I was in love with New York at first sight, with a view as iconic as it was clichéd, and utterly breathtaking. It was 1994, and I was being driven to the city by a friend. You can get surprisingly close to Manhattan without seeing it, and just as dusk was falling we turned a corner in Queens and the whole midtown skyline appeared as if by magic.
Right in front of me, across the water, was the Empire State Building, silhouetted by the enormous, deep red sun that was setting in self-consciously picturesque fashion behind it. It was a long shot worthy of a Woody Allen film, but with a sheer material presence that made the composition all the more audacious. I was gone.
And the thing about that 'as if by magic' moment is that it keeps happening; the sudden postcard image of vast skyscrapers emerging from behind a more everyday view is an appearing trick that the city never quite stops playing on you, even when you know it's there. Take the B or D train to Brooklyn and all of a sudden you're over the water, with all of downtown on one side of you and the Brooklyn Bridge spanning on the other. Or look behind you as you escape midtown traffic onto the Queensborough Bridge. Or, best of all, drive along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway towards the Manhattan Bridge. Do it at night. You'll come out from downtown Brooklyn onto the road under the Promenade, and in an instant all the lights of lower Manhattan appear in a dizzying rush of skyscrapers and water. It might just be the most beautiful view of the city. At least it used to be.
Tuesday 11 September
The sky in New York City is a shade of blue that doesn't exist in Scotland. It's deep and bright and completely cloudless. On 11 September, it was perfect, an insanely beautiful day. I was having breakfast when we got a phone call from the street: 'Look out of the window'.
I did so, at first looking north and seeing nothing of any interest. Then I looked downtown and started yelling. I was living in Greenwich Village, and the living room window looked directly down the west side of Manhattan. I could see World Trade Centre 1 billowing with smoke, what looked at the time like a terrible accident, a huge fire cutting across the building. As I was watching, the second plane hit, and a cloud of orange fire exploded from the near side of World Trade Center 2. For those who saw it later, on television, this was the moment at which it became clear what was happening, but at the time, my brain was not yet processing cause and effect, motivation and politics. All that we could understand was the impossible reality of what we were seeing, right there, outside the window.
In the hours that followed, the reality outside the window and that inside made occasional attempt to connect. My boyfriend took off on his bike with a camera, shooting off reels of film, while I walked to the West Side Highway where thousands of downtown office workers were making their way uptown in an unending column. Locals mingled on the street, mostly not approaching those walking past. They were quiet for the most part, shocked, but some were talkative and many were trying unsuccessfully to get cellphone signals.
Feeling a bit ghoulish, I went back inside, where the security guard told me the Pentagon had been hit. A group of us went to the roof, and when we got there, the first tower had gone. Another guard chased us off the roof, so I went back downstairs where the television was on. On the screen, a tower began to buckle and waver. A replay, I thought, of the collapse I didn't see. Then I realised the picture was live, and rushed back to the window. I saw the second tower fall, both from my window and on television. It is uncanny when what you can see on television is identical to what you can see from your window. Score one for reality.
Later that morning, a friend who had been at work in Manhattan and couldn't get home to Brooklyn came over with her brother. My boyfriend's father, who had lived through the war in Germany, went to the supermarket and bought enough food to last through a siege.
I spent the day trying to get an outside line to phone home, but there was no service outside Manhattan, much less to Scotland. We all sat in front of the television until we couldn't take any more, and then we wandered the streets with no real purpose. Since we were below 14th Street, the area was sealed and the streets were completely empty of traffic. Most businesses were closed, though a few remained open, presumably those whose staff lived in the neighbourhood.
I sat for an hour or so in an Italian cafe in the Village with my boyfriend's mother, drinking gin and tonics and eating calamari. The cafe was packed. I heard my name called, and saw a colleague from work. We don't know each other very well, but we greeted each other like long-lost friends. It was good to see a familiar face. That night, we heard military planes flying low along the Hudson River. Even though I knew they were US Air Force planes, I flinched each time I heard one.
