There is a border now that divides Manhattan, somewhere to the south of Fourteenth Street. To those of us who have not crossed it since last Tuesday, it is “down there,” a once familiar territory where shops, schools, restaurants, and even some streets are closed. It is, they say, a shuttered dusty place, the gateway to the nightmare that we now call Ground Zero, the nightmare we never thought was possible. Not here.
North of this line, we live in what is a very different city, a city with more of a resemblance to the Gotham that we once knew, that confident city that flourished here in the distant past, before September 11. We are the lucky ones and we know it. Even on Tuesday, life in this safer zone did not, quite, stop. Emerging from my Midtown office that grim, scarred, scared noon, Madison Avenue was quiet, too quiet, but there were still people in the street. They were talking not screaming, they were walking to the shops, not running for their lives. There were, of course, reminders of atrocity elsewhere, the scraps of overheard conversation, frantic and tense, the callers on their cellular phones, redial, redial, redial, and then, at last through, their shouted cries of reassurance audible to all, amplified by anxiety and the high volume etiquette of mobile communication, “No, no, I’m OK, don’t worry.”
And the smoke, not billowing, of course, on Madison and 50th (over Midtown the sky that terrible day remained untouched, a bright, brilliant, taunting blue), but three miles away, “down there.” It mocked us, a cruel cumulus to the south, death’s dark expanding banner, a bleak smudge on the heavens. It was, we already knew, a funeral pyre, and, in its height it was a perverse tribute to the immense size of those two oddly ungainly icons, the twin towers that now meant more to us than we ever could have imagined.
In this tranquil, still civilized part of Manhattan, our taste of smoke came later, with just a whiff on Wednesday when the wind turned north. It was a delayed, acrid belch from the beast that had consumed so many, so much, so quickly, so soon. Downtown’s butchery left other traces too in our zone of unnatural calm, the dust-covered fire engine, parked at 6 A.M. outside the station on a cordoned-off 51st Street, the cops chatting there quietly, tired (how long had they been up?), but still watchful, as a man who tried to bike past them was quick to find out.
There were the flags at half mast, a somber memorial fluttering from the police station, the firehouse and the office buildings. You could see other flags too, less funereal, more defiant, proudly on display in new, unexpected venues, at the entrance to a local bar, on the antenna of a delivery truck, behind the counter of a store. The Red, White and Blue flies “down there” too. We can see it on television, giving some dignity to that other, devastated New York, hanging from the ruins of what was once someone’s work place, put there by a rescue worker with a touch of poetry in his soul. We can only hope that he has survived.
At the deli, at lunchtime the second day, supplies have run a little low (the bridges were closed); the small depleted pile of sandwiches looks even careworn than usual. “How old are these?,” asks the customer, for an instant the voice of that aggressive, querulous Noo Yawk we all know so well. Then he realizes he doesn’t care. He buys his food with a rueful smile. There are more important things to worry about.
The bars in my neighborhood are open, not full, but not empty either, and in the Thai place where a friend (a refugee from an emptied Tribeca) and I ate on Wednesday night, the tables were busy. It will take more than murderers to persuade Manhattan to cook for itself. Only the buzz was different. There is anger now, as well as sadness, and more talk of international politics, probably, than would normally be heard in this restaurant in the course of a year. Osama Bin Laden, it is a name we all know now.
Thursday dawns, and with it, traffic, and some suggestion of a normal life, returns to much of Manhattan. But this is a flawed, illusory normality, undermined by unease and subverted by our sense of unearned survival. At the tip of the island, the firemen and the police still dig, stoic in their own tragedy (how many dead, two hundred, three hundred?) a line that held, a stolid link with the city’s fragile ordered past, the source, we dream, of miracles. Six firemen saved, the television tells us, sheltered in their SUV. They live! We celebrate, high fives in Hell. And then our joy is denied. There is, it turns out, another explanation, and then thoughts return “down there,” to the people we knew, and will know no more.
Night falls. I leave my office building. From the usually taciturn security guard, I hear an almost gentle “take care.” There is a curious smell in the air, pungent and harsh. Meanwhile, outside the hospitals, the relatives wait, photographs in their hands. Have we seen that brother, that wife, that cousin? They were last witnessed at their desk, glimpsed in an elevator, seen in a lobby, and now there is nothing, just silence. Later, past midnight, there is the sound of thunder, and the heavens light up. For an instant, we look up alarmed.
But this time the storm in the sky comes from nature, not man.