New York Stories
December 13, 2001
New York, New York

I saw a raucous and crowded bar in Greenwich Village fall silent, I mean stone cold silent, except for the occasional gasp, when the bin Laden videotape was shown on television.

When it was over I saw a seemingly calm young man in that bar pick up a heavy ash tray and hurl it at the screen.

He missed, but we all cheered the attempt.

I saw his friends and a number of strangers ministering to him as he slowly, inevitably fell to pieces.

I saw another young man at Ground Zero, all hard muscle and urban chic, leaning with his forehead against a wall, the scene of the carnage in view behind him, pounding his open palms against the concrete wall and thundering expletives.

I saw a cop walk up to him and put his hands on the young man’s shoulders and pat him on the back and then lead him over to a priest. The cop never stopped touching the young man, always patting or rubbing his back or holding his elbow with a gentle firmness and reassurance.

I saw a middle eastern man frantic with grief near the main truck entrance to the site pleading with everyone who approached to understand “this is not Islam, this is not Islam” as tears poured down his face. I saw a young Hasidic Jew embrace him.

I met an elderly man who saw me crying as I looked at the wreckage. In a soft North Carolina drawl he said, “You go ahead and cry for them now, young man. But don’t forget to turn the tears into action. There are so many who need it now.”

I saw a worker from the site standing at the gate of St. Paul’s with his hands on top of his head, his face red, and watched him convulse with dry sobs. I saw a striking young woman go up to him and melt into him, holding him and stroking his hair. A guy behind me said, “Wish I’d thought of that”.

The guy with him said, “Not if you had to have his job.”

I made eye contact with people on the streets of the City and they smiled at me instead of wanting to know “what the fuck you lookin’ at?”

Some guy I’ve never seen before helped me as I struggled with my various bags. And he didn’t expect a tip.

I was at first pleased with the politeness I encountered everywhere and then saddened at the subdued Manhattan I was in. I wondered if it would ever get its edge back.

As I stood on the sidewalk pondering that, a guy walked up to me and demanded, “Hey buddy, gimme a smoke”. He got impatient while I fumbled through my pockets looking for my cigarettes and said, “C’mon, c’mon, hurry it up. I look like I got all day?” As if I was somehow imposing on him.

I thought, then, that New York was down but not out.

Then he blew it by apologizing. I didn’t want him to apologize.

I heard about some immigrant workers employed by the company that had the food concession for the World Trade Center. They were to be at work at 10am on 9/11 to prepare for the lunch service. They came out of the subway to see the first Tower collapse. A couple of hours later they had made their way Uptown to the corporate offices of their employer. They sought out the Purchasing Department. They went into the receptionist and started laying money…singles, fives, tens…on the desk and explained to her in broken English that it was to help rebuild.

Because that’s what you do, right?

I heard a pretentiously earnest young woman from Chicago in a restaurant, speaking in a loud and cloying tone about how our new national awareness (whatever that means) is a sign that some good can come out of this tragedy. Her waiter looked at her in disgust and said, “Yeah, lady. It makes me downright happy I’ll never see my brother again” before he stormed off. I saw the realization hit that young woman that the lost lives are not just something you see on TV. Not here. Not now.

I saw a woman at the impromptu shrine at Battery City take down a weathered and bent Polaroid of a fireman. Her young daughter handed her a new one that was in good shape. The woman put it up in the other picture’s place. As they walked off the girl waved back at the picture and said, “Bye-Bye, Daddy”.

Like it was normal.

I saw a few different people standing at different points along the fences surrounding the site, talking to themselves. I eventually figured out that this massive site was the closest thing they had to a cemetery with a gravesite for someone they loved.

I met a middle-aged Swiss couple who had come to New York for the sole purpose of visiting the site because it was the least they could do.

I saw a business man from Japan staring at the site. He turned to a man wearing a Wisconsin sweatshirt and said, “I am so sorry for this”. The guy in the sweatshirt looked confused and responded, “Nothing happened to me”. The Japanese man said, “Yes. It did.”

I heard a thousand car horns every time traffic stopped anywhere in Manhattan…which is a constant occurrence. Except at Ground Zero. No one honked. No one yelled. No one impatiently cut off another driver. No one.

I saw a dreadlocked young man taping a piece of paper to one of the fences. The paper was ensconced in plastic. It was a poem. The guy waited shyly while I read it. I told him it was good. He told me he’s a poet and it’s important to write his best for “all of them” as he waved his hand in the general direction of the rubble. I asked him how long it had taken him to write it. He told me two weeks, but it was the 10th one he’d put up at the site. I asked him how many more he would write.

“Until I get it right. I have to get it right.” And then we both cried. And I am so goddamn tired of crying endless impotent tears.

The title of it was “You Didn’t Know You Were Soldiers”.

I saw a woman in her 40’s, in a light midnight drizzle, holding her umbrella over a little flower and teddy bear arrangement on the sidewalk. I told her it was a nice remembrance. She looked a little embarrassed.

“Oh, it isn’t mine,” she said, “but it means more than anything to someone.”

An hour later, she was still there.

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