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Flash Dispatch, 9-15: Report from Ground Zero
New York City, Friday, September 14, 2001

"The only way to combat terrorism is to get up in the morning and go about your day. Your freedom will taste even sweeter then."

--A former resident of Belfast, Northern Ireland, now living in New York

By Darrah Carr
Copyright 2001 Darrah Carr

I took the subway to Brooklyn last night, leaving my barricaded West Village neighborhood for the first time since Tuesday's awful wake-up call. Riding underground, underwater, I was anxious. Really anxious. Really for the first time ever in New York City. Sure, there have been reasons to be somewhat anxious before: I've have had my wallet stolen, seen prostitutes turning tricks under my stoop, as well as homeless people living under my stoop, and a smattering of mice and roaches living in my apartment -- but these are small, specific fears. Almost expected fears when one decides to live in New York City. Today, fear exists precisely because Tuesday was so unexpected. So unconscionable. So unbelievable.

Indeed, fear doesn't feel specific today. It stems from a faceless, nameless, senseless place. Though authorities are doing their best to keep abreast of developments, reports keep changing as more and more news breaks. By Wednesday morning, city officials had re-opened some transportation in and out of Manhattan, but placed barricades at 14th street, closing the streets below to all traffic other than emergency vehicles. There is no bus, nor subway service below 14th. One must show identification and proof of residency in order to cross the line. Though many pedestrians are milling about (as virtually no one is going to work) the streets are eerily quiet. The silence is punctuated only by the high wail of sirens that rush victims to St. Vincent's Hospital and the low drone of military planes that swoop overhead. The presence of a thick, choking cloud of gray smoke coupled with the absence of the familiar twin towers makes the hours pass in a slow and surreal fashion.

The police line was drawn at 14th street in the hopes that life uptown could return to "normal." But Wednesday night, officers evacuated Penn Station and the Empire State Building. Thursday afternoon, they evacuated Grand Central and parts of midtown, in an anxious response to the more than 90 bomb scares that city officials have received. Thursday, there were reports that the Millennium Hotel, right next to "ground zero," might collapse. One rescue worker feared that, unlike the Twin Towers, the hotel wouldn't crumble underneath itself like an enormous sand castle. Rather, it would topple sideways. Staring at the television, I pictured a domino effect, envisioning the imposing skyscraper, like the two others that we all knew so well, falling over. But this would fall at a harsh angle, like a tree in a dense forest, flattening the surrounding buildings as if they were merely card houses. As a choreographer, I am perhaps an architect of bodies in space, but certainly not buildings! Thus, I've never fully understood how the narrow island of Manhattan could sustain the weight of so many skyscrapers, particularly when its belly is hollow -- with subway lines like small intestines, running throughout its inside. My ignorance of engineering, coupled with the startling images of collapsing buildings, gave birth to last night's subway riding anxiety.

Furthermore, early reports on Tuesday had explained the reason for closing Manhattan's bridges and tunnels to all general traffic. Namely, if terrorist attacks were to continue, there'd be no better way to isolate and paralyze the island than to bomb the arms that Manhattan stretches to boroughs across the water. The operative clause being "if terrorist attacks were to continue." Thursday night police apprehended ten individuals at La Guardia and JFK airports, just as the first cross-country flights to LA since Tuesday were about to depart. These individuals carried fake identification, knives, and at least one had a pilot's license. All in all, they seemed alarmingly like the terrorists who manned Tuesday's fateful flights. (Fortunately, the mayor's office stated Friday morning that nine of the ten individuals have been released as false alarms. Furthermore, the Millennium hotel has been tested and is structurally sound.) Nevertheless, when I left my apartment, I was obviously only aware of Thursday night's news (This is a good example of my earlier point that reports keep changing -- so no one knows what to believe).

Having heard about the ten apprehended individuals added to my brooding fears, as I ventured across the barricade. Maybe this isn't over yet. Maybe it won't be easy to regain the sense of security that I, for one, have taken for granted as a U.S. citizen. I allowed myself to entertain various fearful thoughts while waiting for the train. Maybe they'd put a bomb in a subway car and it would explode while underwater. Maybe I'll have to consider terrorism the next time I go to a concert at Madison Square Garden. Maybe some hate-filled terrorist will fly a plane into the World Trade Center?! What?!

