New York With A Vengeance

The Seattle Times
September 11, 2002
By Alex Tizon

NEW YORK CITY — Starting before dawn, this city will have begun prepping for a ceremony to honor the 2,801 people known killed here in a spectacular act of barbarism one year ago today. Speeches will be made, and every name of the vanished read aloud from the bowels of Ground Zero. The reading will last, no matter the sorrow, longer than the average attention span.

We were here a year ago, at the foot of Manhattan, at the edge of the Pit, as human beings were still being unearthed a jawbone, a leg, a torso at a time. We’ve returned one year later to find a city changed at the core but rambunctiously recovered on the surface. It is more New York than ever. It is New York with a vengeance.

Here is a short sketch of what we found, as close as we can get to a report on the state of the city. Call it a Portrait in Three Acts: the Good, the Bad, and the Late for Work. Because it is what jumps out first, we begin with the Bad.

Act One: The Bad

“See that sun? It’s 93 million miles away. Watch Discovery Channel, learn something. Someday the planet will crash into it, and there will never, ever be another anniversary again. Ever.”

The gentleman speaking is a cop from Brooklyn who pronounces it “EH-vuh.” He is balding, broad in the middle, with a face that looks freshly punched in. He calmly advises that if we as much as identify his initials, he would break our neck “like a pencil” and no one would ever find the killer. “Laugh, but I ain’t kidding,” he says.

Where is the love? Where is the spirit of fraternity that swept over the city and nation a year ago? The cop whispers something to his partner, the partner chuckles, then our cop tells us to do something to ourselves that, as far as we know, is an anatomical impossibility.

He and his fellow officers have a tough detail: keeping order at Ground Zero as the city prepares for the mother of all anniversaries. The ashen tomb of thousands, rendered sacred in their names, is now encircled by a human carnival.

St. Paul’s Chapel, whose gates have become a living memorial of sympathies — dolls, quilts, flowers — is surrounded by hucksters and street vendors two and three deep, jostling for the attention of passers-by.

At Broadway and Vesey, two vendors come nearly to blows for the choice corner spot. One is a white guy, Ron Poplaski, from Brooklyn; the other a brown guy, originally from Bangladesh, named Kazi Ashadullah. Poplaski set up a table to sell “United We Stand” memorabilia. Ashadullah wants to set up his honey-roasted-peanut stand, called Nuts 4 Nuts, closer to the intersection, but Poplaski won’t let him. Poplaski stalks over to Ashadullah and flips over his peanut table, sending it tumbling into the air.

“What’s the matter with you? Don’t you understand English? You’re blocking traffic!” Poplaski yells, veins popping on his neck. Ashadullah glares at him and retreats. Ashadullah is not a big man. Ten minutes later, he returns with a fellow Bangladeshi who would qualify as big. Bigger at least than Poplaski.

The Nuts 4 Nuts stand goes up. Poplaski shuts up, and the two vendors spend the rest of the day exchanging glares, their tables inches apart.

Perhaps the only group more aggressively cloying than the vendors are the news reporters who have come from all over the world, with their questions of “How do you feel?” and “What is the deepest pain in your life?”

Television satellite trucks line the West Side Highway. Media tents cover rooftops along Ground Zero’s periphery. Reporters swarm in search of sound bites. Walking around the block at St. Paul’s, we are approached three times by reporters, one from Japan, one from upstate New York, one from CNN. The sound bites are sometimes difficult to catch, as noise reaches a deafening pitch. The rumble of construction wrestles with Bruce Springsteen crooning to the dead and dying to “rise up, rise up!” only to be drowned by the incessant honking.

Cabdrivers all over the city suppressed their impulses for a few months after September 11, but, alas, as often happens with suppression, the impulse breaks through with more daemonic force than ever.

Act Two: The Good

If you can get past the din of the marketplace, you can spy moments of real sorrow, of genuine tenderness. Not the kind teased out by trained interviewers, but the kind you want to hide because the face contorts in a way that’s embarrassing. As with any wound, the pain is most acute at the site of the gouge, and there are people who come to Ground Zero feeling the loss of a year ago as if it were yesterday.

