Alissa Quart: Invaded by tourists of the grotesque

New York: Day 8
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It is hard to feel our grief any more without foreboding. What is Washington doing with our emotions, and what of all the American flags? The wound of New York has been turned into cannon fodder. People are realising this now. Signs stuck around Greenwich Village proclaim: "Our tears are not a cry for war." On Nassau Street, near the corpses of the World Trade Centre buildings, people roam the wreckage, partially out of perversity but partially out of an attempt to reclaim the loss, to take it back from the television coverage that dubs it "Attack on America".

They exit at the City Hall or Fulton Street subway stations, to mom and pop shops covered in dust, where Korean-American beauticians are back at work, albeit with lady-like face masks. My stomach tightens as I see people digging in the vats of debris or taking photographs of it – touching piping and brick as if they were talismans. Are they tourists of the grotesque?

The crowd files in orderly lines past police barricades, clustering at the corners where you can get a sidelong view of the burnt Mobius strip that was the World Trade Centre. They clamber over fences at the Federal Hall building to take photos of a pile of burnt Xeroxes, tangled with asbestos dust, poke at pieces of stationery that flew out of an office, standing on one another's shoulders, to get a better picture.

"I was curious to see how my country is reacting to such destruction. You have to see it for yourself for it to hit home," said a tourist with a video camera hailing from New Orleans.

"I feel guilty to be down here but this is the only way I can get to feel this and make it seem less surreal," Lon Hutchison, a native New Yorker, told me as he smoked a cigarette, Mad Max-style, near the ruins, his camera bobbing around his neck.

A former flight attendant ("From United!" she says tearfully) has come down here with her husband, an investment banker. They explain that they are refusing to snap the burnt husk of the World Trade Centre, broken windows of other financial buildings, or the fire-darkened Trinity Church. "We are here to take pictures of the flags but no ruins," said the husband, gesturing at the huge flag wrapped around the New York Stock Exchange, his eyes wet with tears. "I have worked in this area for 25 years and it is like going to a cemetery."

As the tourists place their Hard Rock Café bags on the ground in order to fix their apertures, a Con Edison truck cruising past reads: Osama Bin Laden: Dead or Alive. The urge to tell one's own story has brought Jennifer Drue, a documentarian, to the scene but it is not only here that the New York survivors observe and confess.

Posters around the city now encourage us to tell our story in church meetings or grieving sessions – there is even a website for this new trauma literature. What else would one expect in this, the city of psychoanalysis? A friend's analyst has just told him that we are all coping with castration, a neutering.

For me, as I stand before a pre-postmodern building that has now gone pre-modern, turned into an archaeological dig, I think that the twin towers were as much a mother and a father as they were phallic symbols. What would become of these tall parents, born on the year of my birth after an eight-year gestation.

Would they be allowed a proper grave site? An urbanist suggests to me in conversation that the site should house the Frank Gehry museum. The other options seem grim indeed: a Donald Trump tower or a reproduction of the original towers.

Squinting at the twisted ribbons of metal, I recall how a tightrope artist, Philip Petit, once crossed and recrossed on a rope slung between the two towers. I'm suddenly afraid of how this tightrope act of New York's burial and renewal will end.