A New York state of mind
From the 'A' train to the Rainbow Room, a tour of venues that most define New York shows how much the city has changed - and refuses to - 17 days after the attack.
Reported by staff writers Ron Scherer and Liz Marlantes and contributor Harry Bruinius in New York.
'Normal" in New York has never been like "normal" in any other place. This is a city with its own definition of a minute, where a mile is measured in blocks that are walked or sped beneath in dark tunnels dug by sweating forefathers a century ago.
This is a place full of unabashed hubris, the home of the bruisin' Bronx Bombers and the Subway Series, Wall Street's financial powerhouses and Broadway's glitterati.
This is New York, where the mayor is both chief sports fan and premier opera booster. The city that was 24/7 at least a century before this became a cliché.
And it is still New York, although tempered, made a touch wary by terrorist assault. A sudden civility has replaced its legendary brusqueness. People now actually make eye contact on the subway.
A need for community has brought out millions for chats on their stoops or at the corner deli: Even those who like to remain anonymous, as they can in this city more than any other, are reaching out. Others are rethinking their all-work, all-the-time ethos.
But the city's character, its irrepressibility, remains largely intact. Defiantly so, the way it's always been.
Cycles of cataclysm and recovery have shaped New York's history. From the British occupation, through labor riots, rebellions, near bankruptcy, and even - eerily - an earlier plane crash into the Empire State Building. The city has always embodied the purest example of that distinctly American ability to pick up and move on.
Its people, their neighborhoods, ballparks, and theaters tell the story of how the city has changed but remains the same - despite what poet laureate Billy Collins calls the "twin holes" left where the World Trade Center once stood.
Little more than a month ago, the sidewalks in Times Square were clogged with theatergoers waiting to get into the big attractions on Broadway. Most days, the throng swelled so much that people spilled into the streets.
So the mayor devised a solution: He ordered out road crews, who drew new white lines on the street and simply extended the sidewalk into the street. It was a testament to the prominence of the Great White Way and its patrons - an acknowledgment that, when it comes to theater arts, New York is the world's center stage.
But Broadway, like much of the city, closed down in the stunned days following the crumbling of the towers. Concerts were canceled, restaurants shuttered. The emptiness seemed to mock the new white lines.
Like restaurants and hotels, theater productions have fixed costs. If a ticket isn't sold, the theater can't just put it on sale the next day. It's a loss - and there were enough unsold seats in the days following the attack to drive shows already on the edge off the stage.
But indomitable Broadway and the rest of the theater scene are pulling together. Theaters cut rents, authors gave back royalties, actors and actresses agreed to pay cuts.
"Artists are more or less accustomed, reluctantly and resentfully, to going without," says Loren Hightower, who danced in Broadway hits such as "Camelot" and "Oklahoma." "And in that way, they're prepared and resilient."
Within days of the attack, that resilience came to the fore, and the stage lights slowly began to come up.
"We had to get back to work," says Robert Krauss, co-creator and director of "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh," a zany off-Broadway comedy based on Allan Sherman songs. "The cast said, 'We've got to go make people laugh now.' They see that as their job, to entertain and keep spirits up."
The show reopened on Thursday, two days after the attack. There were 21 people in the house that, until then, had been sold out every night.
"I told my first joke and got no reaction at all. It was very disconcerting," says Larry Cahn, who plays "Harvey, et al." "I realized that people were not just in shock, but that they needed to give themselves permission to laugh again."
It took Katherine Constantino 10 days to emerge from her apartment and give herself that permission. Grim as she handed her ticket to the usher last Friday, she said simply, "I need to laugh." At intermission, grinning, she stopped by to report: "It worked. I feel much better now."
The next night, Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera opened its season with a benefit performance for the victims of Sept. 11. It sold out and raised more than $2.5 million.
Standing on stage with the Met's chorus before the curtain lifted, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani spoke: "This is a place of beauty, just wonder, where the human spirit soars," he said. "What you do here, the creation of art and beauty, lifts the human spirit."
* * *
When Dora Mylchreest leafed through the paper last Friday to check the sports standings, she had what her husband calls "one of her brainstorms."
She saw the Mets would be playing in New York for the first time since the terrorist attack. It had been more than 10 years since she'd been to Shea, the stadium in Queens that gave rise to some of her fondest childhood memories.
"I just had to go," says Ms. Mylchreest, who now lives in Lakehurst, N.J., with her husband and four kids. "I'm a New Yorker, and I wanted to show my spirit and support for New York City."
