sept 15, 2001. (The day I got back my Internet service, which had been knocked out.) I lived in downtown east and decided to investigate the parts of downtown Manhattan that weren't being shown on television. Technically, this is now as much "NYC History" as anything else.

This is short on sentimentality on purpose, as I just wanted to report the things I saw that weren't really being shown. However a little dramatic, even sappy emoting pops through.

Warning: this piece is a little long. If you prefer to skip it to the articles below, just scroll past it or use the bar on the right to navigate to another story. Trust me, I understand; it wasn't fun to relive this, however sometimes you feel obligated to kick yourself again into remembering. And forgive the occasional dramatics...


"On Thursday, a little more than 40 hours since the towers were destroyed, I made an arguably unwise but curiosity-induced trek down the the Financial District, to within a couple blocks of the former World Trade Center.

I could scarcely grasp that it had happened at all, as we all did.  I journeyed down not because I'm some morbid freak who wanted to look at a few thousand tons of havoc and twisted metal, but because I wanted to see the state of ole New York. The dark, narrow streets lined with the flair and shadow of ornately designed buildings, built by the city's ancestors in their powdered wigs and uncomfortable shoes, all shoved into a corner of the island with various tall and faceless glass towers.

For those reading this who've never been to New York, you should realize that essentially at the foot of the Twin Towers (named David and Nelson, didya know that? after Rockefeller's sons) are the beginnings of this city and some of the oldest roots to our past in the country.  The Trinity Church. The India House. Delmonico's.  And naturally, the Stock Exchange and City Hall.

I wasn't sure what kind of a toll the toppling of the two biggest buildings in the world would have on one of my more cherished sections of New York.  Clearly their fate is secondary to the lives lost, but I felt it was important to me to find out for myself.  Even beyond the more symbolic clarion-call of 'New York will survive' I just needed to know for my peace of mind.  Also I happen to live way South in the Lower East Side, only a mile or so from what is called Ground Zero, and my neighborhood was in lock down and my phone and TV were out, so heck, what else was I gonna do?

The first noticeable change to my immediate neighborhood is that my grocery store Pathmark three blocks away has become the central location for the National Guard.  There were about 400-500 men in camouflage garb standing in the parking lot, flanked by military vehicles and police cars.  The Pathmark is right below the Manhattan Bridge, which has no traffic, only emergency vehicles.

I passed along the waterfront and walked down the east side of Manhattan to the South Street Seaport. Along the way were dozens of cops standing around, observing the old Chinese men who fish for God-knows-what off the edge.  They were patrolling what appeared to be the most tranquil area of the Eastern Seaboard. I swear, even the birds were hanging languidly in the air.  All that horrible smoke, dust and debris was blowing down south into Brooklyn, missing this area entirely.

Down at the Seaport were a few aimless tourists -- their vacation fans suddenly dashed -- and a couple joggers in headphones.  The old pubs and wharf-themed restaurants were shuttered; the tourist plaza, looked upon by vacant J. Crew and Abercrombie stores, looked abandoned.  Along Water Street did I first notice the patches of dust stuck to various pieces of public art -- caked to two sides of a giant mirrored cube, or crusted to the highest arms of a tall white sculpture.

Up the street possibly the closest apartment building to the site not evacuated now held court to a dazed assemblage of senior citizens, staring blankly into the west.  An old woman had a mask strapped to her head, yet held her hand to the white puffy fabric.

Nothing was being policed to emphatically.  Again, it was early after the tragedy, and the gravity of the situation was only then settling in. Cops saw me and probably thought I was another journalist. The streets were crawling with amateur photographers finding dramatic angles and continually wiping their lenses.

Moving on, I regretted not bringing a mask to wear.  Almost instantly the streets became slightly clouded and I might have imagined myself getting a headache from it.  A supply truck rushed by, sending up a whirlwind. What actually WAS t hat dust?  I just couldn't think of it as something pulverized, of sheer mass broken into particles. Soon I noticed that it was covering the ground, the steps, the awnings, everything completely.  The great old India House was frozen in it.  Stone Street, an 'untouched' colonial sidestreet, with its ancient storefronts and quaint 18th century streetlamps were locked in a sudden beige winter. And it really was like wintertime, except it was warm.  As is the way with these streets, the sun could only peek in, creating strange, bent shading. One strip of sun in the middle of the street maybe, surrounded in grim shadows.

