That day — part 5 of 5
Posted by Ron Coleman on September 11, 2008
After about an hour, it was my turn to board. I took a seat on the top deck. The sail across the Hudson was painfully slow because of the crush of boats awaiting docking permission on the other side, in Weehawken, New Jersey. We sat there, staring, of course, at the broad, thick plume of smoke as we floated and bobbed in the middle of the majestic Hudson. The sun was beginning to set over the cliffs that overlook the river from the Jersey side — the Palisades — and it was calm, mostly quiet, and, to say the least, somber. The ferry company did not charge us for the ride, which was certainly a grand gesture.
Finally we made it to shore. My car was just on the other side of the massive, elevated section of New Jersey Route 3. Unfortunately, however, I was not allowed to get it: Because of the potential for another attack, no one was allowed under that section of towering steel that held up ten or so lanes of highway. There was only one way to go: North, along the banks at the foot of the Palisades.
We walked, all of us, what must have been a mile — I don’t know exactly how long it was, until we reached here:
(Credit to a blog called Paul Runs a Marathon for the picture.)
These stairs get you over the top, onto the main geological plain in northern New Jersey — the cliffs are the margin of what geologists call a “diabase sill” that scientists say was formed at the close of the Triassic Period by the intrusion of molten magma upward into sandstone, and for my money was going to get me a lot closer to what we call civilization here. Of course if you’re driving a car, you don’t take the stairs; you wind ’round and ’round north or south and eventually end up “on top.”
But I wasn’t driving a car. In fact, by now my neck and back were caught in their own miniature conflagration; the nerves around my bulging disk were creating, as my entire upper-right back spasmed, a pain no different from the sensation of a knife being repeatedly plunged in my right scapula, but this was war, and it was clearly every man for himself. So, in my two-piece Brooks Brothers suit and my horsehide wingtips, I traversed the steps up the side of the Palisades, taking terrorism very personally but, again, thanking God that I was alive, and walking, and not at the bottom of the steel and concrete shoeboxes that formerly had held up thousands of my neighbors in their daily exertions and that now was, in its compacted form, their shared grave.
And here I will end the story, almost, except to say two things.
One is that I got to the top, of course, and eventually made my way home. The normal one-hour commute took me seven hours, due to road closures, mass insanity, and attempted shortcuts around roadblocks that became endless tours of Bergen County, New Jersey. I walked the streets of West New York, Weehawken and Union City trying to figure out how to get to the park and ride in North Bergen — physically almost impossible for someone on foot — until a hasidic Jew in a van who lives in that last city saw an obviously out of place landsman and mercifully gave him a ride to his Buick.
That was one thing.
The second thing was what happened before that, just when I got to the top of the stairs — winded, coated in sweat and grime, in agonizing nerve pain and, like a lot of other people, in no less spiritual pain over what had happened that day. I was at the top of the stairs but, I thought, at the nadir of almost everything else at that moment.
And when I rounded the bend onto the street, right behind a stone retaining wall, a young, well-built guy, about 25, I’d guess, was standing there with a huge tub full of bottles of water on ice. He gave one to everyone coming up the stairs, with a big smile. We exchanged words — something about thanks, something about us all being in this together — and yes, it was the most humane moment of the day for me. It gave me the strength, I think (not just for the hydration), to finish the rest of my quest to get home that day.
The next day New York was closed. The day after that, though, I was on the bus rolling into a ghost town. Those of us who had to be there streamed in as if it were any other day. But it wasn’t. The highways were empty; the tunnel, a hollow tube during the height of rush hour. Soldiers with weapons walked past my office in the Rolex Building. And for weeks after that we cruised into Manhattan at a pace that would have been familiar perhaps during the Depression, and it was as if we “serious New Yorkers” had the wounded city to ourselves for that time.
And as the buses lined up for tunnel, on the helix just to the west of the cliffs I climbed that day, we staired dumbly at the smoke rising from the Battery, from the huge empty hole in our guts where once our civic dreams, however drearily encapsulated by 1970’s municipal architecture, did indeed promise to raise us to the stars.