Alissa Quart: I kept bicycling to escape the smell, the fear...

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How could we go to sleep on this day, in which the world as we knew it had inconceivably frayed? All over the city, people were extremes of their ordinary selves – my friends and I were getting drunk on the Lower East Side, listening to the President's speech on a transistor radio, attempting to make sense of the nonsensical. We cracked the occasional perverse jokes to keep our spirits up: What is the Pentagon called now? A rhombus.

We wondered what our parents would make of it – one friend's father had survived the Second World War, another's mom, as a child, had walked the long march from North to South Korea during the Korean War. It seems much worse to those of us in our twenties: in our lifetimes, cataclysms that have affected us directly are few and far between. Our images of terror derive from bombings of far-off lands and disaster films. Perhaps there would be no more disaster films ever after this, we wondered. How could there be?

While the news programmes continued without advertisers interrupting, we fantasised that perhaps this would be the end of television advertising as well. It was the first time that the American media apparatus had an event more terrible then its own rhetoric of horror, an occurrence that contained more stories then the city's thousands of reporters could put on the agenda for remedy.

We all slept in our friend's one-room, cold-water flat, afraid to be alone, the television playing softly in the background, but we woke up several times in the night. At six in the morning from Kathleen's roof, you could see the stumpy rubble place where the towers had once stood like urban guardians: in truth, they had seemed like a dream before, a silvery dream of modernism and capital. Their absence was that dream's negative image.

Waking up, we could barely contain ourselves. The grey cloud had travelled to the East Village and the smell of burning filled our lungs. We combed the streets for a New York Times, touched to see shopkeepers at bodegas and crappy "99 cent" stores flouting the closed-below-14th-Street rule (all commercial activity is banned in that area). The Times was sold out everywhere – we heard people who found copies were hiding them so others wouldn't get jealous. Delis bore the legend "No Bread, No Times, No Lotto". We imagined briefly that we were in Kosovo.

Some of the paper-seekers whisked around on bikes in a city now strangely empty of cars. Bikers were consoling, but they weren't the only signs of normalcy. New Yorkers' habits reasserted themselves – couples rollerbladed, the fashionable ate polenta in the cafés on the avenues. I too participated in the return to normalcy: I went to yoga where a wide-eyed woman told me classes had been cancelled because of the asbestos from the burning, contorted metal. "Imagine deep breathing asbestos!" said the yogini, in a pained fashion.

The burning smell had indeed gotten so horrible by twilight that the yellow gas mask I had purchased was an absurdity, a tonka toy in the swirl of apocalypse.

Still wearing the high-heeled shoes I had worn as I left my own house in a Pompeiian flurry two days ago, I bicycled on empty streets past Washington Square, where a crowd was singing "Kumbaya", to the West Side Highway, where a far louder and more jingoistic band of citizens had a different response – "USA!". Which chant would win out in the long run?

To get away from the smell, the fear, I kept bicycling – through Central Park, a lush diamond still untouched, and on to West Harlem. Here on 120th Street, I decided to stay with friend. Here, I felt safe. The Creole restaurant was open. Crowds of men congregated on the stoops of brownstones, reliving the news to one another; hip hop played loudly from the few passing cars. Life was going on.