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As a photojournalist, New York became a jumping off place for me to catch international flights out of JFK. Years of traveling in and out of the city had brought me close to it. It’s a grand place. It’s an awful place. It’s got everything you could imagine; every temptation and example of greatness, as well as every example of despair and poverty. But you love New York anyway, because it’s unashamed of its character. It flaunts it like jewels, even when sometimes its garbage and dung. It’s a baffling place, but a place where common people go to become uncommon, where small men become big ones. Every chance I got, I would ramble around the city, my feet as sore as a truck stop waitress’ at the end of pulling a double. It’s not a difficult city to navigate, really. The streets are laid out simply, in a grid, but it’s teeming with people all the time, at almost every hour, and it’s easy to get distracted and lose your way. The World Trade Centers, into which I regularly entered the city through the PATH (Port Authority Trans Hudson) trains coming from my friend’s place in New Jersey, became my compass. No matter where I was in the city, if my sense of direction failed me, all I had to do was look up, see those Towers, and know where I was. I never thought much about the towers back then. I took them for granted. They were my hub when I was plodding around the city and I beat myself up all the time for never taking a good photograph of them. It was the nicest place in the city, especially for catching trains. The station there was clean and spacious, with surprisingly spotless public restrooms (which are as rare in New York City as swimming pools in the middle of the Sahara), and cavernous spit-shined corridors that were as close to a mall as you’ll get for a city accustomed to tiny spaces stacked and packed and dirty with barely an inch of extra room. There was the GAP, and my favorite fast food sushi place in the world, a Borders bookstore, and many other stores and restaurants - now, gone forever. After September 11, 2001, I would run my own little memory movie through my mind of my many days traipsing around the Trade Centers, barely able to grasp that they were gone, and
A A2 crying when I thought about the people from those towers I must have sat next to in the sushi restaurant, or outside on the plaza as lunchers brown-bagged it, taking their breaks from their offices up in those looming towers. How many of them were gone, I wondered? How many of them were crushed, or reduced to dust, in those few, sad moments that brought all of us to our knees, both as individuals, and as a country? I, like many, felt a driving need to go there immediately after it happened. I felt so attached to the city, the place, the people. Many friends of mine lived and worked there. Many of the magazines I worked for had their offices there. It was maddening to not be able to do anything. Within a month I made my journey. My boyfriend and I caught a flight and stayed with my friend Anna-Marie’ Carter, who had not made her journey to Ground Zero and she joined us. No longer could we hop the PATH into the WTC station. At the Journal Square PATH station in Jersey City, the WTC sign on the station ramps and on the trains had yet to be removed. It was haunting. Because the lower Manhattan subway stations had all been destroyed, we caught the PATH to 33rd Street and transferred to the city subway and went as far as we could, beyond the numbered streets and into the named ones, past Greenwich Village and Soho, as far as possible. We walked the rest of the way. The smell was awful, undefinable - electrical and dusty yet tinged with something unnameable. Dust still covered everything. People were walking around with white paper masks, or scarves, over their noses and mouths. No cars were allowed in that area and we passed many people rolling their belongings from their apartments near Ground Zero on little carts. NYPD were ever present and there was a sense of solidarity, yet not real fear. People seemed stunned, shell-shocked, and eerily quiet. Fliers and photos of the missing covered every surface, from telephone booths to shop windows to church fronts. Abandoned cars so covered in dust that their colors weren’t discemable lined the streets. I walked down the completely empty street in front of the New York Stock Exchange where a huge American flag fluttered against it. Empty streets in New York are spooky because on any normal day that would be utterly impossible. Most of the stores in lower Manhattan at that time were still shut tight, their window displays covered in that strange gray soot. At that time, there was still hope that people were alive, that thousands would still be rescued, somewhere in that pile of steaming rubble. No one 2
