I moved to New York from New Orleans about five years ago to become a journalist. These days I write for a legal magazine based in Manhattan. My office is near 29th Street about 40 blocks north from the Trade Center's locale near the southern tip of the island. I'm not sure why I thought getting to my office that morning was such a big deal, since there wasn't much a bunch of legal reporters were going to do. But you probably don't become a journalist of any kind unless you're the type that runs toward a disaster instead of away from it.
I trotted in the direction of Central Park from my Upper East Side apartment and snagged a cab without too much fuss. The radio was already thick with talk of terrorists. I asked my cabby, who was Arabian, what he thought was going on. He shook his head lightly. "I think it's not good," he said. But outside the scene was surreally tranquil. Traffic was light. Women with strollers walked by chatting. The day was sunny and cool with the first touch of fall. But looking down the long corridor of Fifth Avenue, black smoke was already filling the blue.
I hopped out on 30th Street but instead of turning east toward my office, as I should have, I impulsively headed south and west toward the Trade Center. I can't remember exactly where I was when the first tower went. You couldn't hear it so much as feel it, like when the wind shifts before a hurricane. Overhead the sky darkened and the first real tinge of panic was in the air. Soon the small stream of people heading north became a torrent, many now sticky with ash. I was at 14th Street when the second tower went. Someone passing with a radio shouted they had hit the Pentagon and that a fourth plane was out there circling. I tried the office on my cell. Circuits were jammed. Pay phone? No dice. Subways? Not running. I noticed all the cabs had cleared out. The infrastructure of the city, it seemed, had vanished as quickly as the towers themselves. Over my shoulder the Empire State Building suddenly loomed large and menacing. I knew it was time to get off the street.
In the nights since the attack, the streets empty and the bars fill as people huddle close around televisions to get the latest news. In the morning, I wave to the National Guard troops on my way to work. On the way home, I stop to examine the hundreds of photos of the missing, their faces smiling down from phone booths, light poles, trees, and parking meters. "Last seen on the 85th floor of the WTC. Mother to three lovely girls. We miss her very much! If you see her please call ..." At the Armory on 26th Street and Lexington Avenue, they line up by the hundreds every day, searching for information on lost wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, friends and lovers, cousins and neighbors. They wait all day for answers that no one has to give them. They know it, but they wait anyway. Everyone wants to do something, but there is nothing for us to do. We're waiting for a call to get down to the site and get to work. But that call will probably never come. They don't want anyone else getting killed down there in the still smoldering wreckage. When the wind shifts to the south all of Manhattan is covered in smoky pallthat smells like things you don't want to think about. On the empty avenues couples stroll hand in hand wearing matching surgical masks.
Worst of all is the quiet. Anyone who has spent 10 minutes in New York knows it's usually the loudest place on earth. But for days the volume's been turned so low I feel like I'm living back home in the Warehouse District. It's quiet inside, too. Everyone talks low. Everyone is polite to each other. Polite! Gentle, even. A guy knocked into me at the bus stop and caught me with two hands as if I were a china doll he might drop. Your friends don't smile much or look you in the eye for long. Yesterday I passed a gaggle of tourists who were laughing and snapping pictures until they realized everyone had stopped and was staring at them. They caught the message like a virus. Respect the dead: New York is in mourning.
One of my old New Orleans friends up here raised the question we'd both had in the back of our minds since the attack: did we want to leave New York? My instinct is to shout, "No." But an honest answer is, "I'm not sure." I love it here, but New Orleans is my home. I've always thought I'd move back sometime. But I don't want to be chased out. Still, disaster came to New York this time in a jet liner. Next time it could be in a suitcase or a test tube. Is it really possible to defend this giant, open, international city? Up here, that's a question no one can face yet. We're just trying just to get back to normal, if that place even exists anymore.
There are signs. Coming to work today traffic thickened. Someone cut someone off and gave them the gesture. Pedestrians crossed against the light. A cab tried to turn from the middle lane, snarling the intersection. And then it began: a great grand chorus of honking. The silence broke and I swear I felt like crying.