Wednesday 12 September
My boyfriend decided to look for a newspaper, and so we set off north to find a store that was open. When we reached 14th Street, we realised just how separate our neighbourhood was: the downtown avenue was closed off with a large police roadblock, and a dozen or so state officials were checking IDs at the barrier. We asked if we would be able to get back in, and were told that we needed some document that proved we lived there.
Above 14th Street, things looked relatively normal, although only relatively. We accosted anyone we saw with a New York Times, asking where they had found it. One woman had walked from 80th Street down to the newspaper's office in Times Square, and then just kept walking to 23rd Street. Did she have any actual reason to be this far downtown? Or did she just set course south and keep going? Who knows, but she found her paper. We got one more easily, finding a kiosk in Chelsea with a fresh consignment and a lengthy queue. We bought three newspapers: two for us and one for a homeless woman who had got in line but had no money for a paper.
Later in the afternoon, I went with a group of friends down the West Side Highway, which is where the various rescue workers' vehicles were coming back from ground zero. A large and straggly crowd had gathered. As police, fire-fighters, EMS people, doctors, nurses and construction workers drove by, we cheered and clapped. This was a typical West Village crowd, with a lot of younger people, and many gay men.
As one woman commented wryly, this is the first time you'll see people cheering the cops on Christopher Street. New York cops have not enjoyed a good reputation in the last few years, and many of those applauding them that day had probably walked with me the year before on anti-police brutality demonstrations. In fact, this crowd felt a little like a demo, with the same sense of camaraderie. What was different was the outpouring of positive emotion. While some of the vans drove by us, others slowed right down, allowing people to shout individual thanks to the workers inside. At one point, a fire engine came by, and in front of it a single fire-fighter in a wheelchair. Injured, but apparently not badly, he wheeled the chair slowly up the highway, to rapturous applause and heartfelt thanks. By this time, we knew how many fire-fighters had not made it out.
That week, everyone was buying postcards of the World Trade Centre. Of course they won't run out in the long term, since more can be printed, but people were behaving as if the pictures, too, would never be seen again. Every postcard and poster shop had placed their World Trade Centre images in the window, and some had raised the prices. I looked in one popular store on Bleecker Street, only to overhear a woman haranguing the owner for doubling his prices on those pictures. I left, and in another shop down the block ran into a couple of women also searching for images. I told them not to go inside the price-gouging place, and we compared the pictures available.
On Houston Street, a market stall was selling black and white framed art prints, almost all World Trade Centre views. Some fashionable girls held the photographs up, deciding on a panoramic night view. I looked in vain for a photograph taken from Brooklyn, and in the end bought only a few colour postcards, holding off on the framed print until I found the right point of view. That night, my boyfriend's brother turned up with a bag full of postcards that he had impulsively decided to buy. The whole city seems to have been seized by the desire to own an image of the buildings.
Walter Benjamin described the mechanically reproduced image as an attempt on the part of the masses to bring things closer, in the way that, for example, prints of paintings make the world of high art available to all, but remove in the process the unique aura felt in the experience of the original object. The fierce desire to hold close the most degraded touristic images of the lost buildings certainly attests to the popular appeal of the reproduction, in which New Yorkers en masse experienced a need for proximity, but it also implies something further about the power of this kind of image. Benjamin describes the aura of an object as a question of presence: the experience of theatre in which the audience shares the same actual space as the actor, or the original artwork, seen face to face. But there is also an aura in photography, in which it is the missed encounter with the original object that compels the viewer. Here, it is the absence rather than the presence of the object seen that is powerful.
For Roland Barthes, this temporality defines the photograph. He points out that the photographic image always comes from the past, physically recording a moment in time that is gone. The most basic element of photography, he says, is the 'that-has-been': in other words, the temporality of loss.
Speaking of a 19th-century photograph of a condemned criminal, he describes the strange situation for the modern viewer, whereby the subject of the image is at once already dead and is going to die. It is this doubled temporality that makes the cheery picture postcards of the World Trade Centre at once so painful and so desirable. The aura of the buildings, once experienced only in the awe of standing beneath the sheer scale of their physical presence, has now become a function of their absence, and the photographic image of what once was has been transformed from a mere copy into a precise index of this loss. For New Yorkers, the World Trade Centre was above all an image; the view that orientated us, that told us which way was downtown, the view from the airport that told us we were home. In buying a postcard image, we are exchanging the aura of the original for the aura of the photograph, and in doing so we are able to experience mourning for what has so quickly become the past.
