September 20–27, 2001
Monday mornings are a bedlam unto themselves in this city of 8 million hyper souls. But on this Monday morning, just six days removed from the end of the World Trade Center, nearly 6,000 lives and life as we know it, the usual Monday morning bedlam is several notches more chaotic.
For the first time in six days, Wall Street is up and running. For the men and women who work in that war-ravaged section of the city, who’ve made the decision to move forward and go into work, getting there is no easy feat.
Outside Penn Station, on Seventh Avenue, the first sign that something here is different are the taxis.
Or lack thereof.
The usual yellow sea of taxis has dried up to a mere trickle, forcing a long line of some 50 would-be taxi fares to stand around, waiting. Some people mutter, some people glance at a time-telling device of choice. But most people just stand there, dazed as they come up for air on a very new business day.
Swept along by the heavy current of commuters pouring out of Pennsylvania Station onto the sidewalks of Seventh Avenue, I arrive above ground and walk to the back of this quizzical queue.
I look at this line of oddly calm commuters and decide that while they are uncharacteristically in no rush to get anywhere, I can’t wait for a taxi.
The subway is the only way to get downtown in some semblance of a post-apocalyptic hurry.
So it is back into the bowels of Pennsylvania Station, hustling to the downtown lines, which I have not ridden since the days of the tokens. Standing in another line, also calm, with nearly everybody looking at each other with patience and camaraderie, even as people futz with the MetroCard machine.
Standing next to the entrance of the lines that run all the way from the Bronx into Brooklyn, three Metropolitan Transportation Authority volunteers in bright-orange safety vests guide people to where they need going, quickly answering questions and moving people down the line.
I am not sure exactly where the front lines have been established for the rescue crews who have been digging through the still-burning wreckage, digging in increasing vain for friends and loved ones, colleagues and many, many strangers. So I hop the first train leaving the station.
This rickety old red 1 train is far from state-of-the-public-transit-art, but it is running.
For a little bit.
Then it stops. Another train in front of us, no big surprise on a morning like this.
A few frantic souls share a photocopied map of the routes as they exist. Many men and women, sitting or hanging on to the metal straps, glance intently at the Wall Street Journal or New York Times.
The train starts up again. Whizzing south past 28th Street, past 23rd. Past several signs for the now-delayed Schwarzenegger terrorism blast-it-up Collateral Damage.
The 1, usually headed for Brooklyn, on this morning ends at 14th Street, where I hop the next subway into another adventure.
We are stuck. Five minutes, 10 minutes.
All the while, the train’s loudspeakers blare an eerie, ultra-slow-motion voice of a conductor. Some passengers just shake their heads and laugh. The people who’ve been nervous — like the woman sitting next to me whose steely blue eyes bugged out at previous interruptions in progress — look terrified.
When the train pulls into Fulton, I know that it will be far quicker on foot, so I get off and emerge into what can only be described as Armageddon Mardi Gras.
The intersection of Trinity Place and Fulton Street, a pre-9-11 crossroads of world commerce, is now a dusty mess of metal barrier fencing where cops and soldiers, many still wearing respirators, carefully examine the identification of anyone wanting into Ground Zero.
The air is still thick with acrid smoke and pulverized cement as each peak around these canyons of sorrows reveals glimpses of what is now a twisted tomb of crushed girders, piles of rubble and widely scattered body parts.
Shopkeepers hose down their stores and sweep out the last layers of muck as office workers, disaster tourists and a small army of journalists squeeze past each other, the bizarre procession taking place to the accompaniment of Sousa’s "Liberty Bell March" — better known as the Monty Python theme song — blaring from speakers overhead.
In a scene that will play over and over, for several months to come, the cops and the soldiers check and triple-check personal and company IDs, limiting access to only those whom they are satisfied live or work near the still-smoldering mayhem.
It is even tougher, here anyway, for press. My Philadelphia Police press pass does not impress.
"You need one of our passes," says an Officer Lynch, very kindly, not busting chops, but to inform.
He explains that, at present, the waiting line for said passes was six hours.
A woman from a Spanish network pleads with Lynch to let her in. "We have flown all the way here."
Lynch, very politely, repeats that there is nothing he can do, pointing us all to police headquarters, a bit of a schlep.
Before we disperse, a reporter from the Houston Chronicle gets in line to show her mustard-yellow, issued-by-the-NYPD press pass.
"The line is now 11 hours to get these," she says before being let past the barricade.
Eleven hours will put me past 10 in the evening.
I troop over to the Brooklyn Bridge, a high spot where I need to reconnoiter.
Looking through the intricate wire mesh that holds up the beauteous bridge’s long span, I search for a route that will get me to the blast zone.
South Street looks promising; maybe I can walk that, or even catch a boat.
Walking back down toward Manhattan, I see a man walking Brooklyn-bound, with the aid of a cane. He wears an "I Survived the Attack" T-shirt. His journey comes to a halt at a certain point on the bridge, about 10 yards from the first glorious arch.
"My son is a paramedic," says the man, who introduces himself as Rene Montalvo. "He knew the first woman paramedic killed in the attack. She was a beautiful woman. A gorgeous blond."
Montalvo says the woman, Jamel Merano, worked with his son, a paramedic for Jacoby Hospital who has been digging through the debris, looking for survivors and finding only scattered bits and pieces of the dead.
"I am very proud of my son, Michael," says the 60-year-old Montalvo, who was born in Puerto Rico but moved to New York when he was three."
Seeing my camera, Montalvo, a retired doorman by profession, tells me he, too, likes to take pictures.
The reason he has stopped here, he tells me, is that this, until Sept. 11, was his favorite place to shoot pictures of the twin towers.
Looking over, at the space where they once stood they once stood, Montalvo vows that his city will be resurrected.
"I love New York," says Montalvo, who lives in Spanish Harlem. "God made New York No. 1, and we will be No. 1 again."
part 1 | part 2