The empty space I found in New York

A week has passed since I left New York City after making what I once considered to be a pilgrimage to the site of the World Trade Center.

On the other side of my intial, more cynical reactions, I’ve come back to the experience with a much deeper sense of ambivalence and confusion.

Comments from best friend and fellow Midwesterner Nick Hurwitch had me questioning how I felt about the events and about my visit to the site. I’ve had to ask myself, what did I expect from it? People crying in the streets? After all, eight years has passed.

Even so, for something that has bothered me so deeply and for something that I’ve envisioned for at least a year, the trip was nothing like I expected. Regardless of the reactions of other people at the site (I guess I expected something just a little reverent), there was nothing about the WTC site that gave me the closure or answers that I had hoped to find.

I’m left wondering what I should feel about the whole situation. Part of the trip was to takee a city that was, for all intents and purposes, fictional, and make it real for me. That, in turn, was to make the entire 9/11 event become real for me.

My problem has always been one of distance, metaphorical and physical. From my vantage as a Michigan teenager going through high school, New York was a shining city that existed in film. Nothing like that place exists in our state, and I never even made it to Chicago until I was in college. Until recently, I’d never seen a place like New York outside of a screen or a photo of some kind.

So how was I to feel about a national tragedy? I’ve never even felt very connected to the United States as a nation. The U.S. you see on TV (and therefore, extrapolate as the experience of other Americans in the American places that matter) is not the one you experience in the Detroit suburbs.

The Midwestern U.S. is far more muted.

Reading about and seeing depictions of Americans lining up to fight for their country after Pearl Harbor had particular resonance. When there was an attack on our country, ALL Americans felt attacked.

I didn’t feel attacked on 9/11. I still feel an isolation in this state, which is ass-backwards in as many ways as possible. Our largest city is so corrupt, government officials are stealing from their own children. We’re losing people and jobs so fast there might not be much more than a sinkhole where Michigan is now in 10 years.

How am I supposed to feel about two planes being crashed into the World Trade Center?

It’s a question I’m only beginning to answer, and I didn’t find that answer at the site of the tragedy. What I’m feeling now is confusion because if that answer wasn’t there, where the hell is it?

I hurt for the people who died, but do I feel community with them? No.

More than anything, what I’ve experienced in regards to the national tragedy is seeing identification in others. A feeling of belonging. A feeling of camaraderie. A feeling of community. A feeling of needing to reach out to help those among them who have been hurt.

There’s identity in that.

What identity do I have?

The trip to the WTC site was a search for a mirror that I thought would help reflect back at me a greater understanding of what it means to be an American. But that mirror doesn’t exist.

I’m still wondering what my reflection looks like.

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.

Research trip: NYC

Halfway to New York, and I’m in the car working and now blogging. As I’m nearly to my destination and the purpose of this trip is directly related to my future as a writer and novelist, I feel like I should explain the trip’s significance.

I’ve already spoken about the trip’s conception, in a vague way. Allow me now to give that situation context.

I started about a year ago working on a series of short stories that eventually will compose a novel. The working title for the whole project is “Millennium Men.” It concerns a number of topics of great interest to me, and many feelings and conceptions about growing up as an American Midwesterner man at the turn of the century that I hold close to my heart.

The largest and most important of these is the effect of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, on me as a resident of Michigan, as an American, and as a young adult at the time. Ever since the tenth grade, when I sat in physics class, watching the event unfold on the class room TV, I’ve felt this sort of strange dichotomy about 9/11.

On the one hand, I feel a great deal about the national tragedy. In a very real sense, it’s still a fresh wound for me. But on a personal, individual-people-who-died-in-the-buildings sort of way. And NOT on a larger, I’m-an-American-and-we-all-grieve-together scale. I’ve never felt “connected” to the tragedy.

In “Millennium Men,” the climax of the story, and the experience of the main characters, has to do with coming of age in a climate where everyone is shaped by a series of events to which the characters feel no strong connections. They (and I) are actually shaped more by the ABSENCE of connection — to the tragedy, to the country, and to each other.

The characters in the novel travel to NYC to deal with how they feel about being American men, and their time at the WTC site is a key moment to the story I want to tell.

So I have to experience that myself, and get my own head on straight about the tragedy, before I can write about it.

That’s tomorrow. I honestly don’t know what to expect.