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?
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
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.
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
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
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