Thursday 13 September
My first day back at work: by that point I was desperate to get out of the house. Two days of sitting in front of the television, hardly seeing any people, had made me feel worse rather than better. I walked across town, staying below 14th Street for as long as possible. I couldn't explain why, but somehow the cordoned-off, deserted streets of lower Manhattan felt easier to manage than the bustle that continues further uptown. The Village has never been better named than in those days without cars, where only those who lived and worked there were on the streets, smiling at each other as they passed. The lack of traffic was astonishing: I could walk across Fifth Avenue without even looking. It would have been beautiful if you could forget why there were no cars. When I reached Sixth Avenue, I carefully avoided looking downtown. It was the first of many un-views to be navigated.
Friday 14 September
The wind changed direction, and the air outside began to be filled with the smell of the World Trade Centre. It's a hard smell to define, like burning rubber mixed with plastic dust, but quite distinctive. Once you have smelled it, it is instantly recognisable. Some people wore face masks on the street. Near my work, it was bearable, but further downtown it became oppressive, choking.
I went to work again, but couldn't have done anything constructive even if I had wanted to. We had no long-distance phone lines and no internet connection. We could have phoned film production companies within New York City, but none of them were working either, and besides, it just felt wrong. After half an hour, our boss told us to go home, and so my department went to the pub, where drinks were half price. It seemed by far the healthiest thing to do.
Afterwards, I passed a vigil in Union Square park, where sheets of butchers' paper had been laid out for people to write messages on. Prayers and expressions of grief mixed with a disturbing number of violent anti-Arab comments. In the park, the dominant mood was peaceful, with old-style hippies singing 'Give Peace a Chance', and alternative kids playing bongo drums and dancing, while others draped in American flags lit candles. The vigil was a sincere expression of pain, but the pious expressions of political pacifism struck me as somewhat glib under the circumstances. A more disturbing response of belligerent patriotism was also visible on the streets. Right after the vigil, I chanced to be walking with another non-American when a large SUV drove past, draped in flags, with patriotic slogans painted on the windscreens. Beefy white men hung out of the windows.
One of them yelled 'God bless America!' in our general direction, followed by the vaguely threatening query, 'Are you American?' I think he meant it rhetorically in the sense of 'join in – aren't you American after all?', but it felt distinctly uncomfortable. We responded, 'No, we're not American actually, you have a problem with that?' But we did it quietly.
In the weeks after the attacks, patriotism appeared to triumph over protest, with American flags ubiquitous, every second person on the street sporting a flag, badge, sweater or ribbon. Unattributed posters appeared on bus shelters and walls, with images of the Statue of Liberty, reading 'God Bless America'. To a foreigner, and to many Americans too, it quickly became oppressive, this constant semiotic demand for a political solidarity and a sense of national identity that we didn't feel. At my office, red, white and blue ribbons were handed out. Only a few of us didn't wear them, and we felt under surveillance, anxious that we were being noted as unpatriotic. But if the American flags carried unappealing ideological implications, everyone could stand behind the other symbol that appeared across the city: the 'I love New York' poster. Soon, businesses were displaying its new incarnation: 'I love New York more than ever'.
But more than the overt symbols of solidarity, what really touched New Yorkers were the missing posters, pinned to walls all over the city, and remaining long after it became clear that none of these people were missing, all were simply dead.
Many writers have commented on these posters – they are the most striking way in which the enormous loss of life has been understood on a recognisable level by those who live here. These posters were everywhere, pinned to every lamp-post, every bus stop. I saw the same faces repeatedly: Roger Mark Rasweiler, Stacey Cho, Sneha Ann Philip, and I came to recognise them from a distance, like acquaintances.
