The Awesome City


From afar we see New York’s skyline with its two front teeth missing, and its people shaken and staggering, and we are shaken but also inspired. And, increasingly, very pissed off. People are crying, praying, and wearing patriotic ribbons. Some are buying guns and ammunition. Teenage boys, including one of my sons, are calling military recruiters and asking if 16 is old enough to join the Marines. They watch the replay of the towers crumbling, and in their minds they are fixing bayonets. They cuss out loud.

This radical Islamic sucker punch, everyone understands, was aimed at all of us. It knocked down part of the Pentagon and killed fellow citizens in Northern Virginia. But the foremost target was New York because the enemy knows that New York is the Big Guy, and if the Big Guy is staggered, so are we all. Had the strikes been against Miami or Los Angeles the impact on the national psyche would have been profound, but not the same. This is not merely because of the symbolic nature of the World Trade Center — the heart of “democratic capitalism,” as one CNN blowhard insisted. The city is about much bigger things.

It is the Awesome City. When you think of New York you think of many things, but central is the fact that it is probably the Most Alive place on earth. And so it remains. New York took the brunt of the beating but is very much on its feet, showing how all must act under fire. There is surely more fire to come.

Back in the Old World, which is to say just prior to 9 A.M. Tuesday morning, many of us, especially hacks such as myself, had occasional fun razzing New York — or, to be precise, that small clique of self-absorbed, perennial adolescents that cancels Mother’s Day, praises ugly art, and otherwise practices a very odd version of sophistication.

We now see Greater New York. The stars are not media celebrities, book publishers, gossip-mag editors, real-estate tycoons, actors, curators, and similar preeners. The glitter has been burned off; the frivolous legion has been replaced by firefighters, cops, steel workers, secretaries, messengers, priests, rabbis, and countless working people — all led by the mayor, who seems to have been born for this moment. Rudy Giuliani should be named Honorary Hangman at Bin Laden’s execution. Let him pull the lever, if that is his desire.

Meanwhile, looking at the gap-toothed skyline is hard even for outsiders. I made a point of not taking a map when business took me to New York, preferring to ask directions from strangers on the street. I should point out that I have a southern accent that Gomer Pyle might envy, and while perhaps there was some amusement in this for the natives my requests were always met with warmth and directions were delivered with a sort of pride. I had touched down in a great place, and my guides wanted me to know.

They used buildings and museums as landmarks to help me along the way, and clearly had a feeling toward those buildings like Coloradans have for their mountains. Now the two greatest peaks in the Manhattan Range have disappeared, as if Mt. Evans or Pike’s Peak had sunk into the Earth. Combined with the human toll, the sense of loss is beyond an outsider’s ability to imagine.

But we do know there are serious scores to settle. When my 16-year-old heard of the strikes, he called in on his cell phone (let us now praise cell phones and, one hates to add, cable television) and asked how old he had to be to enlist. A friend two years his senior — while waiting on us at dinner Thursday night — told of plans to visit a recruitment center Friday morning. He hopes to get into an intelligence unit. Their parent’s generation, meanwhile, which has often been self-conscious about its lack of a defining experience such as a war, now has one. Every family member is a target, and thus a combatant as well. A new world indeed.

The bad guys celebrate, crowing that they have crossed the Rubicon and brought their war to us. This is true. They have crossed the Rubicon. Now they are on our side of the river. We are better and stronger than they are, and our ranks include a large number of very pissed off New Yorkers. As someone else has pointed out, we are all New Yorkers now.