LETTER FROM NEW YORK CITY (late September, 2001):

Structural Damage -- but We Are Still Here

Dear -----:

Thank you for checking on how things are going. We are a hardy city with resilient people, but every day is a challenge, and everyone's challenge is a little different, and mine is my own, for whatever that is worth.

Everyone I know is intact. Even my cousins, who are police officers, are fine. I knew one woman who worked in the World Trade Center, but when I called her home, I found that she had changed jobs (and, therefore, locations) a couple of months ago. (She had worked on the 100th floor of one of the towers.) Based on what I saw, I don't think there was any way anyone could have evacuated a large part of the buildings. One of them was actually glowing orange from inside, below the point where the plane caused the initial structural damage.

A couple of hours after it happened, you should have seen Broadway, full of people evacuated ... but to where? The tunnels were closed. The bridges were closed. The subways were closed. Everywhere there were surreal images. Like one of those Godzilla movies. Even tough-guy construction workers stood around with their jaws hanging open. An Air Force fighter circled overhead, downtown.

One frightening angle is that there are many more targets here, making this a city that is still very vulnerable. We are downright porous. I fear going on the subway, going to Times Square, going near open marketplaces. I fear for the Statue of Liberty, which has great symbolic value and is particularly dear to me. In that sense, the terrorists are winning. I don't mean that I've become crazy with fear. I don't cower indoors. But I think twice before I head outside. I worry about where I'll be as I traverse the city. I imagine how far from cover I might be if something happens.

I have certainly tried to suspend my feelings about what happened at the World Trade Center, to the concern of some people I know, who wondered why I wasn't more upset, why I wasn't showing evidence of being disturbed. I suppose I wasn't ready. I'm not sure that I'm ready now, but I want to talk about what it's like here in New York, as the city continues to move toward some kind of healing process.

Today is especially bad; it's cloudy and overcast, with hints of rain, and it is chilly, and all these conditions are causing the atmosphere to hang at a low altitude (the clouds scraping the tops of tall buildings), and as a result of atmospheric conditions, the smell from the World Trade Center is wafting all the way up to Washington Square in the Village, a rare event -- it has only happened two or three times, when the wind was eccentric or the clouds were low -- and the smell is quite sickening and upsetting, a constant reminder of what is lost.

It's impossible to do any significant transaction in the city without being cognizant of what happened.

To begin where it began, one thinks of the morning of the disaster, standing on the edge of Seventh Avenue, avoiding the suddenly wild traffic, watching downtown, wondering what had happened, getting the news via pager that it was an attack, videotaping it for one's posterity (never suspecting that within the hour, the skyline would be changed forever and the tape would be all one had left to show where the towers had stood), and then stumbling numbly to errands and work, with no idea of what to make of the experience.

These days, one sees the memorials everywhere, and one sees flags sprouting out of objects stationary and moving. Yes, there were always flags on buildings and trucks before, but they did not have the significance they have now, nor did they cause the emotional upset they cause. For another example, one always admired firemen for their selflessness and courage, but now they are both heroes and martyrs, and it is very disturbing when we pass firehouses near home or work, because all were decimated to some degree and some are now in danger of being closed down because many men were wiped out and cannot be replaced quickly, and firehouses cannot operate for long without a full staff.

Or one thinks of the fire trucks crushed, a couple with men inside, and wonders: where do fire trucks come from (the Midwest, one imagines), and how does a city get replacements quickly?

The rescue house in Brooklyn, where I grew up, had its rig destroyed, and lost ten or eleven men, and is being considered for shutdown. The people making decisions about firehouses don't understand that the buildings are touchstones now for all of us -- especially for firemen and the families of the dead men. You see, it is now all a very different urban landscape.

I still can't walk past a firehouse without wanting to hug a fireman in gratitude and regret. The firemen have to keep on going on with what they do -- with no room for the kind of healthy grief they must feel. Imagine: four hundred firemen were on duty the morning of September 11. Three hundred were killed.

Even downtown Manhattan will be different for subtle reasons, like the wind. Who thinks about the wind? I recall that I once proposed a story that everyone at the table laughed down: I thought it would be interesting to write about the effect that the construction of many tall buildings in a downtown area would have on wind velocity on the ground -- because I knew from experience that it would change with the construction of fresh skyscrapers. I knew this because I had seen it happen around the World Trade Center, whose towers caused the wind to whip the streets at high speed. Who will feel such wind now? (Only the dead entombed there, one imagines.) For better or worse, I don't think I know any of the survivors. But for me, a life-long city dweller, there is no sense of closure. I watched those towers go up when I was a child, and then I watched them die in my adulthood.

And the dry cleaners all around town are different: they have clothes hanging in their shops that will never be picked up.

