This Just In

Dispatch From Memorial City

Today when I woke up, a lot of the smoke over downtown had cleared, and I gazed out my window for my first view of the new Lower Manhattan. It looked like a different city: Boston, maybe, or Philadelphia. Someplace with a nice, respectable skyline but not our dazzling one.

The subway I took to work was packed and sweaty. And teary: Passengers had grabbed their morning papers on the way to the train and were clearly overcome by what they were reading. A man read an Israeli newspaper, wet-eyed. Next to him sat a fair-skinned blonde who, somewhere around the West Fourth Street stop, began to shake and sob.

I had hesitated about going to the office today–Slate’s New York bureau is in the Chrysler Building, a not unimaginable target for future attacks. But I figured today would be the safest of all possible days, what with fighter jets patrolling the island, cops on every corner, and security guards checking IDs in the lobby (though not thoroughly enough: They let me in when I produced a Microsoft health insurance card). Still, the day at work was nerve-twisting: Grand Central Station and Lexington Avenue were evacuated because of suspicious objects, and people jammed into the streets, their shrieks easily audible. When they stopped screaming, the sirens started, and they didn’t quiet down all day.

Our office is on the 26th floor of the building, about halfway to the top. I mentally calculated how quickly I could scramble down the stairs to the bottom. Usually the highest floors of a residential or office building are the most prized: They have better views, less street clamor, and higher rents. But in the past few days, the hierarchy of height has been upended. So has the allure of being in a name brand building. Now it’s the kind of thing your grandmother warns you about. Perhaps with good cause: The Empire State Building has been evacuated at least once since the attacks.

It felt good to settle down at the computer. Unlike so many New Yorkers, struggling to concentrate on other work, journalists have a welcome mandate to focus on the attacks. Perhaps this is why everyone has become an insta-journalist in the past few days. My e-mail inbox is full of anguished messages from friends, forming a kind of ad hoc reporting system on Tuesday’s events, and making the next day’s newspaper descriptions seem almost superfluous. Take the one I got today from a friend who works for city government. She was summoned to the command center at 7 World Trade Center after the collisions and braced herself in a corridor as 2 World Trade Center collapsed next door. “Coughing, and covered with white pasty stuff from head to toe, we managed to find our way out of the immediate collapse area, still not realizing what had happened,” she wrote. “I saw people lying on the street–were they dead?  Bracing themselves? Getting up?  We didn’t stop to help, a shameful memory for me.”

By the time I left the office at the end of the day, Manhattan was papered with homemade leaflets asking for information about loved ones. The signs are taped to bus shelters and lampposts, and they look like milk-carton ads, with names, photos, and contact information. The first few I saw looked hopelessly misguided to me: Surely we all know what happened to the people pictured, and barring a miracle, none are going to be found wandering around Midtown. But as I reached 34th Street and my dozenth sign, the signs began to seem less like serious requests and more like impromptu attempts at memorialization, efforts at putting faces to the escalating casualty figures. “I love you,” many of them declared.

Fifth Avenue was decked out with official and unofficial pledges of solidarity with these mourners. Many businesses were draped with flags. Pedestrians wore “I Love NY” T-shirts or pinned flags or ribbons to their clothing. A plywood construction fence had been spray painted by its workers: “FDNY OUR HEROS.” (Translation for non-natives: FDNY is the acronym for Fire Department New York).

I continued south and soon encountered a group of burly, uniformed National Guardsmen loading some weird-looking padded tables and chairs onto massive military transport vehicles. These soldiers were being directed by a bunch of lithe women clad in leotards and leggings. Rescue equipment? Avant-garde replacement furniture? I asked. No: A Chinese medicine training school was sending acupuncturists and masseurs downtown to work out the kinks in exhausted relief workers’ backs. The National Guard was helping them transport their massage equipment.

A few blocks later I reached Union Square, where hundreds of people were gathered. On the north end, people were sitting cross-legged on a lawn, holding lighted candles as Tibetan monks chanted and burned incense. NYU students thronged the area, collecting gifts of bottled water and saline solution (to wash out grit-filled eyes) for rescue workers. A few wore red, white, and blue facepaint. The south end of the plaza had become a makeshift shrine: Hundreds of yards of white and brown wrapping paper had been spread over the concrete and festooned with magic-markered-messages, flowers, memorial candles, photographs, and crosses. The messages were written in countless languages. Including the ones in English:

“If I am drafted to the war, I will fight for my city.”  

“Let’s re-examine our foreign policy with love.”

“New York is broken-hearted but not broken.”

“New York is not castrated. A bris at best.”

And over and over again: “FDNY.”

Crowds moved slowly across the papered ground, reading the messages and sniffling back tears. The gathering was comforting in the same way a funeral can be. And after days of nonstop TV watching, the touch and tug and flow of the crowd felt gentle and warm. 

Rain is predicted tonight, and it seems sure to soak this remarkable installation. When a similar memorial city sprang up in Tel Aviv after Yitzchak Rabin’s death, the city authorities had it carefully photographed before it was dismantled and then mounted an exhibit of the pictures several months later. I hope we preserve our graffiti-ed grief as carefully or that the TV cameras get a good look at it, at least. Other memorials will be built, to be sure. But their creators won’t be able to recapture the searing freshness of this one.

Jodi KantorisSlate’s New Yorkeditor.