Sons and Daughters
December 11, 2001
World Trade Center, New York

Heading downtown from 53rd and Broadway. On foot.

First, through the explosion of video and lights and car horns and music that is the new Disneyfied Times Square. The sidewalks are jammed with people hurrying to something…anything…everything. You hit 40th and it’s like you walked through a door. It is dark. It is quiet, or Manhattan quiet anyway. It’s never really quiet here. The volume of the street dropping enough so you can occasionally hear yourself breathing is as good as it gets for silence.

Further south is Herald Square. Tasteful and inviting Christmas lights adorn the square. The Macy’s window displays beckon you to join the crowd milling about. You stop and look in the windows and read Macy’s monument to itself. It is pleasant. Though crowded and loud, it is a different kind of loud. Not so impatient as Times Square…not so insistent.

Again, the streets darken as you enter an area of small storefront shops nestled in the ground floors of apartment buildings until the Flatiron district explodes out of the convergence of 5th Avenue and Broadway. Bright and demanding like Times Square but more hip. It drips urban cool.

The street falls quiet again once you move past Union Square. It is darker, too. Traffic, pedestrian and vehicular, drops off noticeably as you cross Houston.

Looking south at the intersection of Broadway and Broome you see flashing lights up ahead…construction signs, arrows blinking to guide you to the left along sections of torn up pavement.

At Canal you see an Army humvee pulled to the curb and two young guardsmen taking up residence in a hastily thrown together wooden shack. They don’t appear to be doing much. I hear other walkers complain to that effect… “they ain’t doin’ nothin’, yo…pack ‘em up and send they asses home”. Speaking strictly as an outsider, the presence is reassuring.

There are cops on every corner. The noise of traffic, voices, footfalls…every sound is entirely consumed by the hum of generators, the pounding staccato of jack-hammers, the roar of heavy engines from passing trucks…long, long open trucks heading toward the site. East-West arteries are blocked off behind blue Do Not Cross police barricades.

More cold and bored cops on the street corners.
Up ahead a bright light hits some sort of assembly on the sidewalk. It is Saint Paul’s Church. The church is closed now to the public as it focuses on providing food, relief, counseling, and a place to crash for the workers at Ground Zero.

The wrought iron fence along the sidewalk have turned into a shrine. Packed tightly are mementos from all over the country…all over the world. Poems born of anguish and wrapped in lamination are impaled on the spikes of the fence. Teddy bears, candles, post cards, banners, flowers, baseball caps with impotent words scrawled on them. Pictures and poems and hand-drawings from school children in North Carolina, Minnesota, Washington, California, Wyoming, Montana, Georgia…everywhere. Words of condolence, thanks, sadness, horror, fear, hope, reassurance…

And grief. Such terrible grief.

A guy asks me if I want to sign the banner hanging on the fence by the main entrance to the Church. He works for a Midtown law firm. Different companies from all over the city sign up for slots to come down to St. Paul’s. Some work serving up food and bussing tables, some check ID badges at the front gate, some get people to sign the banners and put up new sheets of cloth when one is filled up. The banners fill up fast.

During the orientation meeting they have before they take up their positions they are warned, repeatedly, not to ask any of the workers about the site. If the worker wants to bring it up, that’s cool. Otherwise, it’s off limits.

“They find bodies every day…and body parts about every hour.”

Later, at the Dakota Roadhouse, two blocks away from the carnage, an iron worker who is on his midnight lunch break, will tell me, “I learned how to be an iron worker. I didn’t sign on to find hands and arms and feet and heads”. He says it like a robot. I ask him why he keeps at it.

“God, help me…I need the money.”

Back at St. Paul’s a big, beefy New Yorker struggles to light the candles lining the fence at St. Paul’s. He’s New York to the bone…big, swarthy, jet black ridiculously well coiffed hair brushed straight back off his forehead. There’s a cold wind swirling. As it extinguishes candles he has already lit and keeps him from lighting others he punctures the air with a creative menu of expletives. As he grows increasingly frustrated a priest from St. Paul’s goes to him and sets a hand on the man’s shoulder. The priest murmurs something to him in a soothing voice. This immense man almost whines, “..but the candles should be lit”. The priest murmurs some more and the man looks down and nods his head. He says, “But I gotta do something, father.”

You do what you able.

The lawyer tells me that three months later he still has trouble looking at the wreckage of the site. I tell him I haven’t seen it yet. He points to my left, “Walk up to that alley and look to your right”.

Now that I’m here I’m not sure I want to.

Three construction workers from the site lumber past on their way into the Church. The woman on the gate gives them all a big, warm hello. They barely acknowledge her. The last guy in the group, maybe twenty years old, looks like he’s trying not to cry.

I walk down to the alley and see the site for the first time. I look down the alley at the hulking, burned out structure, half in burning klieg light glow and half in shadow. The wind throws itself at the opening of the alley, carrying with it an acrid, burning smell that burns your eyes and nose and throat. You can see a stack of debris that must still be twenty feet high…concrete and twisted metal. Sparks fly from a welder’s torch as he works on the barely standing structure. Huge cranes swing side to side carrying tons of detritus in each scoopful.

I watch powerful men in power suits and power ties, power Tumi cases slung over their shoulders, walk powerfully down the street and talk entirely too loud and forcefully, wondering where the best view is. As the stride to the alley opening you can see them physically recoil at the sight. They grow quiet. We all do.

There is talking, but in low voices. Everywhere I stop as I make my way around the site, people talk…out of need. If we put words to it we might be able to comprehend it. Rhea is from Jersey. She is angry. Teeth chattering, harsh voiced, eyes flaming angry.

She is convinced that many people died only because they were hourly workers who couldn’t afford to leave…or because “the bosses” ordered them back into the building. She flings the accusation again, and again. She storms off, mad at those of us she was addressing.

