On The Streets Of Midtown

Somber. The word was repeated over and over in midtown Manhattan this morning as New Yorkers struggled to define their feelings exactly one year after black smoke enshrouded their city.

"The mood is more sad, more somber than usual," said Craig Newman, a bookstore owner at Penn Station. "It seems very somber," echoed Richard Mendelson, a Labor Department official waiting for a train to take him to a federal-government memorial service in Washington.

But there was determination, too. Throughout Manhattan, residents and tourists defiantly tried to put a normal face on a day that will always be different. At 8:30 a.m., commuters walked briskly though the Penn Station concourse that was noticeably quieter than usual. The usually bustling entrance to Kmart was closed, a small sign advising customers that the store would not open until 10 a.m. "in Memory of the Families and Heroes of September 11, 2001." Riders like Arthur Sachs of Long Island were sticking to their morning work routine; James Colon from the Bronx was scanning timetables for a train to take him to a friend in Hicksville, N.Y. But the middle-aged woman busily writing notes in a station waiting area probably wasn't catching up on last-minute work. Asked by a reporter about how she planned to spend the day, she stared ahead, her eyes slowly pooling with tears. Shaking her head wordlessly, she bent back to her composition book.

Throughout the rest of the morning, there were other small benchmarks of sadness.

At 8:46 a.m.--the time the first plane flew into the World Trade Center 12 months ago--a firefighter's band playing in the Amtrak section of the station stopped their music. As commemorative ceremonies around the city observed a moment of silence, the noise level fell briefly at Penn Station, too. A woman wearing a Stars and Stripes' halter top sobbed on the stairs; a knot of police kept a watchful eye on the crowd.

The much-vaunted camaraderie that characterized the city after the attack seemed to have disappeared, though, replaced by a pervasive tension. A group of shoe-shiners at the station sullenly refused to talk about their morning, repeating "I don't know" to a question about whether business was slower than usual. Some seemed frightened: a newsstand worker in traditional Muslim dress was barely coherent as she begged a reporter to "go to a bigger store."

At 9:02 a.m.--the time the second plane struck the South Tower and the nation realized it was the victim of an attack--the scene was a little different up on the corner of 34th Street and Seventh Avenue. Electricians from Local Union 3 IBEW had organized a spontaneous memorial of flags and a display of photos of those killed in the attacks. Their boombox was turned to full volume, so passers-by could listen to news reports from the rest of the country. The union lost 17 members who were working at the World Trade Center last September 11, said John Bielmeier, and the display "was the least we could do." He, too, described the mood on the streets as somber. "This is the United States of America," said Chris Obermeier, an organizer of the memorial. "We're not going to be intimidated by anybody."

Two blocks east, another New York landmark was also trying to maintain the appearance of business not quite as usual. Frances Colonna had just traveled in from Queens to her job as a legal secretary in the Empire State Building. She was one of the workers evacuated from the building on September 11 last year, and endured several other evacuation scares in the year since. To her relief, her firm plans to relocate in November because clients had become afraid to visit their offices. "It's very frightening," she said. But she came to work this morning because "I have faith in God."

At 9:30 a.m.--the time when both of the Twin Towers were burning but 29 minutes before the South Tower fell--the building's famed observation deck opened for business. Two flag-holding rows of young military cadets dressed in white solemnly formed an honor guard the art deco lobby. Tourists waited in line--there just weren't many of them. Some clearly took the ride to the top as a pilgrimage, silently staring south toward the scar in the skyline. One gray-haired woman in a denim skirt trembled as she looked at where the trade center had once stood, shaking her head and fleeing when she could no longer stand the sight.

Others came for different reasons: Christopher Ronnau and his daughter, Olivia, were there because they refused to allow terrorists to disrupt their lives, Ronnau told NEWSWEEK. Ronnau flew from Long Beach, Calif., because he wanted to spend September 11 with Olivia, a senior at New York University. "We decided that we're not going to dwell on the tragedy of last year, and we were going to do something distinctly American," he said. Later today, they planned to visit the Metropolitan Museum and have tea at the Plaza Hotel.

Were they nervous about visiting so high-profile a building on such a day? "A tad, a tad," he admitted. Harriet Maddock, a tourist from Illinois up on the observation deck with her friend Margaret Tietjen of Michigan, also confessed to being a little nervous about picking today to see the view. But the two women were determined to make the most of their visit to the city, planning a trip to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island this afternoon and a meal at a Japanese restaurant tonight. "Where exactly was the World Trade Center?" wondered Maddock as she peered downtown.

A few blocks uptown, Times Square, too, seemed oddly uncrowded. At 10:19--the time a year ago the South Tower had collapsed into rubble, Americans had learned of the attack on the Pentagon and New Yorkers were watching military jets fly over their city--there were again crowds clustered below the Jumbotron watching broadcasts of the day's events. But they were strangely muted, with few of the spontaneous conversations that characterized last September 11. Some watchers applauded as the words GOD BLESS AMERICA appeared on the giant TV screen above their heads, broadcasting live from Ground Zero. Others wrote messages on plastic sheets spread out on the ground by Action Jaxon, a Texas deejay who cycled from Dallas to New York "to show that the American spirit has not faded." "This is the place to be today," said Al Lenok, a sales rep from New Jersey.

At 10:28, those at Ground Zero marked the collapse of the North Tower. At Times Square, viewers began to drift away. Around the corner, a woman in black shorts and a red tank top paused at a sculpture of a fallen firefighter on 44th Street and Eighth Avenue. The sculpture has become something of a landmark for New Yorkers during the last year, a silent tribute to the 343 firefighters who died in last year's inferno. Today was it strewn with fresh flowers, a wreath resting at its base. The woman asked a local security guard to take a photograph of her posing alongside the statue. It was 10:35 a.m., 12 months and 109 minutes since the first fireball erupted over the city.