This is the eighth of ten stories Storyboard will post from a new collection honoring Michael Brick [see our 5 Questions on the project], each featuring an introduction by a writer who loved his work. Today’s entry is introduced by Tom Junod.
Time is the most challenging dimension for journalists. The business has its roots in speed and compression, and it’s hard to take time’s full measure—the simple fact that it changes everything—on deadline. That’s why Mike Brick’s “Old New Yorkers, Newer Ones, and a Line Etched by a Day of Disaster” is such a little miracle of a story, or, to be more precise, a big miracle that does its work in tight quarters. It’s a 9/11 story, so at first its strength seems to be that it goes small on the most enormous of subjects. But that’s deceptive, because what Mike Brick does in the span of about 1,500 words is keep upping the ante until he’s written a 9/11 story that’s about nothing less than time itself.
The New York Times lists the story’s publication date as September 7, 2006, so the nature of its cause and occasion is crystal clear—it’s a story meant to mark an impending milestone, the kind of thing that has been the stock-in-trade of daily newspapers since the invention of movable type. To pull it off, a reporter has only to be humane to the people he quotes and graceful in how he quotes them. All he has to do is find a way to say that “life goes on,” and his job is done. But that’s not what Mike does here, not exactly. Instead, he finds a way to say that if life goes on, so does death—and that everything is mortal, even tragedy.
He starts the story with time and with numbers, writing that in the five years since the planes came and the buildings fell and the people never came home from work, “645,416 babies were born and 304,773 people died. A half-million more people came from other countries than departed for them, and 800,000 more people left for the 50 states than came wide-eyed from them.” Life would indeed seem to go on…except that what all those new additions and new arrivals wind up doing is burying what’s most important to those who came before them.
“Five years on,” Mike writes, “New York is a city of newcomers and survivors. And between them runs a line. The line makes for no conflict, no discernible tension; it works a quieter breach.” It is the line between innocence and experience, between memory and forgetting—and, in the great achievement of “Old New Yorkers, Newer Ones, and a Line Etched by a Day of Disaster,” it becomes Mike Brick’s central character. In a story 42 paragraphs long, he mentions “the line” in 16, until those two words become a drumbeat, an abstraction that somehow gains the weedy permanence of a character profiled by Joseph Mitchell.
From beginning to end Mike is graceful and humane in spades, but saves his deepest compassion not for the experienced but rather for the innocent: “on the [line’s] other side, you can feel like the new boyfriend at your girlfriend’s family reunion the year somebody died—somebody young, somebody you never met.”
It’s tempting to read that sentence from the vantage of retrospective knowledge, as the presentiment of someone who was, and who will now always be, “somebody young.” But all journalists come to learn that they’re never going to get the space they need. Mike Brick always worked in a deeper and nearly invisible dimension, so he must have known, without having to be told, that neither do we get the time.—Tom Junod
Old New Yorkers, Newer Ones, and the Line Etched by Sept. 11
The New York Times, September 7, 2006 Thursday
DATELINE: New York, New York
Five years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center. Downtown smelled like Coke cans and hair on fire. It was televised live.
In New York City, 2,749 people were killed. About eight million remained. Since that day, the numbers have changed.
The population grew by more than 134,000 from 2000 to 2005, the city’s latest Planning Department calculations show. In that time, 645,416 babies were born and 304,773 people died. A half-million more people came from other countries than departed for them, and 800,000 more people left for the 50 states than came wide-eyed from them.
The meaning in the math is that today a great many New Yorkers lack firsthand knowledge of the city’s critical modern moment.
Five years on, New York is a city of newcomers and survivors. And between them runs a line. The line makes for no conflict, no discernible tension; it works a quieter breach.
Borne of the routine comings and goings of urban life, of births and deaths, the line divides views of a singular moment. Across the line, consummately familiar events can appear contorted.
On one side, the newcomer side, a man seeks accounts of that day; on the other side a man withholds his account. On the newcomer side, a woman visits the absent towers to feel some connection; on the other side a woman feels connected, and then some.
On the side of those who lived in New York, you can share a sense of trauma both layered and ill-defined.
”It’s like someone who has been in a war zone,” said William Stockbridge, 50, a finance executive who was working downtown during the attack. ”It’s different.”
On the other side, you can feel like the new boyfriend at your girlfriend’s family reunion the year somebody died—somebody young, somebody you never met.
”You feel like you’re on the outside,” said Matthew Molnar, 26, a waiter in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who lived in Middlesex County, N.J., in 2001. ”You feel like you missed out on a little bit of history.”
Newcomers and survivors: those terms ring harsh and blunt only because the line is so often unspoken. It runs soundless and invisible down Broadway from Harlem over the Williamsburg Bridge out to Coney Island and to Fresh Kills, up past the airports across the Grand Concourse into Yankee Stadium, through the bleachers where you can’t drink beer anymore and up out of the park into the nighttime sky.
The line flashes into view on the city streets for moments at a time. When jet fighters buzz the skyscrapers for Fleet Week, some of the people below—the ones who were here on Sept. 11—flinch. More frequently, though, the line operates beneath the surface of conversations, of interactions, of transactions, of life. The line controls small things, controls the way people react to the phrase ”and then Sept. 11 happened,” as though a date on the calendar could ”happen.”
