As I learned last week, to spend a day in Manhattan with no fixed agenda is to live out a number of scenes from Edgar Allan Poe’s great masterpiece, “The Man of the Crowd.” Poe sets his tale in London, but his anonymous character, who wanders day and night, restlessly following the turmoil of the street wherever it may lead, might as well have been me last Tuesday in New York.
Having emerged from Penn Station shortly after 9:00 a.m., I found a copy of the New York Times (virtually unobtainable on Long Island where I had gone to visit relatives) and wandered in search of a deli. From a second-floor room I drank my morning tea, read the paper and watched the world go by on the sidewalk below.
After a time I rose, left the cafe, walked by the Empire State Building and made a spur-of-the-moment decision to visit the site formerly occupied by the World Trade Towers. Later I told myself it would have been almost disrespectful to the city to search out its pleasures before making the pilgrimage to the scene of its apocalypse. But the truth is I had no idea I was going there until the moment I boarded a bus on impulse.
The Number 6 let me off just at the entrance to the wooden ramp that leads up to the makeshift viewing stand. “Ground Zero,” announced the driver, in a quiet voice.
You have to walk down the hill to the South Street Seaport and get a ticket at Pier 16, running the gauntlet of sidewalk vendors selling books, snacks and souvenirs of the disaster. The ticket is free, but the city wants to control crowd flow and encourage shopping in the area. When you’ve trudged back up the street, past the sidewalk cafes and noodle shops, you can look at the memorial quilts and posters and teddy bears propped against the fence while you wait your turn on the platform. People counting pedestrian traffic on little hand-clickers are stationed everywhere.
Working your way up the ramp, you can read more posters and scrawled messages, written with ballpoint pen, magic marker and pencil on railing, post and placard. Some of them are touching, others are vaguely threatening, quoting Jeremiah and Deuteronomy and warning us to repent before it is too late. The Falwellian message that what we are about to behold is something God did to us because we are wicked is by no means dominant, but it is hard to miss the “lean on Him before He leans on you” theme.
There is a good deal of Legion of Mary angel imagery as well.
Every so often the line stops to let the group up ahead get a good look and take a few photos. A woman to my left tries to get past the rest of us. “You’ll have to wait your turn like everyone else,” another woman says as her husband rolls his eyes in empathy. I wonder idly whether pickpockets are working the crowds at Ground Zero yet or whether some unwritten code keeps them away.
There is not much to see anymore. But there is a lot to feel. Whatever you think of it all, people died here, by the thousands. Now, below and directly in front of you, is what looks like any large construction site, with dozens of trailers in rows. It is the buildings left standing, with blackened and boarded windows, that lend the scene its horror.
Unless this is a spot from which you routinely saw the towers, they are not conspicuous here by their absence. (The skyline, seen from afar, is an utterly different matter. A woman on Long Island told me she avoids going into town because she can’t bear to look at it anymore, it’s too heartbreaking.)
I felt myself numbing out after three or four minutes on the platform, so I turned away from the whir and click of people taking pictures of themselves at the scene and started down the other side.
Turning right at the sidewalk, I worked my way on down to Battery Park. It was there, sitting on a bench and looking out at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, that the wave of feeling I had been dreading overtook me.
As an ex-cop out near Port Jefferson had explained to me, “Let’s get drunk and go kill the terrorists” is not a feeling. It’s something you do to try to get out of feeling anything. But how can you understand anything you aren’t willing to feel?
I felt it now, and it shook me, and I spent some time staring at the water.
A decision to buy a copy of the New Yorker to read over lunch turned into an absurd time-consuming quest. News stand after news stand claimed not to have it or, in one case, never to have heard of it. Obtaining the magazine became an aggravated obsession (would I have had better luck on Long Island?) and I wound up eating lunch at 3:00 after being caught in a rain shower coming out of the subway.
That evening I made another pilgrimage, on a jam-packed Number 4 train to Yankee Stadium for the game between the Bronx Bombers and the Oakland Athletics. Before the game I joined the line of people wandering through Monument Park behind the outfield, where after viewing the famous trio of monuments to Lou Gehrig, Miller Huggins and Babe Ruth, you have to make a choice. You can either go left to Mickey Mantle or right to Joe Dimaggio. Almost everyone goes left to the Mick, leaving Dimaggio’s monument looking as remote and aloof as the real deal, definitely not the man of the crowd.
The Yankees scored six runs for David Wells in the bottom of the first. I sat in the left field porch. It rained off and on until the umpires halted play in the bottom of the fifth. I decided to call it a night and got caught in a dangerous mob scene in the narrow tunnels under the stadium, as people attempting to leave pushed against people trying to get to the concession stands for more beer. A man trying to force his way through the tangle (the very “type and genius of deep crime,” Poe would have called him) knocked me into a woman. Her husband or boyfriend warned me I was “going down” if I bumped her again. Unable to move forward or backward, in danger of being crushed to death by a drunken mob of fans, I found an exit, not the one I wanted, and tried to take it.
I found my way blocked by a stadium employee, an angry woman who asked me three times if I really wanted to leave. Did I understand that I couldn’t re-enter the stadium? Yes. Once you go out you can’t come back in. I understand. There is no re-entry, your ticket is void when you go out that door. Meanwhile people behind me were lunging against me trying to get past, voices rising in desperation. Yes, I understand, I want to leave, three times I said it, as though I were trying to get some weird kind of mystical Yankee divorce from the woman blocking my escape. Finally I got past the sentry and made my way into the street. I could hear her arguing with the next candidate for escape, explaining it all again.
Is this an everyday occurrence in the Bronx? What happens when the crowd is twice as large (or twice as drunk) as on a rain-soaked Tuesday night?
I walked around to the front of the stadium to reclaim the new umbrella the Yankees had taken away from me when I entered through the turnstile. I still had my claim check, but after twenty minutes of searching it was clear that the New York Yankees, twenty-six time world champions, no longer had my umbrella and were prepared to offer nothing better than a shrug in compensation.
I told myself I was lucky to get out of the place alive and walked off in the rain with my hands in my pockets.
David Vest writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He is a poet and piano-player for the Pacific Northwest’s hottest blues band, The Cannonballs.
He can be reached at: email@example.com
Visit his website at http://www.rebelangel.com