The other recurring moment of pain is to come across a fire station. Our local fire station lost nine men in the attack, but every station I have seen in the last weeks has become a memorial, a focus for public appreciation and grief. Their forecourts are filled with flowers, children's drawings, letters and candles. In my Little Italy neighbourhood, there are also many Virgins and saints. On one downtown station, there hangs a banner, several storeys high, covered in messages of support from the state of Alaska.
Everyone has a World Trade Centre story, and everyone you talk to tells you their story, or the stories of their friends. By degrees of separation you hear so many narratives, spread across the city, and it doesn't matter any more whose they are. It was one friend's wedding anniversary. Another friend was on the subway when it happened, going to Brooklyn, and was probably underneath the World Trade Centre moments before it was hit, although she didn't find out until half-way through the class she went on to teach.
Someone else, working in midtown, heard when her mother called her office from Turkey, checking that she was alive. An acquaintance was, like many of my colleagues in the New York film community, in Toronto for the film festival there. He heard by email, in a hotel room, and didn't believe it until he turned on the television. One relative of a friend worked on Wall Street, and was held in his building when the planes hit the towers, not allowed to leave. He looked out of the window and saw people jumping, one after the other and then too many to count. Eventually, he had to turn away. 'It's not like it was on TV,' he said.
By October, life in New York was returning to normality, or at least making a pretty good show of it. I worked at a conference for independent filmmakers, went to restaurants, shopped. The New York Film Festival went ahead, although some of the European directors scheduled to attend cancelled at the last minute. Even more encouragingly, pockets of resistance appeared: some of the 'Giuliani for Mayor' posters were graffitied, with a 'not' added. Everyone agrees that the mayor has done an astonishing job, and his popularity is deserved, but these anonymous acts of political refusal reassure me that the city retains its spirit.
This new normality is also characterised by moments of utter strangeness. One evening, while I was sitting with friends outside a restaurant, waiting for our table, a man walked by carrying gas masks for sale. They were obviously very old, Korean war perhaps or even second world war era and by all accounts utterly useless in the event of a gas attack. My friend told us how scared she was of biological terrorism. Then we got our table, and went inside for pisco sours and margaritas. That weekend, I was unpacking boxes, having moved house in the midst of all this madness, when I checked my email and read that the US and UK had bombed Afghanistan. Great. Now my friends don't seem quite so paranoid; perhaps we are all going to die.
The bombing having escalated, people were getting nastier. The anthrax cases in Florida, Washington and New York were causing alarm and the news media were gearing up for full scaremongering mode. Here, there seem to be more sirens in the streets than before, but I suspect we are just noticing them more, as New York has always been a noisy place. This alertness to potential danger, even just potential events, is a new and apparently more lasting effect of the attacks. Sirens, lorries rumbling, helicopters: all the city sounds that barely registered before are now keenly felt, if only as Pavlovian twinges of fear.
By late October, the anthrax panic had started in earnest. People started talking about little else and anthrax became both a verb and an adjective (he got anthraxed, anthrax this, I'm feeling anthractic). At work, the new routine became clear: the receptionist sorts the mail wearing latex gloves, distributes it to individual pigeon-holes, whereupon all the rest of the staff pick it up with their bare hands and open it as usual. Everyone in New York seemed to have a cold this week, and those suffering have described it as 'just a touch of anthrax'.
A lot of people are talking about moving away from New York. Most of them probably will do no such thing; talk of moving away is a way to cope, a reaction to feeling trapped and scared. A few are actually following through. I can't imagine leaving here though. New York feels like home, in a way that nowhere else outside of Glasgow does.
In fact, New Yorkers are a lot like Glaswegians – they're rude and sarcastic, and they swear a lot. They are also incredibly friendly and talkative. People who live far from New York have told me that I am brave for staying here and carrying on with life as usual, but I don't think bravery is the issue. For the first time, I understand why so few people moved away from British cities to avoid the Blitz. We are far from experiencing such ongoing trauma here, but these events remind us similarly of why we choose to live where we do.
I chose to be here because of everything that makes this city unique. One Saturday night in September, I was walking home late when I heard a very drunk man in the street shouting 'I love New York'. I couldn't help adding 'me too' under my breath.
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