Her husband, Scott, however, needed some persuading, even though he, too, calls himself a die-hard Mets fan. The crowd, the traffic, the long trip to Queens - he'd just as soon catch the game on TV.
But his wife insisted, so they loaded the kids into the car, drove to a train station not far from the Hudson, then chugged through Manhattan and out to Shea.
To those like the Mylchreests who know baseball in New York, the game here is unlike anywhere else. This is where it became the national pastime, where the mighty Yankees still dominate and tradition and lore are as palpable as a Coney Island hot dog.
To this day, many Brooklyn natives still pine for the Dodgers, who left for Los Angeles in 1957. Today, too, the city's large Dominican and South American communities - from which scores of Major League players come - give New York baseball an unparalleled passion and carnival atmosphere.
That the game did go on last Friday was a testament to the city's unbowed determination to prove to itself - and to whoever cared to watch - that it could not be daunted for long. Still, it wasn't an average Friday night at Shea: Hundreds of police and security personnel searched every bag, patted people down, and waved metal-detecting wands over many of the fans as they came through the gates. Despite the long lines, hardly anyone complained, in very un-New Yorker fashion.
The pregame was different, too. There was a tribute to a group of rescue workers and a solemn 21-gun salute to the victims of the attack. Fans waved American flags and gave a rousing ovation for New York police, firefighters, and other city workers. The loudest ovation came when the diamond vision screen flashed up Mr. Giuliani, who is normally booed at Shea, since he is an outspoken Yankees fan.
Late in the game, Mr. Mylchreest allowed that it was important for his family to make it to Shea. "We both feel very strongly," he says, as his sleeping son lay in his wife's lap. "Even though we don't live in the city now, we're still part of the New York metropolitan area, and we can't let what happened alter our lifestyle. If we do, they've succeeded in what they set out to do."
It's a defiant sentiment that most of the 41,235 people who came out may echo.
Yet, when it comes to lifestyle, the Mylchreests may alter theirs a bit, after all: They may make the trip to Shea more often. "We found that ... if we park in a certain part of New Jersey and take the train," Ms. Mylchreest says, "it's real easy to get here."
The firehouse on 85th Street, between Lexington and Third, is smothered in bouquets. In bunches and in buckets, flowers crowd the station's open garage doors.
The blooms are tributes from well-wishers, statements of gratitude for the firefighters who responded to the disaster downtown - and to the nine men from this firehouse lost in the attack.
A lot of the bouquets are from neighbors - people like Maxine Nemzer, who never really felt part of the community - until now.
Living nearby in a beehivelike apartment building for the past five years, Ms. Nemzer says she's felt pretty anonymous. Since the tragedy, she's come by the firehouse every day, and now nods familiarly to the firefighters and their well-wishers.
"The first day, there were just a handful of bouquets, and it's just multiplied in size," she says. "The outpouring's been so great."
All day, every day, neighbors come by to chat, drop off more flowers, or give a check for the 10 children left fatherless.
"I've never seen so many tears, so much gratitude, as in the past two weeks," says Lt. Bob Disanza, amid the cluster of neighbors. "I've been through some of the biggest catastrophes this city's ever seen, and they've changed me. But this, this was a blatant attack on our liberty. It's changed everyone, forever."
* * *
By the No. 4 train, Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn is just a half-hour's ride from the firehouse. It's a teeming place, with a melting-pot ambiance that defines both New York's past and present. It is also home to New York's densest concentration of Arabs.
Until Sept. 11, Arab Muslims, many wrapped in the traditional robe and turban, provided just one more brushstroke of color on the neighborhood canvas. Now, however, the spirit of community is showing signs of strain.
The avenue - though lined with cafes and hairdressers, doll shops and Islamic bookstores - is eerily quiet. Muslim men, mostly in Western clothes now, go into the local mosque, their heads down, and avoiding conversation with strangers on the street.
Xiomara Morgan, an African-American who lost a college friend in the attack, acknowledges she is grappling with a decidedly anticommunity feeling: suspicion.
On Sunday, for the first time since that Tuesday, she set up a sidewalk table and laid out her wares of hand-crocheted hats and headbands. Taking note of all the vacant storefronts in the neighborhood, Ms. Morgan says she hopes Arabs will not rent them.
"I try not to generalize and blame them for what happened, but at the same time, I can't give them 100 percent trust," she says. "Those criminals lived regular lives. They camouflaged themselves so well. It's very, very scary."
While people here are wary, they seem to be coping with their insecurities better than the rest of the nation. If anything, they're more polite than usual, more careful not to offend. Muslims have been targets for harassment or harm across the country, but New York - which clearly has the biggest grievance - has at least had no shootings.
