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ROCHELLE RATNER - WINTER 2001 FEATURE  

The Cortland Review

FEATURE

Stanley Kunitz
The Poet and The Poem: Stanley Kunitz: An interview and reading with poetry legend, Stanley Kunitz. Grace Cavalieri hosts this one-hour audio program.

Rochelle Ratner
Two New Yorks: Rochelle Ratner reflects on the aftermath of the New York City terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001

Gibbons Ruark
The Day a Poem Comes Home: A day in the life of Gibbons Ruark

Michael Brooks Cryer
A book review of James Tate's latest: Memoir of the Hawk

John Kinsella
Further Evidence: the latest chapter of John Kinsella's exclusive autobiographical series

Rochelle Ratner

Rochelle Ratner lives in New York City where she is Executive Editor of American Book Review, on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, and reviews regularly for Library Journal and other magazines. Her books include two novels: Bobby's Girl (Coffee House Press, 1986) and The Lion's Share (Coffee House Press, 1991) and thirteen poetry books including Practicing to Be A Woman: New and Selected Poems (Scarecrow Press, 1982), Someday Songs (BkMk Press, University of Missouri-Kansas City, 1992), and Zodiac Arrest (Ridgeway Press, 1995). An anthology she edited, Bearing Life: Women's Writings on Childlessness, published in 2000 by The Feminist Press, won the Susan Koppelman Award, given by Women's Caucus of the Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association.
Rochelle Ratner - Two New Yorks

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Two New Yorks

written October 21, 2001 in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks.


Even the large black dog, Buddha, hangs his head as he enters the elevator. This city is a study in despair. A few people have somewhat forced smiles but, for the most part, I pass one grimace after another. On TV, a policeman on a stretcher is being wheeled into St. Vincent's Hospital, his leg bandaged and bleeding, his hands clasped in prayer. Out our window, 110 blocks uptown, I can see the smoke. It's seven hours after the first plane hit. I live here
.

Or do I?

I recall driving home from a month of teaching in South Carolina. It would have been Spring, 1974. Driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike, I saw that the second World Trade Center tower had been completed. The crane that had become so familiar perched on top was gone. That was my first indication of "home."

Now it's all gone.

On September 11, as the Twin Towers fell, each one in isolation, it seemed as if Manhattan also split in two. People who lived or worked downtown heard the explosion of the first plane; many even heard the second plane going over their heads. Most saw the second crash. Awestruck, incredulous, many people I know stayed watching as the towers fell. Those a little removed from Ground Zero ran for cameras to record the event. For the rest of that day, they saw the walking wounded making their way up West St. or Hudson St. Some of my friends were evacuated from their homes. As the fires continue to burn, the smell has become a part of their daily lives. My husband says he can smell those fires even riding on the subway to his Brooklyn office.

Another memory: Nearly 16 years ago now, the first time my future husband met my parents, we took them to Top of the World for brunch. I recall going up in the elevator. As soon as we got off on the top floor, my father asked if someone could please go down and retrieve his stomach.

It seemed funny at the time.

We live in the other New York. I woke up in time to watch the towers fall on TV. From my 16th floor window, I could see the smoke for several days, although I'd never been able to see the towers themselves. On Wednesday, day two of the rescue mission, the wind shifted, and that evening we smelled the horrid scent of flesh and steel, but there was never any need, up here, to walk around with dust masks over our faces. Restaurants we frequented for dinner closed early because they couldn't get deliveries of bread and ice, but there was no interruption in our electric, phone, or cable service. When you came right down to it, we might as well have been living in Alaska. There, as here, people sat glued to the TV.

Still, I wasn't sleeping well, a problem which had begun over the summer, not directly related to the WTC disaster. We got to bed at one a.m. on the following Thursday, and at three a.m., I was still awake, startled by the sound of an airplane. I ran to the window and saw its flashing red light. Now it was even harder to sleep. I finally went downstairs and turned on the TV in hopes someone would explain that plane flying at a time when the area airports had not yet reopened, but no one did. I went to bed again, tossing and turning. Every noise outside—a garbage truck, a car motor—sounded like an airplane.

The following night, with about ten minutes before meeting my husband for dinner, I called up the solitaire program on my computer. I realized even at the time it was ridiculous—friends were running to temporary shelters with food and clothing, hundreds of people were giving blood, and I played solitaire. I just wanted to shut the world out.

For the first few days I walked the city, taking notes for my novel-in-progress which, incidentally, has to do with the homeless people that frequent these streets. Easily falling into the voice of my thirteen-year-old narrator, I captured the shock of seeing people going on with their lives. But then the writing stopped. The reality sunk in. My husband and I were visiting family in Rhode Island when the U.S. began to bomb Afghanistan, and that four-hour drive home was tense for both of us. Although we couldn't explain it at the time, we wanted to be back in our city. If there were going to be reprisals, this was where we belonged.

Before that, on the Sunday after the bombings, we took the subway downtown and got as close as we were able to Ground Zero. I took a few photos but wasn't able to see much. That afternoon we went to B & H Photo, a huge photo and pro audio store open on Sundays. Most of the store was empty, but there was a mob waiting to buy digital cameras. I bought a camera I'd had my eye on for over a year now, with a powerful 10x zoom lens, but we never went back downtown, and shortly after that, Giuliani prohibited cameras at the scene, claiming that people standing around taking pictures were a hindrance to the rescue effort. This was not a tourist attraction. Walking around with that camera over the next two weeks, taking pictures of street life I hoped would jumpstart passages of the novel, I found my attention drifting to the displays in store windows. Then I literally ran into a giraffe and decided to take his picture.

From that point on, and with even greater urgency after we began our retaliation bombings, I walked the city streets taking photographs of window displays. I'd shoot the corners of windows, pull sections from the middle, trying to capture small juxtapositions that stood on their own. I was photographing through glass, often in bright sunlight, and didn't realize the role that reflections were playing until I got home and put the first images up on the larger screen, but it's those accidental reflections that often resulted in the strongest photos.

This is my home. I'm as much a New Yorker as are those friends evacuated from Battery Park City. Instead of feeling left out, I'd discovered a way to reclaim this city as my own, as well as to document a moment in time that will hopefully never be repeated.

New Yorkers are not only resilient, they're the most creative people in the world. Friends in Florida and Houston talked about their cities coming to a standstill for a week or more. We were back to work the next day. And those storekeepers who weren't mopping up the dust and debris were already dreaming up window displays that would blend tragedy with patriotism. Over the two weeks I was walking around with the camera, the focus began to shift. October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, a time to be alert to an agent of death which gets much less attention. As we got closer to Halloween, window displays began to incorporate masks and pumpkins. My most recent photos have captured the ghosts as well. Captured? No. For me, it's more a question of keeping the ghosts at bay.

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