Essay from Baltimore City Paper 9/11/02

Tim Kreider


I was riding the escalator up out of Penn Station, having just seen the newly disfigured Manhattan skyline for the first time, and was attempting to compose my features into a New York face, severe and unapproachable. Apparently I failed even more pathetically than I usually do, because whatever expression I was wearing actually caused strangers to reach out to me with sympathy and love. As I rode the escalator up I became peripherally aware of a girl on the up escalator parallel to mine, staring at me. I turned to look at her and saw that she seemed to be on the verge of tears. Instead of discreetly breaking eye contact as strangers normally do, we kept looking at each other. "It’s sad, isn’t it?" she said. "Yes," I said. "It’s very sad." When we stepped off the escalator we talked for a few minutes. I told her I’d been wanting to come up here ever since I’d heard about the attacks. I had only lived here for five months last winter, I said, but I still felt that I owed the place something. She started to cry and apologized. I told her I felt the same way myself. She was appalled to hear I was planning to take the subway out to Williamsburg. "You could get trapped under there," she said, and all but begged me to take the bus instead. I explained that my directions were by subway and it was the only way I knew to find my way to where I was going. "Okay, take the L train," she said, "but you’re such a sweet person, please take the bus back." [I am not a sweet person.] I wanted to hug her when we parted ways, and she probably wanted to, too, but she was carrying a package in front of her, so it would’ve been awkward, and it’s hard to overcome the conditioning against intimate contact with strangers. I just thanked her for being concerned, and we each walked off. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before in my life.

Everywhere the faces of New Yorkers were heartbreakingly unguarded and sad, and the streets of Manhattan were almost empty. Some friends of mine and I went walking all over the city looking for someone who would let us volunteer for them. Most places just had us sign a list and said they’d call us if they needed us. We finally got in at the Salvation Army tent, where the guy in charge sized me up and lent me an official red Salvation Army vest to go collect aluminum food trays and sterno cans from nearby restaurants. He gave me money to pay for the supplies, but none of the restaurants would accept any. A homeless man, seeing my Salvation Army vest, called me "Rev," and asked if I could spare a can of soda. We spent most of the afternoon sorting out donations of food. The entire country had gone crazy with grief and the desperate desire to do something, and, as people do at funerals, it had mostly sent food. You wouldn’t believe the sheer tonnage of snacks: giant bins full of peanut butter crackers, pretzel sticks, cocoa mix, peanut butter cups and candy bars. Three truckloads of food sent from some small town in Ohio were just arriving as I got there. One wall of a warehouse was stacked with bags of dog food. (PETA was organizing teams to find and feed animals whose owners had died.) The scene that day was chaos: firemen sacked out piled on top of each other on the sidewalk, guys in army uniforms gaping at leggy club girls who were signing up to volunteer, helicopters lifting off and landing nearby, motorcades with fluttering flags attached to their antennae bullying their way through traffic with their sirens bleeping, TV vans with their satellite dishes stretched high lined up as far as you could see down Ninth Avenue, and, always visible to the south, that shockingly vacant space in the sky, smoke still rising from the wreckage a week later. The towers were still there, invisibly looming over us, more awesome and commanding in their absence than they had been when they were actually there.

After a few hours of seeing jobs that two guys could’ve handled being bungled by groups of eight, it became evident that the most helpful thing I could do was to go home. The only real insight I took back with me was spray-painted on a building on a deserted street. Like a lot of other things, it would have seemed pretentious and trite before September 11th. It said: YOU ARE ALIVE.

* * * * *

Months later, when I was living in New York for the winter, my friend Steve and I walked downtown to the Raccoon Lodge, a few blocks away from what was now called Ground Zero. This had been a favorite bar of ours—a dark, cozy hole-in-the-wall with cheap beers, gorgeous barmaids, a pool table, and a fireplace--except at Happy Hour, when it became crowded with shouting Wall Street types. The stockbrokers and secretaries were all gone now, and the walls were hung with firemen’s hats and construction helmets. We shot a few games of pool there and then walked down to the base of the temporary memorial to the World Trade Centers—two beams of light that shone up into the sky over Manhattan for a month. At the base of the installation, brilliant banks of searchlights arrayed in two squares, tourists were taking photographs and reading plaques and chatting with the policemen on duty. It was a crystal clear night, the first one since the searchlights had been lit, and the beams stretched higher into the sky than I’d ever seen anything go, so high that they actually converged at the vanishing point in the exact center of the sky, so that they seemed to lean out over you. You had to bend so far backward to see to the top that you almost fell over. We couldn’t stop looking up.

