Just another day at ground zero

At the bar closest to the Sept. 11 wreckage, New Yorkers ignore the news on TV as disaster becomes part of the city's new landscape.

Published November 14, 2001 12:45AM (EST)

By 11:30 a.m. Monday morning, the owner of the Dakota Roadhouse, the watering hole closest to ground zero, turned off the sound to his bar's widescreen TV. The music -- Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Steppenwolf -- went back on, despite the protestations of Jim Bell, one of the bar's two customers at the time, a half-hour after bartender Jessica Calhoun opened the place. If Bell, a Californian on his first trip to New York, wanted minute-by-minute updates of what had happened to American Airlines Flight 587, he would have to decipher CNN's closed-captioning as it scrolled up the screen.

The Roadhouse is on Park Place between Church and West Broadway. The chain-link fence set up as a perimeter around what was the World Trade Center is tattooed with hand-lettered signs cheekily touting the bar: "Bin Laden Missed Us; Don't You Too," "Meet Ground Zero Workers And Buy 'Em One," "Wash The Dust Down." In the three weeks since the Roadhouse reopened, it's become a drop-in site for the electricians, metalworkers and emergency personnel who have been all but living in lower Manhattan for the last two months.

Late Monday morning, it was still unclear if New York had a new ground zero -- if the American Airlines flight that turned a residential Queens neighborhood into this month's vision of hell was the result of another terrorist attack or was just a bitterly cruel accident. But at the Roadhouse, where PB&J goes for $3 a pop and the all-beef hot dogs are 2 inches thick, the customers besides Bell -- the New Yorkers -- didn't have a whole lot of interest in the details on screen. As noon rolled around, a group of burly, hard-hatted men strode in, said their hellos to Jessica and Virginia, and sat down for some beer and grease.

And so, two months and a day after Sept. 11, disaster is part of the New York landscape. In the tumult following the World Trade Center attacks, there were a lot of prognosticators claiming that the country's psyche would change forever. Comedy, and especially irony, was defunct. And New Yorkers would decamp en masse if the city faced further attacks.

That all seems like so long ago now. Also Monday, Mayor Giuliani said the city was doing sweeps on the subway system to test for anthrax -- just to be extra careful -- and ridership was at normal levels throughout the day. In the morning, just after 9 a.m., another American Airlines flight became a fuel-gorged missile, and the city flinched but went on its way. Indeed, New York seems poised to adapt to the constant threat of terror in much the way that Jerusalem has reacted to Palestinian attacks or London to IRA bombings: with caution, sure, but also with a psychologically sound resolve to keep on keeping on.

"Our perception of what this place is like back home is so different," Bell said. "It's like, 'Don't go out at night. Don't take the subway.' But it's not like that at all. It seems safer here than anywhere." Jimmy, Frankie, Charlie and Richie -- the quartet of emergency personnel who navigated through the morning's Level 1 security precautions at ground zero to get to the Roadhouse -- agreed.

"In a way, I'm glad this happened in New York," said Charlie, an electrician, referring to the World Trade Center attacks. "I mean, we can bounce back. We're used to going forward, to dealing with things and moving on. Can you imagine if it happened somewhere else? They'd never recover."

As he was speaking, Jimmy was hunched over a set of interconnected iron rings; the trick was to untangle them so one of the rings was freed. He was on his second beer; the next one was on the house. "What'd you say, Charlie?" he asked, still bent over. "You know how to do this?"

Calhoun hovered near the men, refilling beers and slicing limes. She moved to New York from San Diego on Sept. 1. She's a dancer and has been tending bar at the Roadhouse to help pay bills. "My parents are like, 'Well, when are you coming home?' But I'm not leaving. I mean, I'm not even scared being here."

Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer came on TV. As I strained to read what Fleischer was saying, a young man walked in. He was wearing a wool Yankees cap pulled down over his brow and was toting an L.L. Bean backpack. He said his name was Oren ("no last name, please") and was visiting from Israel. He said his family was fine: "It's no problem there. It's not bad."

And then, without removing his eyes from the split screen of Fleischer and the burning rubble, he said, "I hope it was the terrorists." For a moment I thought I had misunderstood him. "Then we go in and really get the fucking Arabs. Then we can go in and take care of it all."

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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