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December 26, 2001


Thank-Yous, but Fewer of Them, Await Rescuers


Ting-Li Wang/The New York Times
From right, Bridget Cagney, Clare Micuda and James Cagney are determined to cheer anyone on West Street heading to or from rescue work.


A Nation Challenged
Portraits of Grief
Photographer's Journal
Complete Coverage

It was cold and drizzling along West Street in Greenwich Village the other morning, but John Bennie was there: bundled up in a yellow slicker, standing alone on the center island amid the American flags and the small Christmas tree, and hoisting a tattered "Thank You" sign to the cars and trucks heading to and from the patch of Manhattan where the World Trade Center once stood.

Mr. Bennie, a 60-year-old retired postal worker who lives in Staten Island, has been at that intersection almost every day for the past three months. And he is not alone, or at least not quite alone. Mr. Bennie is a member of an outpost of New Yorkers 12 people, perhaps 15 who can still be found at the corner of Christopher and West Streets, waving their greetings and their gratitude to the passing backhoes, police cars and unmarked cars carrying federal agents.

In the first days after the collapse of the World Trade Center, people like Mr. Bennie were everywhere, showing up at all hours of the day and night to show their support. They lined West Street from the police barricade at Canal Street up through 14th Street, five deep at some intersections, holding candles and flags and handmade signs. West Street was then a round-the-clock stream of emergency vehicles: out-of-town- police cars, buses filled with rescue workers, military vehicles, container trucks removing debris, ambulances taking out the human remains.

But now, it has come down to this: a rugged but dwindling core of men and women who have staked out the traffic island they have designated, with a sign on the road and a Web site, as Point Thank You. They were even there on Christmas Eve.

The determination on display in Greenwich Village in the final days of this year, at an intersection that once provided a clear view of the twin towers, is testimony to the depth of the anguish so many people feel 15 weeks after the attack.

"We will stay here as long as we feel we're doing some good," Bridget M. Cagney, 64, said as she endured a stiff and chilling night wind off the Hudson River and contemplated her hourlong after-midnight subway ride back home to Queens.

"I think people are moving on to other things and saying, `There's closure,' " Mrs. Cagney continued. She raised an eyebrow in dissent. "How can there be closure? For some people, there will never be closure."

Yet at the same time, the fact that so many members of this once-vast circle have faded back to the rhythms of their daily lives, and that there is no longer someone there every hour of the day, suggests the extent to which New York is moving, slowly, though certainly, beyond the horror that consumed it. These days, there are many hours when there is no one standing at Point Thank You, when the red ice chest that reads "No cheering, no snacks" remains unopened, and when the flags fluttering in the wind are the only things to meet the eyes of the passing drivers.

There is, in truth, not much to wave at anymore. West Street was long ago reopened to civilian traffic. It has been months since a single truck with construction debris has passed by.

James Cagney, who has been married to Bridget for nearly 40 years, said he could not recall the last time he saluted one of those motorcades made up of an ambulance escorted by police cars. (They used to cheer those, until a police officer stopped by to quietly inform them that those were the trips to the morgue.) And while the white glow is still there to the south at night, it fills a crystalline sky: the billows of smoke are gone.

"I doubt if we get 10 percent of the traffic anymore," Mr. Bennie said. "In the afternoon, there would be like a dozen people. Now, we're lucky if we get four or five people out here."

Those who have endured are an eclectic if hard-core group: a few retirees, some out of work and those who manage to juggle a few hours by the highway with the demands of their daily jobs. There are no sign-up sheets; no organizers with clipboards making sure people remember to turn out. Off the island, these men and women communicate by e- mail, if at all. They are hard pressed to come up with last names and phone numbers of the new friends with whom they have shared so many hours of what they, without exception, describe as the darkest period of their lives.

Some, like Clare Micuda, 40, who works at the United States Fund for Unicef and lives in the West Village, have been coming since the very first night; by her account, she has missed five days. The Cagneys, who immigrated from Ireland 30 years ago, began their own vigil a few weeks later. Gazing off to the Hudson River the other night, Mr. Cagney, 67, a chemical engineer, remarked that that was the third new moon he had seen. That seemed as a good a way as any to measure the passage of time since Sept. 11.

They find solace in the people who stop by, and the honks of passing cars, especially the out-of-state police cars and the unmarked vehicles whose occupants Ms. Micuda lowers her voice to a whisper as she shares this piece of information reveal their identity with a burst of a siren or a passing flash of a badge.

For many of these people, this is not so much a matter of not letting go, though there is some of that, but of settling on a way to continue paying tribute to the people who are still working on the site. "You just can't not watch the television and not do anything lock yourself in a bubble and not go out," Mrs. Cagney said. "What have I given up? I haven't given up anything except my social life. My husband and I are here every night. We go together. We leave together. We go on the subway. We come home on the subway."

Those who still come look forward to the time spent with friends found in tragedy, though they have also come to dread those moments when they arrive at the intersection where even the pornography bookstore on the corner has an American flag in the window, and find no one else there. For them, the time spent here is more than a tribute; it is a consolation and distraction.

"It's like another family," said Carol A. Martzinek, who takes 90 minutes to commute from College Point, Queens. "This has given me back a lot, as far as getting back to not normal, but for a while I didn't like riding on the subways, and ideas pop into your head about, `Well, I'm down here, this could collapse any second.' "

At that point, Ms. Martzinek lighted up as she spotted Ms. Micuda crossing the street.

"Clare is one of the hard-core regulars," Ms. Martzinek said.

"No, you're the hard-core regular!" Ms. Micuda responded.

"No, you!" Ms. Martzinek said.

They are not without humor. Ms. Martzinek, who is a financial manager with American Management Systems Inc., wears a pin on her jacket that reads: "I'm proud to be one of the nuts on the highway." Her night gear includes a festive hat with two candy canes sticking up in the air.

But if there is one subject that truly unsettles a group of people who have endured exceptionally unsettling times, it is the prospect that this may this will come to an end one day. Tarpley S. Mott, who distributed hundreds of fliers in October urging people to join the vigil, has stopped coming by. "We've all been kind of scaling back simply because we have to," he said in a telephone interview. "I have to go on, as do the rest of us."

Ms. Micuda moved her eyes from the road for just a moment as she answered the question that, she said, she hears so often from the construction and emergency workers who pull over to say hello. "I always say: `If you keep coming down here, we'll be out here. The day you stop is the day we'll stop.' "

So it was that early Christmas Eve, the intersection was lively and almost festive: hands and signs in the air, men and women sharing holiday cheer and snacks.

Still, it could not last. Shortly after midnight yesterday, in the first cold and windy hours of Christmas Day, the intersection of Christopher and West Streets was empty again, a lonely sweep of flapping flags, a tiny Christmas tree and a sign informing the few drivers left on the road they were passing Point Thank You.

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