Ground Zero Plus Two
Text and photos by Ray Smith. Appeared originally in the Express Rotary Ojai-West Newsletter.
In mid-December of 2003, my wife Jade and I visited New York City. We spent a chilly, brilliant Friday afternoon riding the subways and the ferry to Staten Island, exploring Wall Street, and walking around Manhattan. Naturally, we were drawn to the site where the two highest buildings on the planet once stood.
It didn't take long to get there on foot. When we first arrived, we were confused, and had to check our map. We expected to see something obvious. We didn't know what, exactly. A granite monument, a canyon-sized scar in the earth, a band, a billboard... What startled us was the absence of anything distinctive. Ground zero looked pretty much that morning as it did years earlier. From a few hundred yards away, it is a nondescript construction site surrounded by a tall fence and pedestrians going about their business. How could an event that caused such a sea change in our lives look so average?
Across the street, a sidewalk vendor sells newspapers and kosher hot dogs. Taxis bustle past. There was a newly reactivated subway stop adjacent, and many natives used it. But they kept their heads down, as I imagined they would had they been walking past a crazed homeless man, or a chalk outline on a sidewalk. Why should I be surprised? New York habitually glorifies itself, yet a battered wife does not show off her black eye. Even so, it was strange. Expensive real estate, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And in New York, money shouts. Were we afraid to put another lofty target on this spot? Are we still trying to figure that one out?
Jade and I approached the fence, curled our fingers over the wire and and peered through. Below us stretched an expansive hole in the ground, stored construction materials, a few tarps, and no workers. Our memories of the place had been formed by the news coverage showing an army of brave men in hard hats, diesel trucks, steam shovels, all tearing into the mountain of dusty debris with a grim and relentless determination. But in the dimming late afternoon light, this place appeared to us as though the last broomful of dust had been emptied, and then everyone had simply gone home for good. It was eerily quiet. There was a hole in the air, as well.
A black plaque affixed to the fence lists the names of the known dead. They are tallied over a faint set of Roman numerals, IX XI , for 9 / 11. Some persons had placed two small bouquets of flowers in the fence at this spot. Just two, on that day.
Further down the fence line, about forty tourists gathered before pictures showing the site from the air, before and after the strike. It was a visual aid designed to help them make sense of it. In our case, it failed. The onlookers muttered softly, some in foreign tongues. No shouts, no laughter. Just the constant rustle of the nearby river of traffic. However, I did notice that unlike the other boulevards, the hack drivers did not lean on their horns here.
The monument to the World Trade Towers, I concluded, is the rest of the city. Life goes on there, stubbornly.