Alissa Quart: I cried - but I was one of the lucky ones

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The Independent Online

Someone was returning from a tennis lesson. Another was biking on the West Side highway in the sun. I was considering the story I was to write that day, about teenagers and advertising.

Someone was returning from a tennis lesson. Another was biking on the West Side highway in the sun. I was considering the story I was to write that day, about teenagers and advertising.

In retrospect, the time before the destruction seems sweet, garish, careerist, oblivious. I got the call as to what happened: everyone got calls or saw the building burning with their own eyes, if they hadn't been actually part of the terror.

One of the lucky ones, I turned on the telly. There was the disastrous footage in an eviscerating repetition of plane, fire, screaming people. I cried. Not knowing what do, I went downstairs to the supermarket where all the old Jewish men were buying out the pickled cucumbers, as if that would make everything better. Others bought bottled water by the dozen. I had my own strategy for normalcy, I picked up my dry cleaning.

For years, we Americans and New Yorkers had felt invincible – suffering always happened elsewhere, in Tel Aviv and Belgrade and Beijing. Now, we were part of the world of vulnerability.

Our city had been amputated, castrated. Nothing technological about this destruction, nothing postmodern or simulated. These were real people jumping and burning, real papers fluttering out of the window, real small companies of the sort that compose the World Trade Center that were literally wiped off the face of the earth.

It was clear from the ashen faces on the street that after this New York would be changed forever. Would it now be militated, fortified, policed? Would that multitudinousness we lived for now face new regulation. Would every building now be a fortress?

Many methods of coping were on display. Some went to work, even after they were told to go home, and stayed there for no particular reason. Young men walked down the street eating whole cartons of gourmet ice cream. Others donned gas masks, starting shooting photos, biked down to be near the wreckage, renewed their dependence on alcohol and cigarettes.

I had a moment of disgust at someone jogging but then again, how was that different then myself, pouring a stiff drink at noon? I went downtown in a bus crammed with people from the local community college, who were jamming the back doors to be let on.

A school teacher from Harlem told me that when she heard the news she did not want to tell her students what had happened as they "were already short on hope". It took me an hour and half to get downtown – the National Guard directed traffic. I heard mothers tell young children that "a plane had been stolen by bad men". The crazies seemed even crazier: they were moaning, clapping and hitting themselves. My friend called them "our psychic sentinels".

My friend and I tried to give blood but the hospitals had stopped their donations earlier -- we envied the doctors and nurses who had some social value at a time like this. When we walked back from the hospital, every television in every electronics store had a horde around it. At the bar, the hipsters of the Lower East Side drank beer and watched the bombing of Afghanistan in silence. It was odd to see the thick rind of Manhattan's sleek lifestyle economy tear open, to see the celphones being used for ends beside finding the best apple martini on the block, the Park Avenue antique places shuttered.

When evening came, I saw a beautiful sight – a Latino family in an empty garden lot watching more of the horrible news on a giant colour television, surrounded by candles of mourning. Who would they and I and all of us New Yorkers become in the weeks to come? It is now the morning after and I sit in the Lower East Side, and even three miles from the wreckage, there is the intense smell of burning, still emanating from what will be our most indelible destructions.