Friday, February 14, 2020

Manhattan Interlude #2: Hard to escape 9/11 no matter how we try

     During the trip below we took the boys to a kiddie show on Broadway called "Fred Garbo's Inflatable Theater," if I remember correctly. Mr. Garbo had a routine where he pretended to walk down a stairway behind a sofa. There was a pratfall and a crash, and my younger boy shouted out, loudly, "Are you okay?!?!" Garbo popped up from behind the couch and waved at us. "Yeah, I'm okay!" he yelled. Hopefully, any theatrics will be on stage at "Hadestown." The other moment of the trip below that comes to mind is walking through the glitz and commotion of Times Square, the older boy's eyes locked on some handheld device. When I urged him to look up and around, he did, for a second, then shrugged and said, "Big deal." Almost needless to say, he lives in Greenwich Village now.

     NEW YORK--Smith's Restaurant is an old place on Seventh Avenue, just west of Times Square. It looked like a bar, but a sign in the window said "BREAKFAST," so my family crossed the street and hurried to get out of the sharp spring wind.
     Once inside, though, we saw that Smith's looked like a bar because it was a bar, the old-fashioned kind with a dining room through a side door. The bartender pointed the way, and we stepped past the line of early-morning drinkers and headed for a table.
     We ate. The kids scampered around while I finished my coffee. When it came time to leave, I caught up with the kids in the bar, where they were pressing buttons on a video poker game. I bent over to zip up the 4-year-old's green, hooded jacket. Suddenly, a man came rushing over. There was a small flurry of confusion that seemed to center around whether I was OK or not. The bartender was there, too, his face a mask of concern.
Then, they both looked down and saw my boy, and we all realized what had happened. From across the bar, the kid was completely hidden. They had seen me doubled over, struggling, thought I was having a heart attack or something, and were springing to help. We all grinned at each other, relieved and embarrassed, and parted after a few hearty handshakes and smiles.
     There's no way to know if this was part of the fallout of Sept. 11, but it seemed that way. The city overall was just less noisy, less brutish, with not even as much horn-honking. I was with my wife and two boys, ages 4 and 6, and they have a tendency to push buttons in elevators at random floors, pause at the top of escalators, join hands, spread out across the sidewalk and then stop, entranced by a penny in the street.
     Nobody pushed by them. Nobody made nasty comments. Passersby smiled, indulgently.
This isn't just my observation, either. Crime is in a free fall in New York. The murder rate, which everyone thought had bottomed out, dropped 40 percent this year, and nobody knows why. But they have a guess.
     "I can think of many reasons why crime should be going up in New York," an academic told USA Today, "and only one why it should be going down: 9/11."
     I made a conscious decision not to visit Ground Zero while we were here. It's not something I can explain easily, just something visceral. They're still pulling bodies out of there. Going seemed macabre.
     As it turned out, I didn't have to go to Ground Zero, anyway, because Ground Zero kept coming to me. It was there on every street corner, where vendors hawked World Trade Center photographs and statuettes and montages of eagles and the towers and that famous photograph of firemen raising the flag. Every souvenir shop sold all sorts of 9/11 mementos such as snow domes and shot glasses, though why you'd want to drink your whiskey out of a Sept. 11 shot glass is beyond me.
     We took the Staten Island ferry to get a closer look at the Statue of Liberty, but before we could see it--talk about symbolism--we got a good long look at the big empty space of Ground Zero, ringed in powerful lights. You couldn't not look. It was a compelling absence, like a tongue probing the empty spot where a tooth had been.
     And then there were my friends. Their fear seemed to be still very fresh. When we visited one and I admired the view of the Empire State Building from her new office, she said she was worried that it would hit her if it fell over. I said that, at 20 blocks away, the distance was twice the length of the building, but that seemed to offer her scant comfort.
     Another friend, a bank executive, works a block from Ground Zero. She sat in her Upper East Side apartment and described how her staff huddled in the basement, frightened and unsure, for five hours. They ripped up T-shirts for masks, to keep the dust away. I fell into my reporter mode and started quizzing her. Later, as we strolled through Central Park, watching our boys climb trees, I told her husband that I hoped I hadn't been grilling her. He said, no, it was good to get things out, that for the first two weeks afterward he had been frustrated because all she would say was that her feet hurt--she had had to walk the 80 blocks home barefoot, holding her high heels in her hand.
     There was something terribly chilling in that complaint. Its ordinariness emphasized the horror, like Snowden, the dying bombardier in Catch-22, complaining that he's cold.
Our last night in New York, we went to a swank wedding at the Rainbow Room, on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center. After dinner and dancing and drinks, I strolled along the big windows, admiring the New York night skyline, feeling the calm and contentment a man in a tux is supposed to feel.
     Then, I saw it. The two memorial beacons set up at Ground Zero, like a pair of accusing fingers, pointing at heaven. I gasped a quick intake of breath.
     I knew it was there. But seeing it was still a surprise. The wedding hoopla seemed to fade away, and I realized that all the people debating about how to memorialize 9/11 are wasting their time. It will come rushing back, no matter what we do, for a very long time.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 29, 2002


  1. Business took me regularly to Manhattan in the 80's and 90's and when I visited again a year after 9/11 I recall walking west along 42nd street to Times Square and glancing at every break in the skyline looking for things that were no longer there: the two bulky towers. It was like the dog that didn't bark in the night. I too declined to visit the site.

    In the aftermath of the incident a friend who lives on the upper east side told me of all of his neighbors who took the subway to their jobs in the financial district and never returned. It brought to mind a spooky little poem by A.A. Milne that begins:

    "James, James, Morison, Morison,
    Weatherby George Dupree
    Took great care of his mother
    Though he was only three.
    James, James, said to his mother
    'Mother' he said, said he
    'You must never go down to the end of the town
    If you don't go down with me.'

    It, of course, didn't end well.


  2. I've had a very strong interest in American history all my life. Minored in it in college and have been reading books about the WWII years (which I just missed) since eighth grade. Many were about what was known as the "home front." I was always amazed at how united the country became after Pearl Harbor and how Americans responded and behaved for the next four years. I told myself, a bit sadly and wistfully, that I'd never know that kind of patriotism and allegiance.

    Well, I was wrong. Never saw so many flags in my life until after 9/11, and so much love for America. I thought we were headed for years of war and sacrifice, just like 1941-45 all over again.

    Well, I was wrong about that, too. The Spirit of 2001 lasted for maybe three months, through the holidays. I remember the prayers over the turkey at Thanksgiving. But by early 2002 we were divided once again, and at each other's throats like a pack of feral dogs.

    It's only gotten worse since...much worse...especially during the last five years. Those few months in late 2001 felt quite remarkable to this old history buff. I don't believe it will ever happen again. Not in my lifetime, anyway. The divide has grown too wide and too deep.

    For the 95% of Americans who are not from the New York area, it's almost like 9/11 was a blip on the radar screen...or didn't happen at all. All those yellow ribbons faded pretty fast.


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