September 10, 2011 9:25:00 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
Postcard from New York
Editors note: One month after 9-11, Dispatch publisher Birney Imes traveled to New York. The following is a column he wrote about the trip.
By Birney Imes
Halfway up the coast of New Jersey the Boeing 747 veers out over the Atlantic giving a wide berth to the city. Today we''re to have no breathtaking views of Manhattan, no bird''s eye look at that gracious lady welcoming all to this land of unlimited possibilities.
My two seat mates, an older woman and an animated young man , a freelance photographer from Argentina, who lives in Brooklyn, seem to have struck up a friendship. Below, Long Island Sound looks like a picture on someone''s wall. Sailboats appear motionless on what at sea level must seem an infinite expanse of blue. I try to imagine how it must feel to be on deck, standing in the sun, sails flapping overhead - a world away from the nearby chaos.
It is Oct. 11, one month to the day, after the attacks on the World Trade Center. The desire to see one of our children, who is going to school outside the city and a phone call from friends who live seven blocks north of the Ground Zero removed what ambiguity I felt about traveling to the city.
From LaGuardia, the Korean taxi driver takes the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The route offers a spectacular panorama of Manhattan and entry to the city via the Brooklyn or Williamsburg Bridge.
The chrome scallops atop the Chrysler building glitter in the sunlight; like a steady sentinel, the Empire State building stands guard over Midtown; a billboard zips by: "In God We Trust, United We Stand"; no planes are in the air over the island; flags adorn the fire escapes of Queens'' tenements. Finally, I do what I''ve come to do: I look to the left in search of those two incongruous exclamation points at the south end of the island -- that added flourish, just in case anyone had doubts as to which is the world''s greatest city. They are gone.
Camouflaged and armed guardsmen stand at the entrance of the Williamsburg Bridge. Kaleidoscope-like the sights flash past the taxi window: Bangkok Market, Dandy Zipper Co., a sign advertising the New York Marathon, the East River, Delancey Street, Bunny''s Children''s World, Chrystie Street, people everywhere, flag billboards, China Town, Canal Street, the corner of Harrison and Greenwich.
I pay the driver and wrestle my bags out. Today the smell -- best described as tires burning -- is strong. Some pedestrians wear paper respirators. Looking down Greenwich toward the site, I can see a huge American flag shrouded in smoke. It looks and sounds like a battle is in progress.
Two blocks away, at Chambers Street, a chain link fence blocks traffic and serves as a bulletin board for notes, pictures and flowers. School children have converted a bed sheet into an American flag; 50 white hand prints serve as stars on a blue canton. A painted sheet from Scenic Heights Elementary School in Pensacola reads, "God Bless, We''re in This Together" and "God Bless New York and Our Rescue Workers."
Over in the park to the right, a mother bends over a small child who appears to be taking his first steps. Two young girls round the corner walking a small dog. One of the little girls is wearing a blue and white soccer shirt with the word HEARTS across the chest.
"Look at this," you think. "Remember everything."
Unless one lives in one of the buildings within the cordoned off area, it is impossible to get within two blocks of Ground Zero. Locals say the best views are on Broadway below City Hall, and late that evening I join the trickle of pilgrims filing past the thruways that offer glimpses of the destruction.
The mood is reverential. A woman stands in the middle of John Street and cries. Guardsmen and police stand at the perimeter patiently answering questions they have answered hundreds of times. Two drunk women try to sweet talk their way onto the site. No luck.
In New York and looking for a geography lesson or political commentary? Hail a cab.
Saturday morning I was the student and Eric Aseme of Ghana my teacher. Aseme said he has been in America for 20 years; the last three or four of which, he has been a New York cab driver.
About the recent tragedies he has plenty to say.
"I wish I could have done something. ... It''s a wake up call. ... They want everybody to be a Muslim. ... The second in command of bin Laden came to America two times. He said he was coming here to raise money for refugees, and it was money to kill Americans. What was the FBI doing?
"We all came from a place to make something for ourselves. Why do you want to destroy America? For what?
"How do you blame the American people? How do you blame the American worker who has taken a shower and gone to work at the WTC and been killed early in the morning like that?
"Does the Koran say to sell opium to make money? Why even Russia is supporting the Americans.
"The ones in Ghana are different from those in the Middle East. The Muslims in Ghana don''t believe in violence. You can trust the Muslims in Ghana. They don''t feel that way at all."
I get out at Penn Station hoping my driver and Don Imus cross paths soon.
In the station I buy a ticket to Rhinecliff, a village upstate near where one of our children lives. The trip will follow the east bank of the Hudson River. The cars are spacious and on this near perfect day there are few passengers.
North of Tarrytown a redheaded woman reading the "New York Post" comments to no one in particular that there are wild swans outside. "They are normally found only in Connecticut and Alaska," she adds. Alaska is understandable, but why Connecticut and not Rhode Island or Vermont?
Outside the passing fall scenery is glorious. On the way out the door in New York, my friend handed me a book, an unlikely love story told through letters between a woman in New York and the employees of book store in post-World War II London. ("84 Charing Cross Road")
Yes, the world has suddenly become a very different and more perilous place. But it is still brimming with beauty and wonder. And it is still a place where it is possible to ride on a train with a good book and look out the window and see wild swans and changing leaves and anticipate the sight of a child you helped bring into the world.
And for all this one can only be joyously grateful.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.