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Tumbling Ivory Towers

Overnight NY became more worldly and empathetic, and less singular and American.

Tumbling Ivory Towers
Tumbling Ivory Towers
The moment New York became just one more scary corner of the blood-stained world, I was standing in a deli at the corner of 46th and Lexington ordering a ham, cheese and egg sandwich. While waiting for squat, ageless, open-faced Joey to pass on the order, and wiry moustached Angelo to fry it up, a firetruck raced down the sunfilled avenue, its siren wailing. Without taking his eyes off his sizzling flag-shaped grill, Angelo whistled to himself as if to note that this wasn't the first emergency vehicle to race by that morning.

On the curb, I saw the downtown smoke for the first time, and when I got off the elevator in the large midtown building just above Grand Central Station, where through a series of fortunate circumstances I have the use of a small office, the television monitor behind the receptionist reported that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. Maybe it's a New Yorker's myopia or my own intrinsic self-absorption, but this wasn't enough to stop me from proceeding to my own desk. As alarming as the news was, I downgraded it to a freakish accident.

Ten minutes later, I rejoined rubberneckers around the set and watched the video of the second plane hitting the second tower again and again. An inexplicable impulse argued absurdly that the loss of life might still be relatively small. After all, the first crash occurred before 9 am and there was time for an orderly evacuation.

I returned to my office and called my best friend Charles Hall, who has a loft in a neighbourhood in the twenties called Chelsea, that I covet for its ample square feet and commanding downtown views. I was on the phone with him as the south tower collapsed. He compared the seismic explosion of black soot to a volcanic eruption, and I hurried back to reception to see it for myself.

Even then, real understanding, whatever that is, would be overwhelmed for hours by the clean power of the imagery. The shot of the plane hitting the second tower seemed like a vicious update of the Hindenburg, a photograph all the more iconic to my generation for being the cover of the first Led Zeppelin album. The reality of the first and then the second tower imploding was undermined by seeming as tidy as carefully planned demolitions.

About noon, I finally mustered the focus to leave the office and begin the 30-block walk to my apartment on the Upper West Side. Recent accounts have noted the eerie disconnect between the black smoke and the brilliant blue skies, and sound of F16s overhead, but even before the surprise attack there was something unsettling in the lovely early autumn air. For weeks and maybe longer, New Yorkers had shared the anxious knowledge that it was time to stop living off the surpluses of the boom times and get back to work for real. Veteran bankers were getting laid off like naive dotcommers. Restaurants were empty and apartments were worth less than the month before. More significantly, the eight-year reign of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose legendary lack of self-doubt was a huge factor in the city's revival, was coming to an end. In fact, that morning, in which Giuliani was almost killed while visiting the scene, a primary was scheduled to pick the Democratic candidate to replace him.

With the subways closed, the sidewalks were clogged with marooned pedestrians. The huff and puff of blustery New Yorkers had been siphoned off. At the same time, there wasn't a lot of eye contact or solidarity among the marchers. Everyone may have been thinking the same thing but they were thinking it alone. I picked up my youngest son at his small grammar school and sat happily with my arm around his slender shoulders on a shady bench. Then we walked over to nycd, the one shop in the neighbourhood that was open, and spent some cash on the new Dylan CD, which I still haven't played. And that evening my ex-wife and I shared a cordial subway ride to 247th street in the Bronx to pick up our second son who'd been stranded when the bridges in and out of Manhattan were closed.

That first night there was a makebelieve wartime frisson in the uptown air, but by the next day there was a fundamental and maybe even enduring change in the psyche of the city, as the magnitude of the suffering of those trapped inside the two collapsed towers and the degree of heroism by the firemen and police who died by the hundreds trying to save them, could no longer be denied. Like the black soot that eventually wafted into windows all the way uptown, the significance of the attack and misfortune of those who happened to get in the way and the cost paid by those who responded was felt by the whole city. Although there weren't enough survivors to make it necessary, residents waited for hours to symbolically donate blood and others lined the West Side Highway to cheer on rescue workers.

Overnight New York changed. It became more sophisticated, empathetic and worldly, and at the same time less singular and American. And it may be a couple months before New Yorkers can delude themselves into believing once again that all that matters is wealth and real estate.

(Peter de Jonge, a writer, lives in New York. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine.)
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