“She needs someone to blame,” her boyfriend says apologetically before scurrying off after her.

A few blocks down I see the big man struggling with some more candles.

At another alley opening we congregate and look as smoke spills through the bright lights of the site. Some flames shoot up above the high hurricane fencing that closes off the business end of the alley. It gets hit with powerful streams of water almost immediately. The work has gone down 35 feet…it has another 35 feet of material to dig through before they reach bottom. Fires still burn beneath the rubble. Now and again, when one of the cranes or loaders pulls up a hunk of building, flames escape through the top. So far, this has only caused minor injuries to some workers. A cop manning one of the site entrances tells me, “No one else dies here”.

Down on the southern end of the site I meet up with David and Brooke from Park City. In July they were in town when their daughter danced on Broadway. On his digital camera, David still has a shot of the family looking down at the camera with the twin towers rising up behind them.

Less than two months later they were rubble.

We are both taking pictures, David and I. Everywhere around the site are signs telling you not to take any. The only places where anyone intervenes are those places where you can see the construction workers. “Give these guys some privacy”, says one cop. No one fights it.

It’s on past midnight when the three of us make it over to the western edge of the site. It takes a long time to complete a lap, a function of distance and shock. We meet some officers there. Even though it’s closed for the night they allow us a couple of quick minutes at the viewing platform.

Picture the opening scene to the Terminator. It has that same war torn eerie feel to it. Up until that point we have only caught glimpses of the parts of the site that rise up above the tops of the fences. Inside the fence it is a science fiction movie. Rubble is strewn everywhere while heavy equipment roars away under painfully bright stadium lights. There is a small city of people in work clothes and orange and yellow safety vests and hard hats. Buildings rising up all around the site forming an imposing, man-made canyon. Some of the buildings are covered with a metal, mesh netting. The mesh is there to keep the crumbling pieces of buildings from dropping on the workers. There are three forty to fifty story buildings that will be leveled once the main site is excavated. They are intimidating, these massive structures.

They are less than half the size of either tower.

All around you can see lights on in upper floors of skyscrapers that look out over the site. People live here. People work here. They cannot walk past a window without being reminded. I met a woman who works in one of those buildings. She used to joke that she would have a great view of the water if those Towers weren’t in the way. Now, she feels guilty, as if her joking wish somehow contributed to the collapse.

Brooke is weeping softly. David and I want to but are being entirely too guy about it. After thanking the cops and walking along the water of Battery City we come across some more impromptu shrines with the poems and notes and the million teddy bears. A large piece of tagboard has a blurry picture of a man in his early thirties beaming from it. The child’s crayon scrawl above it is a poem. The title is “My Uncle, My Hero”. A teddy bear has a note pinned to it. It says, “I will always love you, Daddy”.

And on.

And on.

And endlessly on.

At each shrine you see a collection of wrinkled and faded Missing posters with pictures of the Dead. Height, weight, hair color, eye color…what they were wearing on the day they were last seen. At each shrine you see one or two that were clearly placed there in recent days. Phone numbers at the bottom to call if you know where they are.

Every now and then at one of the shrines you see someone fastidiously straightening out one small part of it…a particular teddy bear or floral arrangement. Looking conspicuously non-tourist. Biting his or her lip. Crying.

We walk along looking at the empty buildings at the edge of the site, reading signs and marketing messages that were posted in the days before the attack. In every office building lobby in America there are plants. You rarely notice them. In the lobby windows of condemned office buildings ringing the WTC site are planters filled with dead, dried out, brown plant corpses. An urban ghost town.

We stumble across a shrine at the water’s edge in Battery Park City. In the midst of it is a huge framed photo collection. It looks like the kind of thing you see in a high school showing off its graduating class. It is about four feet tall and packed with head shots of uncomfortable looking firemen.

“FDNY Members Who Died As The Result of Injuries Sustained In The Performance of Duty September 11, 2001.”

343 pictures. We looked at each of them. We had to.

We shared a dazed cab ride back to Midtown. It’s 2am.

An hour later I admit that I cannot sleep. So, I hop in another cab and go back downtown. I go around the backside of the site and find the policemen I had met earlier. I want to thank them, not for letting me in earlier. Just for being cops.

I shoot the breeze with them for hours. I walk around the site again. I watch them turn off the big lights later that morning after the sun comes up. I begin to obsessively read every poem and card, anything with a word on it, at each shrine. I don’t know why. I just do it.

The site is too much. You feel too much. You feel everything. Name an emotion…it shows up while you travel the perimeter…like you are a walking, raw nerve ending. You find yourself hoping and praying that it will stop. That your circuitry will overload and emotional frostbite will set in so you won’t feel anything until you thaw. Or that the blissful simplicity of anger will override everything else.

But the overload won’t come. The feeling won’t numb. The machinery won’t stop roaring, the workers won’t stop laboring, the bodies won’t stop surfacing and the notes and pictures at the shrines don’t ever end. All the names…Uncle, Daddy, Mother, Brother, Sister, Friend, Wife, Husband…all the titles we collect over a lifetime become painfully scrawled words in an effort to remember and to hold.

Earlier, I talked to a couple of police officers and a fireman who were visibly upset that there was pressure to make the excavation and recovery go faster. One of the cops said, “That isn’t right. Everyone in there is someone’s son or daughter.”

Later, as the three month memorial service is getting under way, I see an 8x10 flyer with a grainy photograph of a young woman on it. Across the top, in blazing letters, it reads MISSING. A handwritten note across the bottom describes where she worked.

Next to the picture, someone has hung a University of Nebraska baseball cap. Written on the bill of the cap in a clean, tight script, is a piece from an old U2 song…

In the wind we hear their laughter
In the rain we see their tears
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat

I don’t know what else to say.

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