3 realized then that the dust was composed not just of concrete and office stuffs, but human beings. We could only get about two blocks away - and all I could see of what used to be the towers was the burnt out square black-glassed building in which Borders bookstore held space and the many cranes as their metal arms dipped and dragged through the skeletal pile that used to be the tallest buildings in the city. It pained me not to be able to get any closer; my mind wrangled with a near animalistic desire to get there. We circled the blocks around it, trying to get closer, but it was cordoned off. Hundreds of people were doing the same. We weren’t rubberneckers. It wasn’t about wanting to gawk at tragedy. It was a ubiquitous funeral, as well as a somber facing up to our own mortality and the brutal reality that life as we knew it bad been mere illusion. We were facing the ghosts that frightened us, in order to somehow make sense of it; and all of us, though none knew the other, were united in the same strange, heart-wrenching gut instinct to see the void. We were all straining to see nothing. The dust provided a chalkboard of sorts on every surface. Using fingers, people would write their heartfelt declarations, offerings of their desire to connect with and comfort, in even that small way, all who had been effected. It was remarkable day spent there, an unforgettable day. When the one-year anniversary arrived, once more I felt compelled to return. Since I had to be there on business anyway, working on two stories for Razor magazine, I decided to fly in on the 10th and head down to Ground Zero for the memorial service scheduled the next morning. I arrived there about 7:30 a.m. Although the dust was gone, and many of the train stations and most of the stores had reopened in the area, on this particular day there were still teeming throngs of people choking the streets who had come to see and feel this place, to sense its emptiness and pay their respects to the nearly three thousand ghosts that remained. St. Paul’s church, which had miraculously survived that day, was still covered with offerings to the victims. Crates full of purple and white flower leis were manned by charitable people who passed these fragrant necklaces out for free to anyone who passed, Thousands walked around wearing these. Some cried. Some stood silently, staring in one direction or another, remembering.
Then the winds started. At first I thought little of it, the seasons changing as they were. But as the bell sounded at the moment the first plane hit, and the winds began swirling in 4 tornado-like cones, catching in them leaves and paper and trash, everyone began, in unison to feel that we were not alone. The winds grew to such a tempest they actually became an issue. The whole day was marked by these winds. The entire city talked about it. It was uncommon. Everyone felt, not spooked, but in the presence of something invisible and powerful. They were there, not in flesh, but in spirit. They were saying hello in the only way they could. And everyone knew it. Various people read out the names of the victims, which took hours. Family members were allowed down in the “pit” (what used to be the “pile”), and placed thousands of leis there. And still, the winds swirled mightily. People quietly gathered in restaurants to watch the memorial on TV. The city was filled with silent wonder. There was a sense that everyone should feel or act a certain way. The memorials still clung to certain places and at any given time there were still people who would stop and read the fliers and look at the smiling faces of some missing person, even though everyone knew they would never be found. The city was still cloaked in phantom memories, with huge images of firefighters erected in Times Square, and various other monuments to keep the memory alive. Yet, there was a feeling that people were struggling with a guilty anxiety. People wanted to recreate the moments of that day a year before, to feel that snag in their throat coupled with bottomed out bellies, wanted to cry - but life went on. They didn’t want to forget, let it go, but there was no other choice because that is how life works. It most definitely was a slow day for most. It’s doubtful many had their minds on their work. But something was different. And as the time passed, I realized what it was - we had moved on. No matter how many television programs or books replayed the horror, it was over. Those people were gone. We were alive, working, talking, laughing, playing. People still had their day-to-day lives. People still bought their bagels and coffee at the corner deli. They still caught the subway and got crunched between sweaty, irritable commuters and still wanted to get home and take their shoes off and watch TV. They still chatted with the doorman or bickered with the thoughtless waitress and grimaced at the homeless person who stunk up the tunnel to the trains. Everything was very different, yes, but oh so very much the same. 4
The memorial reminded us, but also set us free. And New York was still New York. Stinky and expensive, beautiful and exciting, full of 5 promise and dreams. The towers and the people would be missed, but they were at peace - it was as if those winds were telling us that, with all their strange, whipping power. Remember but don ‘t dwell, move forward without taking for granted the sacr~/ices made, don ‘tfeel guilty for being able to do what they never would again. Be grateful that something good had come from their deaths renewed pride in our country, unabashed waving of the flag, belief in not just our leaders and the simple basic truths upon which our nation was originally founded, but also in our own very personal ability to overcome adversity and grow stronger from it. The next day, the winds were gone. People worked. Homeless people begged. Subway performers sang for dollars. I started working on my stories. I found a new sushi restaurant - but no good public restrooms. I learned my way around without the towers to guide me. It was a brand new day.