a constant stream of people zigzagging in and out of the police barricades
on Broadway near Liberty Street. From there you get some of the best views
of the remains of the World Trade Center. Almost everyone I know has visited
the site, including the editor I work for on Wallstreet. Her windows faced
the twin towers. She said the plane went right by her. She said she's
Yesterday I saw five hundred photographs from the week of September 11th
covering the walls of a gallery in Soho-the burning towers, the stricken
faces, the thick black cloud, the ash-covered office workers. The familiar
images we've already seen in newspapers and magazines were hanging alongside
snapshots caught by amateurs with cameras in hand as they fled ground
zero. The exhibit, called "Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs,"
has been accepting pictures from anyone who had a camera and was there.
I wasn't there. I was traveling. I'd just flown from Istanbul to Rome
and I was standing in the middle of a busy intersection near the Termini
Station when a man with a cell phone said something about the Palestinians
finally coming after us. Later, I watched my city being attacked on TV
in a language I didn't understand with people I didn't know.
I felt numb, so I went for a walk down via Vittorio and ended up in a
big piazza buzzing with tourists, street musicians and local teens on
the make. No one seemed to know what had happened.
big. What is it? Never mind. Just take my picture,
we'll look it up later-and try and get some locals in there, too, will
I asked the couple standing near the fountain, they were from Orlando,
Florida, if they'd heard the news. I didn't think so. They had on them
that look of blithe complacency one likes to associate with American tourists.
And, actually, I picked on them for that reason. I wanted to watch their
faces fall, watch their vacation end as abruptly as mine did. But the
husband threw a fast left. Like a seasoned reporter he rattled off every
detail of the attack, including the crash in Pennsylvania, the hit to
the Pentagon, the rumors of a car bomb and the missing fifth plane. "Fifth
plane?" I said.
"Who said there was a fifth plane?"
"CNN," he said. "All the hotels get CNN."
The next morning I didn't feel like seeing the Pantheon. I didn't feel
like seeing the Coliseum either. I was on a crowded bus headed for the
center of Rome, surrounded by a wall of exploding paper towers that reminded
me of Warhol's repeating Campbell's soup cans and electric chairs. Commuters
stood around me with their newspapers thrust opened, the headline the
same wherever I turned: ATTACCO ALL'AMERICA!
So I got on a train and headed for the northern coastline, skipping Florence
for the same reason I avoided the monuments in Rome. I could sit on a
beach with a gelato in my hand. I could stare at the horizon and forget
about all those spectacular mosques I'd seen in Istanbul, the numinous
prayers to Allah amplified through the city, the Muslims with a shared
look of wonderment on their faces as they crowded around the 'hairs from
the head of Mohammed' display at the Topkapi Palace. No one questioned
the authenticity of those hairs, as did my friend in Rome when I told
him they also had on display the decapitated skull of St. John the Baptist.
I stopped in Milan at the British Airways office to reschedule my return
ticket-I'd wanted to leave earlier but was forced to take a later flight
instead; later, I wandered for four hours through the labyrinth Picasso
exhibit at the Palazza Reale. I find it hard to describe how I was feeling
during the days before my departure. However complacent we'd been to the
possibility of an attack on our soil, I couldn't stomach the fact that
I would be returning to a different country than the one I had left. So
I took a train to Varazza and consumed several cones of gelato on a small,
rectangle of beach crowded with half-naked Italians while I sat covered
from head to thigh in my bright-pink pashmina from Istanbul.
When I stepped out of the subway at Wall and Nassau, my nostrils filled
instantly with the smell of the towers. It was the first tangible evidence
of the death-metal screams of buildings and people collapsing and falling
that had me sleepless for so many days. Today our city still speaks of
the smell, like someone haunted by ghosts, because it is proof not so
much of the catastrophe (we have our pictures) as of the residue of concrete
and metal, paper and flesh that has disseminated in the air, sneaking
up on us just when we thought we'd forgotten it, like a sharp, sad wind
echoing off the canyons.
I went inside, past the new security checkpoint and up to the 49th floor.
I was to meet with my editor and write an article about how the financial
community had joined together to overcome the devastation. My ears popped
as the doors slid open and I looked around. Everyone was going about their
business, except that two weeks ago these people were fleeing in terror
from the very spot in which they now greeted me with handshakes and cheery
Suddenly the fire drill rang out, then abruptly stopped. In the past,
no one would have even bothered to look up. But this was post-September
11th Wallstreet so everybody grabbed their bags and made a beeline for
the door. We hovered anxiously, waiting to be told what to do. "Why
don't they say something!" hissed the secretary. Five minutes past
and no one moved. It was as if we were caught between what we now knew
was possible and what we dreaded to think was conceivable.
We are told the terrorists will attack this weekend. This weekend there
are five parties. New Yorkers must be celebrating something, but it's
not a birthday, a book deal or a green card lottery winner. We're not
trying to be daring either. Susan is so scared to come across the bridge
to meet me that she's already chickened-out three times. Finally she cabs
it over with her ex-boyfriend whom she hasn't spoken to in five months;
he holds her hand the whole way. Patrick joins us at the tavern for a
drink. I ask him if he's planning on getting a gas mask. He rolls his
eyes, then tells me he's going to Colombia to track cocaine trails for
an article. "Come with," he says.
"What, and get gunned down by the drug cartel?" I laugh. "I
think I'd rather stay here where it's safe."
Free Williamsburg© | 93 Berry Street | Brooklyn, NY 11211
| November 2001 | Issue 20
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