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Autumn Is New York's Cruelest Season

November 15, 2001|NORAH VINCENT | Norah Vincent is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City. E-mail:

We are a city in despair. No question. And the evidence is not in our response to the American Airlines Flight 587 "accident" but in our conspicuous lack of one. We barely looked up from the bottom of the beers that we've been drowning our sorrows in for the past two months.

Oh, we noticed, but most of us are far too bitter to be surprised by this fresh hell, much less to panic about it. We're smiling at grief, shaking our heads and twisting our mouths into that expression of disbelief that is the only reaction left to a people kicked hard by fate while they're down.

More terrorism could have at least been expected. But pure accident--that's Olympian in its cruelty. So much so that we can only wonder which god we've offended.

How is it that the firemen who risked and sacrificed their lives at the World Trade Center should have had their neighborhood torched and tortured by a fluke? How could chance have chosen to inflict its wrath so unfairly on their community, of all places? A mere pinpoint on the map. A sandbar. An oasis on the edge of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, where owls and ibises and shorebirds flock year-round.

One can't help thinking of firefighter Michael Moran's taunt during the recent benefit concert for New York City. It felt so satisfying and beautifully, New Yorkishly rude, his telling Osama bin Laden to kiss his posterior, adding, "I live in Rockaway, and this is my face." Now it seems that the devil, if not Bin Laden, was listening. Moran's brother John perished at the World Trade Center. John's widow lives just blocks from the crash site in Rockaway, Queens.

Those of us who live in the Lower East Side of Manhattan are starting to feel like we're wearing bull's-eyes as hats. The towers fell to one side of us and now the Rockaways to the other. But we are the relatively joyous few in our village of the damned. Our ladder company stands doubly cursed. Somehow the flowers and candles outside the local firehouse, the donations of cookies and flashlights and clean underwear that they have accepted from us with stoic good grace since Sept. 11, must seem like the almost profane taunts of the impossibly lucky and sanguine. It's a wonder they don't now brush aside our mawkish hospitality with inconsolable contempt and shatter our dime store shrines in fits of atheistic rage.

People across the country have been hoping (what a sign of the times) that Monday's plane crash was "just" an accident. Not us. That's made it worse. Perversely, it would have been easier had it been more terrorism. This unfair debacle is more jet fuel in the wound, more proof that fortune is a wheel of fire.

Not exactly what we needed just now--the Judas kiss of something awful with a smirk on its face--especially now that our shining knight, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, is on his way out. But then, Giuliani's safer Gotham of the late '90s was an anomaly anyway, an eye in the usual storm. We'll weather it. We always have.

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