I’m unthinkably lucky that the worst of the attack has not affected me firsthand so far. By mid-afternoon Tuesday, I’d spoken to my mother, father and brother. My sister-in-law was out of town on a train to D.C. She was okay too, though Barney spent a long time waiting to hear from her.
Nobody’s phone was working right. Cell phones pretty much stopped. I called my boss’s house in Manhattan and his wife’s friend told me they couldn’t dial out—could I call her husband in Long Island and let him know she was okay? My friend Jen was somewhere nearby in Brooklyn, campaigning at a polling station (remember the primary?), but her cell phone wasn’t ringing. The creepiest thing was that, as the catastrophe grew and everyone got on the phone, my line kept working, but there was a pause before I got a dial tone. I’d pick up the phone and an eerie silence preceded the familiar click and hum.
Jen and then my friend Kelly ended up at my place. We went over to the Marriott, where we heard they were taking blood donations. The lobby was packed and they were asking people to come back tomorrow. We walked back down the hill to Long Island Community Hospital, two blocks from my apartment. Jen and Kelly get the credit for all this—I know I wouldn’t have taken up the task of helping with my time if they hadn’t been there with the instincts to do it. What’s funny is they later said that they’d each thought the other was the one who’d pushed us to go offer help.
There was not a lot to do at the volunteer center at LICH. The rescue effort downtown was at a standstill because of a gas leak, so the hospital wasn’t seeing any incoming victims. Kelly got her car and tried to drive one released patient home, but there was no way to drive to the Bronx at 4 p.m. on Tuesday.
We’d arrived to sign in right when the people taking names were nearing a break, and Jen and I sat down and relieved them. Sitting behind the table, we suddenly became the authorities on something. New people kept showing up and offering to help. We asked them the three or four questions we’d been told to ask, but I think the main thing we were offering was relief from feeling powerless. I know that’s what that three hours did for me. Six hundred people showed up at LICH that afternoon to offer help.
The weather for the last three days has been incongruously lovely. The kind of days you spend in a late-summer vacation, sitting on a beach marveling at your luck at “getting one last good week.” Except for the fading column of thick smoke, the sky was cloudless and perfect Tuesday. We walked under a tree and a piece of 8 1/2 x 11 paper fluttered into my hands. It was twice-xeroxed spreadsheet from 1999 detailing business at some jewelry company. It was streaked with gray smudges on both sides, random scrawl-like charcoal marks. I rolled it up and put it in my pocket.
From my safe distance, I feel the attack hardest as an attack on New York’s integrity, on my life not as a biological event, but as a collection of images, routines and expectations taken blithely and utterly for granted for the previous 34 years. Pick up the phone, there will be a dial tone. Look downtown, you’ll see the skyline the way it was yesterday, and every day since they built the Twin Towers, which I called the “World Train Center” when they first went up. I was five. The skyline is as basic to who we are here as the accents, the team logos, the yellow paint on the traffic lights, the order of the avenues we learn like the list of English vowels, “Madison, Park, Lexington … Broadway, Amsterdam, Columbus. …”
Riders on the subway in Manhattan Wednesday night were subdued. I’ve found myself imagining life in Sarajevo or Dublin or Jerusalem, anywhere where the possibility of a random, deadly attack has been part of daily existence. The most crass way to describe it is that I felt for the first time ever that I was in a city of sad, vulnerable people—losers. I know that sounds childish, but that’s what it felt like. A subtler, far scarier version of the pervasive disappointment in the crowd on the subway after a big playoff loss at the Garden or Yankee Stadium. I found myself thinking about the gloom and resignation on the faces of refugees in news photos—that hollow fatigue that I’d always attributed to shell shock or the recent loss of a loved one. Maybe it’s the face you wear when your basic sense of safety is gone.