New York police Officer Anita Golden, on her day off, takes her mother to Ground Zero for the very first time.

“She wanted to see it, but I wouldn’t take her,” says Golden, a shapely, black-haired, black-eyed veteran who works undercover Narcotics. “She would’ve broken down. Like now.”

Her mother, Nilda Colon-Latorre, 56, a small, slightly graying woman with a Latino accent, is quietly weeping at the foot of St. Paul’s Chapel. The chapel gates carry so much sorrow, so much human goodness seeking a way to console. The most poignant messages come from children, scrawled with crayon or fat pencils:

“I feel so sad.”

“I will always love you Daddy.”

“God bless the ded.”

Royce Horton, a strapping, blue-jeaned firefighter from Lawrenceville, Ga., rides into the scene with a hundred other bikers, drowning out the din with a roar. All heads at Broadway and Vesey, for a full minute, follow the bikers as they round the corner like a malevolent river. They came from Atlanta to pay tribute. Horton, with a bouquet of flowers in his hand, later sits by a fence and weeps like a child.

For the past year, tears have been shed and all forms of consolation given. One study by a group called McKinsey & Co. estimated total monetary donations for September 11 causes at $2.7 billion and counting.

Huge amounts came from thick-walleted donors like Bill and Melinda Gates, who gave $10 million just like that. But much of it has come from ordinary people, a sizable number of them New Yorkers, who scraped together bake-sale funds and jar change.

It’s expected that at 8:46 this morning, the exact time that the first jetliner sliced into the north face of the north tower, the city will observe a moment of silence, and it will be, for millions of people here, a true solemn quiet.

Act Three: The Late for Work

Afterward, most of New York City will simply go back to work. It is the middle of the week.  Students need teaching, streets need sweeping, patients need tending, bank accounts need balancing. Even the singing Naked Cowboy in Times Square has rent to pay.

More than anything else visible to an outsider returning after a year, this is the most salient: The city has gone back to turning the crank that makes the machine move.

People, late for work, don’t want to stop and talk about September 11 anymore. Suits travel downtown in a blur; students race uptown in a flash. Everybody has an appointment to catch. The streets crawl with people on cell phones, but unlike those first days after the terrorist attacks, everyone is talking about something different.

“Not right now, I can’t speak to you,” says Lu Rodriguez, 25, a doorman at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. He was too busy, though not a single soul was walking through his doors.

Perhaps more than in any other spot in the city, the work-a-day reality has settled upon Ground Zero itself. Sometime in May, the official effort to recover human remains was halted, and Ground Zero became, for all purposes, another construction site.

Today, the 16-acre pit is almost all cleaned out. It plunges eight stories below street level. The site is cordoned off by a green see-through fabric over a chain-link fence. People have torn holes through the fabric to get a clearer view, but there’s really nothing much to see now except a few cranes, and men and women running around in orange vests.

One of those men, Joe Raffa, 52, is taking a lunch break. He sits on a flatbed truck that he uses to move steel. Raffa wears a hardhat plastered with stickers. Next to one that reads “WTC Ground Zero Relief” is another that says “No Douche Bags Allowed.” Hardhats like Raffa cleared 1.8 million tons of debris in a round-the-clock effort over eight months.

In November, between what used to be Buildings 4 and 5, in the Plaza area, Raffa says he moved a steel beam and found the body of a shirtless, middle-aged man with a hole in his back. It was a moment of intense emotion. But that was 10 months ago, and a lot of earth has been removed since then, and with it, some sensitivity to the gruesome.

“I imagine I’ll remember it for as long as I live,” Raffa says. His voice scrapes like gravel on pavement. “But you can’t shut down. You can’t let it stop you. You gotta do your job. This is my job.”

New York City has gone back to work. It has gone back to being New York City, with a skyline not as imposing but still grand and still evoking awe, still drawing the dreamy-eyed, the wandering. Its bustle is back, almost defiantly so, as if to tell the forces that would cripple it: Up yours! So it goes in the City of cities.