It was steamy and still in New York City. Exhaust from the cabs and buses pressed down on the avenues and streets like a ratty, wool blanket salvaged from a fire. A storm was brewing – you could feel it building like an electrical charge, but the rain was still hours away.
I pushed out of the air conditioned confines of Two World Financial Center and bid my client a safe journey. He had a customer meeting in mid-town and barely remembered to acknowledge me before plowing into the backseat of a waiting taxi, which plunged into the surge of traffic.
I stood on the sidewalk, the heat from the pavement making the bottoms of my feet sweat, and stared across the West Side Highway at the tasteful fencing that divided the Financial District from Ground Zero. I felt a pitter-patter in my heart and it occurred to me that the elegant waterfront restaurant where we had dined was across the street from a murder hole.
No one had mentioned that fact during lunch.
I glanced at my watch. I was supposed to catch a plane back to Boston, but instead I crossed the street the next time the traffic light turned red. Perspiration coated my face and neck when I finally arrived on Liberty Street. I walked up to the chain link fence and looked down at this notorious place; this dead zone that once sprouted up proud buildings of shiny glass, steel, and concrete. A serious place – stern even, a place that once shunned frivolity. This had been a place laden with money, designed for commerce, and with a spirit so unyielding that it would crush those foolish enough to stand in its way.
That place went up in flames – turned to dust, vaporized in an instant. There’s no more twisted steel and piles of rubble. There’s no sense of destruction or pathos. Ground Zero is more like a well healed scab now; a bald spot on an otherwise healthy head of hair. The seriousness is gone. It is solemn now, not unlike stepping into the dark, hallowed foyer of an ancient cathedral.
People rush by. Cabs honk. A bus blunders by; gears grinding. The sun is hot and bright without the shade of the buildings. I try to conjure up the feelings I felt five years ago when I stood in the office of a colleague in a Boston high-rise and watched the first tower crash to the ground. Then it was surreal; the squeal from the throat of the receptionist next to me, and the voice of my former boss: “Jesus fucking Christ.”
It seemed like the world was ending back then. Planes dropping from the sky like meteors or toys hurled by an angry god. Certainly we had done something to deserve this furious fate. And I remembered the visceral fear that gnawed at my belly like a rat I had inadvertently swallowed whole at the building cafeteria.
I remembered looking out of my colleague’s office window at Logan Airport across the harbor. The sky was blue and clear and the airplanes had already been grounded, but I thought we were next. That a 747 would appear like a speck of cancer and grow and grow until the entire world would become an airplane wing and the last thing I would hear would be the explosion that would kill me.
We were vulnerable and scared. My building was evacuated and I drove home desperate to be with my wife. We huddled around the television, exchanging glances, and wondering what the hell was going on. The commentators told us everything had changed – and we believed them.
But standing at the edge of Ground Zero on this stifling summer day, looking down at the vacant lot that resembled a construction zone more than the final resting place of nearly 3,000 murdered people, I find it difficult to replicate those feelings. I searched for the fear and the anxiety – but it wouldn’t come.
And that was a good thing. We have wallowed in 9/11 for too long. We shouldn’t forget, but we’re on the verge of turning September 11 into a holiday for grief; a pity party for a strong, wealthy nation that should know better. It’s time to stop using 9/11 as an excuse – a crutch. We’re supposed to be better than that. Stronger. When you’re knocked to your knees, you stand up again.
It’s time to do that.
Thunder rumbles in the distance. The sky over lower Manhattan churns with inky black clouds. You can smell the rain now. I turn away from Ground Zero, my back a little straighter, my stride a bit wider. I hail a cab.
Neither the cabbie nor I mention the hole to the left of us. I tell him I want to go to the airport and he asks which one. I tell him and we drive away as the first fat drop of the storm splatters on the windshield.
The heatwave will be broken.