Love Letter to the City That Stood
In the aftermath of 9/11, another attack on New York seemed inevitable. Instead, the city defied the odds—and thrived.
Even now, in this night/Among the ruins of the Post-Vergilian City/Where our past is a chaos of graves/and the barbed-wire stretches ahead/Into our future till it is lost to sight,/Our grief is not Greek: As we bury our dead/We know without knowing there is reason for what we bear,/That our hurt is not a desertion, that we are to pity/Neither ourselves nor our city...- W. H. Auden, Memorial for the City, June 1949
In sleep, I dreamt of sirens, shrill and sanguineous. They roused me just before nine. It was light outside, clear and warm, another new September. Senior year had just begun. Summer sand still peppered our shoes, and we sensed a great change hovering on the horizon: the end of college, a rite of passage, free-falling fast into our adult lives.
But this morning, those sirens were still wailing. To escape the noise, I padded to the kitchen to brew a cup of tea and take in the dormitory view. The windows looked south, over an endless sea of skyscrapers roasting in the sun. Oh teeming city, oh ordinary morning, oh canvas of bright blue sky. Then, towards the tip of lower Manhattan, there it was: a pillar of thick black smoke.
It shimmered violently with threads of glass and dust.
My classmates wandered down the hall and told me the news. The radio was saying some poor pilot had lost control of his plane. How sad, we said. How odd. What a terrible accident.
Then, a few minutes later, the second plane crashed and suddenly, everybody was up. Everybody was crowding into the common room. Turning on the TV. Listening to the daytime anchors. We waited for them to tell us what was going on. But they couldn’t. They didn’t know anything more than we did—which was that the accidents were clearly intentional, so the city must be under attack. That the nation must be under attack.
I think we expected someone to soothe us as they delivered the news. To assure us that everything (our city, our college, our blithe little lives) was going to be all right. But even the adults didn’t know what to do. We watched the broadcasts for hours. No one spoke. The questions were too unspeakable to wonder out loud.
By noontime, with two more planes in ruins, the Pentagon on fire, cell service down, and the FAA grounding all flights, I walked over to the student hall to see if the pay phones still worked. Inside, a great sea of students clustered around the television. The crowd was silent, save for one fellow who had been monopolizing the phones. A long line of hopefuls stretched behind him. He was talking—well, shrieking—to his parents in a high voice, recounting the live CNN updates and gasping about the thickness of the smoke and the debris as if he were perched on a firetruck right on the edge of the madness. His hysteria was so breathless, it seemed almost euphoric.
Only later did it occur to me that he, like the rest of us, was in a state of profound and dedolent shock.
I drifted down to Riverside Park. In the 91st Street gardens, late-summer gillyflowers and dark cyclamen bloomed. The buds gave off a musky, fecund scent. Strangers walked by, averting their eyes. I looked across the Hudson to the horizon, where metallic hordes of helicopters normally swarmed the sky. The air was bright, and empty. Except, every so often, when a fighter jet screamed overhead, heading towards the carnage where the husks of the towers smoldered like pyres in some terrible, miaiphonos sacrifice.
A few evenings after the attack, a group of professors and distinguished academics held a “teach-in” at St. John’s the Divine. I tagged along with a friend who knew one of the big shots. We packed into the venue behind a herd of rowdy grad students. Several copies of Foucault floated around.
Already the events of 9/11 had started to spiral into retributions and follies. The military was primed to invade Afghanistan. The city’s Muslims and Sikhs were being shamefully targeted by their neighbors. That same night, President Bush had declared to Congress that you were either with us or the terrorists.
The rally’s speakers focused on the cretin in the White House and decades of U.S. foreign policy, all those oceanic swells of history that preceded the attack and would soon ripple outward from it. They talked about the fall of the two towers in terms of a political metaphor, an existential myth.
The audience cheered for each new speaker as if at a campaign event. We did not speak the names of the dead.
Those walking shadows. Those poor players.
I developed a headache halfway through the speeches and spent the rest of the evening sitting alone on the campus’s smooth steps, watching twilight pall over the great library. Around its crown, names of long-dead thinkers were etched in stone. Once living, loving, desperate, bawdy, beautiful flesh and humans—maybe they were just metaphors, now, too.
Fall wore on. Friends and family from the West Coast checked in, but it was impossible to talk at length to anyone on the outside. Manhattan felt quarantined and the mainland was very far away. Fallen angels still lurked about. Meanwhile, the city began to move from raw grief into a frantic, grim, Rabelaisian mode. Eat, drink, be merry (and don’t complete that sentence). We stayed up even later into the evenings as winter finals loomed. There were sudden break-ups, sudden affairs. There were blood drives, fundraisers for downtown businesses, clean-up committees to cart away the layers of sickening ash. The libraries were empty. It was hard to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes at a time.
