This morning I was in a situation I’ve seen many times on the news: trying to get back to my home inside a disaster zone, on the far side of unwelcoming police barricades. I wanted to see if our building had sustained any damage, of course, but my most urgent task was to collect some medication that my wife needed. Having left our apartment in great haste yesterday, I didn’t have any identification that proved I lived in Tribeca, and only residents were allowed through. But my wife’s checkbook and a bit of pleading convinced considerate officers to let me through checkpoints first at Houston Street, then at Canal Street.
It was hard not to choke up walking past several fire stations on the way, the home bases of scores of firefighters who are missing and, barring miracles, dead. If America went to war yesterday, these men were our shock troops. They did what they were trained to do, which was to sacrifice their own lives to try to save civilians. Out front of the firehouses, the survivors stood in groups, some talking quietly, others just staring out at the street. A few were still covered in grime; one was just back from the hospital with a bandaged hand, ready to go back into action. At one firehouse on Lafayette Street, neighbors had brought pots of flowers.
As you walked downtown, you began to pick up the scent, faint at first, of charred everything. Hours later and many miles away, the smell is still in my nostrils and in my clothes. The next thing you noticed was the soot, a light dusting at first but growing thicker with every southward block. Finally, on Church Street below Canal, the catastrophe came into view: a jagged flank of one of the World Trade towers, spreading into the street, like a colossal piece of ripped fencing. (Later in the day, it tumbled over.) By my block, Duane Street, about six blocks north of the World Trade Center, you had to cover your mouth with a cloth to avoid gagging on the finely pulverized ash. What those gray particles were didn’t bear thinking about.
By the time I reached my building around 10 this morning, the layer of whitish soot covering everything had begun to grow thicker, to perhaps a half-inch. Our street was far enough away from the blast not to sustain any other obvious damage. But the power was out everywhere, and I had to climb a long stairway in the darkness to reach our apartment. Feeling my way with my hands, I eventually found the doorknob. Inside, everything was fine but the stench already coming from the food melting in our freezer. The dark, empty building on a dark empty block was creepy. I collected some necessities, changed my clothes, and took off. Outside, a few neighbors had arrived back with flashlights and candles, some determined to move back in tonight. On the front stoop, we swapped stories of what we saw and heard of people who had narrowly escaped and people who hadn’t.
After filling a knapsack and shoulder bag with necessities, I walked two blocks south to Chambers Street, about four short blocks north of the disaster. That seemed to be as far as the police would let anyone go, resident or not. There the ash and soot thickened so that it was hard to breath even through a handkerchief. Here were the pushcarts abandoned by fleeing peddlers. One was still arrayed with fruit: bananas, strawberries, kiwis, their colors barely discernible beneath their thick coating of gray silt.
Blowing around on the sidewalk in the inch-thick soot was the flotsam of the tragedy: a leaf of someone’s desk calendar; a snarl of Dictaphone tape; a page of a document in Japanese; something that said “Clerk’s Training Manual”; a piece of a Morgan Stanley document headlined “Confidentiality.” Some of the pages were burnt all around; all were filthy. As relics, they were unbearably poignant. You had to think: “Who did this belong to?” and “Could that person have survived?” People say that when a bomb rips away the side of building, it’s like peering into a dollhouse. Walking down Chambers Street this morning was like looking into the day-after remnants of a bonfire that consumed 50,000 desks.
I wish we could stay in Tribeca tonight. To suffer a bit seems only fitting. And we want to do our part, to help scrub up, to reassert normality. But with kids, your obligations change, and we’ve abandoned the city for a weekend house Upstate. We don’t want our 4-month-old choking on air, which at midday was beginning to blow north to the rest of Manhattan. And we don’t want our two-year-old daughter, who thus far seems blissfully unaware that anything is amiss, seeing the neighborhood in ruins. She talks about the World Trade Center all the time. We haven’t figured out where to tell her it went.