Impressions of a Tragedy

The subway goes to the World Trade Center site again. For a while, it was closed.

We emerged from the station into the bright sunlight, like rats into a tight maze. To the right were the collossal buildings of New York City, static and strong despite their location. To our left was a bright blue fence, stretching eight feet high, covered in big photos at intervals of the spectacle that will one day be constructed on the site of the destroyed World Trade Center.

The entire corridor, which is what is created, was packed to the brim with people. Foot traffic flowed quickly, but it was tight and claustrophobic.

The sun was bright and hot because there was nothing to block it.

I was struck most by the disorganized chaos. We were quite literally walled off from the construction site of the Freedom Towers, and by extension, from the tragedy.

People bustled through, most totally untouched by their proximity to the site.

I, however, felt stained by it. I’d never seen the World Trade Center in person, but I felt the temporal shadow of those buildings and what happened stretching out over me. Others just hurried on about their business.

We walked the perimeter of the site, but there was no seeing in from street level. I felt a mix of disappointment and a dull, throbbing sort of anger. I couldn’t even see into the site. I didn’t see mourners or people even thinking twice about what they were walking past.

Finally we found an information kiosk that pointed the way toward the Tribute WTC Visitor Center. Pushed along by the river of indifferent humanity, we passed a man handing out photocopied maps that he’d highlighted.

“It’s history, it shouldn’t be a mystery,” the man shouted into the crowd. “Do you know what you’re looking at?”

That’s a good question, I thought, as the man was chided by people who must have regularly walked by. The only person I would encounter in New York who seemed at all passionate about the event, and he was treated like a joke.

We continued along the outside of the site, always accompanied by the blue fence. I stopped and studied some of the artists’ renderings of the Freedom Towers. Of course, these renderings included all the retail opportunities that would be present in these new, improved towers. Shops like Bulgari were included in the drawing. Quite a tribute.

But it wasn’t as disgusting as the street vendors who wheeled out coolers filled with water bottles available for a premium, or large piles of “tribute photos” of the World Trade Center. You can’t spell Capitalism with capitalize, I thought bitterly.

We passed the Visitor Center and pushed past to where one wall of a fire house had a large bronze wall plaque commemorating the rescue workers who died in the towers. A few people gathered around and snapped photos. But not many. A few other people hurried by, walking through photos without realizing or without caring, and without even glancing over.

A few moments later, we headed back to the Visitor Center. I flashed my student I.D. to get half off our tickets, despite no longer being a student of anything. I felt cynical and dishonest. I saved ten dollars.

We entered the gallery, which had a few too many people in it and seemed a little small compared to the size of the event. Caitlin and I walked along slowly, reading quotes on columns that made up a timeline of events stretching from the first attack on the Trade Center in 1993 to the aftermath of the event.

On the wall beside us were copies of various missing posters that had been found around the city during the tragedy. As we moved across the timeline, the fliers became thicker and closer together, until they papered the entire wall. We moved past a twisted steel girder and into a room where two entire walls were covered in photos and personal items from victims of the tragedy.

Caitlin started to cry. I held my composure, but only just barely.

We continued down a flight of stairs into the Visitor Center’s basement, past several thousand origami cranes, to a room that contained hundreds of fliers filled out by international visitors, detailing their feelings about the tragedy. Beyond that was more information about the Freedom Towers. And then we were back upstairs, passing the “gift shop,” which was sad first because it existed at all, and second because it was both pathetic and miniscule.

I pushed my way out of the building, Caitlin close behind. Clouds were rolling in over the WTC site. We dropped back into the flow along the sidewalk, passing the street vendors at a fast pace.

“What are you thinking?” Caitlin asked as we headed away.

I didn’t know what to tell her.

We stopped on a elevated walkway where, for the first time, there was glass between us and the construction site. Caitlin told me about the disrespect she felt she was seeing as the rubble had been swept up and placed off to the side, as she put it.

I didn’t know what I felt. I still don’t.

I held onto her for a long time and didn’t say anything. There was no closure here. There was no reconciling tragedy or paying respects to the dead. There was a tiny apartment that served as a museum and memorial, at ten dollars a ticket.

There was bustling by and pretending it never happened. There was building over top of a tragedy. Maybe that was the only way this city could have moved on.

For me, it feels like covering an amputated limb with a band-aid.

I’m more confused and disconnected now than ever.

Published by Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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  1. For me the WTC site is both important and inconsequential. Indeed, the problem I've always had with "9/11" — feelings I think you may share — are the connotations of the term itself. "9/11." Thereinlies invariable meaning, passed down to us from an imaginary collective American consciousness and solidified by nearly ubiquitous media coverage. Plenty of people seemed to feel something about the attacks on the two towers, but almost everyone felt, inexpliably, that what they felt was like their neighbor. And their family. And the victims. And so on. "9/11." There it is. Without need for further explanation. "World Trade Center." Again, a thunderous stampede of meaning. But what about me? What did I feel? Quite frankly, something quite different. In sad admition, something quite less. As a 16-year-old high school student, I had never even been to New York, much less come to terms with my ideas of patriotism and my feelings on terrorist-assaulted existentialism. That's not to say I didn't or don't feel a great deal about that place and that event and those buildings and that day. It's just that…I've come to those feelings through 8 years of thinking instead of one day of video replays and deathtoll sidebars.

    An act of terrorism to which I felt a much deeper connection were the London bombings of 2005. Most notably, because I was there. I felt my building shake. I emerged from my dorm to see women and children running, and crying. I turned a corner, despite the protests one of the first officers on the scene, to encounter the mangled and smoking red remains of a London double-decker bus. That day, our primary means of transportation were shut down. No buses. No Tube. So everyone walked. The streets were flooded, even closed down to motor traffic. I took to the streets in search of answers. I felt something: something deep, something rattling, something unlike what I had felt as a naive, middle class caucasian male on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. But few seemed rattled. People marched to and from work. The evening papers already decrying the attacks, calling out for justice. Some, I dare say, were at the pub, having a pint. Didn't these people care, I wondered? Didn't they know? I had been there 3 days, and I knew. I felt it.

    But of course they felt it. Of course they cared. But this was a city of people who had been here before. This was a city of pride, of swift and thoughrough efficiency, built of walls that survived two World Wars, terrorist attacks throughout the '80s, and the Blitz. They responded to such social dysentery with a stiff upper lip.

    In America we rebuild. Construction over the gravesite of a national tragedy? Perhaps to the naked eye. But you are right to guess that this is how the city knows to move on. It's how America moves on. We turn hardship into success, anger into pride, and fear into hope. That's the idea, any way. For me visiting the world trade center site was less about what I saw before me: those passersby who seemed unflinching, uncaring, have probably walked that route some 1,000 times. Have probably contemplated that day 1,000 times more. They still do, I would wager. But their time to be knocked back has passed. Even the street vendors, capitalizing on tragedy, as it were, I'm certain love their city and love their country in their own way. Even if it's not our own. And to me, that's what there is to learn about 9/11.

  2. It's not that I expect the world to start and stop fifty feet from the site, or that everyone should stop and give a moment of silence every day. But the utter lack of reaction from ANYONE was disturbing because I went there expecting more than that, for whatever reason. Eight years has passed for the rest of the country, but not for me.

    The entire experience was just not the cathardic revelation that I for some reason had created in my mind. Most of the description involved in the post here was to set a tone; that atmosphere was painful for me expecting to come to a place that has this sort of hallowed reverence in my estimation, which is built solely from news footage and reading on the subject.

    It definitely was not what I thought I would encounter.

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