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The Crash After the Crash

After nearly a month, the event is as painfully present in New York minds as the smoke that rises from ground zero. Is this a stage? Or our new reality?

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Dinner out has become a civic duty -- and it's all the more noble at a restaurant in TriBeCa near the hot zone. So, sitting with her boyfriend at Nobu last Tuesday night, Jennifer, 29, a former Internet executive, felt like she'd moved past her debilitating obsession with the disaster. But after green-tea ice cream, her boyfriend, a J.P. Morgan associate, wanted to look at ground zero. Walking down Chambers Street, they passed a makeshift memorial against a building, with flowers, cards, and photographs. "I kept walking," she says, "and he stopped. He said, 'I can't believe you're not going to look at it.' But I'd just had enough. In the cab, I started a fight. I said, 'I'm just going to my house,' and he went to his. When I turned on the TV at home, there was a woman who'd lost her husband at Cantor Fitzgerald turning the pages of a photo album with her two daughters, who kept asking 'Where's Daddy?' She let them call his number at work to hear the recording about the phone being disconnected. I just exploded in tears. My life is so good. Why," she wants to know, "am I so depressed?"

The psychic fallout from the World Trade Center disaster is as persistent as the acrid smoke that still rises. Even for those who've made a concerted effort to move beyond it, the event is still present, still vivid, hidden just below the surface. "I've never been at a point in life where I think, I'm okay -- then I just look at a picture and it brings tears," says a 26-year-old musician. "I am capable of crying at any moment, I'm so close to the threshold of sadness, on the edge all the time."

The grief and pain for the victims is only part of it. The other half has to do with the future. Our New New York, complete with National Guardsmen, police checkpoints, and permanent sirens, is itself difficult to contemplate. Body counts and germ-warfare preparations pass for cocktail conversation -- if conversation is possible after all the cocktails we've been having.

Nowadays, worry makes perfect sense. Everyone, it seems, has developed his own personal safety logic. "I won't get on the 6 train," says a graduate student assessing the odds of a terrorist attack, "but I'll take the L. If they were going to do something, they wouldn't pick the L." We wonder whether we're brave enough to keep our pre-booked plane trips, or walk by the Empire State Building. We worry about money. We wonder whether our jobs (which we're not doing with anywhere near our usual enthusiasm or efficiency) have any meaning. And all of this is not irrational. "We all had this unconscious fantasy that we had control of our fate, certainly on a day-to-day basis," says Paul Spector, a psychiatrist on the Upper East Side. "This was a rude awakening."

"Sitting in a conference room, I'll be thinking that the people in the towers were doing the same thing, with no idea what was about to happen."

The day of the attack, and for a few days afterward, the city was appalled but energized. Volunteers rushed to the frozen zone. Whole neighborhoods headed out to vigils, flags and candles in hand. Everyone had a story to tell or a political opinion -- something to contribute. But that edge is slipping away.

It turns out that shock itself is a form of denial. The adrenaline pumped into our systems after a trauma anesthetizes us emotionally. "In the very beginning, it's almost as if alarm bells go off in your head, you're very nervous, there's this feeling of 'Quickly, let's survive!' whether you get your kids or whether you run for safety in the first few hours," explains Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, director of the New York University Child Study Center. But when the shock wears off a few weeks later, he notes, we actually have to metabolize the devastation.

The TV, with its relentless repetition of the event and its painful aftermath, can be an enemy of this process, whereas going down and seeing ground zero for oneself can actually assist it. "I think it's the Catholic thing of seeing the open casket," says Christopher Brescia, who works in TriBeCa and who has twice traveled for a close-as-possible view of ground zero.

"There's a reason that tradition has stuck with us thousands of years," echoes Spector. "It's a primitive attempt at internalizing it. It's not quite real until you've been able to touch it in some way."

Getting over it, however, is harder if it's not actually over. Specifically, it is far from over for downtown residents who have to see -- and smell -- the wreckage every day. For Susan Curley, every venture out of her apartment on North Moore Street, everything from picking up dry cleaning and groceries to taking her kids to school in Brooklyn, has become a logistical nightmare. "I was coming through the barricade at Canal Street and some cop thought he should tell me that I shouldn't live in this neighborhood right now, I should take my kids and get the heck out -- that it's just not safe. He scared the hell out of me, and I went back through the barricades to say, 'Why did you do that to me?' He said, 'Lady, I'm not lying. I really think you should leave.' And I'm thinking this is terrible because I was just starting to feel a little better."

Dr. Jeffrey Shapiro, who lives at 99 Battery Place and works on lower Broadway, was unable to set foot in either his home or his dental practice, save for a few quick visits to pick up clothes and missing patients' dental records for the medical examiner. Shapiro, his wife, and their three small children have been splitting their time between a room in the Brooklyn Marriott and their house in East Hampton. When they were allowed to return to their apartment, the maneuver required the strategic skills of a special-forces commander. "I had to drive to Brooklyn Heights," Shapiro explains, "then take a 4 or 5 train to Bowling Green with three kids and whatever we could carry. All the stuff that we've dragged out little by little they expect us to drag back in with no help. My wife even contacted the Red Cross, but no one ever called us back. The supermarkets aren't open. I've heard rumors about their possibly setting up a shuttle bus to the Food Emporium in TriBeCa. But I've heard they made it at 3 p.m.; that's when people pick up kids."

