in New York
In those days you just wanted to wander around the streets. To be with
everybody else. To breathe in the asbestos soot. To touch shoulders
with people, people who were holding photographs of the missing. This
was a beginning of a new era in the life of the city. The new era
First thoughts: to
call the close ones – please don’t go to work the usual way through
Chelsea, turn before the Holland from the Henry Hudson, just turn
away, anywhere.It was not yet clear what really had happened. Just a
mumbling from all of the morning stations. Flash interview with an
airline pilot who happened to be on the street: doubtful accident, the
plane was directed toward the Tower. But, that could not be.
airliner hummed along Fifth Avenue almost scratching the roof of the
New York Public Library, as if trying to pass the morning traffic jam
and get to work on time, to do its monstrous work.
The Twin Towers
were at the very low end of the island, part of the mental
landscape that became so habitual like the view of the snowy peaks for
the inhabitants of the mountain village in the Pamir.
didn’t see the war, WWII, only the rusting Wehrmacht hardware and
dilapidated shallowing trenches in the woods around Moscow at the
summer camp. But we, the first post-war generation, still harbored
that deep reflex, inherited from parents who survived the Moscow air
strikes by Luftwaffe circa 1941: call all the relatives, friends, to
see if everybody is alive. Firebombs on Moscow roofs by the
pigeonholes. Genetic memory that was reinforced by an experience of a
lot of Israeli friends. One hundred terror acts in eleven months by
that time. Pieces of 16-year-old Russian girls from Odessa and
Petersburg, smacked around on the steel skeletons of the building of
Dolphinarium discotheque, once filled with jumpy Russian pop
music. Tiny pieces of bodies scrupulously, hour after hour, collected
by the Jewish orthodox for the burial. An ancient religious custom
that has become a horrible routine of early twenty-first century.
I remember a phone
conversation with a friend in Manhattan in 1993 after the first
attempt to blow up the World Trade Center. She was in the next
building, not knowing anything: hail of the ambulances, police sirens.
Nothing is clear, down the street the ambulances trying to get to the
future Ground Zero from St.Vincent’s Medical Center, alarmed
flickering waves of the patrol cars hitting the smoking war zone.
On the second day
we couldn’t get close to the burning rubble. Police barriers were
everywhere and encompassing were them crowds with flags, posters,
applauding every fire engine and ambulance filled with exhausted dusty
guys in helmets. This one day the city lost 350 of its best firemen,
traditional New Yorkers, many of them Irish guys, Queens, Brooklyn,
Staten Island. Crowded, overpopulated city with a dense nervous system
of electricity, joy and despair. No wonder, in New York – parking by
“the pump” (fire hydrant) is a capital crime.
The daughter of a
friend of mine, Moscow poet Volodya Druk, was evacuated from the
Stuyvesant school for gifted children in lower Manhattan at the very
last moment before the first tower collapsed. The teenagers were
running north, escaping a huge growing cloud of debris and smoke. The
police was shouting: Don’t look back!, a biblical soundtrack to the
September 11 tragedy. The girls from her school were coming back to
the barricade every day, trying to help. Help from New Yorkers was not
needed. Really needed were specialized, experienced search groups. The
most valuable team was flown in from Oklahoma, made itself famous
after the Oklahoma horror. They brought special search dogs especially
trained to look for human remains under the ruins. There were no
bodies, only their parts. The dogs were tired, working overtime. The
agents were putting safety gloves on their paws and after a short rest
sending them again and again into the foul-smelling inferno.
The most famous of
the dogs was a beauty named Porkchop, a big tireless husky. She was
resting right there, on the side, from time to time enjoying her snack
of large ants, skillfully picking them up with her paw. While in the
tent she couldn’t take her eyes off Animal Planet on the TV, thinking
about something of her own.
Those days we could
see a bottomless hole in the city landscape filled with dense
overhanging smoky clouds. Heavy rain on the second day of the search
attempts turned the scene into an archaeological excavation at the
bottom of the world’s ocean. Mothers were walking on foot from one New
York hospital to another checking the list of admissions, trying to
find their children among the patients.
Gas masks quickly
disappeared from the pharmacies. The new ones were brought in huge
lots. I met a guy on the second day who was walking around the
pharmacies, spending his money buying the remaining masks and giving
them away for free out on the streets. We were sitting outside, taking
a break with friends in Pete’s Tavern, right by the table where
O'Henry wrote his New York short stories under the old black-and-white
pictures of the sportcasters and theater journalists who were popular
at the time, habituals of the place, having its own special brew for
ages. I offered to give him some money for the handful of masks, to
help out, he just waved me away and gave me a bunch.
restaurants on Houston Street set up tables on the sidewalks. It was
the next day, a clear and sunny day, when you could see a glimpse of
glistening Hudson at the end of a shady street. The restaurants put
tables on the sidewalk loaded with free, wonderful pastas: marinara,
shrimp, tomato garlic and Roman carbonara. Big posters by the tables:
“Especially for the rescue teams,” and for everybody else.
computer was clogged with electronic worries flickering from Moscow,
Jerusalem, Los Angeles: to see if the addressee was alive as well as
his close ones. Almost everybody received a poem by Wyslawa Szimborska
that was written a long time ago on a different occasion, but that
touched the nerve:
It could happen.
