New Yorkers go back to work in emotional tangle

Many feel obligation or need for normality

Terrorism Strikes America

The Healing Process

September 18, 2001|By Allison Klein, Sarah Koenig and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Allison Klein, Sarah Koenig and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

With caution and great sadness, New York City emerged from its weeklong stupor yesterday as millions returned to work for the first time since the World Trade Center plunged to the ground before their eyes.

The morning rush hour was bustling with people, though an eerie silence covered the streets and subways. The only discernible noise in a jam-packed subway station in midtown Manhattan at 9 a.m. was the click-click of a woman's heels, and every few minutes, the rumble of a train.

"The city feels weird, people have a different look in their eye," said Kimberly Thompson, an architect who returned to work for the first time yesterday. "Normally, you'd see people happy and laughing."

At the urging of President Bush and New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, workers managed to fill office buildings, staff restaurants and stores and open Wall Street.

For many, returning to the office wasn't about getting work done, it was an attempt to regain a sense of order to their lives, which spun into chaos a week ago.

"I feel sort of good about getting back to a routine now, any distraction is wonderful," said Todd Weissner, 27, president of a graphics design firm 20 blocks from the twin towers. "There's a bit of strangeness to it. I feel like work is silly. There's a falseness to it."

Streets of the financial district, still closed to cars, were clogged early in the morning. Police and military officials stopped people at checkpoints set up at nearly every corner, asking for ID and checking bags. Red Cross mental health workers stood by in case people needed to talk.

The air was thick with the dust covering every building, making the area look trapped in a black-and-white movie.

A commuter ferry from Highlands, N.J., yesterday morning dropped about 300 people off at Pier 11, where Wall Street begins.

Workers from another ferry company handed them American flags. Scores of people in business suits grabbed them, and then began marching to their offices.

A lot of the people who ride the ferry know each other, and almost everyone knows someone who is gone - one broker was supposed to go to a wedding Saturday, but the groom was killed.

A few people talked about the guilt of returning to work in a place where so many were killed.

Resuming the morning commute felt a little creepy, said Michele Olton, who was on the ferry and lives in the Middletown, N.J., area, which lost 76 people to the attack.

"I've been trying," said Olton, a human resources worker. "Because if I don't do it now, I won't."

Accountant John Buchanan, whose business was four blocks from the World Trade Center, said he was in Houston during the attack and didn't know whether his office had withstood the explosions.

Although he was fearful, he said, he wanted to get there.

"Maybe I should feel like I don't want to work, but I do," he said, his face tense with anxiety.

Art Raskin, a broker who has worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange for 34 years, said he didn't really know whether he was ready to go back to work.

"You want to let it sink in, but you also want to get back," he said. "And you want to make sure it's safe."

On a part of John Street along what is being called the frozen area, Anthony Leone had just gotten into his 3-year-old health food restaurant for the first time since Tuesday.

Dust clung to muffins and fruit and blanketed the floor. An order called in at 8:47 a.m. Tuesday from Two World Trade Center sat on the counter ready for delivery. Nearby was Tuesday's New York Times, with smiling mayoral candidates pictured on the front page.

Spent fire hoses snaked across the front door, near a littering of once-confidential financial documents that had burst out of World Trade Center banks and bond houses when the planes hit.

Leone videotaped the mess and wondered what to do next. He could either clean it all up and try to open as quickly as possible, or wait for an insurance adjuster.

"You want to survive this, you know?" he said. "But so many clients are gone. I just don't know if they'll be back."

A bit farther from ground zero, retail and food service workers armed with brooms, Windex and paper towels were cleaning up. A few had managed to do it over the weekend and were already open for business.

Also open for business were jewelry stores in midtown's jewelry district near Rockefeller Center.

Native New Yorker Robert Bentley opened his wholesale business on 46th Street selling colored stones because he said people still have to make a living.

"You have to have faith and hope," Bentley said. "If it's a choice between fear and hope, I'd rather have hope. I refuse to live in fear."

Randy Mix, 36, a part-time actor who works as an office temp in midtown, chose to stay at his Queens home last week after Tuesday and returned to Manhattan for the first time yesterday morning.

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