Day 48. New York City: bewilderment

by Kevin May

After sorting myself out in preparation for my holiday, I went out for a walk around Hoboken.

Some of the lampposts still had missing portraits on them. Many of the hospitals in New Jersey had been put on alert for the casualties that never arrived, and desperate relatives and friends were covering every conceivable base in their hopeless search.

I had arranged to meet my friend Damian for lunch in Manhattan, close to where he now worked. It was an easy ride on the PATH train from Hoboken.

With admirable discipline for a writer, Damian wasn’t drinking. He had more work to do later that afternoon, and his wife Emma was expecting their first child any day now. He didn’t much relish the potential humiliation of turning up at the hospital slurringly drunk.

They lived a couple of blocks away from the World Trade Center and had been out of town on the morning of the disaster, but the proximity of their home to it had affected them a lot. Bits of engine and some body parts had landed on their roof. The remains of one air stewardess, still tied to her chair with her throat slit, had been found on the roof of a neighboring building.

I listened to as much as Damian was prepared to volunteer but he seemed too upset about it for me to probe any further. I don’t think he really wanted to talk about it.

The bar was bustling and outside New York could be seen in full swing. In ephemeral terms, it had recovered well. After Damian returned to work, I went for a walk. I thought about calling another friend, Matt, who I knew wasn’t at work at the moment but decided that perhaps it wasn’t a good idea. Matt was no small drinker, and it would be likely to evolve into a full-blooded session.

This would have passed the time, but would probably have been a waste of it too. I also had to think about my flight the next morning. I had originally been due to take off at 10.30am but, thanks to all that had happened in the aftermath of the attacks, this had been rescheduled to 8.30am with a three hour check-in. Given that I also had to return the car to Hertz first, this meant leaving Neal’s house by 4.30am latest the following morning. An afternoon on the sauce with Matt wouldn’t have been ideal preparation.

Instead I walked south along the Avenue of the Americas. As I approached the depths of Manhattan, the missing portraits came thick and fast. They weren’t just on lampposts. Whole corners of blocks were dedicated to them, like macabre galleries. They were a testament to hoping against all hope.

I walked into a stationer’s, and found a whole stand of postcards with pictures of the World Trade Center still upright. A shop nearby was selling T-shirts. One had a photograph of bin Laden with “Wanted. Dead not alive.” Another had a picture of the Statue of Liberty with torch discarded and middle finger raised. Its legend read “We’re coming, motherfuckers.”

A little further down the road was a fire station, decked out with flowers and flags, and letters of gratitude from all around the country. Photographs of all the firemen from the station who had been lost on September 11th were displayed in the windows. A small gathering of onlookers stood by, silently paying their respects.

I crossed Houston Street and continued my path southward. After zigzagging through Chinatown, I encountered the first of the roadblocks. An acrid stench filled the air, the smell of the foundry and burning metal, but with a putrid twist. It made my stomach turn.

By following the crowds, I reached one of the few vantage points that offered a limited sightline to Ground Zero. As might have been expected, there wasn’t much to see. Some were rabidly trying to get snaps, but most were just staring on dumbstruck.

I had my camera with me, but didn’t have the heart to take any photos. I was content to let the official journals commit the sight to the record books for future reflection. From a personal point of view, they were seared onto my memory and I would need no camera-captured version of them.

As I wandered back north, I came to a crossroads. The familiar sound of sirens came blaring down the street towards me. As the fire engine lurched across the camber of the avenue when it hit the junction, the crowd of pedestrians around me burst into a spontaneous round of applause.

I was left with the impression that it wasn’t merely their heroics on the day of September 11th that had cemented this esteem from the general public. The firemen had become beacons for getting on with life as normal.

There was a PATH station at Christopher Street that took me back to Hoboken. I arrived at the apartment just in time to hear the telephone ring. It was Neal. He’d knocked off a little early and fancied a drink. We had a couple of hours before Lisa would get back. I felt like I needed one, and agreed to be ready to go straight out the moment he walked through the door.

