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Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 13 of 15)

In the darkness of the following morning, Brian and I awoke to the sound of choppers overhead and the droning of pipers marching toward downtown. Crowds were gathering and we joined them. We made our way to St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, just north of Ground Zero. It was at Mass that we heard the bells toll, remembering when the first plane struck the tower. It felt safe to be in this reverent place, where horrific memories were held in check by the ancient boundary of ritual prayers and readings, the sign of peace, the breaking of bread. The rites brought serenity, but they didn’t erase the anxious mood of the city, the troubling sight of armed police who’d formed a barricade across the street, whose permission was required to enter the church; the ch-ch-ch-ch of army choppers and the disquieting knowledge that the murder of thousands could never be redeemed.

After Mass, we stepped outside, blinded for a moment by brilliant sunlight. The narrow street in front of the church was jammed with onlookers, media trucks, cop cars. The hoardings that had obscured our view the previous fall had been removed, and we could see toward Ground Zero where loudspeakers were broadcasting the names of the dead. It was as if the church had cracked open, spilling out raw grief, unmediated by symbol and ritual. We listened.

How very quiet the city was.

We left, walking south on Broadway toward Trinity Church. The crowds were so thick that the police asked those walking south to use the sidewalk and those walking north to use the street. Everyone moved in silence, with an intensity of thought and purpose that reminded me of that bleak walk to Ground Zero the previous fall. Bearing witness, as if we were shouldering a weight of bricks. At Liberty Street, near the southeast corner of the site, we stood together in silence.

Next to me was a woman weeping and crossing herself, and near her stood a pensive kid, the Stars and Stripes wrapped around his head like a bandage on a wound. There was silence everywhere, a straining for something well beyond the ear’s reach.

In that barren space, the names of the dead were drifting down on us and into the soot and dust of the street; over the subway and the coffee shop and the great rusted cross mounted on the foundation wall of the World Trade Center ­— a cruciform chunk of the towers’ steel, a microcosm of its suffering. People wept. What bleak, rock-bottom barrenness I felt, what inconsolable loss, as if we were here to experience in ritual the soul laid waste like a city.

The sounds of a violin drifted out of the pit. The roll of names continued. There was a wind, but it sent up dust and filled the eyes with grit, reminding us of the frail state of our city and of our mortal selves. Dust you are, the prayer goes. To dust you shall return. A bell tolled, a bright silver sound, a scouring clean of illusion. It felt desolate, Ground Zero in my soul.

The wind rose where we stood, where the planes struck, as if the dead were troubling the air. For an entire day, many of us thought of the dead, counting the losses of the year gone by, hearing in them the sorrowful echoes of personal grief or misfortune. Now my brother was also of the dust. I sensed he might have been proud of me for coming to this observance. Yet that offered no comfort.

In every life, we hope to lay down our burdens and when we can’t, every new grief embodies our loss of illusions: the partings of friends, the profound loss that is the death of parents and of loved ones, the end of the world we knew. One September morning, a catastrophe drew me into a year of reflection, into contemplating mysteries too large for my mind to encompass. At times like this, ritual embraces us. At times, it is all we have. Sometimes there is no solace, and all we can do is stand together and keep vigil, in the hope that solace may come.

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

…More tomorrow.

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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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