NEW YORK —It’s said that Sept. 11 happened to all Americans, and it did. But it happened to New Yorkers first, and foremost, and worst. The natural consequence of living with a jagged-edged pit of busted concrete, twisted steel and broken glass was a steady chipping-away at their nicer sides, which weren’t so pronounced to begin with. “Rot in Hell,” the New York Daily News headline said above a picture of Osama bin Laden.
New Yorkers love their home town, but it’s safe to say they love it more complicatedly than a home-towner loves Kansas City or Detroit. With the news that bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces, three bankers for UBS — Dennis Jakubovitz, Bill Masella and Carole Vosseller — made the trip to Ground Zero to pay tribute to the fallen World Trade Center towers, telling their boss that it was a “historic” day and that they wanted to be a part of it. “Bring me back a falafel,” he replied.
At lunchtime, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) stood at a lectern in the midst of the hectic construction site where new buildings and a memorial to the Sept. 11 victims are going up. The mayor, small in gray pinstripes and surrounded by construction workers with faces like beefsteaks, struggled to be heard above the sound of whanging and the beep-beep-beep of large machines backing up. A dozen cranes swung at various angles, blowtorches flashed white fire, hydraulic drills hammered. Guys in hard hats and muddy boots and tool belts that chinked stood on steel beams and wood scaffolding to listen to the mayor, who seemed to catch the grim satisfaction of the city just right.
“This is a day we shouldn’t forget that 3,000 people died,” he said. “It’s a little hard to have a smile on our faces.” Then there was the reality that bin Laden’s death didn’t lessen the threat of another attack. “Whenever a terrorist is captured, he usually has a map of a big city in his pocket, and the city is usually New York,” Bloomberg said with resignation.
The construction, the mayor said, was a “rebuke” to the terrorists. “Nothing will ever return our loved ones — but we are rebuilding from the ashes and the tears a monument to the American spirit. New York’s way is ever forward, ever skyward. . . . Today, let the spirits that are all around us know some peace and justice.”
But on the dais with Bloomberg was Anthoula Katsimatides, who wasn’t feeling much peace or justice. Her brother John died 10 years ago in the middle of his work morning at Cantor Fitzgerald. Katsimatides heard the news of bin Laden’s death while watching television with her mother. “I cried for quite some time because, you know, this doesn’t bring my brother home,” she said, a tear running down her cheek.As for whether bin Laden’s death was justice, “I think that’s for God to judge.”
Another death, no matter how deserved, couldn’t restore the lives or the buildings or the peace. There was still a ragged hole in the sky where the towers had once lunged upward. Before Sept. 11, if there was a crack in the city, it was because it was jackhammered there. Disaster was a crane falling. The danger was from within, not from without. Menace was in the bushes and behind the rocks in Central Park, in alleyways and stairwells and subway tunnels. Rodents, molesters, muggers. Trouble was transit strikes, sanitation strikes, teacher strikes and blackouts. In the early 1970s, as the twin towers were being built, the city stank, and it churned, and the rest of the country despised it, as it would discover in 1975 when President Gerald R. Ford (R) refused to give it a bailout. As the Daily News headline said back then: “Ford to City — Drop Dead.”
But New Yorkers were proud of where they lived and knew the virtues of it: It was a grit-encrusted survivalist camp, and yet a soaring spire, and to be from it meant to be savvy and resilient. Sure, ground was hard, but it glinted with mica, and we asked ourselves: What other city had dirt that gleamed like silver dust?
After Sept. 11, all that changed. Every day for months the rescue and recovery workers pried up the giant, twisted pieces of steel, exposing the core of fire. And plumes of smoke would shoot into the air. New Yorkers felt the wreckage within their hearts, a seemingly endless interior hemorrhage. The posters of the missing fluttered from kiosks and chain-link fences and concrete walls. Brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, cousins, friends. Skyscrapers of loss. The enormity of it would hit at the oddest times. New Yorkers would weep in taxis,their eyes watered on trains, or sometimes they just stood still in the middle of the street and cried.
But they also met the attack with defiance. “Watch,” a union worker at Ground Zero said just two days afterward. “We’re going to build it back.”
On Monday, Dan Smith, an electrical engineer who works at the Ground Zero site, took a cigarette break while behind him Caterpillars and hydraulic drills roared, and a new building loomed, already more than 60 stories high and climbing. “Everybody feels we’re doing good, memorializing the loss,” he said.
Across the street, pedestrians paused at Fire House No. 10 to stare at a bronze relief sculpture commemorating the attacks. Some laid bouquets of flowers under the names etched into the bronze. Among them was Lenny Cresci, a former New York police officer. Cresci saw a lot of things on the beat in the 1970s, worked his share of murders and street gang shootings, saw plenty of people killed, “but nothing overwhelmed me” like Sept. 11. He lost his brother John Cresci, a fire department lieutenant, that day. Cresci laid a bouquet of red and yellow roses on the sidewalk by his brother’s name. Lenny’s first thought when he heard bin Laden had been killed was “elation,” he said. Bin Laden “being dead kind of closes the books on him. Nobody will be visiting his tomb.” But then the reality set in. “Tough day,” he said. “Tough day. I think I cried more today than on 9/11.”
Tourists gathered to stare at the raw plaza. There was a brief commotion when sirens sounded: A manhole cover had exploded nearby. Some firefighters strung up yellow tape and told everybody to stay back, but New Yorkers shrugged. It happens.
Steve Archipolo, a mailer for the New York Post, grandson of a World War II veteran, contemplated a New York free of bin Laden. “He was a pimple,” Archipolo said.
Ryan Beckley, a 21-year-old student at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, stood at the gates of St. Paul’s Chapel holding a sign quoting John Donne. “Any man’s death diminishes me.” He found it difficult to vilify bin Laden given the “infinite complexity” of the world, an attitude at which various passersby sneered. One called him “a moron,” and another told him to rot, and another simply said, “[Expletive] you, idiot.”
Behind Beckley was the churchyard that had been a haven for the families of victims and for relief workers. A Vietnam veteran and National Guard sergeant named Mauro Bacolo stuck an American flag in the graveyard dirt. Bacolo, who served two tours as a Navy signalman in Vietnam, wished they had caught bin Laden alive. “I wish they’d of captured him and locked him in Guantanamo and every morning he had to listen to the ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ and every evening he had to listen to ‘God Bless America.’ Every day.” Nearby, Ramiro Reyes, a 22-year-old retired Navy petty officer and now a plumber from Spotswood N.J., wore a jacket of his own design. On the back it had 9/11 embroidered with a slogan, “I Don’t Forget, I Don’t Forgive.”
Meanwhile, next to him, a young man with a guitar sang John Lennon’s peace anthem, “Imagine.”
In St. Paul’s, the crowds wandered observantly through the aisles, which held a series of memorial displays. There was a pile of teddy bears collected for bereaved children. There were the service badges of the relief workers who had grabbed a few hours of sleep in the pews. There was an altar completely covered by snapshots of victims, with rosary beads, crosses and mementos fashioned from the metal of Ground Zero.
At this altar, a man in a gray cloak clasped his hands and rocked and chanted. He was a Buddhist monk named Dong Sun Sunim from the Bodhi Mind Zen Center in Teaneck, N.J. He prayed for the strong hearts of the firefighters. He prayed for the safety of the construction workers at Ground Zero. He prayed for the spirits of Sept. 11. “Ignorance hurts many people,” he said. “Bin Laden is ignorance.” Then he stepped outside into the street. The sky was slate gray and lowering, but the gloom was good, he said, because the clouds held the spirits. “Good for spiritual,” he said. “Good for pray.”