September 11, 2008

Manhattan, six months after 9/11

(Part II of the video documentary series Manhattan Moments, written, edited and produced six months after 9/11)

It’s mid-winter, but on this clear, breezy morning, Manhattan seems to be celebrating spring already. In the car, navigating through rush hour traffic, the windows are rolled up and it’s hard to feel how cold it really is outside. And, as we drive down West Broadway, it’s hard not to miss the familiar silhouettes, now missing from the skyline at the far end of the street.

Looking out the window, I remembered the colorful flowers that graced the sidewalks in the weeks that followed that clear Tuesday morning in September, the yellow ribbons that fluttered like bird wings from ornate metal fences around the city, and the flags that flew, high and proud, everywhere.

The flowers are now gone from the sidewalks in front of firehouses and police stations. They no longer bring color to street corners, where people spontaneously congregated in the days after September 11th, and piled them up in vibrant memorials with mementos and prayer candles.

As we wonder through lower Manhattan’s tight grid of streets, I wonder where have all the flowers gone. And just then, my 13 year old son calls my attention to some “Hippie Flowers” — as he dubbed these plain squiggles of paint that seemed to pop up, unexpectedly, on the sidewalks, under the hurried footsteps of passers by. And all of a sudden we realize that the city is in full bloom already.

More flowers, in abstract strokes of oils or pastels, artistically framed for display at gallery windows. Flowers, in bright orange, pink and red already herald the new colors of spring fashion in all the hip boutiques.

New York is getting its color back. In Chinatown, the Year of the Horse is greeted with festive gold and red decorations, strung around streetlights and sway gently from buildings in the neighborhood. Other colors are gaining a prominent presence over the red, white and blue that filled the carts of street-vendors just months ago. They seem to replace the flag pins, T-shirts and helium balloons that made us all feel New Yorkers, with exuberance of colors and sights that make New York a city of the world.

The flags seem to be fewer and smaller, tucked casually alongside End of the Season Sale signs, or almost hidden from view on a top-floor office window, or fastened loosely to fire escape balconies of tall apartment buildings. They all seem now so small and frail, battered by winter winds and rain, toned down by the grit of the city. And different Stars and Stripes have now taken place on Ralph Lauren’s mannequins and Tommy Hilfiger’s window displays and, American and proud as ever in their red, white and blue, they resonate a powerful message that America moves on, that life goes on. Sending a well-branded message that perhaps we should wear it rather than let it wear us off.

And I realize — the flags are all still here with us. They have just been removed to different places in our lives as we all try to move on. And the flowers haven’t really gone anywhere — they came to bloom, as they do every spring, reappearing everywhere — from stylish window displays to blunt sidewalk graffiti. Fresh flowers now bloom in a colorful array, in a fashion much reminiscent of the ’60s message of Love and Peace. That naïve message we thought to have lost as America’s Flower Children grew older.

The dark days of fire and smoke rising up from the enormous pile of rubble of what used to be the World Trade Center, have cleared up to a beautiful morning. Six long months later, as far as the eyes can see, not one cloud looms on the horizon.

The only plumes of smoke now rise up in light puffs from the subway vents on the ground.

And there, at Ground Zero, where New York is slowly digging itself out, bulldozers are still moving earth. Emergency workers, digging in the deep hole where the Towers once were. They still struggle to separate ashes from ashes, grapple to make sense of the rubble for all of us.

“We work around the clock, 24 hours a day,” told me one policeman, as he monitored pedestrian traffic around the Viewing Platform.

Every day now, scores of people, viewing tickets in hand, cameras dangling down the shoulder, line up in groups of 300 to every 15 minutes of watch time from the newly built Viewing Platform. They point up at the emptiness in the sky, zoom in on the dump trucks carrying loads of debris, aim for a tight close up of that breath-taking reflection of the remaining skyline on the Hilton Millennium’s blackened windows, across from Ground Zero. And they pause to read messages left by others on the plywood sidings of the platform, and to leave new ones of their own.

Tons of steel from the crumbled Towers are still trucked over to the Fresh Killings landfill in Staten Island, sometimes loaded directly onto barges in the Hudson River, before being sold to mills in far away countries, like China and India. In a recent radio interview, a senior Vice President of a New Jersey company that handles such trading in scrap metal, described steel as one of the most recyclable composites on earth, saying this is what makes it a commodity in our industrial society. Asked if it bothered him that it could come back to our lives in another form, he said that, in his opinion, this is all about moving on with our lives.

Still, I don’t think I will ever look the same way again at the rows and rows of stainless steel faucets that line up the display shelves at the local Home Depot outlet.

A day later, from the safe perspective of the New Jersey shore, one can just feel where the Towers once stood, poking high into the blue. Their massive presence is absent from the linear skyline that separates earth from heavens, radiates shocks of phantom sensation, so real and painful, like lost limbs that were once part of a wounded body.

I thought of that policeman I talked to near the Viewing Platform. I asked him if he thought New York was getting back to normal. He said, looking up at the huge, blue opening in the sky, that “It will never be the same.”

And I watched airplanes in the distance, weaving slowly through the jagged skyline that will never be the same. From the New Jersey side, you couldn’t see that in Manhattan, new flowers were already in bloom.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: