At first I’m sure it’s going to be a great day. Sun out. Bright blue skies. The end of summer. Even the sirens and engines that have been wailing outside my apartment window for the last hour don’t seem that unusual. Just, I assume, part of the hysteric clangour taken for granted by those who live in Manhattan. Only when I step out onto First Avenue to head downtown do things begin to seem strange. Hundreds of people are heading in my direction. Some are running. Mums are clutching young kids and looking over their shoulders fearfully. No cars or cabs, but police are everywhere. In the distance I see a huge black blob disfiguring the sky. Maybe a thunderstorm’s brewing? I step in front of a fleeing office worker: ‘Excuse me, but has something happened?’ His answer comes out as barely comprehensible comic-book babble: ‘The World Trade Center has been hit – it was a plane – enemies – terrorists – hijackers – the Pentagon too – the White House – Pittsburgh.’

By the time I reach my department at NYU everyone is ripped with panic. There was a bomb threat earlier and security has only just left. Phones ring non-stop but go dead as soon as they’re picked up. E-mail is down. The BBC and CNN websites are overloaded. A few people huddle round a radio trying to get more news. Each time Pearl Harbor is mentioned they turn their backs in fear: here at the Asian American Studies program where I teach, everyone is acutely aware that the 1941 bombings led to tens of thousands of Japanese Americans being scapegoated and interned. We yell out the names of people we knew who work at the Twin Towers and rummage around in drawers and diaries looking for their cellphone numbers, which we dial frantically, and often in vain. Do any of our students live near the financial district? Where can we go to give blood? Somebody mentions the date – 911; someone else Nostradamus. But, for once, no one has the heart or the detachment to think up sick jokes. Support staff want to go home. Many have a long journey ahead, commuting back to Jersey and Queens and Brooklyn. They’re scared that they might be trapped in Manhattan, cut off from their families. ‘My mom and me, we ain’t too close,’ says one secretary, ‘but . . .’

Pretty soon the building is evacuated. Out on the streets parents stand in front of schools pleading with officials to be reunited with their children. The man behind the deli counter says he’s had over twenty calls from India that day. Some relatives from his home village had pedalled miles to the nearest town to find a phone-shop so that they could check he was OK. Many of his shelves are empty. People have begun stocking up in case of emergency. Some cashpoints are closed; customers have been withdrawing $500, $1000, enough to tide them through the bad days ahead. Huge, patient queues form at the Verizon phone booths. Truck drivers amp up their radios so that everyone in the vicinity can hear the latest news. Black nurses incant words of reassurance to the elderly Ukrainians they’re employed to look after. Every conversation is the same: ‘I couldn’t believe it,’ ‘that bastard Gaddafi’, ‘the poor families’. Somebody bawls at the owner of a fast-food joint whose window display reads: ‘Make wings, not war.’ A woman trips in the middle of the street and a dozen people all rush to help her. Strangers grasp each other by the wrist or the shoulders as they speak; they suddenly need to feel warmth, a human pulse. A guy in a plaid shirt claps his hands excitedly: ‘This is war. I’m ready for it. I live in the Bronx. War there every day.’ And at every intersection clumps of people stand mesmerised as they gaze at the smoke fluming up in the distance. ‘Where exactly was the building?’ one asks. His friends aren’t sure. Like many of the city’s residents they’ve long taken the skyline for granted. Only tourists and newcomers ever look at it that closely.

The World Trade Center wasn’t just a landmark, lofty and awe-inspiring though it may have been, it marked the edge of south Manhattan. It defined the boundaries of our city selves. Some compared it unfavourably to the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building. Others detested it as a symbol of unfettered free trade and private enterprise. It even had its own zip code – 10048. New York never can resist a commercial success, though. For out-of-town families eager to whoop it up of a weekend, for round-the-world backpackers looking for cut-price euphoria, for Ethiopian cab-drivers who had just brought their wives over after many years apart and were eager to show them one of the wonders of the new world to which they had migrated, the Twin Towers became a place of vertiginous awe. They offered working people a perspective on this most enchanting and unequal of cities that they were denied in the ceaseless grind of their daily lives. I used to see them every day from my office window. Sometimes the towers would be snuffed out by thick drizzle and cloud, but I always knew they would be back soon. They were especially lovely at night: winking and beaming like celestial circuit boards against the sky. They made me feel privileged to be alive and living in New York. Sometimes I would put on my flammable nylons and go to The Greatest Bar on Earth, a stupidly fun loungecore club on the 107th floor of the North Tower. A friend – a friend who worked in the building and whom I’ve been unable to contact – used to boast about how many girls he’d picked up there over the years. ‘It’s easy,’ he explained, ‘just buy them lots of cocktails and take them over to the windows. Alcohol and that beautiful sight of Brooklyn Bridge at night. You can’t fail.’

