Living in New York City on 9/11

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War zone a surreal haze

Pictures 'don't begin to convey the horror'

By Jason Shepard

The Capital Times, September 13, 2001

 

NEW YORK CITY — Today I head back to my classroom in the South Bronx to explain the unexplainable to my seventh-grade students — some likely with relatives among the presumed dead in the rubble of what used to be the World Trade Center.

 

This city of 8 million people has been turned upside down by madmen who aimed to attack the freedom of America. To a degree they succeeded. This city has forever been changed.

 

I'd heard several people say that southern Manhattan looks like a war zone, but it wasn't until I saw it with my own eyes on Wednesday that I truly believed it. The pictures on television don't begin to convey the true horror of what has happened here.

 

My journalistic instincts drew me out of my apartment Wednesday, after New York City schools were shut down, and I spent about six hours walking around Soho, Greenwich Village and Tribeca -- the three neighborhoods just north of the World Trade Center buildings.

 

To the north, the bright blue sky gave the appearance of a beautiful late summer day in the Big Apple. But to the south, dark clouds of smoke covered the sky where the twin towers once stood.

 

As if the images were coming from the wartime Balkans, scores of people walked the streets with shirts and scarves covering their faces to prevent them from choking on the dusty air. Many people had white masks covering their faces. As I returned to my apartment in Washington Heights late Wednesday, on the northern half on the island, my eyes stung and I couldn't stop coughing.

 

The city was eerily silent Wednesday, as if the majority of New Yorkers had packed their bags and left town. The southern third of the island, below Houston Street, was closed to traffic, and people were slowly strolling the streets in a daze. The hustle and bustle that characterizes this busy city were nowhere to be seen. The only sounds were emergency vehicles, which sped by in every direction. Occasionally I would hear a fighter jet overhead.

 

It was simply surreal. 

 

I started my morning on West Street, which runs along the Hudson River across from New Jersey. That is where authorities are using ferries to transport the bodies of those who are found in the piles of steel and debris.

 

I met up with a television news crew from WKOW/Channel 27, and it was a nice reunion to see former colleagues from Madison. The small hellos to familiar faces were a little more significant after an "act of war" happened not far from my home.

 

At Pier 40, the media were organized by the New York City Police Department, and from there we could see the south Manhattan skyline up close, covered with clouds of smoke. It is breathtaking to see the gaping hole in the skyline that is left in the absence of New York City's two tallest buildings.

 

The West Side Highway is being used as the main thoroughfare for emergency vehicles, and for blocks New Yorkers lined the streets to applaud every truck that drove by. Between the applause, no one really talked to each other.

 

I spotted one young woman sitting alone on a piece of concrete. She was applauding each time a truck passed by.

 

"This is my city. I don't know what else to do," Claudine Zamor, 30, told me when I asked her what brought her out to the streets.

 

"I tried to volunteer today but they told me they didn't need any more. I just felt like I should be here to show my support. You feel kind of helpless just sitting in front of your TV."

 

I asked her if she was afraid.

 

"I'm not going to live my life in fear," she said. "It just makes me sad that our society has come to this, that someone is so disturbed to be able to do this."

 

I sat next to her for a while, watching the trucks of relief workers, police officers and firefighters go by. Then I walked along Houston Street, which runs west to east on the island and is about 20 blocks north of "Ground Zero." It was the point at which authorities stopped letting people walk south.

 

I walked past an elderly man who was carrying a 6-foot pole with a full-size American flag. He didn't want to talk to me when I approached him and asked why he was out today. "There were a lot of people who died yesterday just because they were Americans," he said with a scowl before walking away. I wondered if he was a veteran, maybe a survivor of war himself.

 

There were many stories like this. In Washington Square Park, a popular hangout in Greenwich Village, hundreds of New Yorkers tried to enjoy the beautiful day but could only stand the dirty air for short periods of time. A group of about 50 people gathered near a fountain and shared stories about people they knew who worked at the World Trade Center. A middle-aged couple sat holding hands on a park bench while reading the Daily News with its screaming headline, "IT'S WAR."

 

Nearby, three wilting sunflowers were stuck on a metal fence in a make-shift memorial. Next to them was a sheet of white lined notebook paper on which someone had written in block letters, "Life goes on. It's just a little different than before."

 

Today I'm hanging an American flag in my classroom. It just seems like the right thing to do. I don't quite know how to talk about this attack with my kids, but I do know that I have to. On Tuesday afternoon, I decided I couldn't teach my lessons anymore. I needed to know what was happening to our country. My students huddled around a radio. Clearly they didn't understand the magnitude of what had happened. But the questions started to quickly come.

 

"If terrorists took over the airplanes and drove them into the World Trade Center, wouldn't they die too?" David asked me. "I don't understand it. Why would they want to die?"

 

Lashanya, another student, asked me another question that I struggled to answer.

"Why does someone hate America so much that they would fly an airplane into the World Trade Center and kill people?"

 

How do you explain this to seventh-graders when you can't find a rational answer for yourself?

