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The Sidewalks of New York

Visit to a changed city


I have decided to reject everything that, directly or indirectly, makes people die or justifies others in making them die." -- Albert Camus, The Plague

NEW YORK -- Two days after terrorists demolished the World Trade towers, a Norwegian journalist named Simen Saetre took the subway downtown and recorded an unimaginable consequence.

"The subway is sacred to New Yorkers," he wrote for Oslo's Aftenposten. "It takes you where you want to go. People read, eat, put on makeup, and talk to the person next to them. But all of it with a certain dignity, a toughness, a 'don't screw around with me, I'm a New Yorker' attitude. But today people sat and sobbed silently. Right across from me sat a big Hispanic man holding a woman, who was crying. An old lady was reading the New York Times and blinking with red eyes. A man stared at the floor, and I looked at him, and he was crying."

If you never lived in New York, you have no idea how strange it is, this public weeping in the subway -- every bit as bewildering as the permanently emasculated skyline. In New York even the legions of the lost, the wasted street people, specialize in truculence when you might expect sorrow. But everything has changed.

I discovered it myself, three weeks after the terror, when a young woman dressed like a banker fell into step beside me -- on Park Avenue -- and began to share her fears, her insomnia, the workday she spent walking in the park because she couldn't force herself into the elevator to her office on the 54th floor.

In a restaurant on Madison Avenue, an elegant-looking older woman was seated next to me on the banquette. She started a conversation about our children and ended up confessing that her stepfather had sexually abused her. Even when I was a bartender, in a late-night place catering to actors, I never heard anything like that from a perfect stranger.

Wasn't it the same in Europe during the World Wars, when ordinary inhibitions seemed irrelevant to people who knew any evening could be their last? Manhattan used to be a poker-player's town; everyone wore the face that seemed most likely to win the hand he was playing. The flames that consumed the World Trade Center burned the masks off these New Yorkers. God knows how long it will take to grow them back.

I confess I never loved this town. Ours was no love/hate relationship either. More like hate/grudging admiration. Manhattan is a town for big dreams, for people who crave fame, power, wealth and glamour a little more than they ought to, a little more than ever seemed healthy to me. A low-energy daydreamer from the Appalachians, I enjoyed the spectacle but never once thought their fight was my fight. In the decade I worked here, I managed to blame New York for my drinking, my depression and my ragged marriage. A psychiatrist from Louisiana, who looked like Vincent Price but might have been an angel, set me free when he told me I wasn't crazy, I was just an incorrigible hillbilly who hated the city and ought to go back to some benighted village green where I belonged.

Over the years I came back here for what I needed -- old friends, art galleries, restaurants, the World Series, the US Open. But I seldom overstayed a long weekend and sometimes "acted funny," as my wife observed, as if the person I used to be here might come back and reclaim me if I stayed too long. But on this trip it was New York that was acting funny, and I felt pity -- incredibly -- for the town that taught me pity was for chumps. Thousands dead, most of them unburied, a financial hemorrhage estimated at $100 billion, 80,000 jobs that vanished overnight; downtown neighborhoods that may never recover, spectral anthrax spores floating through the smoking ruins. At Ground Zero, fires that will not be extinguished and a smell an old woman who survived Auschwitz said she had hoped she'd never smell again. What does it take to bring an urban colossus to its knees?

New York is like the big, loud, overbearing, overconfident guy you used to know but never liked a lot. You forgive him quickly when you find him wounded and stumbling, bloody and scared. You get no satisfaction from his fall. The City shell-shocked is like Napoleon on St. Helena, a heartbreaking lesson in hubris. I'm sorry for all the mean things I've written about New York. I'd take them all back if I could.

New York's singularity is in the details. There are designer jeans now with inseams that start just south of a woman's pancreas. If a man pulled on a pair of these jeans and started walking uptown at, say, Fifth and 50th, by the time he reached 54th Street he'd be a man no longer. From Radio City through Rockefeller Center, meditating on fashion and sado-masochism, I followed a tall young woman with one of the highest inseams ever recorded. As we turned up Fifth Avenue we fell in alongside the Columbus Day Parade, the city's first public celebration since September 11 and the one event all year that draws authentic outer-borough New Yorkers to the Avenue that sells nothing they could ever afford.

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