Manhattan in wartime

A city that never sleeps takes a fitful nap after its nightmare.

By Eric Boehlert

Published September 12, 2001 9:29PM (EDT)

The city that never sleeps took a nap on Wednesday.

With Hudson River bridges and tunnels into the city still closed, along with public and parochial schools, Broadway shows, dozens of downtown streets, hundreds of businesses, the New York Stock Exchange and local airports, New York the day after the ghoulish attack on the World Trade Center seemed to be slightly groggy. Stricken still with images of the tangled, still-smoldering graveyard sitting at the tip of Manhattan, New Yorkers had exchanged their familiar breakneck pace for somnambulism, for once just wandering through city streets with no particular place to go.

A defiant Mayor Rudy Giuliani insisted terrorists had not succeeded in bringing New York City to its knees. And he was right. But Gotham City was clearly staggered today by the unprecedented force of the terrorist hit.

On the streets wherever you went, fragments of dialogue accumulated into only one conversation:

"... You're talking about 24,000 windows."

" ... It just started to buckle."

" ... That's why that plane went down in fucking Pennsylvania."

" ... So if you were on the upper floors you were trapped."

" ... It's just the eeriness."

Below 14th Street, a mountain of smoke hovered in the skyline where the WTC towers used to be and the terrain was particularly desolate. With no cars allowed anywhere near downtown and the shops along SoHo's Prince Street boarded up, the city felt like it often does after a winter blizzard, when pedestrians range freely down the middle of usually busy streets. But today, instead of snowbanks on each corner, there were security checks manned by the NYPD and state troopers.

On Spring Street, the owner of Bistro Les Annis, accepting only a pat on the back, handed out hot lunches to some members of the NYPD. Blocks away, the lunch crowd at Milady's Bar ate burgers and sandwiches in silence with eyes trained on the TVs around the restaurant, TVs usually turned on only for Mets and Yankees games.

Over at Greenwich Village's St. Vincent Hospital, free pizzas arrived by the dozens for exhausted staffers, and two signs -- just posted -- illustrated the outpouring so far from New Yorkers: "No more blood donations of any kind today. Please return tomorrow. No more clothes needed today."

Nearby, guests at the choice SoHo hotel huffed up the street with luggage in tow, and no taxis in sight for 15 or 20 blocks. Along Canal Street a fleet of bulldozers waited for the call to head south to the crash site and begin the arduous task of hauling away tons of debris and loading the wreckage onto river barges.

The funerals, the organized outpouring of grief, have not yet begun, but the urge is there among New Yorkers to publicly express themselves. All day long hundreds of people gathered at Union Square Park off 14th Street, drawn by the appearance there of 10-foot-long pieces of paper and markers laid out on the ground -- an invitation for passersby to share their feelings. Littered with candles and sunflowers purchased at the nearby farmer's market, the impromptu memorial attracted a wide range of opinions.

Calls for strength and unity and even vengeance abound: "Let's Get Them"; "We will not turn the other cheek"; "God Bless America"; "The Arabs and Iranians did it!" "Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord," were among the hundreds of messages scrawled out.

Some people had drawn elaborate illustrations, which lay alongside children's drawings. Notes were written in Chinese, French, Greek and Arabic. "Great embrace from Italy," read one, followed by "I don't know how to end this letter because I am sorry and I am confused. From Switzerland."

Some note writers suggested the bombing was an indictment against America: "This is karma. We can't meddle in world affairs, be the biggest exporter of weapons and not expect to feel the effects." Others thought the event would open American eyes: "Palestinians are dying and nobody cares"; "I am in sympathy with America but this is how the rest of the world feels every day."

One message simply read "Intifada."

Someone opting for hope quoted this famous exchange:

"Peter: Should I forgive my brother after he sinned against me seven times?

Jesus: Forgive him when he sins against you seventy-seven times."

Most writers shared pain: "To the children who lost their parents"; "God bless FDNY. Rest in peace."

And then there was this: "To my darling Cookie; I feel you are somewhere but you have yet to surface. I have prayed up above and I will see you again. Love always, Dann."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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