Alissa Quart: Even the bankers have started saying hello...

New York: Day 5
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The "missing" posters here in New York plaster bus stops and walls, a litany of smiling colour xeroxes – nicknames, height and weight and the floor on which they worked. As usual, the quotidian mixes in with the horribleness: one notices that a strangely large number of the lost have tattoos.

These posters are transfixing, like a graffiti mural on the Lower East Side of the Trade Centre on fire and, more perversely, the tourist pictures of the Manhattan skyline and its World Trade Centre, sold by unstoppable street vendors.

Friday night brought a candlelight vigil, one scheduled around the city, in every neighbourhood. My friend and I are on the Upper East Side, the wealthy district of pre-war buildings and episcopalian churches, the cradle of the corporate classes. At first we feel a little funny surrounded by a sector of New York City alien to us personally – upscale families, their children in French flowered dresses next to rangy former fraternity brothers, all carrying their candles. We carry candles also, the only ones left in the drug store were beauty candles so we both smell bizarrely like talcum powder, like a perfume that little girls wear.

Soon enough, the graceful, cold Upper East Side, the neighbourhood where you are least likely to have a conversation with a stranger, seems the perfect place for this vigil. We talk to the sort of people that suffered the most grievous losses, the usually impervious overclass of financiers, and they express their feelings of defamiliarisation in this new world.

They talk about the friends they e-mailed and when they last had breakfast meetings in the WTC, of watching the jumpers and the flames. We walk into a church where these same people sit with bowed heads. We notice that the WASPy families, all decorously walking with candles and their well-combed little children, have thawed over the course of the hour: surrounded by an avenue of candle holders, racked with unusual levels of misery, they have begun to say hello.

The fear of what has happened and what will happen flows into the conversation of a lot of people I speak to. Few want to spend time alone: my single friends have all paired up, either with exes or female friends or male friends, so they go through this with a mate of a sort. I have also heard of two babies born, of a man so obsessed with getting to work that in the midst of the dust and debris he fought his way through to his office at a newspaper in the financial centre to find it evacuated and his computer destroyed, of a man who woke to a piece of a World Trade Centre rolodex stuck to his window in Brooklyn, of an apartment that now gets views of the sunset, thanks to the towers' disappearance.

On Saturday, I am hiding out in yet another friend's house downtown, read- ing four newspapers, suddenly scared out of my wits. The television is what really freaks you out though, its glassy-eyed repetition of information.

In order to keep some sanity, I go to a gathering – such open houses are springing up all over a city where people usually infrequently visit one another at home, given the typically cramped nature of private dwellings here. The strain is evident, as those unaccustomed to extended conversations about the political theatre either can't stop or feel compelled to talk only about this – every other conversation falls flat, one starts to dance to MJ Cole and sort of just can't.

What seems to help? Maybe Stefan Zweig, who I am now reading, who recounted the fall of the so-called Golden Age of insurance and stability. Perhaps the existentialists, so long a kitsch strain of philosophy. What was it they were saying about making meaning in the void and why did we think they were so ridiculous again?