Very few people were walking around. Somebody was walking their dog and the poor creature was completely coated in dust. A street cleaning truck slowly wedged its way down the street, spraying water into the gutter, turning the dirt into thick gobs of mud. It took me a few minutes to maneuver through the mess.

A trio of college students was cautiously walking toward the destruction. I followed them -- I suddenly felt quite alone -- until I go the top of the slope down to Wall Street. I saw an elderly couple, seeming undisturbed by the mud, walking slowly past me. Both of them were pasty and bundled up. 'Why aren't the stores open?" the old man said. "They're closed. There's been a bombing," said the woman.

Down Wall Street, the haze and shadow were compounded by the relative tightness of the street. The buildings on either side seemed more constricting than ever. The NY Stock Exchange jutting around a corner looked like it was in mothballs. Nearby at Federal Hall, the statue of George Washington, always so tall, was shrouded and unrecognizable. Beyond, towards the disaster, the shadow thrown from the buildings felt dank. Through a crack between two buildings ahead, I could see the tendrils of smoke billowing from the remains of the Trade Center.

I noticed that the mud and dirt was joined on the ground with the paper trail of the WTC. Faxes and case files and memos, many of them intact, many burned around the edges. I picked up some page from what appeared to be a business contract; its edges were dramatically singed, like a pirate treasure map in a movie. There was even a resume, mud-strew, burned, on blue card-stock; I hoped that this person was not qualified and got a job elsewhere from this.

I walked further up Wall Street until I was two blocks away from old Trinity Church. I was not allowed (and in fact did not want) to get any closer, but I could tell that this grand old landmark was completely blanketed in debris, yet looked perfectly solid.

I was directed by an officer to walk back up north, yet at the next cross street, I witnessed that which I didn't really need to see. Two blocks up was the shadow and haze of the wreckage, the black fingers of the building's metal casing arched and twisted without detail, like cracks. Around it I could only guess was just a small section of the destruction on all sides of it. From the angle where I stood, it was a dark and solid mas, without the horrific subtleties displayed on TV.

And where I stood, and above it, the World Trade Center was profoundly not-there. It's not a simple as merely seeing a white dotted line where they used to be, as though they had simply been erased. The devastation is more complete, jagged ruin notwithstanding. There is NOTHING there, nothing civilized. I used to look up and feel a churn in my stomach from my moderate fear of heights. Now I didn't need to lift my head to get that feeling back. The blue sky and flimsy white clouds which exuded from the newly opened space in my vantage was macabre, as if something pleasant was cluelessly trying to take their place. I don't know what I preferred -- a dark, sinister sky? -- but this, the backdrop of an afternoon picnic, seemed absurd.

I quickly passed this and noticed the street around me, trapped within the moment of escape. A little bagel cart was on the corner, its cheap donuts and bagels still stacked up against the windows, all covered in dust. Some cars were completely destroyed, others just in need of a car wash. A woman had come back to her decimated car and was fishing something out of her trunk. And scattered all over the ground were pairs of shoes. Not just women's shoes, as one would expect -- running in heels? no way -- but men's shoes. The sickly story behind them I could not possibly guess.

The thick billowing smoke nearby was creating shadows in this section that were like an instant night, so I was thankful when I worked my way up toward City Hall, where the lowness of the surrounding buildings let in some light. Apparently this is where the many reporters were allowed to stand and talk, yet there were so many of them scattered on the sidewalk. Were they interviewing each other?

A large group of volunteers stood on the steps of Pace University across the street, all relatively dazed and unbelieving, their faces caked with dust like those Depression-Era portrait of farmers from the Dust Bowl. The task they had in store was truly daunting, and still is.

This was about all I could take so I walked up to the Brooklyn Bridge and traced it through the Seaport back to my neighborhood. When I got home to east Chinatown, I looked worn out and noticed my shoes and pant legs were completely covered in mud.  (It was so bad I just threw them away when I got home.)  If not for that, I would have thought the entire thing was a bizarre dream. I and we still do."

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