Walking to Ground Zero
It's Thursday morning at a quarter past eleven, and in Union Square Park the rain is beating down hard. A City Parks Department broom crew scrambles for shelter, relieved that they don't yet have to start sweeping up the thousands of flowers and candles that in the days since Tuesday, September 11, 2001, have transformed this historic place into a holy one, shrine to humanity lost and - in some few cases - found.
At length, listlessly, they push off toward unoccupied corners of the park. On the south side, just above Fourteenth Street, the familiar statue of George Washington on horseback gazes down at three women on hands and knees, crawling through a slurry of wilted blossom, stopping here and there to keep candles, small flames of remembrance, from vanishing in the downpour.
"Doesn't anyone have any matches?" one implores. "Please don't let the candles go out." A bystander proffers a cigarette lighter. In the depths of an overcoat pocket I find, improbably, a tiny box of matches, reminder of some restaurant visited long ago in Rome or Vienna. She takes it, eyes moist as she relights one small taper among thousands.
I'm walking the streets of lower Manhattan in this rain, trying to dispel a cognitive dissonance that for ten comatose days has held me in thrall. How bewildering, to have sat safe amid the dazzling greens, golds and blues of a Peconic Bay Tuesday morning while radio voices described fire and ruin and death beyond comprehension. Something in the mind, some bit of psychological machinery, jammed in a collision of two realities. "I don't have to believe it if I don't want to," John O'Hara said on learning, one day in 1937, that George Gershwin, golden boy of American music, had died at thirty-nine. The events of September 11 found me, too, unwilling to credit my ears: so the mental gears just locked.
A first small portent of release comes as I watch the woman on her knees, kindling hope with my matches; witness the casual small-talk of diggers in soot-caked NYFD raincoats, wolfing quarter-pounders at stands set up by McDonald's; the easy energy of a young Red Cross worker lobbing bottles of water and GatorAde to the white-masked men riding by on trucks hauling rubble out to Staten Island.
The downpour slackens, and I walk south on Broadway - but a Broadway unlike any I've ever known, numberless grays smeared into a single monochrome wash. Bits of color splash through: a gaily-dressed West Indian on a corner playing "The Star Spangled Banner" on a steel drum, waving away a passerby's offer of a five-dollar bill; a hunk of sheetrock propped against a wall, on which someone has scrawled, in bright scarlet lipstick, "In the flow of life, destruction never has the last word." Pink and yellow handbills, their photos recalling happier times, plead for news of Sell J. Zisa, last seen on the 100th floor of Tower One, of Amy O'Dougherty, Linda Rivera, of Drew Bailey...
Concentrations of police and Fire Department workers, of National Guardsmen in fatigues ranged along rows of gasoline-powered elecricity generators, are signs I'm approaching Ground Zero. Above all, even more than the ever-present soot cloud, the smell arrests attention: at once acrid and almost sweet, it's aggressive in an evil and uniquely ancient way, and still, after nine days, blankets the site. Not even the rain disperses it.
Moving west on Chambers Street, I m chatting with some cops when a woman ("just call me Shirley") wanders up. She lives nearby, she says, and she's been able to accept what happened because "we've seen stuff like this so much in movies and on TV. All the pyrotechnics and stuff. But you know what gets me? Going outside and looking down my street and seeing nothing there, nothing at all - that s the hard part."
Farther south, at a corner stand labelled "the balloon saloon," American enterprise lives on in a rail-thin street guy hawking red, white and blue balloons for a buck apiece. He points pridefully at his rapidly dwindling stock of tee shirts, all variations on a theme. "9-11-01 and still standing," one proclaims against a stars-and-stripes background, the number eleven formed by an image of the twin towers.
Rain and mist have leached away what variegation remains under the patina of grubby brown scorch and soilage coating every surface. It reconfigures a North Fork Bank branch at Chambers and Hudson Streets as a ghastly parody of a World War II bunker. Transmutes Ruby's Book Sales and Anna's Nail Salon, Payless Shoes and Odd Job Trading, into forlorn props on some disused Hollywood backlot.
Most of the immediate disaster site is still blocked off to the public: Broadway on the East, Chambers Street on the North. But if you stand at the corner of Cortlandt or Liberty and look west it's all there, a vast jumble of slag, tatter and slash of ruination and the chthonic gloom of the pit, easily trumping any competing reality.
One of the most-photographed images is of an immense shard of tower latticework, strips of steel hacked into a jagged shield, protruding at a 45-degree angle from the ground. If someone wanted to commission a sculptor, perhaps a Richard Serra, to fashion a monument for all time to Tuesday, September 11, he could do no better than this.
A chalkboard outside the Odeon Café and Restaurant, Thomas and West Broadway, offers "complimentary dining for FDNY, NYPD, EMS, National Guard and Red Cross with official ID." A mobile phone wagon parked on a street corner offers "Free calls, compliments of Verizon Public Communications." But this is New York, after all, and naturally the phones don't work.
Sometime after two the rain finally lets up, and I head back uptown. Perhaps, I get to thinking, everyone out there in the pastoral place I call home should make this pilgrimage, come and touch these places, resolve these colliding realities by internalizing them personally, in a way no media image, distant even in its most on-the-spot immediacy, can achieve.
Distance protected many of us the morning of September 11, 2001. We could feel horror, shock, outrage, compassion, generosity, resolve - all genuine. But then, as it suited us, we could turn away, take comfort in the routine, the familiar, above all in the tranquil beauty around us and the sense of safety it engendered.
But the time for turning away is past. As the images of this rainy Thursday at Ground Zero never stop reminding me, that is a luxury we can no longer afford.
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Author and jazz trumpeter Richard M. Sudhalter lives in Cutchogue.