The Washington Post
Beneath NYC’S terrible smoke, a flash of bright yellow
After the shroud rolled over the day, I remember just one dash of color in the pall, a smear of bright yellow. It was an old Schwinn steel-frame racing bicycle, and it moved like a canary in the smoke. The bike, like all bikes, was an escape, the ability to get somewhere under your own power, fast, to carve turns and pick your own lane through obstacles. But it represented something else too, that bike, as indefinably sweet as a wildflower growing in the sidewalk.
The first tower was hit at 8:46 a.m., and had I not worn the spouse’s sandals and forgotten where I put them, we would have been near the foot of it. Instead, the shoe argument made us late coming back from a long weekend, and we hit heavy traffic on an expressway. We came around a curve, and I said, “What the hell are those chimneys burning?”
Then my eyes adjusted to the unimaginable: the World Trade Center, smoldering. The spouse, a photographer for the New York Times, opened the sunroof and stood up, waist halfway out of the car, with a camera. When the first tower fell, it looked like God took his thumb and just rubbed it out of the picture. The inarticulate noises that came out of our throats were not screams exactly, just low exhalations of grieved astonishment.
On the Queensboro Bridge, thousands of pedestrians fled the other way over it, running out of Manhattan in their neckties and high heels, a sight so eerie I said something like, “It looks like a monster movie.” We were on the bridge when the second tower fell. It was soundless from where we were, and then the double shroudcloud spread over Lower Manhattan like a fast-rolling fog.
At The Washington Post bureau, I said, “Where do I go?” and an editor said someone was needed to cover the hospitals, so I stuck my driver’s license, my press ID and a $20 bill in my running shoes and started jogging downtown. I was a runner in those days, so I ran all the way from 57th Street to St. Vincent’s Hospital on West 12th without stopping. When I got there, all the nurses and docs were lined up on the sidewalk with a huge row of gurneys and lines of IV poles.
Only it was quiet. There were no ambulances pulling up. They were all just standing there.
I said to a nurse, “Where are all the victims?”
She just looked at me and said, “No one’s coming in.”
Down in the Financial District, people walked out of the smoke, and they were the color of smoke, covered with ash, as they wandered through streets overhung by blown, damaged rooftops — a steel beam stuck out of one building and quivered in the air as if Zeus had thrown a javelin, and shards of glass wavered in the wind.
A guy with a wet blanket over his shoulders, hair completely caked with ashes, said stupefied, “They were jumping out of the buildings.” A construction foreman saw the second plane roar right overhead, flying at such a tilted angle that he worried the wing might hit his crane before it speared the North Tower. Smithereens of paper choked the sidewalks and gutters, and it smelled like nothing had ever smelled, a combination of burning electrical wire, wet cement and something else you couldn’t even identify, acrid, hot, metallic and wet at the same time. Later it would be identified as an amalgam of glass fibers, asbestos, gypsum and lead. At Thanksgiving, I would reach up to get the roasting pan kept on top of the fridge in my Lower Manhattan apartment, and it would have silt in the bottom.
By late afternoon, the $20 bill was soaked with sweat and I had probably run six miles. Footsore, I headed to a bike shop on West 14th Street. Inside, it was deserted except for a guy at the counter. I flashed my Washington Post ID and said: “Hi, I’m a reporter, and I need to get back uptown. But all I’ve got is $20. Do you have anything I could rent for that just for today? And I’ ll come back tomorrow with more money?”
He said: “I don’t got any rental bikes left. They took ’em all.”
I said, “Listen, if you have any old junker I could use, I swear I will come back here tomorrow and buy the most expensive bike you have.”
He said, “Well, if I get a bike for you, how you going to lock it up?”
I said, almost in tears, “Do you have a lock I could rent for $20?”
He said: “Hey, it’s not that kind of day. I’m going to give you a bike.”
He disappeared in back and after a moment returned with that creaking 1970s steel 10speed Schwinn. It was the bright yellow of a tropical fruit, “Kool Lemon,” as Schwinn advertised it in ’ 74. It was so bright you practically had to throw a hand across your eyes to shade them. A tide of laughter rose up in my throat — in the middle of the worst day ever, I thought confusedly, how can you laugh? But that’s what the color summoned.
Filmmaker Steven Spielberg once said about making “Schindler’s List”: “For me the symbol of life is color. That’s why a film about the Holocaust has to be in black and white.”
That bike was a color amid the terrible shrouded black and grayness of 9/11.