Meanwhile, Shapiro's mind has been colonized by a host of new -- and perfectly reasonable -- worries. He has concerns about the stability of surrounding buildings, the strength of the cement basin that held in the World Trade Center's foundation, the air quality: "The EPA is testing it, but they still have no answers.

"Even from an aesthetic standpoint," he continues, laughing a little, "the junk piles of smashed cars outside our building, the steel girders. Is this an environment for kids to look at? I've lost sleep over it; my wife certainly has lost sleep over it. The uncertainty is really what breeds despair. This could drag on six months. And that makes me depressed."

In New York City now, survivor guilt is an equal-opportunity depressor. It's a corollary to the sense of powerlessness, of a lack of control. And that is also a part of what motivated the city's immense outpouring of volunteerism and civic spirit. Rondi Cooler, fashion director at Real Simple magazine, was at a Liz Lange fashion show on September 11. She'd heard rumors from her cabdriver, but didn't understand what had happened until she saw the Fox News ticker reading plane hits pentagon. That afternoon, determined to help, she says, she "literally forced" a disoriented woman who had wandered all the way from the World Trade Center up to West 55th Street to come up to her apartment. "We lay her down on the couch and gave her Gatorade," she says. She spent the next day holed up in her house -- she likens her feelings to the aftermath of a recent breakup. She saw Legally Blonde the Tuesday night that the movies theaters were donating to charity. "It was a funny movie," she says, "and I was walking home thinking about it, then suddenly I remembered what happened and I felt like the air had been sucked out of my stomach." She made plans with co-workers to go down to Christopher Street and the West Side Highway and cheer on the rescue workers. "Everybody's been sending around these e-mails about doing it," she says. "I know one woman who got hugged by a fireman."

Last weekend, having decided to try to change her mood, she went to a friend's wedding in New Jersey: "I didn't want to go at first, then I thought, I really need this. And it was so much fun. But when I got home I thought, My God, they're still digging down there! And it's raining!"

"Everyone is talking about feeling impotent," says Kate Porterfield, a psychologist at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture who normally treats refugees but has found herself strangely equipped to deal with the pain of grieving New York families and firemen. "When David Letterman had Matthew Broderick on, he said, 'Somehow, I don't think if TV Boy goes down there to the wreckage site, he's going to be able to do much.' It was a joke, but it was exactly what I think people feel, which is: What I bring is totally irrelevant to something this enormous."

The idea that returning to business as usual is every New Yorker's responsibility is one that has great currency among politicians and office managers -- a new weight, added on to the old ones. "People do feel pressure, from whatever powers, to show the world how normal we are and how we're not going to let this affect us," says lawyer Zachary Goldberg, who has been dislocated from his Battery Park City apartment after the infamous debris cloud blew out the windows. "While I agree with that in theory, for us it is not easy to live it."

Every day, Goldberg fields questions from his young children that make him worry they're not as well off as they first seemed: "They ask if babies were killed there. They worry about Mommy and Daddy going to work. We have to explain that we work in smaller buildings that are harder to hit, that they don't have to worry about that."

At this stage, actually, it is normal to get worse. David Covey, an associate at an investment-banking firm, felt the force of the plane's crashing from his desk at 3 World Financial Center. "I think about the attack every day," he says. "Dozens and dozens if not hundreds of times. Every day it's hard. Any time I look at the city skyline -- we work in midtown and Jersey City now -- any time I see a tall building. I could be sitting in a conference room with colleagues, and I'll be thinking that the people in the towers were doing the same exact thing I'm doing, with no idea what was about to happen."

"My airplane-crashing-in-the-shower thing is gone," says Christopher Brescia. "Whenever I got in the shower, I felt like I could hear an airplane crashing. But I still get a little choked up sometimes. We were driving back from a party in Brooklyn last night and you look at the skyline and it doesn't feel so dramatic anymore. It could be Seattle. It could be Chicago. It could be anything. When I see Seattle, I get really mad. Whenever I see a skyline that's still intact, I get mad." He pauses. "I don't ever want to see that needle thing again."

Any psychiatrist will tell you that rage at those who have escaped unscathed is perfectly normal -- for a while. But there is a point -- sometime after a month -- at which feelings like these can metastasize into full-blown post-traumatic-stress disorder. The disorder affects mostly those who believed that their lives were in danger (been through Grand Central lately?) and is characterized by flashbacks coupled with difficulties eating, sleeping, and focusing. "Many of us have never had to deal with war, this kind of violence. It's not part of the daily fabric of our lives like in Israel or Ireland, where there's more of an accepted risk," says Gail Saltz, a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. "As time goes on, there'll likely be more depression. Then, after a long time, some adjustments: less depression, less anxiety. But it's like you have to mourn the loss of the way you thought life was -- whether it was that way or not."

Maybe it wasn't a golden age -- but who could blame us for wanting to go back.


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