As the subway doors opened, I thought of my five-year-old Irish dancing student, whose family lost a dear friend on Tuesday. She's been having nightmares, is afraid to leave her apartment, and keeps asking her mother when someone is going to blow up their house. I suddenly knew how she felt. I wanted to turn to someone older than me -- to find someone older and wiser who could explain how and why such an appalling day could have happened. I yearned for reassurance; longed for someone to bathe the city in an enormous night light -- to turn off the glaring neon of Times Square in favor of a gentle glow -- and to sing a soothing song and help the city that never sleeps, find some peaceful rest.

For this is indeed a waking nightmare. Especially for those who have lost or are missing loved ones. One report stated that 4,763 people are still unaccounted for. For the families and friends, fear is extremely, excruciatingly specific -- it is anything but faceless or nameless. We see the pictures of missing persons on TV. Hear their names, ages, what clothes they were wearing, what floor they worked on, when they last made contact via cell phone, or email. Perhaps it is the cumulative effect of so many specific fears that creates the sense of darkness, the overwhelming anxiety, the abject terror.

As I waited to transfer trains, I thought of the friend I was going to visit (in order to borrow the laptop on which I now write this). An Irish actor, now living in New York, he grew up Catholic in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Needless to say, his perspective on and experience in dealing with random acts of terrorism is vastly different than my own. He is not jaded, he has simply developed a way of living his life fully, despite the potential threat of violence. First and foremost is his philosophy that one cannot allow one's life to be ruled by fear, for that is exactly what the terrorist wants. According to my friend, "The only way to combat terrorism is to get up in the morning and go about your day. Your freedom will taste even sweeter then." He sees America as reeling in shock, as a country that until now, never knew what it was to live in the shadow of fear.

Mayor Giuliani expresses a similar belief regarding behavior in the face of fear, as he urges New Yorkers to try to return to business as usual, in order to send a political message that terrorism cannot bring this city to its knees. My colleagues and I have had discussions all week regarding the appropriateness of continuing with events as planned versus taking time out to grieve, reflect, and recover. Contemplating the place of our work in dance in the wake of such a vast tragedy is particularly complicated. On the one hand, dance is so often associated with joy and entertainment that it seems not only disrespectful, but also inconceivable to consider immediately returning to such an activity. On the other hand, perhaps there is no better time than now to dance. Dance is nothing if not life-affirming. Perhaps we can use the aftermath of this tragedy as a time to reinvest ourselves in our dance work as a way to explore and express the power, strength, and resiliency of the human body and spirit.

Exiting the subway, I was both surprised and disturbed to find that I could still smell the thick, acrid smoke in Brooklyn. (Though friends in Park Slope had reported it was virtually snowing paper and ash on Tuesday.) I noticed a tall man running toward me. Ordinarily, I might have feared he would run off with the shoulder bag in which I carried this lap top. But last night, in the wake of Tuesday's tragedy, and as a result of spending several days viewing horrifying footage, I feared for him. I saw him for a second as if he were running for his life. Behind him, I pictured that avalanche of debris, soot, and ash from the collapsing World Trade Center, billowing around the corner of the street, and chasing him down the block, as so many of us watched happen via television Tuesday morning, and so many more experienced live, in a much more horrifying reality. I contemplated how running away is so often associated with fear. How running toward is linked with joy. I thought about running. Just running. Neither away from nor toward. Running purely as a state of the body in motion. As dance artists, we're blessed with the opportunity to put the body in motion. We can do so for the sake of the inherent beauty that lies in a moving body. Or, we can choose to express our grief at the loss of loved ones, to celebrate our gratitude at having survived, to vent our outrage at this senseless tragedy. Hopefully, by using the body as a vehicle of expression, we can help ourselves and others begin to process these horrifying images and deeds and move toward finding solace.

(Note: At the time we are sending this dispatch out, Saturday morning, the barricade has been moved further south, to Canal Street. Some subway, bus, and taxi service has been restored between 14th Street and Canal).

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