Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 5 of 15)

Two days later, Brian and I went downtown. It was a Sunday, seven weeks after the attacks, and we were staying with my cousin Mary Ellen in Chelsea, a kindred spirit whose conversation helped us absorb the shock of what we saw. On a chill autumn day, we decided to walk the three kilometres to Ground Zero.

What we saw on Lower Broadway was grim and bleak and sad. It was not spectacular, not heroic or frightening. It was ordinary, workaday chaos and ruination. Broken sidewalks, handwritten signs for coffee shops and fire-sale goods, the dust and grit of trucks rumbling and beeping, cops and workers moving us along — and there were a lot of us. People were taking pictures, not saying much. The place felt barren of prayer or even the hope of paying one’s respects. This distressed me as much as the vast, blank hole in the sky where the towers had been.

The worst of the wreckage was hidden from view. Behind the hoardings running south on Church Street, cranes rumbled, hoisting debris. We glimpsed the big machines, but we couldn’t tell where their loads were coming from or where they were headed. A cloud of steam rose from an invisible pyre, along with an arc of pressurized water as the firefighters worked out of sight. Since we couldn’t see the hole in the ground, there was nothing to distinguish this chaos from any other demolition job. They could have been doing road-repair in Jersey or razing a useless building in the Bronx. That wasn’t enough. I wanted to see the steaming wreckage of the towers — not the TV images that would soon become clichés. This was my hometown and I felt bereaved, unable to accept death until I’d viewed the remains.

We continued southward, hundreds of us. Broadway’s landmarks stood intact — the Woolworth Building, St. Paul’s Church with its hand-made shrine to the victims along the wrought-iron fence. Even so, the downtown walk was one of the bleakest of my life.

A chunk of twisted metal dangled high above us like a gnarled hand — a lone, skeletal object, surreal in a vast emptiness of blue sky, tottering over the west side of Broadway. It was part of the scorched-out wall of 5 World Trade Center. In the face of so much destruction, my thoughts came loose from their rational moorings and floated off in a sea of nonsense. It looks dirty, like the back of a fridge, I thought of Number 5’s wreckage. It’ll take some scrubbing to get that soot off. At Dey Street, the burned-out dome of the Winter Garden rose above the hoarding, its semicircle of smashed metalwork looking like a parody of sunrise. It seemed much too close. With the North Tower gone, there was no way to judge the rudiments of perspective, no yardstick for near and far.

“What am I looking at?” I said out loud. I found myself asking that question over and over. Not what a building was, but what it meant: how it stood in relationship to space and to the buildings surrounding it, and to the horrible moment that destroyed those relationships forever. My eyes recorded everything, transmitting a wreckage of impressions to the brain — the concrete evidence that some 2,800 people had been murdered where I stood. My mind had no words for this.

*

We walked in silence. Hundreds of us on a Sunday morning at an hour when it was more usual to sleep: local people, tourists, New York expats like myself. There were questions haunting the eyes of strangers who moved through the scene of the tragedy like detectives in search of evidence. Cameras kept flashing and shutters clicking; visitors crouched on the top steps of churches, peered through cracks in the hoardings, leaned across police lines, walked single-file down narrow side streets torn open, their underground tangle of cables exposed. I listened. There was little or no talking, but we could feel the intense mood of concentration. Each of us had come for our own reasons, yet it also seemed that we were creating our own mass ritual. We had come to bear witness, some with cameras, some with the naked eye. The dead were among us, pushing us forward. In our driven walking, we must have felt them there.

 *

We walked as far as we could go down Lower Broadway until a cop blew a whistle that sent us scurrying west through the Battery Garage, then north up Washington to Rector Street. This was a quiet place to stand. From two hundred metres away, we could view the ruined latticework of the second tower and the wreckage of several other buildings. Here we could see where the attack had happened, where the dead now rested. Before us were billows of steam, rescue workers, hoses spraying water on an invisible fire. Here we could pray for the repose of the souls who were murdered in the name of God.

…More on Monday.

Photos © 2004 -2008, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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