And the woman who runs a mailbox storefront near my office doesn't know what to think now when customers don't appear regularly for their mail.

And the ASPCA has a temporary shelter two blocks south of us, housing pets whose owners have disappered.

And people whose apartments are filled with debris and dust have been warned that it's not just dust that came through windows: it is hazardous waste. Nobody wants to make the explicit point that part of the "dust" consists of human bodies that were not burned by the fire, but were pulverized by the buildings' collapse.

And a subway station near the site has been penetrated by support beams from a building above: the beams pierced the sidewalk, breaking into the station below, and as a subway station it is now quite useless. They say it will take a year to repair the structural damage. I can't imagine being without that station for a year.

Structural damage: such a handy phrase to cover the many injuries to our city and its people. I believe that while we endure in our individual ways, we now carry our private structural damage with us.

And why not? The cautions and causes for paranoia are everywhere around us. I can't walk home now without flinching at the sound or sight of aircraft in the sky. You know, I once wrote a story in which the skittish narrator describes how he can't walk down the street anymore without twitching every time a car starts, because he expects starting cars to explode. To him, every unexpected sound heralds a disaster. That perfectly describes how I feel. Even in bed, when I hear a noise outside, I jump.

Part of this can be traced, I suppose, to the tension of being surrounded by all the sadness and gloom of Manhattan. I'd give anything right now to be able to take a month and go off to Vermont and be far away from the city and all the pain of it. That's all I want for myself at this moment: an escape, maybe a bit of rest.

But that is an idle thought ... I don't have time to go away now, nor a place to visit, nor the money to get away. All I can do is practice breathing deeply and keeping some kind of equilibrium. And compared to many other people here, I got off pretty easy.

I could go on with this, but I don't want to depress you. I only hoped to show you that the depth of feeling is so great that it is nearly inexpressible. In this city in the midst of this tragedy, with a fear for the future, I am only a face in the crowd.

I thought your essay on the event was well reasoned and sane, though I myself cannot bear to fall uncritically in step behind the president or his advisors.

These leaders scare me -- instead of reassuring me -- with their belligerent words. I don't think it's wise to dispatch bombers and aircraft carriers someplace when it hasn't been determined what is going to be attacked. I worry about everything associated with this horror. And it is a horror, of course. But one doesn't strike out blindly. Or if there's evidence pointing to someone, why doesn't the world get to see it? I know that we have to protect our intelligence sources, but these are extraordinary times, as we hear from the words that regularly come out of Washington.

Words: You know they mean a lot to me as a citizen and as a writer. For instance, I am studying with great concern how the White House regards open talk. For example, Bill Maher, who has a talk show called "Politically Incorrect," made a remark recently and was reprimanded by the White House for having said that if you look at it, it's not "cowardly" to kill yourself by flying a plane into a building. Bad, evil, awful, yes: but it was not cowardice to know you were going to die. He said that in contrast, it's more cowardly to lob bombs from miles away, when you're never at risk, the way the U.S. has done in air warfare.

Maybe so, maybe not -- but that's why we call it "free speech" and that is why we have fought before to preserve it. The White House issued a chilling remark, though: "It's a terrible thing to say, and it's unfortunate," [White House spokesman Ari] Fleischer said. "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is." Maher was cowed into recanting his comments -- an action we historically associate with totalitarian regimes that keep a tight grip on public speech.

Is this my America he is talking about? What new forms of structural damage are we allowing to happen in our names? I guarantee you that there is worse damage than having a subway station collapse, and I don't want our leadership to do that to us. That is not what our country is about. We were designed to be stronger than the World Trade Center. We were designed as a nation to withstand harmful impacts and to remain committed to our principles.

I hope you are not irritated that I dissent with your views on political solidarity, at least when it comes to the issue of civil liberties and politicians. I have been following closely what is being said in Washington. It is always at times like this that politicians have taken the opportunity to restrict individual liberties. If that happens here, now, wouldn't any reasonable person agree that the terrorists have won their fight just a little bit? I thought your essay had a good ending; I know I don't much feel secure or safe right now.

But we're durable here (we like to think), and we'll bear with this (we hope), and we'll manage to survive this time around too (we expect). We save our prayers for the people who will really need them, and we persevere in the best ways we know, and we go on. What else are we to do?

I hope this answers your questions about how things are in this unpredictable place. It's the best I can describe from one fellow's point of view. There is still plenty of structural damage we have to contend with, and I expect that this is the start of a long struggle.

Thanks for asking how things are going.


TIM O'CONNOR (tim AT roughdraft DOT org) lives and works in Manhattan, roughly a mile directly north of where the World Trade Center stood.

2001 Tim O'Connor