We walked all the way down the east side park to catch the ferry over to Hoboken. We had fifteen minutes until it came, and Steve decided to make a quick run for champagne while I waited to hold the ferry if necessary. When Steve had lived in Hoboken, it had been our tradition to drink a bottle of champagne on every ferry ride over to the city. He made it back with about a minute to spare. He told me, gasping for breath, that he’d found a restaurant and hastily convinced the manager to sell him a half-bottle of good stuff. We stood out on the back of the upper deck of the ferry to drink it. This was the last ferry of the night, and the captain must have been making for home at the end of a long day, because he really stepped on it and took his turns recklessly, so that it was hard to keep our footing out there and we had to grab for the railings. We’d always ended up taking this ferry from Hoboken to Manhattan just as our hangovers were letting up, right around dusk, what photographers call the Magic Hour, when the twin towers were gilded with that clear-edged evening light. The towers, pure light now, stretched up forever into the night and the rest of the glittering skyline of the city of New York was spread out behind us. Steve popped open our bottle of champagne and the cork soared out into the darkness, lost in our churning wake. He proposed a toast: “to America,” he said. He knew I would understand what he meant.

The next day, after a long, hilarious, drunken evening, we decided to go get bloody marys at Grand Central Station. We ended up comfortably ensconced in the Campbell Apartment, a sumptuously appointed space once maintained by some stupendously wealthy businessman as a pied-a-terre in the Grand Central building itself. It’s one vast room with a balcony, stained glass windows, ornately painted wooden ceilings, and furniture imported from Italy. The bloody marys were outrageously expensive but very, very good and spicy. Sunday afternoon jazz played. We sat in overstuffed leather chairs by the hearth, which now contained an enormous combination safe, and discussed the regrettable imminent collapse of our civilization. It seemed like our inept and brutal government was responding to the tragedy of 9/11 by obliging Al Quaeda’s every wish—bombing civilians, creating new enemies around the world, alienating our allies, refusing even to discuss the causes of the attacks in anything but tent-revival rhetoric. Which was a pity, because we liked the ludicrous wealth and luxury and privilege of these times, though we understood very well they were founded on third-world sweatshops and CIA coups; we liked the Campbell Apartment and really good bloody marys and Ella Fitzgerald. We stayed there for two hours, ordering another round, enjoying it while it lasted. The bar’s hostess, who wore a very tight, low-cut red velvet dress, had to come over twice to ask, fake-apologetically, if Steve would please remove his feet from the table and, later, if I would please wake Steve up.

That evening, walking through Times Square, we stopped for a moment just to take in the scene around us—the thick, slow-moving masses of tourists, the bootleg DVD hawkers and electronically amplified street preachers and the Underwear Cowboy, the flashing Blade Runner skyscape above us. This city, we agreed, was one of the few places we knew that could still routinely make you feel like a ten-year-old seeing the Grand Canyon or Star Wars or the night sky in Maine for the first time—that was still, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, commensurate to our capacity for wonder. At Virgil’s Barbecue, just off Times Square, we ordered The Sampler, a staggering plate of meat that just about killed us both. A guy at the stool next to us ordered a beer and asked warily how much it was going to run him. (Five-fifty.) He spent the entire time we were there talking to one of his friends back in Omaha on his cell phone. We discreetly eavesdropped while we gnawed our smoked ribs and barbecue. It turned out he was just visiting New York on a whim while his truck was repaired. “You gotta come here,” he kept telling his buddy. “A million people, tall buildings everwhere… I took a lot of pictures, but pictures ain’t gonna do no justice. You gotta come see it.” His only grievance came when his friend asked him about his visit to the ESPN Zone: “It sucked, that’s how it was. Seven-fifty for a draft beer.” As we were leaving, Steve quietly paid for the guy’s next beer and told the bartender to tell him we were New Yorkers. Out on the sidewalk we threw back our heads in delight.

I rode the subway home exhausted and euphoric, loving all the tough, tired faces around me. I leaned back against the window and closed my eyes, letting myself be rocked and jostled by the train. Sometime that weekend I’d seen an inspirational graffito on a men’s room wall: THEY CAN BRING DOWN EVERY BUILDING IN THE CITY, it said, BUT THEY CAN NEVER DESTROY NEW YORK.