Seven months later, a visit to Manhattan evokes nothing but sorrow and confusion-and awareness of a great divide.
Thursday, June 13, 2002
Photo by Michelle Caldwell
Photo: Hole Truth-devastation and trauma are still apparent everywhere in the blocks surrounding the chasm where the World Trade Center towers stood.
As horror filled every dot per inch on the big television screen that protrudes almost grotesquely from my living room floor, I watched with the rest of the country in shock and silence. But we weren''t there. And even as the skies above us drew eerily silent in the next few days, we were disconnected.
It was happening to us, yet not really happening to us. Yes, we gave blood. We shed tears. We wrote letters. We sent money. We prayed. We did all we could because we had to do something. But we were disconnected in such a way that the "reality" of the television became our only umbilical cord into the abyss of unfathomable devastation.
When I discovered that circumstances would take me to New York City last week, I reached into my heart and decided to try to get to the place where the horror had happened. I could make that kind of a cavalier decision, of course, because I was 3,000 miles away and not there-not yet.
What I ultimately learned there about myself, about all of us, from being one-on-one with a place where so many people gave up their lives, was that in the end we are still a continent away. And no matter what we do to connect ourselves-because we need so much to be connected-it simply can''t be done. No more apologies need exist. We don''t understand, though we try, and we never will. And that''s okay.
My first taste of just how far removed I''d been from any inkling of the real fear and day-to-day stress that New Yorkers have dealt with since last year came as we pulled into our midtown Manhattan hotel''s parking garage. The cab driver stopped alongside an awaiting guard and nonchalantly popped the trunk. It was such a terribly routine act for him that I reached for the door handle, assuming this was to be our dropping off point. As my door cracked open, the guard flashed me a look of concern, took a quick step back from the car, and the cab driver snapped, "No. Stay in." I pulled my door shut quickly, confused, if not a tad concerned. "He''s searching the car," the cab driver finally explained. I turned and, sure enough, the guard was rifling through the trunk, peering into the wheel wells and scanning our faces.
Once in our room, as we began to unpack, I cracked a window and was oddly comforted by the sounds from Park Avenue 20 floors below: the honking of horns, the muffled sounds of raised voices, the purring and rattling of engines and the seemingly never-ending construction that is New York City. It was a sound of life, of a people so adept at giving up the personal space with which we''re so familiar here, simply because they lack the choice. I reveled in it and its vast difference from the subdued and expansive life of Monterey County.
But as I stood pondering our differences and likenesses, a vaguely familiar sound broke my thought. It was a deep whipping, a rhythmic thud weighing down heavily from the backdrop of blue sky above me. "What on Earth?" I muttered as I watched the patrol bird scan the skyline of the City. "Black Hawk helicopter," my husband replied. I watched, entranced, a sinking feeling of lacking understanding enveloping my mind.
It was a sight that would become, oddly enough, comfortingly familiar over the next few days.
We had an itinerary of all of the usual destinations: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, Central Park, a Broadway show, Barney''s. And though the site where the towers once stood was originally on my list, it suddenly felt shamefully morbid to even consider. I wondered how I could have ever considered making a destination out of a place of so much hurt, anger, hatred and death. It no longer seemed a place for paying last respects to people I did not know. I felt like going there would be an invasion into the hearts of countless thousands whose lives were directly affected. It felt distressfully disrespectful, and I was embarrassed for having considered it. It couldn''t yet be compared to battlefields or other places of despair where so many gave so much. It was too new, too sacred and far too soon.
On our third day in the city, we made our way out to Liberty Island, saw what we could, and made the ominous journey back into lower Manhattan. The skyline, for all of its ostentatious stature, looked naked. We barely noticed the patrol boats in the harbor for Lady Liberty''s safekeeping. It seemed as though every pair of eyes was focused straight ahead at nothingness. Nothing at which to marvel, yet the blinding emptiness summoned every one of us.
Once back on land, we weaved our way through street peddlers wielding their briefcases stuffed with $5 "Rolex" watches and buy-one-get-one-free "Oakleys." Without saying a word to one another, we felt drawn to the emptiness. We couldn''t admit to ourselves where we were going, but we knew we wanted to get there. Maybe we even feigned looking for a cab. I knew we were several blocks away from the site, so I wasn''t prepared for the reality that I felt thrust into.
