Wanderings



Once I returned to work in the days after the attack, I would take long walks on my lunch hours, trying to make some sense of the landscape, which seemed so terribly altered. In the morning, on the way to the subway, I would usually stop in the supermarket and buy several candles to place at the various shrines and firehouses I might encounter. I also carried a notebook, and later a camera, sometimes a dust mask (though I would seldom use it). I had an uneasy relationship with the camera at first; I was torn between wanting to experience/feel/grieve and feeling a need to record what I encountered, two quite different roles. Using a camera objectified what I was seeing, and to some degree emotionally separated me from it, and that seemed ultimately more painful than feeling. A few days after the attack, I stood on Sixth Avenue, looking south at the enormous, white cloud of smoke that hung over Lower Manhattan. I raised my camera, preparing to photograph it, but I just couldn’t do it. I became less squeamish in the coming days, not that there was anything too horrific to photograph (other than on my trip to Ground Zero), though there were a lot of heartbreaking but beautiful memorials, and the “missing” posters. The first one appeared a day or two after the attack, a trickle became a flurry, and within a week it seemed like every public surface—telephone poles, lampposts, kiosks, bus-stop shelters, fences, subway-station walls—was papered with the faces and names of the missing (probably, all told, posters for nearly a thousand different people), as well as tower and floor numbers, age, and phone number of relatives, as well as, often, a personal plea from loved ones. I often felt compelled to stop and look at each face; after a while, the mind in its mercy would disconnect with its somatic center; my eyes would move on through the faces like a slide show. Then I’d be stopped in my tracks by the likes of a poster I first saw in Washington Square. “Missing, lovely twins, age 28,” the text read, but there were no matching photos, only two crayon-scrawled silver monoliths.

Here I include accounts of some of my wanderings and other activities during this period, taken nearly verbatim from journal entries of the time.


September 14—Back to work—We had a companywide meeting in the morning, a lot of talk about the tragedy and relief efforts (I mentioned the relief station in Union Square that drives donated supplies down to Ground Zero. They also brought in a grief counselor who was to meet with us in groups.

I went out on my lunch hour in the rain, down to the farmer’s market, where I picked up snapdragons and brought them over to the firehouse on 14th and 1st, whwere I told a fireman how sorry I was for their loss (actually, it’s all our loss), yet grateful for the terrific job they had done (and indeed, are still doing).

The grief counseling was good; maybe 15 of us talked about what we had seen and were feeling and experiencing. (Along with telling what I had witnessed on September 11, I mentioned how important the little, mundane things could be. Amid all the concerned and condolence-type calls and e-mails I had received, I had gotten a call from a colleague in desperate need for us to print him some envelopes and stationery, who wanted to get down to business. An actual task, something to help get back into the routine of work, something that didn’t have anything to do with the attack or its repercussions.) After work I felt a bit burnt out, so I came home, searched in vain for comets on the SOHO website, watched a bit of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

September 16--Went into Manhattan, stopped by Washington Square Park. Brilliant sun, blue sky, the only cloud the white haze to the south where the World Trade Center used to be. I went to a poetry reading at the Cornelia Street Café; Angelo Verga decided that the show must go on; there were three excellent (if shellshocked) poets. After the reading, I saw that Chelsea Piers, where I’d spent numerous hours ice skating, was taking donations of flashlights and a few other items. I had brought along a tarp that had sheltered me on several trips to the wilderness; I figured Ground Zero would be a fitting place for it to end up. I wasn’t sure if they’d take it, but I decided to give it a try, and I walked over. It turned out that Chelsea Piers was Rescue Central, a staging area in case anyone was found alive. There was a line of about 20 ambulances, facing south, in the hope against hope that they would be needed. There were numerous EMTs, firefighters, and policemen gathered around. The actual Chelsea Piers building was closing, but I stopped into the mini-storage across the street which had been commandeered to dispense food and drink to the rescue personnel. I told them I had a few hours to spare if they needed help, but they already had plenty of people to lend a hand. I left, with an orange and a smile. As I walked back through the darkened streets of Chelsea, I noticed it was a clear night, and several stars were visible. Vega hung nearly overhead, Arcturus was setting over the meat-packing district, and Mars glared in the denuded sky above the wrack.

September 19--Another impossibly sad day here in New York, Fortress America. I’ve become one of them flag-waving liberals you’ve heard tell of.

During my lunch hour, I continued my vision quest into post-apocalyptic NYC, walking down through Greenwich Village. I stopped at a firehouse just below Washington Square—I must have walked that block a hundred times, and never realized it was there. (All of New York is sort of acting as shaman to the firemen, policemen, EMTs—just taking a little of their pain on ourselves. Well, maybe not all of New York.) I lit a candle and talked to one of the firefighters. He said that one of the reasons casualties were so high is that they were between shifts; the crews getting off duty weren’t going to go home with the WTC on fire, so both crews went. The Houston Street, Great Jones (where I was yesterday), and Park Slope companies were all hard-hit, each losing about 10 men if not more. As I talked to the firemen, a huge flatbed truck turned onto our street, nearly sideswiping something. It was hauling a sequoia of a girder assembly thing, that had been part of the WTC. The driver saluted the firemen as he passed, and they waved back. The man I was talking to told me that it was just a drop in the bucket in terms of the devastation that was down there. Sooner or later I’ll have to make a trip to Ground Zero, but not this week, and not alone.

I wandered west on Houston, up through Loisaida and Tompkins Square Park, feeling particularly shattered and scared. (What next? Is this just the first wave? It was reported that the terrorists had, or have, something planned for September 22—fortunately I’ll be in Westport that day—not a moment too soon. Although as a New Yorker I’m glad I’ve been here in our time of crisis, it’s been overwhelming, heartbreaking, and I’m sure the break will do me good.

I finished a letter to the Dalai Lama today and sent it. Actually, it was at least as much to me as to him, in an effort to sort out my thoughts and feelings. Where I am in all of this. The more I see, and experience, the vaster, more overwhelming it all seems.

The Mets are on a mission—they’re trying to pull off making the playoffs (and winning the National League East), seeking to meet the Yankees in yet another Subway Series and show the world that New York isn’t down for keeps.


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tonyhoffman@earthlink.net