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 mans
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
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 dont 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. Pauls
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 Id 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
Some guy Ive never seen before helped me as I struggled with
my various bags. And he didnt 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, Cmon, cmon, 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 didnt 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
on the desk and explained to her in broken English
that it was to help rebuild.
Because thats 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 Ill 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 pictures 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
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
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 hes a poet and its 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 hed 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
The title of it was You Didnt Know You Were Soldiers.
I saw a woman in her 40s, 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
Oh, it isnt mine, she said, but it means
more than anything to someone.
An hour later, she was still there.