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
You hit 40th and its like you walked through a door. It is
dark. It is quiet, or Manhattan quiet anyway. Its 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 Macys window displays beckon
you to join the crowd milling about. You stop and look in the windows
and read Macys 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 dont appear to be doing much. I hear other walkers
complain to that effect
they aint doin nothin,
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
sound is entirely consumed by the hum of generators, the pounding
staccato of jack-hammers, the roar of heavy engines from passing
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 Pauls 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
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
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. Pauls. 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, thats
cool. Otherwise, its off limits.
They find bodies every day
and body parts about every
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 didnt 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. Pauls a big, beefy New Yorker struggles to light
the candles lining the fence at St. Pauls. Hes New York
to the bone
big, swarthy, jet black ridiculously well coiffed
hair brushed straight back off his forehead. Theres 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. Pauls goes to him and sets a hand on the mans
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 havent seen
it yet. He points to my left, Walk up to that alley and look
to your right.
Now that Im here Im 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 hes 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
twisted metal. Sparks fly from a welders 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 couldnt 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
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.
Its 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 its 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 werent 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 childs 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 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
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 waters 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. Its 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 dont know why.
I just do it.
The site is too much. You feel too much. You feel everything. Name
it shows up while you travel the perimeter
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 wont feel anything
until you thaw. Or that the blissful simplicity of anger will override
But the overload wont come. The feeling wont numb.
The machinery wont stop roaring, the workers wont stop
laboring, the bodies wont stop surfacing and the notes and
pictures at the shrines dont ever end. All the names
Daddy, Mother, Brother, Sister, Friend, Wife, Husband
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 isnt
right. Everyone in there is someones 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 dont know what else to say.