On Tuesday evening most people stay indoors. Those who don’t have televisions sit cross-legged on the sidewalks watching the news on specially rigged-up sets. Nearby quite a few people are wandering around dazed. One guy keeps repeating ‘3-2-1-Bang!’ over and over again. A woman suddenly yells: ‘I’m going crazy upstairs.’ Another zigzags wildly across the street tipping over garbage bins, smashing windows, screaming at the world. Normally she’d provoke laughter or fear; this evening bystanders look at her with sorrow. They feel the same way she does.

By Wednesday morning the mood has changed subtly. Below 14th Street is barred to those without two pieces of photo ID or proof of residence. There are further patrols at Houston and Canal. Most stores stay shut. Newspapers are impossible to find as early-risers, transformed by disaster into archivists, buy up multiple copies. As reporting gives way to remorseless speculation even radios have been switched off. Neither the East nor the West Village can ever have been so bucolic. Locals cycle through the tree-lined streets. They wander around checking out their neighbourhood as if for the first time. Kids throw desultory hoops in street courts, couples spoon on benches, women walk their dogs or go for short jogs. But normal life has not really been resumed. Uniformed medics carrying clipboards are everywhere. A majority of the people out and about wear masks to stop them inhaling the sticky, acrid smoke that has started to waft uptown. Children without masks suffer allergic reactions and asthma attacks. And then there’s the silence. Over the next couple of days the few subway trains that are let into Manhattan are completely quiet. In a SoHo bar friends sit round a table staring at their glasses. Those who go to dance themselves into forgetfulness at the handful of clubs that stay open shuffle home early having barely broken into a sweat. A group of girls walking late in Washington Square start laughing; ‘Shuddup all that noise over there,’ shouts one of the local chess-players. Even the crack dealers nearby sound solicitous – ‘Wassup buddy?’ One of them starts rapping about Jay-Z, only to be shoved in the chest by his pal: ‘This ain’t no fockin joke, man. I’m holding back tears here.’

The city becomes a billboard. Fly-posters, announcing gigs that will now never take place, have been plastered over by people advertising makeshift enterprises – church services, counselling services, neighbourhood vigils, blood donation schemes. Most distressing are the photos of the missing thousands. Trees, mailboxes, bus shelters, telegraph poles – all of them carry xeroxes of people who worked at the Twin Towers. White, black, Asian, Latino. From the filing clerk and the girl on the computer helpdesk to senior partners. Janitors, newspaper vendors, the Bangladeshi caterers who worked in the canteens. From Jersey Town and Long Island to Denmark and New Zealand. Some notices, handwritten, mention distinguishing features: a ‘birthmark on upper thigh’, ‘tattoo on upper arm’. In Washington Square Park, beneath a picture of Andrew Zucker, a 27-year-old who worked at Harris Beach on the 85th storey of the South Tower, someone has written: ‘Andrew, I knew you as a child in summer camp – haven’t seen you in 15 years, but I recognised your face in this picture. God bless your family and friends.’ ‘Have you seen her?’ asks another. Looking at the photos of young men and women in their degree day get-up, raising their glasses to the camera in post-wedding reception cheer, playing with their babies on the beach, we see our own lives rush by and step back in anguish. Some of the missing weren’t even workers at the World Trade Center. In the lobby of the building where I live is a poster of Christopher Hanley, who worked for a division of Reuters on Sixth Avenue. On Tuesday morning he had been one of the 150 people attending a special breakfast conference at the Windows on the World restaurant on the 106th floor.

