Walking the streets of a reborn New York

October 12, 2001|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- The other night in one of the city's most popular midtown steakhouses, every table on two floors was filled and there was standing room only at the restaurant's three bars. It was a balmy, shirtsleeves night uncommon for October, and New York was back.

Or so it seemed at this one prominent feeding and watering hole, and on the busy midtown streets, about a month after the two terrorist attacks that had turned lower Manhattan's financial district into a war zone. As debris movers, firefighters and police continued to toil there, much of the rest of New York seemed to be heeding President Bush's advice to "get back to normal."

It is not normal in New York, to be sure, for taxi drivers to take it easy on their horns or for pedestrians to say "Excuse me" when they inadvertently jostle a stranger on the always bustling sidewalks. But in other ways, particularly in the pursuit of commerce, the city that never sleeps does seem to be getting back into the hurly-burly rhythm for which it is famous.

Yet perceptible differences do cling. The signs and the air of unabashed patriotism are everywhere, from the epidemic of American flags looking down from skyscrapers that escaped the fate of the twin towers to the flag lapel pins that have sprouted here like shamrocks on St. Patrick's Day.

Never mind that they are being hawked relentlessly for profit at nearly every corner, especially around what now is known to everybody as Ground Zero. Hey, as they say here, ya gotta make a living.

In the Renaissance Fine Jewelry store on Broadway near Fulton, only a block from Ground Zero, an offer of "up to 60 percent off" is bringing the gawkers inside in droves. Nearby, another jewelry store is closed, for reasons readily apparent to those who peer into its windows inch-deep in ash and who-knows-what-else from the collapsed towers.

But as this commerce goes on, the streets from which Ground Zero can be glimpsed are packed with the quiet, orderly curious, brought daily now to the financial district.

A peddler of rare baseball cards perseveres but is no match for the old Chinese women who do a rush business in postcards of the World Trade Center as it was until the morning of Sept. 11.

The deep grief that was commonplace in the first hours and days after the towers came down is replaced now with a mix of awe and reverence as the crowds shuffle by, silently staring at the twisted and gnarled remainders and the smoke that still rises from the site, along with only a faint pungent smell against which some visitors wear medical masks.

Deanne Goldsberry of Dallas and A.L. Morgan of Gause, Texas, helping to man a "prayer station" here for the Youth With a Mission organization, offer comfort to the distressed on the street near famous Trinity Church. Many onlookers spend long minutes reading the poetry and graffiti scribbled everywhere.

The bitter harangues and profanity that often marked such public jottings in New York's past are absent. For the hated attackers, someone has scribbled "Justice, not wrath, please God." Everywhere are forlorn photos of the missing and pleas for information about whether they have been seen. "Amor Mio, Donde Estas?" one of them asks.

Away from Ground Zero, the sentiment obviously is not so intense, but you can't walk anywhere in Manhattan without visible reminders of what happened there. It has generated a new, largely unspoken togetherness and courtesy among a citizenry who not long ago took pains daily to ward off the familiarity of suffocating closeness, even in the sardine-packed subways at rush hour.

On one local television channel, pictures of missing police and firemen, together with details about the when and where of their funerals, run most of the day. There are hundreds of them now, but rather than hold one mass, impersonal service, the police and fire departments give each revered victim his own, while continuing to grapple with the scars of Ground Zero.

Back at midtown, New Yorkers are beginning to get back into the pulse of their vibrant city, still talking incessantly about Sept. 11 but regaining their sense of humor -- while worrying about what might come next.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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