One reason may be that, despite its millions, New York is a collection of villages - tightknit blocks with corner delis and front stoops where the locals gather to soak up the sun and share gossip.
"In New York, you know the local shoe-repair guy," says Kenneth Jackson, head of the New York Historical Society.
That small-town familiarity is what people are falling back on in immigrant neighborhoods such as Atlantic Avenue.
"Everybody's a little scared, looking for what's coming from right or left," says Yahye Alfami, who was at work Sunday at a local car- and limo-rental agency.
But he hasn't felt any buildup of animosity toward himself or other Arabs - only a strengthening of his community's sense of being Arab-American, emphasis on the American.
"People know us here - that we are straight and work hard," says Mr. Alfami. "They try to make us feel comfortable."
* * *
The "A" train that runs from Queens under the East River to upper Manhattan is a United Nations on steel wheels. Each morning, it spirits West Indians, Sikhs, Orthodox Jews, and WASPy investment bankers to jobs in the heart of the city.
Most of them have always been practiced in one peculiar bit of New York etiquette - looking down or into their morning paper. Until two weeks ago. "I've had people come up to me and ask, 'How you coping?' " says Ron Bethea, a conductor and 20-year subway worker.
In fact, all over the 700 miles of subway track, New Yorkers are surprising even themselves with the new bonhomie. "Please," "thank you," and "let me do that for you" now echo through the cars.
At times, the hordes waiting to board a train will let the passengers exit before they rush to get a seat. As the A train leaves Lefferts Boulevard in Queens, two men give up seats for two West Indian women - an unusual act in New York's subterranean world. "I actually caught myself wondering, 'Did they always act like this and I didn't notice it?' " says Peter Derrick, author of a recent subway book, "Tunneling into the Future."
In a way, the new civility seems fitting because the subway is the place where all New Yorkers, regardless of race, income, or ethnicity, all meet. As a result, it is also one of the most telling barometers of the new mood - however ephemeral - of the city.
"Two weeks ago, everyone was looking at their feet and not talking - it was very sad underground," says Mike Doyle of the New York City Transit Riders Council. "Then it very quickly got softer, with people being nice to other people."
The subways are also a symbol of the city's defiant resilience. After the twin towers were attacked, the system was shut down for only about four hours. Gradually, line by line, service returned.
"They really are a symbol of how resilient the city is," says Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign.
Billy Drake is a self-described workaholic. Or rather, he was.
He works in the city's financial district, not far from the place now called ground zero.
More than anywhere on earth, this corner of New York is where the driven, the ambitious, the would-be titans of capitalism congregate to make as much money as possible, as fast as possible.
As Tom Wolfe wrote in the "Bonfire of the Vanities:" "By age 40 you were either making a million a year or you were timid and incompetent. Make it now!"
So, in the minutes after the plane bored into the tower, as the first dervish of smoke whirled into the sky, Mr. Drake did what came naturally: He took action. Instinct, he says, drove him from his own offices to the World Trade Center, where his twin brother worked. As he approached the inferno, one of the towers collapsed.
"I was entombed in soot. I really thought I was going to die," Drake says.
He didn't. Neither did his brother, who was out of town on business. But the experience has profoundly changed Drake, almost as if he had been picked up by his pin-striped lapels and shaken until his priorities were rearranged. Millions of New Yorkers, particularly those on Wall Street, are in the throes of similar reassessments.
"I used to wake up at 3 a.m. remembering things I had to do," Drake says. Now, instead, he wants to spend as much time as he can with his two young children. Sometimes, when he's watching them, he breaks down and sobs. "I truly resent the time we are away from them," he says. "It makes it more important that what I do is not just a paycheck but is meaningful work."
* * *
Marilyn Puder-York thinks she sees a way to reorient the now-discombobulated alpha males and females of Wall Street. She certainly knows the type.
For years, Ms. Puder-York has helped aggressive executives, the so-called masters of the universe, become even more successful. She works among them, in her home office in Battery Park City, a housing complex just south of the World Trade Center. She was in her office the morning of Sept. 11, with a client, when she heard the first plane careen into the north tower.
What happened next left her, like Billy Drake, shaken and looking for some larger meaning. Racing toward the inferno in search of her daughter, who was at a nearby elementary school, Puder-York and her client saw one of the towers collapse. The client ripped off his shirt and used it to protect them from the billowing soot and debris.
The harrowing flight through the ash and smoke, she says, made her realize the importance of having "soul." She defines this as a shift in values from "the pursuit of money to a balanced caring and compassionate empathy for others while in the pursuit of excellence."
