A dispatch from Manhattan

· Oct 10, 2001 Tweet

(U-WIRE) NEW YORK — It’s a good place for her up there, rising above the shoulders of the crowd that’s now circling the financial district of lower Manhattan. She’s four or five years old, blond hair and yellow jacket, and if she were down on the sidewalk she would be swallowed by the mass of humanity paying its respects to the remains of the Trade Center, like a fallen leader lying in state.

It’s Saturday, and this is an odd, quiet New York crowd of people. Curse words are gone. Elbows are absent. They talk of tons of rubble and logistics of implosion. They talk of impact force and admire that the buildings stood as long as they did, and how many people they saved, and how heroic they were. We are all engineers now.

People seem to have dressed up for this, and they follow the eerie order that seems to guide them in times of tragedy. They know not to linger too long in front of the body. They lay a rose or sing a hymn and move on — there are other mourners waiting in the wings.

The girl’s blond hair is cut straight above the blue eyes she inherited from the man who carries her on his shoulders. His usual New York braggadocio is absent, which makes it harder to hear the old man explain to his little girl about what used to be here.

“You remember when we saw those fireworks?” he asks her, pointing backward in time and space. “We stayed in that hotel on that side of the island. And remember there were those two buildings there? Those two huge buildings?” She nods. He points to the smoking pile or rubble a block away.

“Well, that’s all that’s left of it.”

She swallows as the wind blows the hair off her forehead. Like the rest of us, she can’t wrap her mind around the reasons her buildings were felled.

“Why did they have to do that?” she asks, her nose wrinkled from the smell of disinfectant and asbestos. “Why did they have to do that to those two big buildings? Why couldn’t they do it to a little bug building?”

A NYPD van pulls in front of her, blocking off the street, shielding her eyes.

A couple of streets down you come upon an abandoned purple Chrysler, caked in the soot that covers most of lower Manhattan. One window’s broken out, but the alarm’s still armed, untouched since Sept. 11.

“Why is it still parked here after all this time?” a kid asks. “You’d think the owner coulda got down here to get their car by now.”

And you can see his face fall as he figures out why they didn’t come back.

I’m in Staten Island when the attacks on Afghanistan are announced. I learn about the attacks from a guy in a coffee shop, coffee shops being the main source of information in Staten Island.

With his cropped salt-and-pepper hair and wire-rimmed glasses, he’s obviously the sage of the coffee shop. He, like everyone, is angry at the perpetrators of the attacks, but he’s also strangely humane. He tells me what he thinks should be done to the Afghans.

“They know how to push our buttons, so we gotta know how to push theirs. Don’t kill ’em. Too easy. But you know they think they go to hell if they touch pig’s blood. So what you do is, instead of spending $200 million on bombs, you drop $200 million worth of pigs on ’em.” He smiles. “Or, you send our guys in with squirt guns full of pig’s blood. Shoot ’em right in the face.”

On Sunday, lower Manhattan looks like a war zone. The streets that were accessible the day before are blocked off. Tarps cover up the view from most street corners. You pull out a camera and the National Guardsman is spraining his voice box telling you to put it away.

“This is still a crime scene,” he yells. The world’s largest crime scene for the world’s largest crime, already photographed a thousand times over. But everywhere there are signs of coping mechanisms on a large scale. Jews proselytize, something Jews do as often as the Amish drink. People climb buildings to write a message in the dirt: “Heroes live forever.” A little Asian woman makes a fortune on tower-themed pins. An African immigrant sells Rolexes. For $15 each.

On the ferry to Staten Island I watch Manhattan slip away, the skyline receding into the night.

And the really strange thing is that I don’t miss the towers. There’s a curving glass building down by the seaport that shimmers in the setting sun. There are the World Financial Center buildings with their domed and pyramidal crowns. There are the 19th-century skyscrapers, red brick stacked 40 stories high. The skyline is still pretty, maybe prettier than it was. The towers were square, austere, out of place. I don’t mind that the towers are gone. I don’t miss the buildings that fell. I miss the people underneath.

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This article was published Oct 10, 2001 at 12:00 am and last updated Oct 10, 2001 at 12:00 am

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