Our city ached. A city not on a hill, but on the ground, in the dust, blood in its mouth, refusing to beg.
In November, another plane crashed into a block of residential houses in the Rockaways shortly after takeoff. The cause was straightforward mechanical error. Yet in the hour or so before we knew what had gone wrong aboard the flight, a collective tension settled over the city. We were all thinking the same thing: here it goes again. We had all been waiting for it. Maybe we all still are.
Dimly, dustily, we began to anticipate the next attack.
In August 2003, the city experienced its biggest blackout in decades. It was past lunchtime in Union Square when it happened. Within minutes a great flood of people started to sweep silently south along Broadway. Across the street at the Coffee Shop, the waitresses fumbled about in the dark. All the clocks stopped ticking.
It seemed obvious that terrorists had cut the power lines, but there was nothing to do except join the crowds flowing downtown. In Little Italy, a loaf of stale bread and a Calabrese salami were going for $25. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge as it undulated ominously under thousands of syncopated footfalls. On the other side of the river, Marty Markowitz was handing out free water and hustling for votes. Later, we learned it was no attack, and so spent the evening wandering around the neighborhood, where restaurants had jubilantly thrown open their doors to hawk warm beers on the sidewalk. Neighbors clustered on brownstone stoops in the thick humid dark. The lights came back on the next morning.
A year later, around Halloween 2004, I took the A train up to an area that the real estate agents like to call Hudson Heights, at the very northern tip of Manhattan, for a party thrown by some actor-waiter types. As the crowd disembarked, a strange siren started to sound in the station. My fellow passengers fidgeted and glanced furtively around. A few charged ahead towards the exits. A father and his kid pressed against each other. “What's that noise, Daddy?” the child asked. His dad did not answer, so the question just floated in the air. When we reached the street level, the day outside was tawny and innocent. I scanned the paper for word of a foiled plot near 188th street, but never found it. I never heard those sirens in the subway again.
The following July, we got word that homemade bombs had ripped through the London Underground and it seemed inevitable that the MTA would be next.
Can we count the number of times we saw helicopters start to circle, or the trains disrupted, and we figured our borrowed days were up?
A friend, who watched the towers burn from Brooklyn and whose roommates stumbled home with tales of humans jumping from great heights and a sky obliterated with concrete dust, told me this story: One day in the summer of 2007, at work in Midtown, she noticed a great cloud rising outside her window. She did not speak to her cubicle mates, nor they to her; yet they all stood up—quietly, simultaneously—and filed down the staircase and out of the building. On the street, it was mass pandemonium. People were dashing away from Grand Central, while a huge wall of vapor and debris blotted out the sun. She ran all the way to Times Square before stopping to call her mother to ask whether the attack had made national news yet. Her mother urged her daughter to get on the subway and flee. My friend became angry. What sort of person would go down into the 42nd Street station during a terrorist attack? Only a non-New Yorker, that’s who. Later, it turned out to be just (“just”) a steam-pipe explosion.
The city seemed to constantly shimmer on the edge of obliteration. Most of us accepted that one day—any day—the roulette wheel might turn and our number, New York’s number, would be up. And when that happened, it would no longer matter whether our lives belonged to fate or to blind, abject luck—like the fearful luck that stalled one commuter just a second longer on that sun-drenched September morning yet delivered another into the belly of the towers right on time.
I became obsessed with that passage in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot where the man faces the firing squad and knows his hour has arrived. And also other strange questions: Should one be in the middle of the subway train or at the back in order to survive if an abandoned duffel bag detonated on the Q? Would one get vaporized if the bomb was in the next car over? What were the stations most likely to get targeted (Times Square) and how quickly could you move through them during the commuter rush?
Every time a loved one flew on a plane, I was convinced it would end badly. If I happened to fly and my flight was changed, I would wonder: Was I the lucky one, getting on a new, lucky flight, or was this it, the end, fini, the final doom?
This went on for years—10 at least, maybe more.
The media would occasionally publish near-misses by lone wolves, extremist crazies, and various others who had the city in their sights. The duo caught videotaping the 7 train for Iran. The trio who concocted bombs for their backpacks to incinerate the 2/3 line. The guy who packed gunpowder inside his car and drove it into the theater district. The truck driver who helped research how to cut the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge. The plan to bomb the train tunnels and flood the Financial District. Or to light up the fuel lines at JFK. Or blow up the subway. Or the Stock Exchange plot.
