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September 16, 2001


`Close-Up Death Ought to Change a City'

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A Day of Terror

MY husband phoned to say that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center. He called a while later about a second plane. "All right, I'll go look," I said.

From my back door on the West Side Highway, you'd normally see the two towers clearly. I've always hated them.

In fact, as soon as Governor Rockefeller erected them, I announced a plan to unfurl an 80- story banner down each tower labeling them "David and Nelson: Two Big Phalli." (That's not exactly the word I used.) But I never did anything about it, and the two arrogant towers remained standing.

There was only one, however, by the time I got outside on Tuesday morning. The neighbors were passing around binoculars and helping one another distinguish the black hole from the black smoke.

Then the second tower disappeared. For a moment, someone thought she could smell something acrid. But nothing was blowing as far north as Bethune Street. From where we stood, there was a luminous white cloud where the tower had been. It was beautiful.

My neighbor Vera gasped, remembering the surrounding buildings. "My grandson goes to Stuyvesant." That was my first visceral sense of real people in those buildings.

By then people from the World Financial Center were walking up West Street. They'd been evacuated immediately, they told us, and so had everyone at Stuyvesant High School.

Reassured about her grandson, Vera, a lifelong pacifist, could refocus her anxiety from her grandchild to mankind.

"We're hopeless," she said. "The pacifists will explain that Israel should have done this or that in 1947; England should have done that or this in 1917; yeah, and if they all acted correctly at the Garden of Eden. But if we got to do the whole of history over, we'd make other mistakes. The killing will go on."

My husband called back about dangerous black smoke.

"It's gorgeous out," I said. "Turn off the television."

The next time he was worried about asbestos. It was obvious that I wasn't going to get anything done that day. Besides, I didn't want to miss out on history. So I decided to bike up from the Village to join him on the Upper West Side.

Traffic in the West Village and Chelsea was just about normal, except that there were more ambulances and, for once, the cars pulled over for them. Midtown traffic was very light. Clumps of people waited patiently outside Penn Station to hear when train service would resume. Office workers stranded outside the subway at Columbus Circle didn't complain. They seemed ready to trade their day-to-day anxieties for a good collective disaster if someone would only give them an assignment.

As I biked up Eighth Avenue in the autumn sunshine, it annoyed me to think that the world would be watching smoke, rubble and ambulances on CNN. I wish those terrorists could be out here with me to see how beautiful and calm my city is. Twenty blocks from the Trade Center, it's as if you guys didn't exist.

But that was Tuesday morning before the casualty count started. At that point, the dead seemed to have vanished as magically as the twin towers and as bloodlessly as people in Iraq.

I suppose there will be retaliations, leaving equally unreal people dead in other cities. If I thought that would lead to fewer corpses overall, I guess I'd reluctantly buy it. But I doubt that it will.

Unfortunately, I can't suggest a more effective or immediately satisfying response. But let's not give completely free rein to machismo. The politicians will go on television saying that America is now stronger, safer, taller and prouder than ever. They'll want a symbol to show our unswerving resolve.

But so much close-up death ought to change a city somewhat. At least let's not rebuild those same arrogant towers.

Barbara Garson is the author, most recently, of ``Money Makes the World Go Around: One Investor Tracks Her Cash Through the Global Economy From Brooklyn to Bangkok and Back.'' She lives in the West Village.

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