By Doug McGill
October 14, 2001

At Ground Zero, New York -- New Yorkers are always putting up with something.

Crazy people. Water main breaks. Transit strikes. Mysterious explosions so loud they make you jump. 

New Yorkers employ two main strategies for dealing with these daily hardships. The first is conversation, which usually is intense and neurotic in a Woody Allen-ish way. The second is to shield themselves with a cold personal façade, often mistaken for uncaring.

After the World Trade Center bombing, normally tough New Yorkers, deluged by grief, shaken to their cores, have relied to an unprecedented degree on the conversational strategy for coping, while putting their cold facades in the deep freeze.

I never heard conversations like the ones I’ve heard here in recent days.

Waiting in line at the Jewish Museum, a husband and wife in front of me were bemoaning how the added museum security was slowing our progress toward the Chagalls. This evolved into an argument about airport security and, finally, about whether waxed dental floss could be used by a terrorist to kill the pilots and stewardesses on a plane. (Yes, they agreed, roped dental floss could kill by garotting.)

At the Starbucks in Soho, I chatted with a 20-year-old woman named Farzana Jaffer-Jeraj, a tall model from Toronto who was in New York to drum up work. The World Trade Center attack had unnerved her, she said, and made her turn to two sources of wisdom: her parents, and a New Age philosophy of human motivation called Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Her summation was pessimistic.

“The world’s four great religions are all made from the same tiles,” she said  between sips of latte. “There are piles in each corner of a table. Each religion arranges its tiles into a beautiful pattern, but when they reach the middle they don’t fit, because nobody wants to change.”

At a dinner party, an old friend who is a wire service reporter in New York told me that one vivid image has stuck in his mind.

He had rushed to Ground Zero after the attack and joined a group of rescuers. He eventually found himself in a downtown television studio that had been converted into a triage station. That was surreal enough, but in the studio was a dentist’s chair, a prop for a television show. In the chair sat a enormous Rastafarian man, shocked, crying, covered in white ash. Pieces of paper, particle board, and bits of shattered glass glistened in the man’s hair.

His tears carved twisting rivulets through the dust on his cheeks.

“The building fell on me, man, the building fell on me,” he said over and over.

My friend told the story to unburden himself. He seemed to take pleasure in the glimpse of humanity it showed – and in the visual details, which to him had formed a mental icon of human beauty and meaning, even in suffering.

Hot wet human tears burning a path through deathly dust; making a river of grief. Yet moving on, moving on. Never backing down, never quitting.

Conversations like this are going on, all across the city, at coffee shops and street corners and dinner parties, deep into every night. People sharing philosophies, deepest fears, cherished hopes, images that linger.

The conversations feed my own need for connection with others during these frightening days.

It’s why New York feels so secure to me. Especially now.

Copyright @ 2001 Douglas C. McGill