I woke up on Tuesday when my neighbor Hearn pounded on the door to say that one of the World Trade Center towers had fallen; he had heard the explosion and gone up to the roof, then gone for a run along East River park and when he came back only one tower stood. At about this time the other must have fallen. I had been preocupied with both an extremely large work project with an absurdly looming deadline and with Heather Woodbury's performance on Wednesday, which I was to have been in, but we'd just decided that she felt so dissatisfied with the script that she was going to bag working with the acting ensemble and perform solo, with me creating an atmospheric soundscape. I'd been out at Thompkin's Square Books the night before to buy records (Thompkins, perhaps my favorite store of its kind ever, had its closing party Monday night; the store was jammed with hundreds of trendies genuinely sad to see this community gathering place and excellent, personal used book and record shop close) and had woken up before 9 and every few minutes thereafter in a state of panic over getting the sound together for Wednesday and also editing 37 more pages of dry, error-ridden medical text by Thursday.
The shift from personal preoccupation to crisis took about five minutes. I said (to the news) groggily, "Is it real?" and then switched on the tv. At this point they didn't have the dramatic footage we've all now watched ad nauseum; but they were reporting eight planes hijacked. I made some coffee and felt both isolated and in disbelief watching news in such an oblique, impersonal way when these events were perhaps a mile and a half away. I went out on the street with my coffee (holding the ceramic mug). I'm roughly on 5th St. and Avenue A. As I walked down Avenue A, a bizarre atmosphere, a mixture of locals shopping and having breakfast at outdoor cafes, and somewhat zombie-like procession of business-people in suits walking doggedly north. Now, this neighborhood doesn't get streams of commuters; it's atmospherically far from that sort of midtown or Wall Street bustle, so the first sense on the street of something very very wrong was this marching parade of people. I now think that most of them were in shock, because they walked without interaction, without drama or explanation. Residents weren't stopping them or providing comfort, either, it was as if the two worlds, the quotidian and the crisis, were in parallel universes; merely coexisting in timespace as if superimposed video. I saw no shouting, sobbing, screaming. My idea was to go to Tim's, a favorite coffee bar, to be with people, but Tim's was very quiet. I walked down to Houston to a small concrete park. At this point, once I sat, things got very real. A snack shack there had a radio on and people were gathered around it like some 40's Americana image. The sirens, which I had somehow tuned out before, were incessant. At this point, there was still heavy weekday traffic and cabs. At every corner, 20 or 30 people tried to hail cabs. The march of people up Essex (avenue A south of Houston) was incessant and silent. It was hushed, even with the hundreds of pedestrians. I have never seen that many people on Essex, ever. There had been a huge line at the ATM when I went by, which was the only local behavioral anomaly so far. The day was stunning with a blue blue clear sky, but what looked like a diagonal white cloud streamed east in a fat band. I sat at an outdoor table. Everyone (and I mean everyone) around me was using their cellphones. Directly in front of me was the 2nd Avenue F train stop. People kept going down and then reemerging, and I wished I had paper to make a sign to spare them the trouble. Most people had no idea where they were; these were mainly commuters who come in by train, leave by train, and maybe have lunch in the financial area, so people kept coming up and asking how to get home. One woman came over to ask where the nearest bridge was. At this point, via radio, most people seemed aware that subways, trains, and incoming traffic were halted, and were ready to walk home. What struck me was how no one wanted to just sit and rest, have some water. And how none of us residents were pressing for details or stories. Interactions were very New York in the sense of... two or three of us disagreeing about how best to get to the Manhattan bridge walkway. At this point, I decided I wanted to walk more freely, so I went home to get my bag. I walked up first Avenue and saw quite a few people covered in soot. Lots of people had smudges on their pants or jackets, and most men were in shirtsleeves, but now I saw people encrusted in soot, or holding scorched briefcases. I saw one man whose hair was matted in soot and who had dried blood on his white shirt. I asked him where he was going. He kept repeating that he had to get to Penn Station. I told him that no trains were running and that it would be a hurry-up-and-wait situation and suggested that he sit down and have some water and clean up a bit. I asked if he had friends in Manhattan. He just insisted he had to get home to Jersey. He seemed disoriented as to up and down town. I asked how he'd been hurt and he said he'd been stupid. He worked nearby and when he heard the first explosion, he and a few coworkers decided to go over and see what was happening. They were nearing the base of the towers, the plaza area, when there was a huge rain of debris and shockwave; there was no cover. A coworker began smashing in the window of a building on ground level, and they all used their hands to smash the window (hence the blood) and crawl through the window for shelter from the flying debris. He kept saying "That was dumb. I was stupid." We were now at about 4th Street and 1st Ave, and now cops were everywhere directing traffic. He asked the cop where Penn Station was. The cop was like, just walk north, and then.. "are you all right, sir?" The guy just waved him off in a resigned way and continued trudging. This struck me later, in the sense of how eager the media I saw everywhere was to locate people with stories like his, or people showing blood and soot, and yet, in the initial disbelief, those of us in immediate position to provide comfort, water, shelter, just gave directions as if to a disoriented tourist. I regret that I did not make that man sit down and get him some water and cloth to clean up. It was only hours later that businesses began donating supplies, and hundreds of volunteer health care workers swarmed, hoping for some people to treat. But all of the people to be interviewed, the shocked and slightly injured, had walked by us before noon, and the thousands of people, later anxious to volunteer, to help, calling hotlines and thronging hospitals, who felt they had to be close to 'it' (what the media calls ground zero), were left with no victims to assist.
