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Low-key or loud, New Yorkers join forces in face of disaster

As you move south on Manhattan island the flags get bigger and the sentiment gets stronger. But all New Yorkers are grieving.

By BILL DURYEA

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 15, 2001


As you move south on Manhattan island the flags get bigger and the sentiment gets stronger. But all New Yorkers are grieving.

NEW YORK -- As soon as she heard the televised appeal for medical supplies for the rescue workers at the World Trade Center, Rachel Mauro left her Upper East Side art gallery in search of a nearby pharmacy.

"I cleaned them out of Neosporin. I took all the boxes of large bandages and all the hydrogen peroxide," Mauro, 38, said. "I piled it all on the counter."

" "Wow, is someone in your family having some kind of disaster?' " the woman at the register asked. " "No ... two buildings fell down yesterday,' I said."

"She looked at me like she didn't understand what all this had to do with two buildings falling down. I told her I'm donating this to the workers. "Oh, that's a nice idea,' she said."

It's not that the affluent Upper East Side is indifferent to the catastrophe in lower Manhattan; the residents of some of the city's most exclusive Zip codes are as closely tied to the financial district as anyone. Their money was made there and now their friends and family have died there.

But traveling the city in the days after two hijacked jetliners destroyed Manhattan's two tallest buildings, it is clear that while all New Yorkers may be grieving, they don't show it in quite the same way.

You can see the difference measured in the number of American flags per block.

"You go across the Queensboro (Bridge) to Long Island City and it's like they got a flag hanging off of every house," said Norbert Pizarro, a cab driver for the past 23 years. "They're really into it. Same in the Bronx, where I'm from."

But in the canyons of million-dollar co-op apartments, where residents ring a buzzer in the elevator so the doorman will have a cab waiting by the time they arrive in the lobby, there is no such gregarious display of patriotic mourning.

"The Upper East Side?" Pizarro asks, sucking contemplatively on a pipe full of Captain Black tobacco. "They're too fancy."

Fancy, indeed.

The few flags visible along Madison and Fifth avenues, where the city's richest retailers turn disposable income into wearable chic, were as subtle as a small pennant tucked in the crook of a mannequin's arm.

At Saks Fifth Avenue, the famous windows were adorned with nothing more than a single large bouquet of funereal white flowers and the words "With Sadness."

The farther downtown you went, the rawer were the expressions of anger and grief. The bucket of a crane on 38th Street was spray-painted with the words "bin Laden Must Die," a reference to the rumored mastermind of the quadruple hijacking that likely killed more than 5,000 people.

By the time you reached Union Square, where a candlelight vigil on Thursday night morphed Friday into a Princess Diana-like shrine of flowers and rain-soaked sentiment, the reserve and stoicism of the Upper East Side was nowhere to be seen.

Mourners milled about in the rain, loosely circling a seven-foot tall papier mache candle. Street musicians sitting under a bus shelter sang Hotel California while volunteers in ponchos took donations of food and clothing by the barrel-full for the rescue workers.

The parochialism of New York is one of the wonders of a city that is so densely populated, and in the case of Manhattan, so geographically confined.

In the aftermath of Tuesday's terrorist attacks, much of the lower end of Manhattan was shut down. Traffic was blocked at 14th Street, a mile and a half from where the 110-story towers lay in smoking ruin.

Four days later, it is still almost impossible for anyone living below that boundary line to escape the physical reminders of the destruction: rank smoke seeping into their apartments, dust and grit forcing people to wear masks just to do the grocery shopping, the whine of emergency vehicles echoing down empty streets. Electricity has yet to be restored to many buildings.

"Up here, it doesn't smell," Mauro, the art dealer, said. "It's clean. The only thing I noticed today was there were more men my age, milling around in casual clothes because they couldn't go back to work downtown."

But for an hour Friday, the city was united, physically and emotionally. Churches throughout the five boroughs gathered their congregations as part of a national day of prayer. Stores all along Fifth Avenue closed for an hour out of respect.

Inside the towering vaulted ceiling of St. Thomas Church, Louis Beale, wearing a tartan tie and L.L. Bean boots, handed out hymnals and programs to 1,300 people, many of them not Episcopalian.

"We never expected this kind of turnout," said Beale, a member of the Fifth Avenue church for 40 years.

Wearing a dusty red T-shirt and work boots, Hank Hafelfinger, a lanky 43-year-old Catholic from New Jersey, never expected to be there either.

"I felt like I needed to be someplace," said Hafelfinger, who happened to be working construction nearby. "After this I'm going to sign up to volunteer down at the rescue site."

As Beale neatened the pews, someone rolled back the steel shutter on the Gap store next door and a street vendor walked by, hawking cheap plastic flags.

Credit the magnitude of the tragedy. By nightfall Friday, Upper Eastsiders shed their usual reserve and gathered for small candlelight vigils throughout their neighborhood.

Christina Spaulding, a 25-year-old architect, joined 60 others outside Engine 44, a firehouse several blocks from her apartment. The firefighters came out and said thank you, Spaulding said. "And just then the alarm sounded and they took off. I've never felt so patriotic."

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