September 24, 2001
Reporting from the scene of the fall
It has been a week now since I sat here at my desk in Brooklyn and wrote
to many of you about that days events. My purpose was simply to
tell you that I was OK. Bodily safe. My purpose now is to let you knowas
much as to let myself knowhow I am doing otherwise. To tell you
that I am, like most of the city and much of the country and many of you,
emotionally drained and psychologically stunned and mostly just very,
As I wrote before, I spent most of last Tuesday in lower Manhattan feeding
interviews with survivors and injured victims and rescue workers back
to the Times. It was all about facts, documentation and details
that were grisly, ugly and true.
On Wednesday the city was deserted, but I walked to work again. I had
to. I had to walk. But more, I had to work. I had to help. This time at
the Armory, where people who were missing a voice in their house or a
body in their bed had begun to gather with photos of their loved ones.
I collected fliers of smiling faces on their wedding days, mischievous
lovers-of-life caught mid-swig at a party, proud professionals sitting
for a studio photograph after getting that coveted job. And I talked to
those brandishing these papers like they were playing rock, paper, scissors
and could trump the still-smoldering mound of steel and cement with a
color copy. I could hardly fathom the hundreds I held in my hands. How
many more hundreds of handfuls would we have to hold?
I anticipated a pall to be laid over the tragedy with a tally, something
concrete to put the mind around so as to grasp the severity of the attack.
But it was almost worse that no numbers came. There were only comparisons168
in Oklahoma City, 2,403 in Pearl Harborand the gut-wrenching certainty
that there would be more in New York.
Without an empirical barometer for the severity, I found myself trying
to intuitively understand from what I could see and smell and feel, with
my mind getting caught in a loop of conditioned normalacy that was no
longer there. All Starbucks were still closed, but Macys was open.
The city was officially closed south of 14th Street, but the movie theater
on 12th Street was busy. Some subways were running, but not with full
service and not all stations. Most restaurants were open, but the few
people who ate out were mostly in low-lit, womblike places that were eerily
quiet. The acrid smell was getting worse. I still hadand still do
haveonly one television station, one radio station and no long-distance
from my landline.
New Yorkers are now able to walk the streets and shove into one another
without melting into the person theyve bumped, their eyes searching
to see if theyve shattered an already splintered soul. But it has
taken a good many days for us to become so comfortable.
Eye contact is not part of the physical vocabulary of New Yorkers. And
yet on those three hazy days after the fall, it was the primary way we
could absorb the catastrophe. To absorb that it was a catastrophe.
I came to understand when I saw a man on a stoop staring vacantly smoking
a cigarette. We looked into each others eyes, and he asked me how
I was. I told him I was not doing so good. He said he was tired, too,
and gave me a hug. The catastrophe sunk in when there was a woman next
to me on the train crying. I looked at her; she looked at me. I held her.
Without words, we parted.
I became concerned about the extended family of Palestinians who run
the delicatessens along the main street in my neighborhood. They are my
normalcy, my Ben and Jerrys at 2 a.m., my paper and coffee in the
morning on my way to work. One man had been visiting his family in Ramallah
on the West Bank at the same time I had been traveling Israel a year ago,
and I had gone to stay with them for a few days. He had been troubled
for my safety while I was in his country and had protected me from incidents.
Now here, in this country, I feared for the safety of him and his family
and felt compelled to protect them from a backlash against Arabs. The
day after the attack their eyes betrayed a Kafkaesque confusion of waking
up to be indicted in a heinous crime they didnt commit and couldnt
even understand. I spoke to them in the Arabic they have taught me, like
I do every evening when
At the Times I was placed on the news desk, where I have been
ever since, working with the editors of the national desk as a liaison
to reporters across the country. The investigation was dawning in Florida
and Boston and Oklahoma, but the sky between the news and our correspondents
was still silent.
I found myself calling the correspondents in Houston and Atlanta and
New Orleans and telling them just to get in their cars and drive toward
Florida: We dont know where youre going, just head toward
I have been logging 13-hour-plus days at the office tracking the investigation,
plowing through the weekend without much of a break. Getting reporters
where they need to go. Scouring the wires for more arrests, more leads,
more connections. Assigning stringers to go knock on doors surrounding
abandoned apartments. Dealing with documents that list the birthdates,
drivers license numbers, addresses, credit-card numbers and American
Airlines Frequent Flier Advantage numbers of 19 dead terrorists. At this
point, my knowledge of the event is so skewed: I cant tell you what
stage they are in removing the rubble, but can tell you that Marwan
Al-Shehhi lived at 3389 Sheridan St. in Hollywood, Fla., and bought a
one-way ticket to Los Angeles from Boston on Travelocity.com on Aug. 26.
The general consensus at the Times is that this is a long haul.
War is the word on everyones lips, tucked into sentences that trail
off with the staggering power of the unknown.
But the air has changed. The rains washed away the smell of wreckage,
and these past few days have been as sunny and bright as any. People are
talking, and organizing, and banding, and honoring, and gathering together.
We are only beginning to see the ramifications this has on our society,
and there will be far more good than bad, as difficult as that is to believe
A societal near-death experience like this strips not only a society
but a person down to a basic operating procedure. And mine has been primarily
objective. As the week went on, and I wore down, I have become more emotional.
Like on Thursday night, when the rain came and the thunder, and I found
myself sobbing in my bed, quite simply afraid of the dark. Or listening
as the man on the radio recounted that his daughter had set up a lemonade
stand to collect money for the people we are lighting candles for.
Or hearing about the final phone calls of those who died on planes. And
phone calls with you. Just hearing your voices.
Thank you again for all of your thoughts and concern this week.