September in New York


                                                               by Andrey Gritsman


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 arrived airborne.

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.

A monstrous 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.

Our generation 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.

Fashionable Italian 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.

My suffocating 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 happen.

It happened earlier. Later.

Closer. Farther.

It happened, but not with you.



You survived because you were the first.

You survived 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 raining.

Because it was sunny.

Because the shadow fell upon.



Thank God it was a forest.

Thank God there were no trees.

Thank God: railing, hook, bar, brake.

Frame, turn, cm, second.

Thank God, the straw was flowing in the water.


Thanks to, therefore, despite and yet.

What would happen if the arm, leg,

One step, the hairbreadth


So you are here? You – from that minute that still lasts?

Narrow net and yet you managed – through?

I keep wondering, I can’t be more mute.

Listen, how your heart beats in me.


(adapted translation by myself - AG)


The whole city displayed photographs with brief information about the missing:

 Sylvia Biaggio, 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 shift,

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 shift.

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 falling down

this fall in New York.

Asbestos sun shines

day and night.

Multi-eyed fish on the land –

blown-up island.

Scales of roofs

overgrown with flowers.

Unanswerable sky

riddled with the droning of sirens.

Asthma of twilight

lies deep in the slate crater

of the harbor.

People stumble along to Ground Zero fire.

Fishes swim to where it is deeper.

Parks are desolate at dawn

and the only movement

is wind passing,

Swaying tender fields

of hearts 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 cowboy hats.

         Neat, 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.

Monday morning 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.



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