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FIRST-PERSON: Wandering New York’s streets 3 days after Sept. 11’s trauma

NEW YORK CITY (BP)–9/14/01 2:30 p.m., the National Day of Remembrance and Prayer.

I ride my bicycle in the heavy rain — “God’s Tears” — down Fifth Avenue. Churches have just let out from prayer services. Flags along this cosmopolitan street fly at half mast — Switzerland’s, France’s, Argentina’s, alongside America’s. Only a few stores are open and more cars than the day before drive by, but cabs don’t honk and busses drive slowly. No tempers fly on this normally busy street.

On the corner of 49th Street and 5th, the famous store of Saks Fifth Avenue has emptied its usually colorful windows dressed up for shoppers and simply painted in white letters across the glass: “WITH SADNESS.” A cameraman films it close up. Tourists read it, then look at their maps for directions, for answers.

We’re all trying to find our way.

I keep riding. At a stoplight, I hear a pedestrian tell another that we have to move on, to get over this. Their words stun me as much as this quiet mid-town street. I have no words for them, but I plead upward, “No! God, do not to let us get over this quickly. Do not let us easily forget the trauma of being victimized, of what so many throughout the world have felt for so long, of turning to you and to each other for refuge instead of to comfortable, easy lifestyles.”

We have to remember.

With so little traffic on the streets, I come easily to Washington Square Park in the midst of a usually busy NYU campus. A monument has been set up on the edge of West 4th Street, an altar of sunflowers, candles, flyers, photographs and flags have been scattered underneath the Washington arch. The first president’s words engraved in the stone arch above are strangely consoling: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.”

The rain lightens.

The church I attend has printed a yellow flyer that offers help, counseling, prayer and financial resources to anyone, or any church, affected by the tragedy. I hand one to a young man sitting beside the Washington altar; he is staring at the candles and the posters. He looks up at me, straight into my eyes and whispers gently, “Thank you,” before he even reads it. I try to smile. We exchange burdens for a simple second, before I get back on my bike.

And I keep riding.

I am able to get all the way down to Canal Street today, a street that borders Chinatown, Little Italy and Tribeca, just blocks from the smoky Wall Street area. People continue standing in the middle of the street, staring south, wondering what happened. Police check the IDs of residents trying to get back into their apartments. Some are able to walk down. Others are told to come back. And as I listen, I see the sun breaking through on West Broadway. I am glad to see it until I realize that it has never shone this far up on West Broadway; before, it was always blocked by the Twin Towers. Now the afternoon sun burns the rainy mist from the street and seems like an intrusion.

On the corner of Church and Canal streets, a police woman with fresh makeup and lipstick wears a long fluorescent rain coat and a gas mask attached to her belt. Relief workers walk slowly by, their faces dazed and their legs heavy from both the waders they wear and the fatigue in their bones. I glance above them and see a Bacardi (rum) billboard on the side of a building: “Take a Bite Out of the Big Apple.”

Lord help us.

Brown, white, black faces walk by, a blur of humanity holding stars and stripes in brown, white, black hands. Dump trucks pass us, military planes fly over us. The blur moves slow step by slow step, and eventually gathers around a NYPD car on the corner of Center and Canal streets. The CPR slogan on the side of the car — Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect — is ironically visible among the ash-covered, mangled metal. Its red light on top has been turned sideways; how the patrol car got here, no one knows. And no one in the blur says a word as they slide their fingers across the ash and concrete to touch the tragedy. Some step back, studying the battered car like critics study paintings at the art museum: thoughtful, serious, respectful.

City Hall behind us stands tall, empty and bright with a cloud of smoke still sneaking around it. A wooden blue barricade across the street signals to everyone that no man’s land is real.

A few blocks north, I pass a solitary fireman who sits on a curb, smoking a cigarette and staring at nothing in particular. I try to smile at him, to thank him, but he doesn’t respond. Behind him a burned-out delivery truck with a hole the size of a large pizza is parked under Don’s Fine Foods; ash and concrete pieces are scattered across its roof. The rain has stopped and I can feel the subway shaking beneath my feet; both seem flimsy signs of hope. But no one seems to notice either and the people keep walking around me, stone quiet, cold in the September sun, numb.

At Union Square Park at 14th Street, hundreds of people have gathered just to “be.” Not to talk or to process, but just to be in the presence of other living humans. A tent is set up so people can to donate toiletries, T-shirts and medical supplies. Everyone wants to — needs to — give. I hand out more flyers and get more blank stares. A few shake their heads defiantly at me, not wanting another flyer, not wanting another reminder.

Our heads follow the siren of a packed fire truck heading south, fireman hanging on the side, and the crowd erupts in applause and cheers as if their heroes have just run by.

They have.

On the sidewalk of the park, young people are scribbling hundreds of messages in colored chalk: “Juan, You will never be forgotten!”; “USA=Strength”; “Peace to Mankind”; “No Bloodshed”; “Be Brave, Be Hopeful”; “Never Give Into Hate”; “WTC R.I.P.”; and “Love Will Triumph Over Hate.” The woman beside me walks away sobbing; she cannot look much longer. No one speaks. No one walks on the messages on the sidewalk. A plastic placemat of the WTC is taped to the light post in the middle and we circle around it like teenagers at a campfire.

Expression is part of the healing. The very act of writing words, of offering messages of inspiration, is as necessary as breathing.

I know this is true.

Across from the circle, the El Camino Church has put up a wire fence for people to place flyers of their loved ones. They have called it the Mural of Hope, and no one walks by it quickly. Photos of fathers with their children, college graduates, couples on vacation, are taped to the mural with desperate cries for help. Scores of faces linger in front of them, reading, looking, mourning. An older Asian woman wipes her eyes. This city, our city, is aching. The church has written the words: “Nosostros confiamos en Dios” — in God we Trust — and even the hardest of souls here clings to the words.

As I ride north again, uptown toward my apartment, I cannot count the number of shrines that line the streets. There is too much to process, to remember on this day of remembrance. The candles and altars become symbols of a deeply personal question: Where do we put our pain?

Jesus wept.

And then as if to slap me back to the concrete reality around me, I hear a man yelling on the corner of Park Avenue and 37th Street, “God Bless America. Flags for Ten Dollars. Ten Dollars. Ten Dollars. God Bless America. Ten Dollars.” Many stop at his table and buy the symbol; they trade a piece of green paper for a piece of comfort. All while a tall aching man right beside them tapes another flyer to a street post: “MISSING: Stephen B. PLEASE CALL.”

Please call. Please remember.
Kadlecek is an author in New York City whose recent books include “Winter Flowers and other signs of redemption” (Broadman & Holman), “Fear: A Spiritual Navigation” (Shaw) and “Feast of Life: Spiritual Food for Balanced Living” (Baker). She is a member of Manhattan’s Redeemer Presybterian Church.

    About the Author

  • Jo Kadlecek