Date: Thu, 13 Sep 2001 18:39:12 -0400
Subject: News from ground 0.1

Thank you again for your support and e-mails. Nana and Geoff are both accounted for, so I haven’t yet learned of someone close to me who has died. I still pray for those I haven’t yet heard from, of course.

Yesterday afternoon I wasn’t in the mood to venture into lower Manhattan, so I went to the United Artists Theater at Union Square to see a movie. The sign on the doors said they were offering "A Day at the Movies;" free popcorn, free drinks, free movies.

It seems like a small gesture, maybe even an easy promotional gimmick, but it was honestly touching. Just a simple nice thing from a stranger at a time like this can mean a lot.
I saw "American Pie II," which was exactly what you’d expect, and perfect for my needs at the time. I saw fifteen minutes of "The Musketeer," and walked out, mostly because it sucked. I saw "L.I.E," which really was well done. Then "Tortilla Soup," which wasn’t nearly as bad as it could easily have been. The theaters were packed, as you can imagine, and it felt marvelous to laugh together with my fellow New Yorkers (sounds really sappy, don’t it?) and temporarily forget the nightmare.

This morning I didn't feel too bad, so I got my cameras together and got on my bike and headed downtown. At the 14th Street blockade, I showed the policemen my free-lance writer credentials, and my driver's license and they let me through.

I'm used to the East Village being so quiet now. It’s really nice. First Avenue has about one car traveling uptown every few blocks. At this time of the day, it should be full of traffic. Now it’s just police cars, official-looking SUV’s, not many ambulances anymore.
There are plenty of people on the sidewalks, however. If you live here, you can get through. People are walking around, but there isn't much to do. Just a few corner groceries and cafés open.
At Houston, again, the police are only allowing people through the barricades who live or work downtown. I can't remember why they let me through, but they did. At Canal Street, it was much more difficult. I had to try three or four barricades. Seeing the Japanese-language side of my freelance writer card, one of them must have assumed I had business in Chinatown and waved me through.

It's especially strange to see Chinatown so quiet. Almost no cars on the streets, almost all of the shops closed, Asian-Americans and immigrants walking with handkerchiefs over their faces. Then, in front of a fish and vegetable market, a flurry of activity, packing, unpacking, tossing, cutting, bustling as only Chinatown does.

There was a huge line at a newsstand, for Chinese-language newspapers. Can you imagine how would it would be to see coverage of this all on TV, and not be able to understand what the announcers are saying? (Well, at times, it would be nicer, I’ll admit.)

At 09:30, in the park down near the jail, one group of old Chinese men was already playing dominoes around a card table, a dozen others looked over their shoulders and commented, as they would on any other day. More men were arriving and setting up tables. Usually the men here are pretty hostile to cameras; I suppose quite a few have dubious immigrant status. But today, they didn't seem to mind my camera so much. Across the park, a handful of old Chinese ladies was gathered to talk. They were still camera shy.

I rode my bicycle down along the east side, near the water, until I found an unguarded treet that led into the financial district. By now the wind had shifted, and an area of downtown that used to be right in the middle of the smoke and dust plume was now under blue sky. I rode through the canyons toward Wall Street. It was peaceful and quiet, much like the morning after a light snowfall. It even looked like the morning after a snowfall, except that the snow was gray. (For those of you who have not been in the city in the winter, New York City snow is white when it first falls.)

All the cars and trucks had a coat of gray, and there were messages on the windshields. "No bombs," "God Bless America," and "Wash me."

The only movement was service vehicles, going about their own business. Trucks from Verizon, Con Ed, the MTA, and every once in a while, a street sweeper, earnestly sweeping by, leaving a film of gray mud behind.

I stayed out of the way of anything that moved, and rode towards Wall street. No one lives here. There is no excuse for being here, but once you've made it into this area, everyone pretty much leaves you alone. I saw a couple of other people taking pictures, but mostly it was a very lonely, dusty, eerie place.

I came upon three National Guardsmen in full combat fatigues and helmets. I asked if I could take their picture, and they agreed, posing nobly at first, then, perhaps thinking about what their commander would think of them posing for a journalist, one of them said, "Just one," and they all struck a more nonchalant pose.

Perhaps the strangest thing I saw in the financial district, was a man wearing a dust mask, walking with a broom and one of those long-handled dustpans, the kind people that theaters and amusement parks use. He was stopping when he saw pieces of paper in under or on top of the dust and sweeping them into his dustpan.

At Wall Street, I stopped and gathered up a couple of film containers of dust. It's surprisingly fluffy. Something in-between actual snow and the stuff you find in a vacuum cleaner bag. Where the street sweepers have past, it’s a slippery squishy muck.

I turned and went up Wall Street to the Stock Exchange, where there was absolutely no activity other than a police barricade. In front of the Federal Reserve Bank, the statue of George Washington was still standing, of course, but now coated in the dust of the World Trade Center and everything that used to be in the World Trade Center. His upturned hand is outstretched in front of him, as if he wants to say, "What’s this?"

The National Guard has set up a small camp in the otherwise empty Battery Park. The Guardsmen were extremely touchy about photographs and told me to stop taking pictures. At the north end, a few distraught pet owners were allowed pass into the innermost area, (but not into the collapse-danger area), with escort. I tried to piggyback with them through the barricades but they turned me away.

A man walked by me towards the water with what appeared to be a huge parrot. Shockingly colorful and large. It actually turned out to be a huge parrot. The man said he had to speak to a lot of people for a long time, but eventually made it through to rescue his buddy.
A few yards from the National Guard barricade, I spoke with a homeless man who was curled up on a bench, pretty much all alone in that part of the park.

"How long have you been here?" I said.
"I've been here for years, man!" he said.

He and I talked for a while. He spoke about something he called, "visine" which she said the emergency crews were spraying all over everything ysterday and which made him puke, and he spoke about people running from the explosions with "bricks on them." He was very concerned about flying bricks. I can’t blame him. Usually, you don't have to worry too much about bricks. But nowadays it doesn’t sound so crazy.

Take care, friends. Mind the bricks.


 © Kurt Opprecht, 2001

back to Articles