It’s said that 9/11 happened to all Americans, and it did, but it happened first and foremost to New Yorkers, and I’m a lifelong New Yorker. I had watched those buildings go up as a kid in the 1970s, when I was a public schooler with a wad of Bazooka and hard little vowels in my foul little mouth. I remembered Philippe Petit walking the wire between the towers, still the single greatest athletic feat of my lifetime. I had played ballgames from crack to crack in the sidewalks, dodging a German lady with grocery bags who called me a “hoodelump.” I rode a stiff wooden skateboard with clay wheels that I would brake by running it over a steel grate, which required me to make an acrobatic leap off the board and stick a landing on the soles of my Converse All Stars. Sometimes I missed and got sidewalk in my skin. One afternoon I stood before my father, stringy-haired, grimesmeared and chin-scarred. “Jesus Christ,” he pronounced. “You look like a prizefighter.”
That’s what New Yorkers were, prizefighters, I thought, and the city was the prize. The hardpan streets had cuttingly sharp edges, but they also glinted with mica, which as a kid struck me like treasure — if you could dig it out, wouldn’t it be silver dust?
The yellow Schwinn had old metal lever gearshifts on the neck and two sets of handbrakes that made a “creeeeeeeeeee” sound when you hit them, but it sailed past the roadblocks, and its thick whitewall tires seemed impervious to debris. “That’s the way to travel right now,” a cop called to me approvingly. My delighted bureau chief, Michael Powell, called the bike The Washington Post Emergency Escape Vehicle.
I rode it for days — because Sept. 11 did not last a day. The melting down out of a perfect blue sky lasted for months. So did the wreckage in the heart of a New Yorker, which was as deep as those black fountains that mark the footprint today. It was a seemingly endless interior hemorrhage. The posters of the missing, of the people who should not have been absent, fluttered from chain link fences and brick walls, and funeral cortèges choked the streets, creating a new brand of gridlock that we bore with a solemn, silent, un-honking patience. Sometimes people just stood stock still in the streets with the tears running down their faces.
Zooming around on the bike, I tried to make some sense of the wrecked geography, the mangled tines of metal, the girder quivering in the wind stories high, and of the cold act that wrought such hot destruction, the smoldering pile that burned the boots off the feet of the first responders. In all of that, the bike was the color of a daisy chain and offered a small sense of consolation that I couldn’t identify, until Stephen Jay Gould identified it for me.
Two weeks after the cataclysm, Gould, the American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, wrote an essay that somehow stanched the interior hemorrhage. There was but a single act of evil that day, he pointed out. There were thousands upon thousands of acts of good, repeated in countless different ways all over the city. “The tragedy of human history lies in the enormous potential for destruction in rare acts of evil, not in the high frequency of evil people,” he wrote in the New York Times. “Complex systems can only be built step by step, whereas destruction requires but an instant. Thus, in what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness. . . . Good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one.”
It was true. On every block, store owners and restaurant workers would offer you something, a bit of free solace — “Are you thirsty? Do you need something to eat?” — and refuse payment. Because it was not that kind of day.
“We have a duty, almost a holy responsibility, to record and honor the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses, when an unprecedented act of evil so threatens to distort our perception of ordinary human behavior,” Gould wrote.
So I honor the man in the bike shop who provided freehandedly a yellow Schwinn with creeeeeing brakes, gave respite to a footsore witness of the worst day ever and helped her get from the malevolent smoke into the clearer air.
It was probably 10 days before I had time to go back to the bike shop on 14th Street. I walked in there with a wad of cash and the yellow bike.
I said to the guy: “I’m really sorry it’s been so long since you’ve seen me. You probably thought I stole it.”
He just said, “Oh, I knew you’d be back.”
I said, “I’m here to buy a bike.” And he said, “Which one do you want?”
I said: “Honestly? I want this one.” And I pointed to the yellow canary-daisy-chain bike.
He would take only a hundred dollars for it, and it became mine.
There have been so many slower-rolling catastrophes since then and with them varying cold vengeful acts and hot ugly ones. Sometimes you could wonder with a sickened heart if the victorious weight will hold or whether the proportion of evil will outweigh the good. If so, the lesson of 9/11 is that the tilt toward evil will probably not come from one huge fracturing external blow of enmity but from smaller selfinflicted hairline cracks, our own responses to each other in storms, sickness and mean political seasons.
Gould’s assurance that historical evils are isolated and outnumbered is not a static truth. It does not have to remain true. If good and kind people are to “outnumber all others by thousands to one,” as he wrote, then we have to free-handedly do something small and good and kind every day because, hey, it’s not that kind of day. We have to make sure we are on the longer list. Make sure of it. That’s how we will know who and where we are and find our colorful ride out of the terrible smoke.