In the early 1960s, when there was no World Trade Center, my father, who loved a well-made machine, would pack me into his $100 Plymouth and we’d go spend saturday afternoons rummaging through transducers in the low-rent electronics stores on Vesey Street. It was something we did together.
But soon the Rockefeller “slum” clearers came, and the Twin Towers, David and Nelson, were built, so big, boxy, and blunt-topped. Hard to love, these cheesy faux-gothic cash machines, usurpers of the Empire State Building. Who else but a second-rate, remade King Kong, stripped of all his beauty-beast poetry, would bother to straddle them?
It was something to recall a couple hours after the airplanes, walking downtown into the roil. By Wednesday afternoon, the perimeter would be set at Houston Street, where the cops, already bored and prickly, asked everyone for a picture I.D., sending several likely illegal residents of Chinatown into a panic. But now it was shortly past noon on Tuesday, everyone was still in a state of shock, and if you had a blue Duane Reade surgical mask you could slip through, all the way to what would come to be called “ground zero.”
What was there, now so sifted through by 24/7 coverage, remains an adrenaline haze. The flutter of Port Authority memorandums (“To: M. Zoch, From: R. Catlin, Subject: Major Project Delays and Underruns”), circling in the wind like buzzards, stuck in trees. Éclairs and carrot cake melting in glass, soot-covered bakery cases like Zagat’s Pompeii. A roofless, crushed city bus beside the flaming 7 World Trade Center, the ad for Arnold’s Collateral Damage unscathed, opening October 5. Two men came out of a supermarket carrying boxes, asked, “You from the insurance company?” and offered to point out “a leg.” And in the center of it all: what was left of the towers, which was almost nothing.
“What happened to the rest of the buildings?” I asked a weary fireman.
“It’s underneath your shoe” was the reply.
Down there was only dust. Which made it very clear exactly what had happened, and how complete the nightmare was.
It is mighty, an unfathomable gathering of energy, when 8 million people with 8 million things on their minds suddenly think only one thing. The vibe can be felt. A man on a pay phone at the corner of Second Avenue starts to scream: His wife had a breakfast appointment at Windows on the World today, he didn’t know until now. “Not Dem Laden, Ben Laden,” one bum screams at another. A flower-shop owner says business is slow now but he knows it will “pick up.”
Rage grows. If these lunatics want to fly a plane into the Pentagon, let Bush put up his magic shield – but you should not fuck with New York City. Not where I was born, where my family lives.
In front of my house, my children have put up the American flag. They are more patriotic than me, less conflicted. A couple years ago, there was Columbine, but this is 10,000 times worse. They greet me when I come home, covered with dust from ground zero. I have nothing much to tell them, they’ve seen it all on TV. The planes twenty times over, the people jumping from the windows. Shit: the people jumping from the windows. I don’t let the kids touch me, because now I’m convinced the dust is full of asbestos, no matter what Giuliani, handling what he knows how to handle, says.
Our block is a perfect little place in which to live out the next few days. Five doors up is a firehouse, an engine-and-ladder company, the 220 and the 122. We have been carrying on a running battle with the company over parking spaces; we think they use too many. But now they are returning, in a city bus, because one of their engines has been wrecked in the rescue. The guys from Union Street are “gone,” the same for Dean Street, they say, faces blank, gray. In this house it is better, as far as they know: None of them died.
The next day, they spent time getting all the soot off their remaining truck. They are obsessive about it, as if they have to rub away every spot of the horror. By now they’ve learned they were wrong the night before. Two of their number are missing. It is all sinking in now, the rolling wave of grief, a net descending. On TV, in between Bush’s limp little saber rattle, finally there are numbers, less than you might have thought, yet still impossibly huge. A moment later, the firemen ride off in their immaculate truck, back into the muck. A woman across the street, an artist, paints a banner: thank you ny’s finest and bravest. People sign it, almost every signature says the same thing: God Bless You.
Also on our block is a bodega, owned by Palestinians. Every morning I buy newspapers there, but the morning after the disaster, they are sold out. “No News, no Post, no Times,” says my friend, the one who went home a few months ago to Ramallah to get married. He is jumpy. Over in Bay Ridge, he’s heard, there were fights. Boys came into a store like his and beat up some people. You try to tell him this wouldn’t happen here, but he doesn’t look convinced. Out of Newsday too, he hands me a copy of Noticias del Mundo with a full-page picture of the fireball on Tower Two and the headline TERRORISMO! When I try to pay, he says, “Just take it.”
My 11-year-old son wants to see the Trade Center, or at least where it once was. He doesn’t care if in 1979 Paul Goldberger of the Times said the World Trade Center was “so utterly banal as to be unworthy of the headquarters of a bank in Omaha.” My son is not like me, he loves the World Trade Center. He went there with his first-grade class to peer out at the great city that is his home; it stuck with him. We’ve been to the pyramids in Giza, but he remains partial to the Twin Towers, now sacred in spite of itself.
So we go for a ride, out on the Belt Parkway, away from the refrigerator trucks parked in front of the morgue on 30th Street, away from the bus shelters papered with missing-persons posters, out to Canarsie. Out there, on a grassy ridge, is a great view of lower Manhattan. When we get there the light is right, that stock National Geographic sunset. World Trade Center No. 5 has already fallen, but 1 Liberty Plaza hasn’t, so the dust is down, the doomsday cloud does not smudge the horizon.
“Looks like it was never there at all,” I say.
“No,” my son says. “For me, it will always be there.”