Empty Streets

Today the world smells dark, the way it did on another uncertain day many years ago, when my cousins and I set the hayfield around grandma's farm on fire. But this smoke comes with an even more disturbing leaden, chemical aspect. It comes smelling of doom and dark doings.

Walking around the city, I swallow gritty sediment at the back of my throat, imagining that it tastes oily, like jet fuel. I think about burning asbestos coloring my lungs. The rescue workers must be swallowing this air in great, clotting clumps.

On the news, the nation watches rescue workers striding like astronauts through a blizzard of ash. Outside Ground Zero, we are in the gray zone. Neither rescuers nor victims, insiders nor outsiders, we look for our place.

Our homes are intact, our beds are fluffy, and our grocery stores are open for business. We accept our mild inconveniences. The Starbucks stores are closed. We cannot walk through Dag Hammerskjold plaza because of the new security around the United Nations. Good citizens, we remember to be thankful for the sand filled dump trucks blocking the roads, and the busloads of fresh-faced national guardsmen keeping us safe. I am somewhat awed by the growl of our protective F16 fighter, circling faithfully overhead.

I am also restless. Like the child who once played with matches, I see the devastation, and I want to make my restitution. I want to take my spanking and go to bed without supper, so that I can wake up tomorrow to pancakes, maple syrup, and a world that's going to be okay. I need to give something back, in payment for the gift of having survived.

And so today I organized an outing. Four friends met on 49th Street and walked to the blood center to make our contribution. When we got there, a tired looking man with dark hair falling into his face was handing out an 800 number. "The blood centers are at their capacities. Please call this number after Friday to make an appointment to donate."

Other restless New Yorkers had got here first. Turning out in droves to donate blood, they lined up around the block to bare their arms for the needle. The volunteer centers, also, were overwhelmed with unskilled hands. They had no use for me.

Later in the day I passed by The Chelsea Piers. There was a caravan of help plodding into the crisis center. People wheeling, packing, and carrying a stream of blankets and baggies, paper towels and bottled water. Donations for the rescue effort. I made a mental note to yard out those extra blankets and bring them down.

This evening I am eating chicken cacciatore in a small cafe with red walls. We are all watching a brand new television, shouldered among the designer teas and hand painted coffee mugs on a wire shelf. All of the local businesses are showing the news. This morning I watched Mayor Giuliani speak from the new TV in the lobby of the doggie gym. I stir my iced tea, and the tinkling sound startles two men sitting in front of me.

"Sorry," one shrugs, "Guess I'm still a little jumpy."

"It's okay," I reply. "we all are."

The strangers invite me to join them at their table, where they have a better view of the news.

It's like that around here now.

The subways wait for the latecomer sprinting down the stairs before closing the doors. Bartenders pour our drinks extra strong. We are living in a kinder, gentler New York, where people walk more slowly and meet the eyes of strangers on the street. Smiling at strangers is less about feeling happy, and more about moral support. "I'm glad you're alive," my smiles say to people I've never met. They smile back.

When I see a firefighter or a police officer I am overcome with love and gratitude. I want to hug the ambulance driver, and the tired woman in scrubs sipping her coffee and watching the news. I want to kiss those rescue dogs, and slip cookies into the pockets of the Red Cross volunteers. I want to bring a cup of coffee to every single person who is working to keep us safe, and to bring our missing loved ones out to safety.

In a city where, for seven months, I have felt like a stranger, I've suddenly become part of the family.

On the corner of Avenue A and 14th street, a graffiti artist called Chico has left a memorial. On the side of a dry cleaner's building is the familiar image of the two skyscrapers billowing smoke amidst a peaceful city skyline. In tidy script, the piece is titled, "In Memory of Friends and Family." I paused to watch people carefully arranging flowers and candles at the base of the wall.

I recall the way I felt in the aftermath of the fire on Grandmas farm- that dawning realization that events had taken on their own life. My young cousins and I couldn't bring back that year's lost crop of hay. We couldn't make our world back into the place it was before we dropped the match.

In the years since the fire, I have tried to become a person who deserved the love and forgiveness my family gave me all those years ago. I tried to grow up right. Sometimes that's all you can do.