Sunday, September 11, 2011

Mourning in New York

Guest Writer: Will Lewis

I arrived in New York City on September 15th, 2001, en route to a trip in Europe for a conference and meetings. I was supposed to have arrived on September 12th, but obviously that was not possible. On September 16th, I hung out with friends uptown, but went downtown Monday morning, September 17th. Following is my story from that morning…

Mourning in New York

I caught the 6 down to its new terminus, City Hall. C trains weren’t running at all. B trains ended at 34th. The 1 and 9 didn’t make it to South Ferry.

I walked south on Nassau. Barricades and police lined the streets to the east. National guardsmen occupied most corners, adding to the presence of uniforms. It was disconcerting seeing armored vehicles on the street. Humvees and troop carriers. In America. In the middle of New York City.

At Fulton I heard in the distance what sounded like a band playing, but as I continued south, I realized I was hearing canned music. Familiar tunes grew louder, playing from speakers somewhere overhead. The Star Spangled Banner. God Bless America. Grand Old Flag. Other patriotic tunes.

Near Liberty Street the music ended, as if on cue. The acrid smell of smoke filled the air. A woman police officer was handing out masks for passersby. Like those that painters use. I took one, and put it on. Others did too. Some guardsmen and police officers had full gas masks on.

A shopkeeper was cleaning the windows of his business, which were layered in dust. He wore a mask too. There were signs in the windows, obviously advertising his wares, but I couldn’t read them. Perhaps he fights a losing battle.

Some shops had cracked or broken windows. The entrance to one building was blocked by police tape. “Police Line. Do not cross!” Was this a crime scene? Had someone been killed here?

Missing person posters were everywhere. They were taped to phone booths. They lined bus stops. Light posts. Walls in subway stations. Shop windows. Missing: Arnold Lim. Missing: Roger Mark Rosweiler. Missing: Lucy Chafias. Missing: Lars Qualben. Missing: Paula Morales. Is it false hope or grief that motivates these signs? Or maybe they express reluctant farewells? We knew you. We don’t want to forget.

There was a large crowd at that corner of Liberty and Nassau, all looking east. When I got there, and could look, I knew why. There was all that remained of the South Building. Just one small piece of its southern wall. Nothing else was left. Smoke rose to the north, as fires continued to burn. I tried to stop to take a picture, but was brusquely told that stopping was not allowed. I took a picture as I walked.

The markets opened today, the first time since last Tuesday. The NYSE had a large American flag draped above its entrance. American flags also flew from posts outside. Traders, in their blue coats and suits and ties, stood outside side entrances to grab quick smokes. Like any other day, really. Except the tiny trails of smoke from their cigarettes were hardly noticeable amidst the larger clouds. Cigarette smoke would have been a welcome change of smell.

I headed east on Wall Street, following the flow of people who were all channeled by various obstructions, animate or otherwise. Eventually I ended at Trinity Church. A large crowd gathered there, looking northeast. Many were taking pictures. For a time, I couldn’t figure out what they were taking pictures of. Not the church, but something else, something beyond it. It used to be darker at this corner.

American flags abounded. Some people wore them as headwear. Many carried small flags as they walked. Some carried big flags. The rare car, usually police, had flag stickers in the windshields, or flags taped to antennae. Patriotism, long out of favor in this country, was suddenly vogue. Especially here.

I headed north and west again, stopping at a little coffee shop to buy a pastry. The place bustled with business and talk. Many still talked of the week’s events. Most talked of other things. Life in here seemed normal. Almost.

The bull at Exchange and Broad had flags taped to its horns and one in its mouth. A few kids were trying to scale its sides. They screamed and giggled at the virtual impossibility of the task. But still, they tried. A national guard humvee sat in front of the bull. Several guardsmen watched the children play. One smiled. It was a pretty day.