I've just traversed the barriers at Houston Street, heading south. The smoke and the acrid chemical smell of burning city grow thicker. As cars and cabs become rare, dump trucks and fire engines grow more common. A thousand kinds of municipal vehicles with flashing lights zoom and crawl, with the snaps and squeals from impatient sirens. Crowds mill about, with video and still cameras, American flags, face mask filters and the normal baggage of daily life. Satellite trucks line the streets, and on Avenue of the Americas near West Fourth Street, a television crew from Philadelphia does a stand-up in front of strong lights. As always, the citizens crowd slowly behind the shot, some trying to see, some trying to get on television.
Many of the people carrying American flags are olive-skinned, some clearly Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Punjabi, Muslim, Middle Eastern. The flags are identification of loyalty. A friend told me a story of seeing a man in a turban being hauled out of a bar by a drunk man, kicking and beating. The turbaned man did not defend himself. I wonder if he was Sikh. Was he wearing the ritual blade? Did he consider using it? Why was he in a bar?
The barriers into the lockdown zone are the kind of challenge that New Yorkers appreciate. The goal is to get to the other side. You're only qualified if you have identification with the right information: a driver's license, a business card, someone who will come from the other side and vouch for you. All of Houston Street is Checkpoint Charlie.
Some try the same tactics they use at swank velvet rope clubs. They find the widest space in the middle of the barriers and stride through, nonchalantly, as if they belong there, heads high. But this time they're stopped, always stopped, by the stiff arm of a tired cop.
A short squat white man, looking and sounding like a boatman on the Volga, tries everything to pass. It's clear he doesn't belong on the other side. He's not desperate enough. He tries slipping around the side. He wheedles, one at a time, with each cop, from the white-shirted lieutenant on down, rebuffed every time. A group of Puerto Ricans walk buy, Boricuan and American flags intertwined, arms heavy with drinks and food. They flash ID. The Volga boatman slips in the group and meshes best he can. The cops pick him out, turn him around, and refuse him entry. He wanders to the back of the larger crowd, probably to wait until the shift changes and new cops that don't know him take their posts.
A rumor is going around: they're arresting reporters and photographers who have been dressing as medical personnel, firemen and rescuers, and then slipping into the danger zone where they take photographs of the carnage, of the slabs and scraps of flesh, of the snowdrifts of paper and ash, of the bent steel. Someone says they're shooting these interlopers, but nobody believes it.
The subways are closer to normal service than ever, but they are Tokyo-crowded. The patience of the three days is wearing thin, though the gallows humor and the camaraderie of "Ain't this just like the City?" have yet to be replaced by the "enough already" anger and the dragging impatience that are sure to follow.
In a nearly full subway car an old Jewish man, sporting a fur hat covered in pro-Israel pins, some in English, some in Hebrew, tries to hand out Zionist literature. The pages condemn anyone against Israel, and promote a hard stance against "enemies." He is talkative and friendly, and a number of people take the pages. One young Latino man, with a thin Dutch beard that traces the line of his jaw, says, "Aw shit, this is not the time, man. Now is not the time. Now is not the time." He keeps repeating it. Now everyone else hands their pages back like children turning in homework. The old man looks a little abashed, but I don't doubt he tried again later.
At Columbia University, classes resumed yesterday, the 12th. Some people thought that was unacceptable, others commented on the need for structure: class schedules, deadlines, papers, exams. One professor tells the story of her baby sitter who, after being trapped in the lockdown zone on the first day, walked four and a half hours to her home in Queens, with only pantyhose on her feet. High heels are not suitable. My roommate says the exodus across the bridge was like the New York City marathon, thronged with people of all ages, races, ethnicities, stopping to turn and look behind them, some jogging. Somebody else said it looked like Japanese running from Godzilla.
My heart is in this now, but my efforts are feeble. I am allergic to the chemical smoke, which when the wind blows seaward, I can taste on the bitter edges of my tongue even at home in Brooklyn. I cannot contribute financially to the relief. I have no belongings to give, except perhaps socks. So I sit at my computer for hours, reading personal stories, linking, writing, promoting, weaving a thin network of human beings and their stories. It's a small thing, but it is a record.