top of page

The flight

Elisabeth Benfey

November 13 2001

A Letter to My Friends --

Dobbs Ferry is a village on the Hudson River, about twenty miles out of Manhattan.

My heart jumps every time I walk down Main Street in the village and get a glimpse of the water, bordered with tall reeds, and dominated by the Palisades beyond. The Palisades on the other side of the river are gray cliffs on the West side of the river, grooved vertically, as if someone had taken a giant ice-scraper and run it down the face of the rock.

Why did we move to Dobbs Ferry from the City?

Because it is far enough away from the City yet close enough for Philip to commute easily to NYU. It is also a real community, filled with salt-of-the earth-people, and has a lively center that organically grew from the necessary activities of a river town.

Many artists live here, bringing urban blood to a mainly Italian, working-class community whose grandparents had come to work as stone masons on the many extravagant properties lining the waterfront.

And why did we leave?

On September 11 we were a little too close for comfort. We were among the people running up the West Side Highway, our children crying in fear by our side. For those of you who have been to our house on Bleecker street, you know that our view was composed of a row of typical Village brick buildings leading the eye down South to the omnipresence of the Twin Towers.

We saw the towers dissolve from our window.

The simple act of walking in front of that window would remind us of the conspicuous, painful absence of the Towers, and would make our stomachs lurch. Smoke would shift North and bring with it sickening smells of plastic, "bacon smell" as our son Julian called it, unwittingly reminding us that there were indeed smoldering flesh and bones out there.

"It is safe," "It is not safe”—each day would bring new expert data and hysterical rumors of toxicity and mysterious nightly explosions re-igniting the giant, seven-story-deep pyre

With the smell, and uncertainty about the safety of the air, I could not bring the children out to the park (previously a daily ritual for their entire lives), and the smoke would manage to ooze into the apartment and impregnate the curtains and fabric with the sickening smell.

After what we had lived through, we were not going to be intimidated by the tactics of a bureaucrat.

The sight of our children wearing makeshift masks at home was enough to drive us out of town for the first week after the attack. When we came back, our son Sam’s asthma acted up. The cat was throwing up several times a day. We hear about the Stuyvesand High School students moving back into their building, across the street from our school, and how they too, were throwing up and complaining of headaches and sore throats.

And then there was the situation at our school, P.S. 89. The Board of Education relocated our school—whose building had been taken over by the National Guard—to P.S. 3, an old building in a charming part of the West Village, but already crowded. Kindergartners were 60 to a room. Four first grade classes were squeezed into a library the size of a one-bedroom apartment.

We were then offered to move to another location, at the very east end of Houston street, in a large building that would have been adequate, except that there was no easy access to public transportation for our many displaced families.

The Board of Ed’s inability to find a location that would be satisfactory for parents and children was now further splintering our community, which had already been scattered geographically by the disaster.

The school meetings showed an unbridgeable rift: between those who had already moved back to their home in Battery Park and wanted, for convenience, the P.S. 89 building re-opened, and those who refused to bring back their children into an area they believed was unsafe physically and emotionally.

And then there was the search for Middle Schools for Sam. A daunting process in normal times, it was now unbearably absurd and chaotic. We visited a school that was, by all standards, less than desirable, and were warned by the Principal that if we did not put her school first on the selection list, our child would not be given an interview.

After what we had lived through, we were not going to be intimidated by the tactics of a bureaucrat.

That afternoon, with the Anthrax threat already a headline in the newspapers, we decided to leave town then and there. I packed up what we needed for a few weeks, and after a week spent at a hotel in Tarrytown, we found a house and moved in. We signed the lease on a Friday morning and the children and I raced from one school to another to get them registered for the following Monday.

Sam is now in Middle School, which starts here in Fifth grade, without having to go through the hassling and coercive process of the City. He was, at first, both exhilarated to have made this huge leap (different teachers for each subject, violin and French), and worried about not being able to fit in. The other children have known each other since Kindergarten, which made the group a bit impenetrable. But Sam has managed to find a few kids who like his laid-back, athletic personality and he has already found his way around the new building, (which is conveniently located around the corner from our house). Julian loves his new school and has already made many friends.

I apologize for not giving a more coherent sign of life earlier. I was buried under hundreds of cardboard boxes, throwing out, ex-post-facto, all the stuff that people normally trash before they move.

I take walks or bicycle on the aqueduct, a bucolic lane that extends from the Croton reservoir all the way down to the City. It was built in the mid-nineteenth century to provide water for the City by a man called Javitz—the Javitz Center is named after Him—and is now a dirt path connecting each village along the Hudson.

I am still trying to digest the fact that we are no longer living in the City. Our move may be temporary. It may be forever. We are not making any longterm decisions at this time.

I hope this letter finds you all well, and in good spirits.

© Elisabeth Benfey

bottom of page