Strange Days at Glamour



4 Times Square, ny, ny 10036

Neighborhood: Times Square

All the days have been strange since.

Though I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to leave my friend Luke’s apartment, where I spent that Tuesday night, I woke up determined to get to work Wednesday morning. Life needs to go on, I thought. I walked out of Luke’s apartment building. The sidewalks were lonely; instead of the usual morning Manhattan activity, small groups of people occasionally drifted by like tumbleweeds in a desert. The streets were almost entirely still except for a HumVee driving slowly as I walked down the block.

I got to the subway entrance at 8th Avenue and 23rd Street and realized there were police officers on every corner I could see. Then an ambulance whizzed by, frantic sirens blaring; then another and another. I spotted a large group of National Reservists on the opposite sidewalk. I looked up and saw an olive military plane shaped like a dachshund: long with short legs at both ends, moving carefully through the sky. Suspicious of mass transit, I decided to skip the subway and walked to my office in Times Square. I work for a monthly magazine and when I showed up that morning, my boss, the news editor, told me we’d be working on a special feature about the attack. About 75% of my co-workers didn’t make it in that day. None of them had been personally affected by the atrocity, not any more than your average New Yorker or your average American, or your average member of civilization. But I suppose fear and uncertainty and the shock of it held them back. New York was a ghost town inside and out that day.

By the next day, however, people were forcing themselves to recover; everyone was back in the office. Things seemed somewhat normal. Our desks were still our desks and people looked the same and drank coffee the same way and said, “Good morning” like always. Then, a little before noon that Thursday, I heard a graphic designer shout into the phone, “What? A bomb? In this building?” Her voice caused ripples like a stone thrown in a pond; word spread throughout our floor in seconds. Our staff streamed to the elevators. As we rode down, someone next to me said, “We can’t tell ourselves we’re being silly anymore. We’ll never be able to say, ‘That will never happen.’ We will never be able to reassure ourselves of anything ever again.”

By the time we got to the main lobby, a mob of people was rushing out of the building. There were so many at once that there was a log-jam at the door. The news that people in the towers had been told not to evacuate must have been fresh in everyone’s mind. When I got on the street, I noticed there were more people outside than usual: foot traffic along 42nd Street seemed to be triple what it usually is, making the going slow. I paired off with my friend Casey. We made our way to Bryant Square Park. There, she said, “Too many people here. I don’’t feel safe.” Too many people everywhere, I thought; this is New York.

We started to hear other people around us talking on cell phones about evacuations. “Where do you work?” I asked everyone I overheard. None of them worked in our building or in the same buildings as each other. (Later that day, I would learn there had been 90 bomb scares in the Times Square area.) I started talking to the cops on the corner closest to us. “Do you know anything about the bomb scare?” I said.

“You mean at the library?” the taller, younger cop said.

“No, no,” I said. “Oh, that building over there?” he said, pointing.

“No. Wait, can you tell us where we can go to be safe?”

“I’m telling everyone I know to stay out of the city. I’d say get out if you can. Think about it. This city is crawling with people in uniform. None of us knows what is safe and what isn’t.”

Of course no one knows, I thought. The security people at the airport didn’t know what those killers were going to do with box-cutters, and the firefighters didn’t know the buildings would fall and…nobody knows. Casey and I thanked them and walked off, dazed, sleepy, confused, drugged by the surreal situation. We stumbled uptown. She decided to go to her mom’s apartment on 72nd. I went to my friend Jeff’’s place on 57th and Lexington.

Another evacuee from Times Square, our friend Todd, showed up at Jeff’s shortly after I did. The three of us watched television all day; we barely spoke. (“I’m not used to seeing you without a smile,” Jeff told me.) The firefighters and rescue workers hadn’t left “ground zero” since the attack. And yet where the hell were the survivors? (Only five were ever pulled out.)

I started imagining the death and evil they were sifting through, then tried to stop. But what was I supposed to do with my mind? There was no psychological paradigm to fall back on, no established pattern of mourning for the most unexpected and terrifying attack we have ever known. Even on television, everyone – except resolute, wonderful Giuliani – seemed exhausted and debilitated and frightened, from the politicians to the news reporters. No one seemed to know what was happening. Manhattan did not feel safe. At 8:30 that night, I fled.