That awful day has presented an opportunity for business to change for the better - perhaps become more humane, less cynical, she says. "It's time to get rid of the selfish, narcissistic, bottom-line-only mentality."
Puder-York says business people looking for a model should consider New York's mayor. "He's gone from a perceived bully to an inspiration," she says. "It shows the power of love and the need to be strong, capable, and focused, and it reduces fear."
Can such transformations really happen en masse, though, in a place so steeped in the pursuit of the dollar? Maybe, says Bob Brusca, an economist who worked on Wall Street for many years. "People have gotten in touch with the importance of life."
High above Rockefeller Center, on the 65th floor of the General Electric building, the usual crowd of bankers, lawyers, and media moguls gather for lunch at the Rainbow Room. The dark-suited men and women eat lobster salad and tuna tartare amid hushed conversations, occasionally glancing out at the city that stretches down to the tip of Manhattan, where the two towers used to be.
Architecturally, Rockefeller Center is utterly different from the World Trade Center. A cluster of art-deco limestone buildings, it was never as controversial as the boxy steel towers some three miles south.
But like them and a handful of other famous buildings - the Empire State, the Chrysler - it is a landmark that both reflects the city and offers a spot from which to view it.
From the plate-glass windows of the Rainbow Room, the city's other skyscrapers are starkly visible. There's an odd sense of solidarity between them, a mixture of pride to be looking down at the rest of the city - and now, vulnerability.
"I was looking at the New York skyline, and in the foreground was the Empire State Building," says poet Collins. "For the first time, it looked completely fragile. It looked like you could just knock it over with a feather, because our sense of architectural integrity and reliability has changed."
Yet the targeting and destruction of the city's tallest towers doesn't mean the death of skyscrapers. The impulse to build high is rooted deep in human nature, going back as far as the pyramids.
Skyscrapers are a peculiarly American invention - cathedrals to commerce and civic hubris. In their unabashed grandeur, their ability to make people feel both exalted and small, bringing together whole cities, they're inseparable from New York.
"The sky has always been the limit for us," says Robert Stern, dean of the Yale Architecture School. "It still is a symbol, as those buildings were, of our open society, our sense that anything is possible - our self-confidence, that we would throw ourselves up into the sky."
Beyond their symbolic function, New York's skyscrapers have played a distinct role in shaping the city's character. All that vertical space allows for the kind of density that gives New York its energy and drive.
At the Rainbow Room, waiter Sabbir Rahman says he had three friends who worked at a restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center's north tower. Even though they're now missing, the Bangladesh native feels "proud" to work in such an ascendant spot. Tourists from all over the world come here, he says, and buy $12 drinks at the bar, just so they can linger over the view.
Admittedly, when the World Trade Center made its debut in 1973 as the world's tallest building (a distinction soon lost to the Sears Tower in Chicago), many New Yorkers found it more offensive than impressive.
Rising inexorably along the edge of the Hudson River, the towers seemed jarringly out of scale with the lofts and warehouses of lower Manhattan. "It was an act of defiance" to build it, says Dr. Stern. New York's economy was in a tailspin at the time, and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller basically "willed these buildings into existence, to reinforce New York's future...."
Over the next three decades, New Yorkers grew accustomed to the towers as a familiar sight on the Manhattan skyline - a landmark that oriented them within the sprawl, reassuringly fixed on the horizon.
For this reason, many New Yorkers are now grieving the loss of the buildings themselves and not just the lives inside them.
"They were part of our visual vocabulary - America's visual vocabulary," says architectural historian Judith Dupré. "And that literally has been erased, and that's a great psychic loss."
Already, this sense of loss is driving the demand to rebuild. While virtually everyone agrees that the site must house a memorial of some sort, there is an equally strong insistence for new towers. It reflects a desire to show that the city has not been cowed.
"We have to build back, because the forces that are attacking us are forces that want to roll back society thousands of years, that really want to reject what America stands for in modern life," says Stern.
Still, many New Yorkers are wary of building 110 stories again - or anything close to it. For one thing, they wonder who would be willing to work in an office that takes 45 minutes to evacuate by stairs.
Some suggest, too, that the new building would best memorialize those who died by not striving to be the "tallest," but by expressing a certain humility.
"There must be some way to design a new set of structures that are just as gloriously ascendant, but that acknowledge America's new understanding of its role in the world," says Ms. Dupré. "Maybe it's not going to be as important to build 110 new stories. But I think that it is important to rebuild. And rebuilding well could be an incredible act of healing."