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REMEMBERING THE FUTURE WE FEARED

The day after 9/11, many people were certain New York had changed forever.

New York Times

The day dawned different and stayed that way. Traffic was thin and sidewalks quiet. The stock exchange didn't open, nor the airports, the schools, Broadway. People loaded up on bottled water, batteries, canoes. The law enforcement presence was intense: men with machine guns, gunboats circling the harbor.

Downtown, fires burned, smoke plumed. The odor stood.

It was a city humbled and scared, where the possibilities of destruction had been recalibrated. It was Sept. 12, 2001. The day after.

So much has been said and written about what happened on 9/11. The following day is forgotten, just another dulled interlude in the aftermath.

But New Yorkers were introduced that day to irreducible presumptions about their wounded city that many believed would harden and become chiseled into the event's enduring legacy.

New York would become a fortress, choked by apprehension and resignation, forever patrolled by soldiers and submarines. Another attack was coming. And soon.

Tourists? Well, who would ever come again? Work in one of the city's skyscrapers? Not likely. The Fire Department, gutted by 343 deaths, could never recuperate.

If a crippled downtown Manhattan were to have any chance of regeneration, ground zero had to be rebuilt quickly, a bricks and mortar nose-thumbing to terror.

Eight years later, those presumptions are cobwebbed memories that never came to pass. Indeed, glimpses into a few aspects of the city measure the gap between what was predicted and what actually came to be.

You could start at one downtown street corner. The wisdom of the day after was that New York would never again bunch together important institutional nerve centers, binding them together in vulnerability.

On Sept. 11, American Express had its headquarters at the southwest corner of West and Vesey Streets. It is still there. Since then, Verizon has settled its headquarters into the northeast corner. Goldman Sachs has assumed the northwest. All that's missing is the southeast corner. That will be filled by the tallest building in America.

The novelty man

David Cohen pointed out what the tourists like: replica taxicabs, "I Love New York" T-shirts and thimbles - any trinket inscribed with New York.

Cohen, 83, is the patriarch of Grand Slam, a family-run novelty and baseball clothing store on Broadway, in the heart of Times Square. Eight years ago, he could not have imagined the heaving commerce, the new big buildings, and especially not the complacent scene outside his doors. People basked in the balmy weather at tables and chairs, under patio umbrellas, spread across Broadway. If they worried about anything, it was sunburn.

When fear engulfed the city on Sept. 12, many wrote off Times Square. Chemical bombs were sure to explode there. A suicide bomber strapped with explosives was destined to blow himself up at lunch hour.

Business was slow for months.

But Cohen did not leave. "You can't live in fear," he said. "Things happen and then they don't happen."

Now the weak economy squeezes sales, but pedestrian traffic in Times Square is far higher than it was before Sept. 11. Enhanced security has been put in place, and even when incidents defy it, like the small bomb that exploded at the military recruiting station in March 2008, people shrug it off, keep coming.

"This is the best spot in New York," Cohen said.

The firefighter

The number was 343. Back in those awful days, Chief Charlie Williams, 9th Battalion, Manhattan, thumbed down the death list looking for the firefighters he could have said hello to by name: "Hi Tom, hi Joe, hi Ray." After about 40, he stopped. It was enough.

The loss was staggering. Many asked, who would put out the fires of tomorrow? In addition to the deaths, there was a stampede of retirements. The wives didn't want to join the widows.

There were 11,339 uniformed members of the Fire Department on Sept. 10, 2001. By Jan. 28, 2003, the ranks had declined to 10,630.

Fresh recruits were rushed in. There was a long, difficult period. Even now, the experience level is not the same. But there are 11,415 uniformed personnel, more than before.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, the firefighters were elevated to superhuman status. People flocked to the firehouses, wanting to shake hands with firefighters, snap their pictures, just say thanks.

The bravery was always real. But the mythology - well, that, too, wasn't going to last.

"The worship was definitely an inflated thing," Williams said. "You couldn't sustain that."

His own lungs went bad on him, traced back to the trade center, and he retired last year. He chose the date: Sept. 11.

The flag man

People bought them from hardware stores and Wal-Mart and street vendors and unfurled them outside their homes and on the antennas of their cars.

Flags.

People wore their patriotism and defiance openly. A new cohesiveness, a oneness, was going to remold the character of American citizenry.

Christopher Gravagna didn't feel right that people had to buy their patriotism. "That was ridiculous," he said. "Why should people capitalize on flags at that time?"

He had a printing business in Long Island City, Queens, doing work for clubs and concerts. On Sept. 12, demand for his services essentially stopped and didn't resume for weeks. So he decided to print paper American flags with the motto "United We Stand" and give them away. He and his employees handed out more than 100,000.

He saw them everywhere.

"It helped feed this feeling that we have to be one, we have to be together on this," Gravagna said.

The flags - cloth and paper - are mostly gone. Some come out, as they always did, on Memorial Day, on Fourth of July, and on Sept. 11, but that is it.

That special mood? "It's definitely diminished a lot," Gravagna said. "Did I expect it? No. But as a New Yorker, I understand it."

No one, perhaps, displayed as many flags as Gravagna. He taped them to the windows of his apartment and in his Nissan Sentra. They festooned his offices.

After a while, they came down. The last one he possessed he had framed. He hung it on his office wall. Four years ago, someone stole it.

The dentist

"The windows here open," Dr. Charles Weiss said.

He unlatched one. The view south was dazzling, as only a 1,000-foot-high view can be. There was the Empire State Building and, way off, the Statue of Liberty, as well as a spot where two towers once stood.

On Sept. 12, it seemed no one would choose to work in a skyscraper again.

Workers stuffed parachutes under their desks, were given particle masks, acquainted themselves with Geiger counters.

On Sept. 11, Weiss, a dentist, repaired teeth on the 69th floor of the Chrysler Building. He still does.

On Sept. 12, the Chrysler building was essentially closed, but he got in. He called patients to reschedule.

As far as he knows, they all came back. The patients. The people who worked for him. His colleagues who minded the other dental chairs on the floor.

Waiting patients now flipped through magazines as the drills sang. "There's a tremendous drive of human beings to make the most of life," Weiss, now 82, said. "We're not hermits. We rise up and move on."

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