I now walked in a zigzag pattern southwest. All cabs were full at this point, sirens incessant. The local police precinct (whose facade is the image for the fictitious NYPD Blue precinct) was now barricaded off. It must have been about 11:15 am and I was able to walk through that block; later it would be entirely sealed. Again, I saw no panic or displays of emotion. There were, however, police on every corner waving traffic and pedestrians through. Every ground floor business had a tv on, many many people on the street were holding radios. As I got over to Lafayette and then Broadway, there was an ominous sense of suspended animation; Tower records annex was closed, Other Music was closed. The streets felt very much like the night, how many years ago now, after the LA riots, when they feared copycat riots here, and the whole place was barricaded and anticipatory. I'd worked that night at The Blue Willow, a cafe on Broadway and Bleecker, we were one of the few businesses open, and people kept coming in just for human contact and to say "it's spooky out, it's eerie out."
Now I walked downtown on Broadway. At the corner of 4th and Broadway there was a very large crowd. People had cameras and video cams and were holding them high. In the center was a woman who looked like one of those clay sculptures; you know that guy who makes life-sized, hyperreal gray figures in normal activity or in conversation?, well, like one of those. Her hair was completely matted in soot, like a shell, and she carried what must have been a cloth duffel bag, probably once floral or cheery, but that was now encased in soot. No one was touching her; they were gathered as if in a science fiction film around an alien ambassador. It looked like the crowd had formed entirely organically from the nucleus of one man who had stopped her to ask is she was ok, and she began pouring out her story. She showed no emotion, nor did the crowd. There was no group hug or crying or sympathy; everyone stood utterly still, probably no one but that one man could hear what she was saying, but no one interrupted or asked anyone else to clarify. It was a tableau, sort of a respectful witnessing. I did not want to add to the sense of claustrophobia, so I walked south. But I had never seen a crowd of New Yorkers either so silent or so compelled; people usually make a point of being utterly unimpressed, even disinterested or annoyed, by the curious, the bizarre, the famous.
Broadway was deserted. It was at this point that I wondered how the hell they'd made all the traffic disappear. And I'm impressed and grateful at the good judgement cab, delivery, and personal vehicles made to leave the streets without organized police direction. There were no cars parked or abandoned, and that proved to be the case throughout downtown; people really got their vehicles out of the way. The stream had thinned. While I still saw businesspeoplewith sooty jackets over a shoulder, many holding hands with coworkers, or frequently touching the other's arm or shoulder, there now were more people going downtown, people like me, most often on bikes with videocams. Every few feet someone would be sitting on a business stoop or the curb using a cellphone. I was amazed how quickly the businesses had closed as well. The deli before Broadway and Bleecker was open, and very busy; the cafe on that corner was open. Houston, as I crossed it again, was now entirely emergency vehicles, and I was seeing logos from every borough, New Jersey. Lots and lots of people, as this is the Broadway/Lafayette subway station. Everyone was already aboveground, milling about, shouting to other people that the subways were closed, and asking each other for directions, or how to get out. Broadway below Houston was even more eerie. Canal Jean, Old Navy closed, almost no pedestrian traffic north now, but a steady stream of rollerbladers, bikers, and pedestrians south.
As I'm writing this, I'm realizing how much I actually took in. I'm also trying to remember my path and the sequence of events. I had a notebook, but felt sure I'd remember without notes. But even writing I feel anxious. I have the same compulsion to watch the news as everyone, as if I'll "miss" something, although I know firsthand that the news reporters are further from the events than I was (geographically as well), and the same compulsion I felt both Tuesday and Wednesday to go OUT, DO something, take it in. I will say that the disjunction between the generalized reporting, the built-in language and story form and "reports" of the news, and the actual moment-to-moment feeling on the streets is absolutely astounding. It's as if.. I go out and it's one reality, and then come in and have that reality explained, organized, distanced, and codified for me by the media, and it's as if I get sucked in and thing "ah. that's what's happening". But then I go out and, for all the 24-7 reporting, believe me, nothing that you see on tv, the capsule interviews of tourists at midtown, the images of rescue vehicles lined up for miles on the West Side Highway, the stand-up interviews at St. Vincent's, none of that gestures towards how it feels to be here. We have no papers, and the grocery store is running out of whole sections of food. The smoke is nauseating. No one can carry on a conversation without becoming vague and distracted. So much aimless wandering; everyone feels like they are in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing. I think that right now I will watch a short bit of tv and then walk a bit. I'll write more in a couple of hours. Thanks, Heather