I am on the subway reading Tobias Wolff's award-winning account of the Tet Offensive--when the Viet Cong kicked America's ass, in 1968. I am late; everyone on this packed subway is late. The ground is littered with fliers about the September 11 mayoral primary vote today, which will decide the future mayor of New York City. It is a nice clear day, after a run of classically shitty East Coast weather. The conductor's voice rattles out of the loudspeaker. I don't listen, but I can tell it's something, because the three people wedged around me are actually making eye contact. They're evidently trying to confirm what they just heard. "A train crashed into the World Trade Center?" Laughter. "No, a plane, and you can't get down past 34th Street." The little man on my left jokes, "Maybe the World Trade Center is too high, if a plane crashed into it." The enormous woman on my right responds, "Maybe the plane was too low." We settle back into avoiding each other's eyes.

I get off in Times Square. The place is full of racing police wagons stuffed with officers. The streets are packed, and everyone is looking at the five-story-high television screen that dominates Broadway and 42nd Street. Every third person is holding their hands over their mouths. I am late and late on a day when I really should not be late, so I ignore the scene. As I step into the offices of the newspaper I work for, a beat-up van with Rasta flags speeds by, and the passenger yells out: "Babylon is here, you are a target!" I assume it's another pro-life harassment, which is a weekly feature of this job. No one is in the main work area--suits are crowded around the television set in the VP's office. More hands on mouths.

Finally someone speaks, "So they're saying I have no fucking way to go home?! Unbelievable." Then the first tower collapses, and I hear the two things I am going to hear for the next four hours, over and over again: "This is a war," and "This is just like a movie!"

I decide to head downtown. The Avenue of the Americas is like a street fair: no traffic, people gathered in groups on every block listening to radios. Transit workers have set up little pedestals from which they can answer questions in the negative. "Gotta go to the Bronx? Then you gotta start walking. Brooklyn? Well, there's no way to get to Brooklyn."

The eye contact is unbelievable and unprecedented in my time in New York. It's not necessarily friendly, though. A man tells me, "This [attack] is the reason that Jamaica is better than America. In Jamaica there are more guns than people. Here there are more journalists than people. What we need now is some guns--this is a war."

An old guy nudges me, laughing, when the radio announcer implores President Clinton to act immediately, and then corrects herself.

People covered with white dust pass through the crowd like ghosts. The crowd parts for them, stares and points. One of the ghosts wears a T-shirt that reads "New Millennium--Total Devastation."

A white plume of smoke rises where the World Trade Center was. I hear on the radio that they have closed Disneyland. A man is crumpled on a doorstep crying.

A guy with literally a quarter-inch of dust covering parts of what was a three-piece suit has been cornered on the steps of a shuttered business on Canal Street. He is bleeding from his ear. His foot is covered in red mud. He is politely answering questions from the group around him, gripping his arms tightly over his chest. "How'd you get out?" "Shit, you must be feeling lucky." The official questions are more clinical and exacting. "Exactly when did you know it was a plane," asks a reporter in sweats and a CK shirt, "and how long did it take you to get from the 34th floor?" A cute Asian tourist pushes her way through the people and past the reporter in the CK shirt. She then poses next to the bleeding guy while her friend takes pictures.

Further up the block, a large crowd has assembled outside a basketball court. "This is a great day!" yells a guy on a little bicycle circling the larger debate. "They think all we Negroes can do is play basketball," one guy with a basketball says to the crowd, "but this is the day where we are going to speak out. This is the greatest day in U.S. history." Two white guys with veins popping out of their necks are screaming something. The basketball player and his friends start laughing. "[You're] getting what you deserve, always fucking with other people, now they fucking with you and it has you all upset. This is a war now, in your house." The white crowd members are enraged and start yelling again. The response: "Get a job, businessman, you need one now!" The crowd--meaning the white guys--actually starts laughing.

This is all taking place less than half a mile from the hole that was the World Trade Center. A 50-year-old white guy with a little ponytail runs up to the group. "They need our blood at St. Vincent's, thousands of people need our blood!" The crowd cheers in approval of his community sprit. The hippie sizes up his audience: white people, black people. "Follow me, let's go!" The crowd turns from him. "Follow me! Follow me! Let's show them what Americans have got!" No one looks at him. Someone mutters, "Fuck you," and the debate breaks up for a few minutes until he leaves, yelling at no one in particular, "Follow me! Follow ME!"

A plane passes overhead and a woman starts screaming. The crowd goes quiet until it passes. It's lunchtime now, and New Yorkers adapt to the crisis like dutiful Americans. Catering vans that were not able to make their deliveries are selling elegant little sandwiches for a dollar.

Nevdon Jamgochian is a writer living in New York.