Boarded-up buildings seemed to be everywhere and I paid little attention to them. Then all at once, at the turn of a corner, there stood a row of perfectly spotless windows-gleaming in the sunshine so terribly out of place in what I was slowly realizing was a scene of complete destruction. The name of the establishment jumped out at me: Roy''s. So far away from Roy Yamaguchi''s Pebble Beach icon, so far away from home, we were in a place of contradictory foreign familiarity. What might have felt like a piece of our own backyard was otherwise.
The meaning of the construction around me finally jumped into consciousness. I looked back at a boarded-up door I''d just passed, perplexed, and realized what I was looking at. In orange neon paint was a large X. Above the X was a date: 9-15. Below the X was the word "Searched," a number beneath it representing the victims found there. I felt my heart in my throat, and my mind spun in disbelief as I suddenly realized that every door around me had that same X across it, the same notations. Only the numbers changed.
My eyes welled up with sadness I hadn''t felt since the day I sat in front of my protruding television. The date stood out, burying me in a feeling of desperation that must have invaded the thoughts of those who''d searched there four days after the towers collapsed. "My God," I thought, as I tried to envision so much havoc that it would have taken someone four days just to get to this place, some two blocks from where the towers once stood.
My feet just kept moving, directionless, to different corners, to tiny streets where the neon paint appeared blinding. Neon arrows spray-painted on buildings told me what awaited me at the next street corner, "triage" and "hospital," with arrows that directed the dazed where to go.
Skyscraping monstrosities surrounded us, the buildings draped in netting from top to bottom, "to catch debris," one police officer told me.
Within moments, I found myself staring into the gaping hole in the Earth. It was all I could do just to stand there and stare. Construction workers milled about, and I couldn''t help but wonder if the ground beneath me encapsulated microscopic remains. It was a struggle between guilt and pride-guilt for being where I was; pride for what the tragedy evoked.
People around us stood silently, just experiencing the magnitude of what lay before us. No one gawked. No one snapped photographs. Heads hung in prayer and people grieved.
We made our way to the tiny little Trinity Church that sits just across from the site, its garden invisible behind the thousands of photographs, notes, letters, poems from strangers-one from a ten-year-old caught my eye-banners from classrooms, flags, crosses, personal belongings like shoes, necklaces and teddy bears. The tributes continued all around a wooden platform set up for viewing the site. The names of all 2,823 victims are there, most with words of love and sorrow penned in next to them. I could only hang my head in apology as one man stood next to me, sobbing as he wrote "I will always love you" next to his fiancée''s name, and laid flowers on the ground below. "I''m sorry," I finally mouthed when our eyes met. His chin became firm, his lips pursed, and he nodded in understanding as another stranger patted him on the back and finally embraced him. We left in silence, guilt pulsating through our hearts-guilt for not being there, and guilt for being there.
In a search for understanding, I stopped to ask one officer at the site how he felt about us being there-whether he thought it morbid and repulsive that we have this need to be in a place where so many of his colleagues died. His response flowed right out of his mouth, as if he''d been thinking it for months. "Nope. Keep this platform open for a hundred years, I say, and bring all your friends back with you next time." Perplexed, I had to ask why. "Because this is my life every day. And if you all see it, maybe you''ll never forget-just like we can never forget."
Life has gone on in Manhattan, as it has across the country, though I can''t imagine how. New Yorkers have seen things and done things we''ll never comprehend. The helicopter I saw on our first day there was just the first of dozens I saw patrol the sky during my short visit. Our car was searched each and every time we re-entered our hotel. Uniformed men and women stood lookout from rooftops near a graduation we attended. Watchful eyes scanned us as we proceeded through the Holland Tunnel and across the Brooklyn Bridge. I passed through 18 metal detectors in five days, was pulled aside and pat- searched four times. My shoes were inspected twice. How they''ve come through as sane as they have, I''ll never know. We haven''t lived the lives they''ve lived every day since. But they''re eager to tell their stories. Listen, if you get the chance. I must have heard a half a dozen stories from complete strangers, and it still wasn''t enough. I''ll still never understand. I wasn''t there that day.