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Hal Crowther 

Sidewalks of New York

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 have 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 Great 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 day-dreamer 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 U.S. 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 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 Sept. 11 and the one event all year that draws authentic outer-borough New Yorkers to the avenue that sells nothing they could ever afford.

St. Patrick's Day for Italians was a bright fall day with a cold wind off the river. Marching bands led a hundred red-white-and-blue-decked floats up Fifth, floats bearing off-duty policemen, firemen and sanitation workers, union officials and politicians, neighborhood beauty queens, Italian fraternal societies and Catholic guilds. They waved and nodded but they didn't smile so much, not the way they might have smiled another year. And the people on the sidewalk who rode the subway in from Brooklyn and the Bronx, the people wearing unfashionable, chain-store jackets you never see on Fifth Avenue--these people on a nervous holiday weren't smiling at all.

What you might not understand if you've never lived here is that the New York of cops and firemen, of Rudy Giuliani and Mets fans and Columbus Day parades, the New York we've been seeing on TV--this is not the same New York the world visits for business and pleasure. Manhattan, epitomized by the gilded mile of Fifth Avenue retailers, is a tourist attraction. It's the revenue mill that makes the real city possible, as Disney World supports Orlando. Manhattan is a source of renown, of income and of genuine pride, but it's not where most real New Yorkers live or even much visit unless they commute. Many of the city's uniformed employees live in Staten Island, which few visitors ever see. One parochial school on Staten Island lost nine alumni in the Trade Center disaster. Belle Harbor in outermost Queens, the beach town where American Airlines Flight 587 crashed Nov. 12, had just buried the last of 12 residents it lost on Sept. 11.

Most Manhattanites are too rich, too poor or too weird to fit comfortably into the middle-class ethnic amalgam that dominates Greater New York. Midtown has always been an international place, and when I ducked into the Plaza Hotel to get out of the wind, into the new bistro they've carved out of the Edwardian Room, I watched the rest of the parade with a glossy selection of affluent foreigners. They included a South American woman wearing a mink worth more than a year's salary at the NYPD.

Out on the avenue, the spectators looked cold and grim, thousands of them doing their duty, showing the terrorists what New Yorkers are made of, trudging up Fifth in the bitter wind against the colors of a million flags, American and Italian. The crowd flowed by, haunted and preoccupied. Head for head, would they outnumber the dead from the Trade Center, the latest body count? I thought of T.S. Eliot's lines from "The Wasteland":

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

Sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled,

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

New York wounded is strange enough to inspire an odd vision or two in an old guy who was young here--visions and generalizations, like the ones I subscribed to when I sold New York short the first time. A weathered writer learns to distrust his generalizations. Generalization, mixed with faith and fire, created those crematoria downtown, burned 3,000 people and 3,000 feet of steel. God, Allah, curse the murderous generalizers, the Horsemen of the Abstract Apocalypse who see a city as a symbol, a symbol to fit into their geopolitical, their metaphysical equations.

My old school friend Howard Kestenbaum--his office was on the 103rd floor of the South Tower. There was nothing symbolic or abstract about Howard. He was short, smart, funny, kind. He was unexpectedly wild when he was young. He lived in Verona, N.J., gave $5 bills to panhandlers and once slept several nights in a homeless shelter just to see how it felt.

"Throughout history, religion--in whatever form--has been a driving force behind war and the deaths of millions of human beings," wrote a Tel Aviv journalist, Yael Paz Melamed, on Sept. 12. The Dalai Lama said once-- I paraphrase--"If your religion increases your compassion, embrace it; if it doesn't, leave your religion behind."

Sometimes I wish all the gods and their friends would just leave us alone. The best thing The New York Times ever decided to publish is its daily page of the victims' faces, their ordinary stories, their families' reminiscences of the things that set them apart. This page has been running every day for months now; I found Howard there on Nov. 1.

Fanatics see nothing but symbols, symbols of capitalism, colonialism, militarism, of governments and religions alien to their own. The faces in The Times keep reminding us that a city is 10 million human beings with names, with lives. Symbols never bleed, never die and leave daughters who tell a reporter, as Kestenbaum's daughter told the man from The Times, "My dad was a good guy, he was a really good guy." EndBlock


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