Thursday, September 10, 2009

Manhattan Requiem

Galva News Editor Doug Boock runs an interesting weekly feature in my hometown paper. In it, he asks four regular correspondents a question on a variety of topics. I know all the folks who offer their views, and enjoy reading their responses. Their answers are often fun, even funny.
But not this time.
Last week, the four were asked to recount their memories of 9/11, the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.
“Wow, has it been that long?” I thought.
I remember, as, surely, most of us do, just exactly where I was and what I was doing at the time we heard about the attacks, just as I remember those same things about other events, like the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But it is my memory of a business trip I took to New York City a few months later that stands clearest in my mind. I visited Ground Zero, the site of the attack on the World Trade Center that day and, afterwards, wrote this essay, which I’ve never published before:

I meant to take a camera.
Megan and I talked about it before I left.  After all, I would be in New York City with some time on my hands.  My hotel was just 16 blocks from Ground Zero--the site of the World Trade Center attacks just a few months before.  It’s an easy walk for millions of New Yorkers who practically sprint up and down the avenues each day, wearing running shoes, while carrying their "good" shoes in shopping bags and briefcases.
As I say, I had the time, and I was close.  I would go see.
Of course, I forgot to pack one of the several cameras we have lying in drawers around the house.  "Oh well, " I thought.  "I’ll just pick up one of those disposable jobs."  One of the streets bordering my hotel was Canal Street, right on the edge of Chinatown.  Canal Street is famous for its sidewalk shops, with incredible bargains on clothing, shoes, CDs, souvenirs, and, yes, cameras.
But I walked right by them.  It was a beautiful, chilly day in Manhattan South, with streams of people walking, running and standing in line.  I headed down Broadway, past the Federal Building and City Hall.  There was a lot to see, and probably a lot of pictures to be taken.  But I knew the real reason to have a camera was to take some pictures of Ground Zero…and I couldn’t.  I’ve always fought the impulse we all have to gawk at human disasters.  I try not to slow down and look at accidents.  I don’t generally follow fire trucks or ambulances.  I like to think people deserve a little privacy--and respect--at their worst moments.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I knew I was getting closer, as many of the buildings were still stained with ash, while others had scaffolding built alongside for cleaning and repairs.  My first glimpse of the actual site was a police barrier blocking traffic, and a taped-off walkway leading to a fence on the other side of the street.  I crossed over to what I realized was the fence we’ve all seen in pictures and on TV.  The fence was covered with posters,pictures, letters, names and messages of remembrance from all over the world.  Some showed pictures of victims.  Others showed families and
friends.  Many were from school children and church groups and cities and organizations.  There was even one from the prisoners housed in a correctional institution in South Carolina.  It was an incredible--even beautiful--montage of love and sorrow and hope and fear and pride.  Very little hate, though, was posted on the fence.
I entered a walkway and moved up to what could best be described as an observation deck.  As I did, I saw a sign that said, "No cameras,please.  Our rescue workers deserve privacy."  "Good," I thought. "I’m glad I didn’t bring one."
Of course, some people did have cameras, and no one tried to stop them from using them.  But, in fact, there was not much to see.  The actual site of the Trade Center Towers is a massive hole in the ground. There’s really nothing to left to indicate what was there before.  The buildings immediately surrounding the site remain blackened and dark, with windows still broken and workers just starting to make repairs.  The spot where the towers stood looks like a very large construction site, with a deep hole looking like it’s ready for concrete to be poured for some new skyscraper.  Workers dotted the area, with construction shacks set up all around the perimeter.  A few earthmoving machines rolled slowly across.  Of course, no one was building anything at all.  And no one was moving very fast.
I stood at the wall overlooking the site.  The woman standing next to me cried quietly until her husband walked to her and said in the very little bit of French I know, "It is very cold.  We should go."  A man on my other side turned to me and said, "There’s nothing to see here at all."  He didn’t really sound disappointed; just confused that so
much could end up as so little.
I prayed, as I know many did, for the victims and their families and for all the people affected by terrorism and war.  And then it was time to go.  As I walked out, I passed more signs, posters, notes and prayers written on the fence.  I thought about adding something, but I didn’t know what to say.  As the walkway exited back onto Broadway, I met a young rescue worker, striding towards the site, singing "Day Tripper" by the Beatles.  I smiled at him.  He smiled back.  Maybe it wasn’t so bad anymore.
Later that day, they announced on the news that the remains of five more people had been found.  Four of them were firefighters.  The fifth was a woman they were trying to rescue.

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