NEW YORK (AP) _ Hardware store owner James Mirshamsi, returning to his lower Manhattan business for the first time since Sept. 11, looked toward the smoldering rubble at ground zero and pondered how many of his customers would be back.
``Oh boy, what a life,'' he said as an employee in a dust mask cleaned up inside Trade Center Locksmith and Hardware. ``I don't know where to start.''
Mirshamsi was one of several store owners who were able to get back to business Wednesday, when the frozen area around the World Trade Center site was reduced by several blocks.
Under the eased restrictions, the endless parade of tourists and gawkers can now get within 1 1/2 blocks of the site.
``I think it's great that they are allowing people to come this close,'' said Kathy Sheets, a visitor from Rochester, N.Y. ``This is a piece of national history that you want to see with your own eyes.''
While businesses were gradually reopening, life remained far from normal, with the neighborhood dominated by a demolition site doubling as a mass cemetery.
``I can't forget that there are 5,000 victims three blocks away,'' said Helen Negri, who has lived in nearby Battery Park City for the past 12 years. ``It's with me all the time.''
Negri, walking her dog Romeo, used to look up at the trade center towers that dominated the downtown skyline. Six weeks after the terrorist attacks felled the towers, the landscape on her nightly walk is now something out of a bad movie.
Enormous cranes hung above the wreckage like the masts of tall ships. The smoke and smell were heavy at the site, where underground fires continued to burn. ``It's really percolating this morning,'' said Richard Sheirer, head of the Office of Emergency Management.
Toward the northern end of the site stood the most startling and ominous of remains: a charred, jagged corner fragment of building facade that rises 15 to 20 stories above the wreckage.
A sign on one building reads, ``You are looking at hallowed ground. Respect those around you.''
As the frozen zone around the trade center site was reduced, workers took pains to save the letters, prayers and poems that people had attached to the portable barricades around the zone. Some letters _ many from schoolchildren far from New York _ will end up in a city museum.
Near the barricades, Abdul Salim runs a coffee cart _ but not the $16,000 ``Cadillac of carts'' that he abandoned and lost on Sept. 11.
Renting a new cart, he's making about $150 a day, down from the $700 that he once pulled in. The Afghan immigrant has two children to support at his home in Queens.
In a sentiment shared by many who do business in the area, Salim wonders how many familiar faces he'll see lining up for coffee.
``I lost all the customers,'' he said.