The line’s contours emerge in conversations. Ask about the attack, and people will describe a sense of ownership.
”You either experienced it firsthand,” said Amanda Spielman, 30, a graphic designer from Jackson Heights, Queens, who was in the city, ”or you didn’t.”
Others describe that sense differently, but draw the line in the same place.
”I think for the people that seen it on TV, it is more painful than for the people who saw it here,” said Paolo Gonzalez, 29, who manages a parking lot under the Brooklyn Bridge and who saw the attack. ”For the other people it was real. If you was here, when the buildings came down the only thing you were thinking was, ‘Run.’ ”
Across the line, the new arrivals recognize that sense of ownership.
”I’ve been told that I just don’t get it and that I could never understand what it was like to be there in New York on Sept. 11,” said Laura Bassett, 27, who moved to the city from North Carolina after 2001. ”I hate that five years later, people still debate which bystander is allowed to be more upset, the New Yorker or the American.”
The line emerges perhaps most powerfully around the fallen towers, 2.06 acres of concrete known as Ground Zero. Because of the line, the site is a paradox, an emotional contradiction, a mass grave and a tourist attraction.
Some people feel so strongly about the place they cannot agree on an arrangement for listing the names of the dead; others feel so strongly about the place that they make sure to visit between Radio City Music Hall and the Statue of Liberty. Between those emotional poles is a middle ground, and the line runs through its center.
”People who moved to New York, everyone wanted to go down and see it,” said Dede Minor, 51, a real estate broker who was in her office in Midtown on the day of the attack. ”For New Yorkers, it was too real.”
Jose Martias, 57, a construction worker who was drinking coffee near the East River when the attack began, said he knew why the newcomers visit the site.
”They don’t understand it so they go down there to see the hole,” Mr. Martias said. ”It’s an attraction to them, like going to the circus.”
But across the line there is genuine emotional curiosity, a feeling that people in less cynical times used to call empathy.
”I’d didn’t think I’d be that affected,” said Leah Hamilton, 24, a logistics consultant who moved to Manhattan from Washington State last year. ”But when I went to ground zero, it was the first time I’ve felt an emotional reaction like that to something I wasn’t a part of. You feel the energy and you could feel the sadness.”
The line can reach into the future, forging perceptions of New York and its destiny. Some new arrivals speak of the attack as a reason to come to the city.
”We felt like there was a lot of energy here,” said Meg Glasser, 26, a student who moved to the East Village from Boston this year. ”We wanted to be a part of it in some way.”
But across the line, that sense of energy is tempered by standards for comparison.
”I know people who have been here a year or two, and they find New York fantastic,” said Father Bernard, 67, a Roman Catholic monk who was born in Brooklyn and who goes by only that name. ”They’re right, but they didn’t know the New York before.”
The line reaches into the past as well, dividing memories. Each generation tells the next where they were when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, when the Kennedys and Martin Luther King were killed or when a space shuttle exploded, but a major act of destruction in a major American city creates more firsthand accounts.
Psychological studies suggest those accounts have played a role in drawing the line. After the attack, a group of academic researchers interviewed 1,500 people, including 550 in New York City, to gauge memories of detail, said Elizabeth Phelps, a professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. Proximity to Lower Manhattan during the attack, Dr. Phelps said, ”increases your confidence in your memories, and your accuracy as well.”
In a separate study, the researchers measured activity in parts of the brain connected to memory. With verbal cues, subjects were asked to conjure visions of the terror attack and of personal events from the summer of 2001. Only half registered a difference in neural activity.
”Those who did show a difference were, on average, in Washington Square Park,” Dr. Phelps said. ”Those who didn’t were, on average, in Midtown.”
Among those who have come to the city since 2001, the line dividing memories is undisputed.
”I had been there as a tourist to the World Trade Center, so I have memories,” said Marielle Solan, 22, a photographer who moved to the city from Delaware this year. ”But obviously I can’t have any sense of what it was like. Every Sept, 11, you get a sense of fear and depression, but in terms of actual visceral reactions, I don’t really have that.”
The new arrivals have found a conspicuous void of shared memory.
”I’m amazed because it was such a big event, and people never mention it,” said Deenah Vollmer, 20, who moved to the city last year. ”When you do mention it, everyone has these crazy intense stories.”
Across the line, many of those who lived in the city hold their memories close.
”The people I already knew know my stories from that day, so there’s no need to repeat them,” said Ms. Spielman, the graphic designer. ”The new people I’ve met don’t ask me. It’s not something I bring up.”
But each year the calendar brings it up. Alexandria Lambert, 28, who works as an administrative assistant, sees the line run through the center of her office. Each year, a co-worker who witnessed the attack asks for the day off, and each year a boss who did not declines the request.
”His point of view is, ‘Don’t let it get you down,’ ” Ms. Lambert said, ”but she just doesn’t want to be here.”
Reporting for this article was contributed by Sarah Garland, Kate Hammer, Colin Moynihan and Conrad Mulcahy.