We went to a bar in nearby Court Street. It was a quiet time of the day for the barman, and we chatted with him as he cleaned the glasses. He knew Neal as a regular, and they were enthusing about Joe Strummer and the concert that Neal and Lisa were going to later that evening. Neal introduced me to him and mentioned the trip that I had just been on.

The guy nodded and commented that it must have been an interesting time to be travelling around the States. I agreed, and said that everyone whom I’d met had been deeply affected by September 11th but it was obviously even more acute here where everyone knew someone – or at least knew someone who knew someone – who had been caught up in it all.

The barman nodded sagely. His fiancée had worked on the 32nd floor of the second tower, and when the first plane hit he’d phoned her to tell her to get out. He had been watching it on TV at home. She had reassured him that everything was all right. The internal Tannoy had announced that everything was under control, that people should remain calm and stay where they were.

Moments after coming off the phone, the second plane hit her tower. He tried to call her back but he couldn’t get through. He continued trying both her work number and her cell phone throughout the next couple of hours as he watched live coverage of first one then the other tower collapse. He was beside himself with distress and convinced that she must have perished.

It was nearly 2pm before he heard from her, by which stage her dad had turned up at his apartment to share in the tears. She had just made it out in time, and had run down the street pursued by a cloud of dust as the building collapsed. She had then walked and walked, not knowing where she was going but just that she had to get away.

She had reached the George Washington Bridge before she knew what was happening or where she was. She had no memory of the time in between. She had tried calling but couldn’t get through. He said that he had never known a moment of such sheer happiness before and, while the rest of the city and possibly western civilization mourned, he found himself popping Champagne and celebrating. He felt terribly guilty and sad, but couldn’t contain his own delight and relief.

It was time to go back home and meet up with Lisa. It was approaching midnight back in London, and I had promised to call Christine. I got through to be confronted by tears. Her purse, containing all her dollars, travellers’ checks and credit cards, had been stolen from under the table while she’d been out for a farewell drink with some friends in the pub. She didn’t even have a card for the ATM, but the others had had a whip round to furnish her with forty quid for the journey.

At least she still had her passport and plane ticket, and enough money to get herself out to Heathrow. We just had to hope that nothing would go awry as she travelled via Chicago to New Mexico and I went via St Louis. It would only be a problem if one of us failed to show in Albuquerque.

It seemed ironic that the worse thing to have happened on a personal note on the whole trip had occurred five hours short of the end of day 48, and a hundred yards from my home back in London.

I decided to go Arabic for the last meal of the 48 days and ventured out to Ali Baba’s on Washington. It had about twelve tables, but only one of them was occupied by what looked like a party of four students. It didn’t look like business was good, but I didn’t want to ask whether things had changed since September 11th. The establishment was unlicensed, and so I ordered a Turkish coffee when I had finished eating and supped the last of my Coke.

It suddenly struck me that the absence of customers might not just be down to a backlash against Americans of Arabic origin. A place like this would be very vulnerable to sudden attack from extremists. With such melodrama washing around my imagination, I hurried through the coffee and paid the bill. Every car that drove by now looked like it might be harboring potential petrol bomb throwers and I just wanted to get out. At least I had the choice.

I returned to Court Street for one last drink. It was 10.30, and there were only five or six people in there. From my barstool, I could see at least twice that number giving their bodies a workout at the gym immediately across the road. I stopped just for the one and then went back to the apartment to fetch my camera. Before I went to bed, I wanted to take a photograph from a respectable distance of the sight I had witnessed from the previous evening with Johnny.

I walked down to the riverfront and tried to focus. The camera clicked and whirred, but it didn’t matter whether any recognizable picture would come out. My odyssey was such a small endeavor compared to the magnitude of what had happened over the water, and what was continuing to happen as I gazed on.

I had been in America at a more momentous time than I could ever have hoped for, and I wished that it hadn’t been the case.