On September 11, 2001, at 8:46:30 in the morning, I was sitting on a subway stopped at the Rector Street station two blocks from the World Trade Center in Manhattan. I heard a loud sound and felt a shudder run under the train. That was the shock wave, which traveled to the ground and then back up through the building.
No one said a word to anyone, but everyone stood and walked off the train. One or a few moved first, I guess, but it seemed all at once, together. Why? New Yorkers cram themselves onto trains in a shrieking, deafening din in stations filled with the smell of burning electricity or drifting smoke from track fires. What registered in the neurons as different this time?
We climbed above ground into sunlight and flames, bits of paper and debris cascading. Since then those sixteen acres have stayed in some ways at the center of my life.
Today I went back. I paid two dollars online for a visitors pass. I had a vision of myself standing alone beside Michael Arad’s inverted waterfalls. That was ridiculous, of course. I climbed up from the subway into a massive construction site.
The place must be among the most surveilled on Earth. Private security guards and police officers channel visitors through concrete barriers and fenced walkways lined with bright netting to shield from view, I guess, the brute machinery and scarred dirt.
I wound my way into a line and presented my pass, then wound my way into another line, which squeezed into a tight single file and stopped. I could see some kind of security check ahead but I couldn’t tell how long the line stretched or what happened after. I stood on the ground of the World Trade Center completely enclosed—building on one side, fence on the other—fighting the urge to run.
I presented my pass, again, at the xray machines and put my stuff in a bin, airplane style. Which has a strange resonance here. I didn’t have to take off my shoes.
Past the xray I showed my pass one final time, “last time, last time,” murmured the uniformed woman. The crowd diluted into the open plaza of the memorial. Peter Walker’s trees, swamp white oaks, which I wrote about in Green-Wood, provide a sense of—what—life, in what otherwise might be a stark empty square with two pits in it. But it is a tight, crowded kind of life, strangely dwarfed by the looming 1,776-foot middle finger.
I walked quick to the south tower pool, the closest. Some part of me—mind, body—kept sending me urgent signals to go. One has to lean out over the names to look down into the water. There they are, the names. One’s hand falls on the incised letters. Tracing them is irresistible. I will admit at this point that I was making quiet sobbing/breathing sounds in the back of my throat, relief valve for something bigger.
Walk quick to the north tower, first to be hit. Here some sun breaks through the glass tomb towers that the city’s capitalists are stacking up around this site and hoping to fill with money, that is, people. A rainbow plays now and then in the moving water.
What am I supposed to feel here? The language about the kind of experience this site should evoke bears a striking resemblance to the speech of nineteenth century boosters of garden cemeteries.
According to the memorial website, the design is supposed to “evoke a spirit of hope and renewal.” I am looking down at the water. I see it enact the falling endlessly, over and over. The largest man-made sob in North America.
I’m done. I look up to find the way out. I see lots of large red EXIT signs but they all say EMERGENCY ONLY—another intrusion that jars, that exceeds the site’s intentions, here where commerce and memory and surveillance all clash together. The best that could be done, that could be thought up, is this. The best that could be wrested from power, which makes its presence felt overwhelmingly. You are trapped here, a little mind voice says to me, you can’t get out.
I start to give in to this, but then I think stop. The feeling for self protection is a small one, and false. The idea that safety can be had is an illusion. Security can perhaps be bought, but one is never safe, never a whole, self contained, which is where the word comes from—the old root sol for whole. It doesn’t exist. We touch, we nest, everything inside us and us inside everything. Here we are in the mesh, in this fenced in place.
I sit down. And look up. The tower. It is not whole either. It has holes, a few gaping windows that make it seem—what—more real, made of materials that are familiar—wood, and glass and steel—things that rust and rot and burn, yes. It forms a part of the mesh, like us. A plane goes past far overhead. A white balloon floats very high, a small dot.
Here is a whole. The balloon. If it is made of nylon or neoprene, it will outlast everything—the trees, the tower, the memory. Where ever it goes, its laboratory-fused molecules will stay locked to one another, in ocean water, on a tree branch, in the gutter. Maybe a sea turtle will swallow it and choke. The turtle will sink to the bottom of the murk. Creatures will break apart its chemicals and absorb them into their own cells.
The balloon they will nibble and reject. Some workers, probably in China, formed its white skin from the residue of ancient sea creatures, very like the ones all around, but its molecules took so much energy to make they would never form outside a factory. No living entity has the tools to unlock these bonds, so they leave it behind, still whole.
The balloon floats free from the skeleton. It joins all the others like it, countless millions of objects locked into a kind of rigor mortis, a living death. Sea and sun and teeth wear them into smaller and smaller bits, but their bonds never break, they never transform into anything else—refuse in the truest sense.
Imagine it: a confetti colored tide washed across a scorched and melting Earth. That will be human beings’ true lasting legacy, an accident, unthought. It makes laughable all other pretensions toward leaving a mark—the shining towers, the stone, all monuments, all art. It makes this, the nest, with its frightening displays of power and threat, with its deep-twisting grief, with its rainbows flashing on water, and its terror and its sunlight and its death, seem—what—recognizable at least.
Here we are, what sadness we feel. I see our faces crowded up around a pit—so vast—with its cascading walls of water, thing that sobs and falls and sobs, because we are too … small to. We want control, we want borders, we want to master ourselves and our little sphere. We want to be safe, and whole, and secure.
Or maybe I should speak only for me, born into privilege, enough to maintain the illusion of my autonomy, my special blessed being, my self.
Think this: you have never been anything but mesh. You have spent your whole life looking in the wrong direction. There is no here or over there, you can’t get in, you can’t get out. You are of, and that is all. The water falls. A guard orders you to move right. The balloon has of course floated out of sight.