I got on a ferry to Hoboken, where my sister lives. Feeling like Lot’s wife, I looked back on my city, our city and saw the gray smoke rising up from the bottom and streaming back over the island, which reminded me of an Olympian running with a torch, except it was no symbol of triumph. My eyes on the skyline that had been so irrevocably changed, I did not think I would ever be able to return. I’’ll have to give up my new apartment, my books, clothes, journals and CDs. But it will be worth it to protect myself from death, I thought.

The city looked like war and it felt like war and I was petrified. Who knew when or where they would strike next? If they could destroy the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon without making any demands and with little more than airline tickets, determination and a willingness to die, it seemed they could do anything. And no one even knew who they were. I tossed and turned Thursday night, thinking about the firefighters who still hadn’t had any sleep and were suffering all the more then because of the pouring rain.

I wished I believed in God so I could find relief in prayer. Faith makes death easier to both accept and inflict, I guess. The next day, again, I couldn’t stop watching the coverage in my sister’s living room. I couldn’t stop thinking about the firefighters, their desperate determination to keep looking. I was so proud of them and so sad for them. I couldn’t stop thinking about the relatives of the missing in their strange Purgatory – both unable to give up hope or to start grieving, but sick with pain. Love for the people suffering started to replace my fear. I was angry at myself for being such a coward. As the day wore on, my panic paralysis wore off.

Suddenly, I couldn’t wait to get back to New York. After a quick dinner with my dad, my sister dropped me off at the PATH train in Hoboken. I took it to Manhattan, got out at 23rd Street and headed straight for Chelsea Piers, where a WTC relief center had been set up. Volunteers were getting turned away during the day, but Todd and Jeff had worked there Thursday night after learning that people were needed for the graveyard shift. Around 11 p.m., I met them in front of a Chelsea Piers entrance opposite 19th Street. I followed the guys as they made their way to a volunteer coordinator they knew, Shannon; she got us all busy immediately.

I spent the next six hours doing a variety of jobs: making up part of a human chain that was moving donated food into a warehouse; separating hygiene supplies into boxes; handing out medical supplies to EMT’s, policemen and other rescue workers who were heading down to the site; helping those who had just been relieved from shifts at “ground zero” to get food; delivering excess perishable food to homeless shelters. It felt good to be doing something to help. The atmosphere was almost reassuringly upbeat. But not quite.

I had a terrible head cold and by 5 a.m. Saturday morning, I started banging into things and tripping over myself with exhaustion. Imagine what the firefighters are feeling, I kept telling myself. I sat on the floor and tried to label garbage bags filled with donated clothes. But I could barely move and couldn’t pick up one of the heavy garbage bags to save a life. I realized I wasn’t going to be of much use the rest of the night. I signed out and headed home. I crossed the West Side Highway – the entire thing seemed to be lined with ambulances in more colors than you would think they came in (reds, oranges, yellows, greens) from towns in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and even states like Ohio and Michigan.

On the corner of the highway and 19th, I passed two cops, a man and a woman. I stopped to thank them and ask if I could get them anything: a sandwich, coffee, hot chocolate, anything? We’re fine, they said.

“Can I give you each a hug then?” I said.

“Yeah, I’’ll take a hug!” the woman said. “We have a long night out here.” She had an foreign accent. I hugged her hard. I hugged the guy too, then said good-night and thanked them both.

“See, see?’’ the woman said as I was walking away. “I love Americans. Even after all this, everyone is so nice.” Hearing that, my heart filled up. But as I walked away I thought, of course we are.

There’s so much hope in this country because there is so much possibility. So much predictability. Our nation is rational and peaceful. And it is, more than anything else, fate that I happened to be born here in a New York City hospital to parents that lived in New Jersey. Just as much as it was fate that many Arab people are born into countries where their prospects for the future are much bleaker than mine are. Just as much as it was fate that my mother died young of cancer, that one of my closest friends died last year at his own hands. What Tuesday reminds us is that, despite all of the medical and technological advances we’ve made in recent decades, we still don’t have complete control over life and death. So maybe there is a god. Nothing I’ve read in the time since terrorism has bloodied us all has given me as much comfort as a passage from The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha: “As long as one is completely absorbed in his own grief…there is no way of gaining victory over pain or release from the numbing bitterness of loss. …If, instead, he can identify in feeling with the experience of others who similarly suffer, he will be freed from his own grief by and in a compassionate oneness with all beings.”

I cannot say what the perfect political response to the September 11 attacks should be. I think it is important to support President Bush right now, and I will. But those suicide-mass murders were an outgrowth of suffering. Which makes me think that the only long-lasting peace plan will have to entail easing the pain and discomfort of people in nations everywhere as much as we can.

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