People want to help. They want to do things. They donate food to rescue workers, they open their doors to those who have had to leave their homes. Many, nationalising their grief, buy American flags which they hang from the back pockets of their jeans or outside their front doors. Immigrant restaurant owners and cabbies, both out of solidarity and an eagerness to flaunt their patriotism in the hope of warding off reprisals, do the same. As the days go by, though, few bodies are recovered. It seems nothing can be done. A collective depression begins to afflict people. Conversations with friends and colleagues tail off after a few sentences. Asked ‘How are you?’ they can barely shrug their shoulders. They look at their feet or start crying. ‘And today’s the anniversary of my husband’s death,’ one says. ‘The doctor told me I may have stomach cancer,’ another sobs. Private and public sorrows collide, creating a grief that is almost unendurable. At church services the aisles are full of people who have not attended for decades.

Impotence and despair find many outlets. Thoughtfulness is replaced by anger. Rage is stoked and channelled by tabloids and AM talk-show demagogues. The talk is of enemies, alien ways of life, Arab bastards, Muslim murderers. A friend’s Pakistan-born husband who works for the United Nations was approached by a woman on the train into Manhattan and told: ‘I’m sure you’re really happy that everybody died.’ Another friend’s Egyptian husband hasn’t dared to leave his house since Tuesday. In Queens a 65-year-old Sikh is shot in the chest with a paint gun by a couple of white kids who then beat him to a pulp with baseball bats. People are pelted with stones and chased down subways. Some have shaved off their beards. Paranoia soon sets in. A couple of off-duty construction workers discussing final solutions come towards me down a badly lit street late at night. They’re built like brick shithouses and instinctively I hop into a restaurant to be on the safe side. Going past the Islamic Council of America on 11th and First, I overhear a cop complaining into his walkie-talkie: ‘This is disgusting. There are volunteers doing more than I am. There are people buried there. NYPD is the worst. I’m hanging round a corner protecting fuckin’ Arabs. They should let us do something useful.’ At that moment a couple of black guys are going past. One of them looks me in the eye and says loudly to his friend: ‘They should take these guys to concentration camps. Strip them and gas them.’ To point out that I’m not a Muslim would be cowardly and treacherous, I tell myself as I stand there trembling. An Indian friend who caught a cab in Midtown recounts how the Hindu driver didn’t let him pay because ‘we friends must stick together now.’

Late on Wednesday afternoon I leave my Mercer Street office to go for a walk. My wrists ache from responding to e-mails. ‘Are you OK?’ Yes, but . . . The sun is still beating down on Brooklyn Bridge as thousands of people in short sleeves and floaty dresses cross over from Manhattan. Getting halfway many stop a while and look west to where the World Trade Center normally stands. Even this close there’s nothing to see. No stump, no nothing. Just endless smoke billowing out. Evening sets in, but rather than return to my empty apartment, I decide to try and walk to the bottom of Manhattan. This shouldn’t be possible; cops are stationed all along Canal Street to prevent outsiders from slipping through but, for some reason, no one pays any attention as I wander into Chinatown. I wonder why there are so many people here. All the students and professionals who live in this area have been evacuated uptown. Those who remain here are almost exclusively South-East Asians, housing project residents and homeless guys lying on benches.

Past Bayard Street, past Pell Street, past the herbalists, tiny restaurants and cyber-trading outfits. Past the old men scrunched round the Cantonese news-sheets pinned up daily. Past Kimlau Square, named after Second Lieutenant Benjamin Ralph Kimlau, a Chinese-American bomber pilot who died in 1944 over New Guinea. And on towards that area where the gleaming hard-bodied structures of global capitalism stand barely a stone’s throw from the remnants of 17th and 18th-century New York, a maritime city whose harbours and seaports were its greatest assets. Now, at nine in the evening, the fug of burnt metal and glass is less strong than the smell coming from Fulton Fish Market. There’s no one around; even the seagulls are hushed. Further inland, the narrow roads are ankle-deep with ash. Two cars lie corpsed, crushed to knee-height. Strewn everywhere are shredded foam-cups and ring-binders. At the southern tip of Broadway a power-cut means that the only light comes from the flicker of weary fire-fighters sparking up and off-duty medics taking snaps of each other. There’s nothing to be seen except nothingness itself. And then, at Trinity Place, just as I’m about to be sent back by the eight cops and security staff who’ve spotted me winding through all the dust and rubble, we hear a crash. Turning around, we see a slice of one of the towers’ steel girders impale itself in the ground, backlit by flames. It looks like nothing so much as a medieval cathedral risen from the bowels of the earth. No one speaks. No one could.

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