Food Feature: Two tales of a city

New York struggles toward normal

I think the city is finally back to normal.?
It was Friday night, nearly four weeks after the Towers had come down. My friend Todd plopped himself down across from me in a busy cafe in Union Square.

"Yeah, it's definitely back to normal," he continued. "On the way over, my cabbie cursed at three pedestrians and ran two stop signs."

Since the attacks on the World Trade Center, the media has spilled barrels of ink posing the question, "When will things go back to normal?" but there was clearly a big difference between the struggle for normalcy in New York City and the struggle elsewhere. In my own small world in Atlanta, things were, for the most part, normal. People still went out and drank too much and laughed and complained that their lives were a mess. The week before, a friend in New York had told me she and her friends tried doing the same, but every time she walked outside, she could smell the smoking rubble from the Towers.

I was crossing the Queensborough Bridge on a shuttle bus from LaGuardia to midtown when I first glimpsed the altered skyline. I was holding a magazine, looking over the top of it — it would've felt shameful to gawk so openly at the void where the Trade Center once was, almost like staring at the space where an amputee's arm used to be. My friend Joe, who's lived his whole life in Brooklyn, told me the skyline looked strangest during the few hours on the 11th when only one tower was standing. After they'd both fallen, he said, when you looked up and didn't see the Towers, your brain just assumed you were looking in the wrong direction. It was like waking up in your bedroom to find someone had painted it blue while you were asleep. Your first thought would be that you were in someone else's room.

Such was the feeling the new skyline conjured. Cognitively, I knew the Trade Center was downtown, at the south end of Manhattan, but I kept thinking perhaps I was looking at Staten Island. Without the anchor of the Towers, the downtown part of the skyline seemed like another city, hardly even attached to the rest of Manhattan. New York never looked so small.

That feeling disappeared as we crossed into Manhattan. Around 64th Street, where I was staying, the mood was remarkably routine. It was loud, traffic was horrible and the inviting aroma of hot dogs, pizza and kebabs breathed off the streets the way it always does.

That night, I took the subway downtown. I was headed to a club, south of Soho, east of Tribeca and very near "Ground Zero." Emerging from the subway at Canal Street, the apparent normalcy of the rest of the city stood in stark contrast to the surreal vibe that hung in the air down there.

I wandered to the corner of Church and Chambers, which was as close as they were letting regular people to the site of the disaster, about six blocks away. Floodlights illuminated the area surrounding the rubble as crews worked round-the-clock on the clean-up effort. It's been said it'll take six months to clear all the wreckage. Maybe longer.

Police barricades were ubiquitous, as was the insidious smell I'd heard about. Many streets were still closed off and even the ones that weren't were mostly barren. Handmade signs hung in the windows of stores and restaurants assuring customers, "Yes, we're open," despite appearances to the contrary.??

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