My family could not understand why I stayed in New York.
But how can you abandon your city, that great wounded creature, a deer in the woods of death, oh hart of my heart, until it has healed? That’s a blood betrayal.
And yet—time passed and passed again and— The Ground Zero memorials gradually became more muted. The “unmentionable odour of death” no longer offended our September nights. A new gleaming tower rose to even greater heights. In the fall of 2012, a hurricane engulfed the city at full moontide and drove brackish seawater deep into Wall Street—saltstorm burbling up from the subway stations like Styx overflowing—and buried the Rockaways under piles of sand. But still, the city stood.
For 20 years, we held vigil, as each anniversary of Sept. 11 passed without another major man-made catastrophe. New York kept churning, shaping our days and our destinies. For 20 years, the city—it stood.
The Brooklyn Bridge stood, spanning the harbor whose waters stretched out green and wide to the sea. The bustling avenues of Harlem stood, alive with music and song. The cafes of the Village still spilled over with lovers, the majestic museums overflowed with art and pilgrims, shoppers thronged the vast markets of Flushing and Jackson Heights. Brooklyn’s industrial shoreline, the sealight boardwalks along Coney Island, the rocky cliffs of the Bronx—they stood. The statues in the Met, which have seen ages and empires collapse, they stood and stand still. The broad elms still carpeted the city in golden leaves each fall. Magnolias burst into bloom on Park Avenue in spring, the fireflies winked in Madison Square Park in the dusky heat of the solstice, and autumn monarchs winged through the gardens every blue September. The skateboarders in Union Square, the singers on Broadway, the crowds in the East Village at 3 am, the taxicabs and the moguls, mockingbirds and glass towers, all thrived. The dancing clock in the zoo kept chiming the hours. Falcons still swooped above the bridges. The fountains in Washington Square gushed with abandon. The avenues pulsed and the trains rumbled, citizens from every corner of the earth still found this city and fell in love with it, their own personal dreamtown.
The immense green splendour of Central Park, it stood. The two great rivers, they flowed. The Statue of Liberty, she beckoned. These things, they stood fast and firm in the shadow of death and pass from the earth, they did not.
In September 2009, on a day so very different than that bright, horrible one, cold winds whipped across the Hudson as Joe Biden—then vice president Biden, and in town for the annual 9/11 tribute—quoted from the poet Mary Oliver: “Meanwhile, life goes on.”
Gone, now, are the parachutes stashed under our desks. Gone are the mental escape routes through the bowels of the MTA. The Times called these things “cobwebbed memories that never came to pass.”
Gone is the gaping wound south of Tribeca.
The friend who watched the towers fall from Brooklyn moved away a decade ago. On a recent Sept. 11, none of her neighbors out west remembered the date as anything out of the ordinary. For years, it was there, at the forefront of the national psyche—all those firefighters and EMTs, the heroes on the stairwells, the bravery of the Flight 93 resisters, the 3,051 orphans, the Pentagon burning, the miracle of the churchyard whose Revolutionary graves survived death raining perversely from the sky. New York’s unhealable wound. And then, suddenly, it was covered by the rosy sheen of scar tissue, fusing into something imperfect and new. New people moved into the city, who had no firsthand memory of 9/11. Others left forever, for it was time.
The memorial spotlights still search the darkened skies every year, but they almost paused last year when the coronavirus hit, with its death toll so many times greater than 9/11, with its own sirens and dank fear, its own pale morgues, its own invisible threats on planes. Our city has withstood this, too—though, in truth, too many New Yorkers did not see the other side of it, just as too many never saw the dawn on Sept. 12, those 20 long years ago. This is a new wound, then, for a new generation.
Did I tell you that I was born on the cusp of a day of disaster? My brother, the breach twin, almost tipped us over into the dies irae—we were saved by Cesarean just before midnight chimed one stark and snowy December. Birthed before the “date which will live in infamy”—a date on which, FDR assured our forefathers, “always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.” Tell me, how many boys died that day, sunk to their depths beneath the Pacific brine? Who is it that can tell me the numbers and names of the fallen? On Oahu the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row… and yet we have forgotten their names and numbers, as anonymous and numerous as the stalks of seagrass on Hawaiian beaches, the tufted lawn of St. Paul’s Chapel, the green stalks of Flanders field, all the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
But New Yorkers can still tell you. New Yorkers remember. There was before 9/11, and then there was after it. Just as, now, there will be before COVID-19 and then there will be after it. We have lived through desperate times, you and I. We have survived them. But they shall be seared into our brains beyond the end of things.