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The Changed World: The Slow Healing of New York’s Wounded Soul

Sometimes, awaiting sleep, or on walks along the river to the Battery, pieces of the day come back. They are never in any order, since memory is a highlight film. But there again are the people, tiny in the high distance, leaping into the empty air beside the smoking North Tower. There on Vesey Street, on the corner of Church, is an immense tire from one of the planes that smashed into the North Tower, and, beside the curb in front of a luncheonette, a pair of women’s shoes and a spilled container of coffee. I can hear the screaming sounds of emergency: sirens, bells, blurry bullhorns. I hear the young policeman telling me: “They just hit the fucking Pentagon!” I see the burning South Tower begin to lean to the east, as if trying to cross Church Street, then right itself, to come straight down in a blinding, thumping eruption of smoke and dust, accompanied by a high-pitched eerie choral sound that must have come from humans falling to their deaths. And in the opaque whiteness, I’m trying to find my wife, Fukiko. Right behind me. Except she isn’t. And I’m shoved into a building, and Fukiko is not there, and I can’t push back through the crowding mass, and the glass doors lock behind us. I’m trapped, with two dozen others. And where is my wife? Fukikooooo.

After 20 trapped minutes, I hear a glass door smashed by a fireman. I step into the whiteness of the changed world. The white tombstones behind St. Paul’s Chapel. The whiteness of Broadway and City Hall Park. White trees. White sidewalks. I am again entering the doorways of stores. Calling my wife’s name. I enter a whitened bus where some of the injured have been taken. She’s not there. Then I am walking north on Broadway, and reach our block below Canal Street. I unlock the front door. Across the vestibule the elevator stops, the doors slide open. There she is. Alive. She had come home, trying to find me. We weep and hold each other tight.

That first night, and in the days that followed, we experienced something sensually new to all New Yorkers: the stench of death. The fires were still burning at Ground Zero, as they would for weeks, and the air was stained with the odor of melting steel, burning wood, burning plaster, burning paper, and the burning fragments of smashed human bodies. If you lived in Westchester or Wasilla, September 11 was a very different experience than it was if you lived in downtown Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn across the harbor. The prevailing winds in those first days carried dust and stench to the east. The stench would be there when you passed into sleep. It was there when you awoke.

And yet, on September 12, New Yorkers began finding their way to work. I know one short-order cook who came all the way from Sunset Park by bicycle—and kept doing so for weeks. Others car-pooled and walked. Work, after all, has always been the most important four letter word in New York. On the days after the mass homicides, there was a kind of heroic fatalism in many people, allied with defiance.

There was also an eruption of public patriotism, which was unusual for New York. The city’s inhabitants don’t often wear their flags on their sleeves. Suddenly there were flags in many places, painted on walls, attached to cars and trucks and flagpoles, emblazoned on jackets and sweatshirts, many accompanied by the letters fdny or nypd. Within hours, a new set of proper nouns had entered our vocabularies: Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, Taliban. And the abrupt language of retribution: “It’s time to kick some ass,” one ironworker said to me.

The local, national, and international media did extraordinary work in those weeks when we did not even know the number of the dead. They told many stories of spectacular human courage and decency. Along with the role of chance and luck. Thousands of people in the towers survived, and thousands died. We still marvel at those firemen and rescue workers who ran into the buildings while others were running out. At the same time, volunteers came from all over the country to help feed the workers, to let them know that other Americans were grateful for what they were still doing (often without masks, because they had been told that the air was safe). For the first time in years, New York felt deeply connected to the rest of the country.

And the city was soon covered with a new kind of wallpaper. The details were always different, but those sheets delivered a common message: Have you seen this person? Most were computer printouts, but some were photocopies of hand-lettered pleas for information about those who were still missing. Most of the subjects were young. Almost always smiling. They appeared on walls and billboards, in streets and subway stations, or tacked on trees in Union Square. All exuded a collective sense of forlorn hope.

In the weeks ahead, there were too many funerals, too many bagpipes. Slowly, the flags vanished; the improvised murals succumbed to weather and grime. The clerking of the disaster went on, counting the dead, examining DNA from splintered fragments of bone and shreds of flesh. Some demanded compensation for their losses. How much was a husband worth? Or a daughter? Others raised fundamental questions: Why do they hate us? And: What happens now? The answers were always vague. Conspiracy theorists and blame-gamers began raising their voices.

Meanwhile other, more positive men and women began to appear, on the Internet, in small groups, then at larger, more public meetings. They were conceiving visions of the future on those 16 obliterated acres, hoping, through design and art, to create a meaning beyond mass death and fanaticism. Proposals ranged widely: from a simple park, with a tree for each of the nations that lost citizens to the horror, to an exact re-building of the World Trade Center. The process, of course, was often afflicted by the permanent New York habit of contention. Angry, self-righteous, exhausting. Soon, there was an ongoing war in Afghanistan, the goal of which had morphed from finding bin Laden to nation-building. Then a second war, this time in Iraq. Most New Yorkers lost interest in the future of the downtown site or the competing versions of what for a long while was called the Freedom Tower and is now 1 World Trade Center. They got on with their lives. I was one of them.

These days, I often pass the site in my wanderings and have flashes from the highlight reel. I move among tourists, foreign and domestic, as they point gadgets at the rising floors of 1 World Trade Center. Some were ten when the towers came down. On some days, I glance at Vesey Street, see those woman’s shoes again in my mind’s eye, that spilled coffee cup, that immense tire, and hurry home to my wife.

Pete Hamill is a veteran journalist and author of 21 books, including 11 novels. This piece ran in the September 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.