It had to
It happened, but
not with you.
because you were the first.
because you were the last.
Because you were
alone. Because the others.
Because you were
on the left.
Because you were
on the right.
Because it was
Because it was
shadow fell upon.
Thank God it was
Thank God there
were no trees.
railing, hook, bar, brake.
Frame, turn, cm,
Thank God, the
straw was flowing in the water.
therefore, despite and yet.
happen if the arm, leg,
One step, the
So you are here?
You – from that minute that still lasts?
Narrow net and
yet you managed – through?
wondering, I can’t be more mute.
Listen, how your
heart beats in me.
translation by myself - AG)
The whole city
displayed photographs with brief information about the missing:
29, 102nd floor, dark hair, weight, height, open blouse,
little cross on the neck, last seen 7:30 a.m. in the elevator on the
way to the office,
Nguyen Chen, 27,
first-generation Vietnamese, tax specialist, never made it to work,
Carmen Ortiz, 45,
birthplace St. Juan, Puerto Rico, cafeteria employee, early morning
Jim Powers, broker,
Vietnam veteran, Morgan Stanley-Dean Witter, 55, came earlier than
usual to the office before the meeting,
Arthur Jackson, 45,
plumber in the North Tower, born and raised in Harlem, early morning
My friend, poet
Howard Levy, who is a well-known insurer of the arts, of masterpiece
paintings, an office on the 102nd floor, was at a
psychotherapist from 8 to 8:45 Tuesday morning. Diagnosis: midlife
crisis, depression. That’s what saved him. Ran out onto the street to
hail a cab. No cars were going in direction to the South.. All of his
colleagues and friends were burned alive.
Many people were
having breakfast before work on the first floor café and by the
kiosks, espresso and danishes.
Those days and
nights: candles, candles, dancing tongues of the candles, hearts grown
from underneath the ashes. Candles in people’s hands, in the parks,
bushes of candles by the posters and pictures of the missing. In the
city twilight – the whole city is flickering in the intermittent
tender breathing of the thousands of candles.
Ashen faces are
this fall in New
day and night.
on the land –
Scales of roofs
riddled with the
droning of sirens.
lies deep in the
of the harbor.
along to Ground Zero fire.
Fishes swim to
where it is deeper.
desolate at dawn
and the only
is wind passing,
sprouting in the morning.
Bunches of flowers and more and more candles by the widely opened
gates, near the fire stations. Inside: piles of boxes with food,
homemade pies, canned food, gifts. The whole neighborhood brought
heaps of stuff to the entrance of the firemen centers. An unusual
event: applause when police patrol cars leave Ground Zero and pass the
crowds. There are tough police in New York City and the city is tough
on its police, too. Strange, unusual, unseen-before things around the
city. The black well-known uniforms of the NYPD are in the minority
these days. I saw the state troopers, grey uniforms in traditional
shiny sedans with politely apprehensive cops from small, quiet,
dormant homey New Jersey towns patrolling this time not Main Street
with its pizza parlors, but Times Square and Broadway. Several
servicemen from the infantry, young Vietnamese and Koreans in fatigues
and big combat helmets. Strange picture reminiscent of the Vietcong
photographs during the Vietnam War. Incredible scenes in New York:
large monsters of the armored personnel carriers. Grey and green,
masqueraded, dissolving in the twilight of the city, military police.
White helmets and special insignia of the MP, mature men, somewhat
older professionals who served around the world.
after a six-day gap – opening of the New York Stock Exchange. Security
lines and barriers: tall, long-legged stylish young black girls in
sunglasses, black uniformed N.Y.P.D., and as a backup - Marines in
combat fatigues, low-sitting helmets.
At night the TV
anchor is warning “please, psychologically unstable people do not
watch this program”: CNN’s interview with burn victims at the center
of the Cornell University New York Hospital by the East River.
Did this city
realize the loss of its heart? Will it pick up its ashen heart from
the dampness of the eternal surf, that is bringing scales, remnants of
life and death from the astronomically distant Eurasia.
We will never see
the same sunset in that city. Especially sunrise. Imagine if in the
pre-air travel era thousands of people came in endless convoys of
ships through the Atlantic to New York Harbor to the quarantine of
Ellis Island. They will see from far away the gaping skeleton of the
island of hope: behind the torch of the statue – the gigantic stony
dreadnought carrying the Native American name, blown up in its harbor.