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A new normal

Sights and sounds from a changed New York

By Jason Shepard

The Capital Times, October 15, 2001

 

NEW YORK CITY — Just when the routines of life seemed to have gotten back to normal, the past weekend's bombings in Afghanistan sent a second wave of fear through this already jittery city.

People had strangely gotten used to the sights and the sounds associated with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and some went about their lives with almost a collective numbness to the tragedies around them - from the lingering smells of the rubble that spread across this island to the news of thousands of funerals still continuing today.

We got used to the boosted police presence around potential terrorist targets. My bus ride home into Manhattan from the South Bronx, where I teach, runs past Yankee Stadium, and on Wednesday night I stopped counting police officers when I got to 300. If any scene reminded me of what a different city this is, it was seeing the streets of the South Bronx overtaken by police in preparation for a baseball game.

We've gotten used to the small inconveniences. My bus ride home used to take 20 minutes. It now takes as long as an hour because police have such tight restrictions on the traffic flow across the bridges and in the tunnels that connect the island of Manhattan to the rest of the world.

By this past weekend, restaurants were again being filled and the lines for Broadway shows had gotten longer. But on Sunday, I was in a stationery store in midtown Manhattan when I noticed people scrambling to a radio to learn about the bombings. A middle-aged couple quickly paid for their purchases and said they didn't feel safe being out shopping. I boarded the subway and headed home, too, not really in fear, but to be honest, not totally free from fear either.

It was one month ago that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were demolished by terrorists, bringing to a halt the manic Manhattan pace of life.

For days, this city and its people were under a haze, not knowing what to do or what to think. I spent the Saturday night after the attacks in Union Square Park in Greenwich Village with hundreds of strangers, who were lighting candles and singing hymns and painting signs and posting peace symbols.

People cried as they read flier after flier announcing the missing, each of which had its own sad tale. Others cried at the thought of more death that war would inevitably bring. People sang together songs like "Give Peace a Chance" and "Imagine" by John Lennon.

Slowly though, things here got back to normal. The bridges and tunnels reopened and Manhattan was again accessible to the rest of the world. The subways and buses resumed. There was even the business of politics to take people's minds off terrorism, although even the election for a new city mayor struggles to make headlines here. People seem a little afraid to turn over the helm of the city to someone besides Mayor Rudy Giuliani (who is barred from running again by term limits). We've christened him our counselor as well as our commander.

I spent my birthday two weeks ago having dinner in Little Italy, dining outside with a magnificent view of the Empire State Building, which was lit in red, white and blue. The smell of the rubble that was the World Trade Center still lingered in the air, but you sort of became used to it.

Police barricades downtown have also become a regular sight. A week ago, I walked along several blocks of barricaded streets in Chinatown and Soho. I hardly thought about them as I went about my shopping.

While returning to normalcy has become a goal for New York City, the terrorist attacks, and the fear of possible new attacks, are still close to the surface of consciousness of many people. The other night at a bar on the upper west side, a group of law students talked about where they were when the planes struck. Last Monday afternoon at a coffee shop on Amsterdam Avenue in the same neighborhood, college students tried to study but watched CNN instead, learning details of the second day of airstrikes. One of them talked about returning home to California if "something else" happens in New York.

At P.S. 166, where I teach, things got back to normal within days of the terrorist attacks. I thought my students would be shocked and captivated, but my seventh-graders were amazingly untouched by the horror.

One of my students lost an uncle in the attacks, while several others were blessed to have their relatives among the survivors. One girl wrote in her journal that on Sept. 11 she sat quietly in my classroom thinking that her dad had died. He worked on the seventh floor of one of the towers.

He managed to escape, but I can't imagine her fear as she thought about the alternative.

In the wake of the attacks, my students struggled with answering the question of why someone would want to kill so many innocent people. We talked about our feelings a lot, and we studied the issues surrounding Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan. We wrote in our journals often, and my students spent two days asking themselves what it must feel like to be an Arab or a Muslim living in America today -- feeling subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination and having your patriotism and loyalty questioned.

 

I have a remarkably diverse range of opinions in my class. Students like Jonathan and Aungelique support a strong military action and were pleased to see the bombings begin this weekend.

 

"I think this bombing was appropriate," Aungelique wrote. "The Taliban and Taliban followers deserve the bombing that occurred. The Taliban destroyed the World Trade Center. We destroyed part of their land and I don't care. Innocent people died here. We wanted revenge."

 

There are others like Selena, who says she's confused by it all, seemingly wanting the horror to just go away. She is afraid the bombings will prompt "the people who are against the United States ... to strike back and maybe even kill more innocent people. I don't feel safer now (that) they have bombed Afghanistan because now I know they (are) going to attack America."

And then there are students like Maricela who don't know why violence always has to be matched with more violence.

"I feel OK about the bombing but at the same time I feel sad," she wrote. "I have learned to never hurt the people back but even though the people had killed thousands of people some other people had nothing to do with the attack. They are suffering badly and children are poor and they are running from the battle."

They might be seventh-graders, but the range of opinions and feelings in my classroom model those of the rest of the nation.