The week of Sept. 11 is like standing in line for the biggest roller coaster in an amusement park. Anxiety builds throughout the week, until you step out of bed and onto the ride on the morning of the memorial day. If you haven’t left town by then, you are on the ride, and there is no way out. It’s hard to isolate the source of the emotions on that day. There is the media parade that moves in days before. Then the security barriers, followed by increasing numbers of police officers. And, of course, there are the memories. Slowly but surely, we lose control of our town, and the day takes on a life of its own.
The memorial service starts early. Children read the names of the murdered, some of them identifying their own mother or father. I look around and see gates and barriers designed to manage the movement of the family members, as if it were a very large concert. The inconveniences seem less important.
As the memorial service proceeds, I walk around the WTC site. There are a lot of people, but even on this anniversary day the crowds do not really stretch the capacity of the surrounding areas. Silence thunders through the streets. In two years, there have been maybe seven days when construction on the site has completely stopped. When it stops, you can hear the wind blow. You lower your voice for fear of disturbing the peace. The WTC neighborhood becomes a reverential place.
I stop in the Starbucks a half block east of the site. This is where I was in 2001 when I heard a forceful thud and looked out the window to see a woman’s jaw drop as her eyes turned up to the sky. I knew where she was looking and knew immediately there was trouble. I was out the door in time to see the fireball still pouring out of the North Tower. At this moment, one daughter was watching the same thing from her kindergarten window to the north, and my other three children were with their babysitter, being showered with debris just to the south. My wife watched everything unfold from her office in midtown.
Every year, I go back to this Starbucks. I meet up with Peter Josyph, a friend I made in the months after 9/11, while he was doing a documentary on the people and businesses located along Liberty Street. We stroll through the crowds and enter my old building at 114 Liberty through the back way. The official ceremony is over, but the WTC site is still active. A large group of families remains in the pit. I instinctively evaluate the percentage of those who wear yellow. These are the people who want to enlarge the memorial.
Leaving the building, I talk to a few neighbors. John, the owner of a local diner, and a number of his family are standing outside and talking. Usually they are busy refinishing the diner. I also speak with the owner of the building next door. Some of the businesses in his buildings have returned. One space has just been leased for a new restaurant, which brings a sense of renewal to the block: Someone from the outside is actually investing money and betting on the future of the area! A longtime commercial real-estate broker joins us. All of us look forward to rebuilding on the WTC site. Like me, they question how people could expect, or even want, half of the site to remain unused. Surely there is enough space in those 16 acres to allow for both a memorial and commercial development.
The perimeter of the site begins to feel like a carnival, with painted cars and unusually dressed spectators. The number of flags has dramatically increased and the flower displays are bigger than last year. Harley-Davidson motorcycles rumble through the streets. Press trucks are everywhere. The carnival-like elements feel offensive against the backdrop of mourning.
After the kids go to bed, I walk out again, primarily to see the towers of light. I am surprised to find crowds of people still strolling around the site. Most of us who live here wonder why tourists come and what they see when they stare through the metal fence. At 11 at night, seeing the faces of hundreds of people, many of them in tears, surprises me. Those of us who live here necessarily detach the site from our memories of the day. Everyone else who comes here is trying to recollect that day through viewing the site.
On a normal day, I don’t understand how the site stirs people up so much. But on 9/11, it takes on a new life. Somehow, the day breathes life back into it. I hear people asking questions about the site. They are speculating about the meaning of the “footprints.” I suddenly realize that I speak the lingo of the site, a language that most of the rest of the country doesn’t want or need to understand. One person mentions that this is still a burial site. I explain the recovery process in which every pile of dust was combed, searched for remains, and removed. There are no remains here. The visitors go through the discussion of the dust, how the dust that spread across the region was carrying the remains. Many people who lost loved ones will never get remains.
As I return home, I again realize how lucky I am to live where I do. I don’t mean that I am lucky to be alive, though I am that. I am lucky to live near a site that is so dear to so many people. Being here, I am connected to the human spirit in ways I wouldn’t if I lived just 10 blocks in any direction. I am part of something that is inconceivably bigger than me, like taking a swim in the ocean. It isn’t always pleasant or easy, but I am lucky nevertheless. And I know that the people who come here looking for answers will mostly be disappointed. The site does not offer easy answers. But it will still be part of the journey for a great many people. I feel honored that they will pass my doorstep on that journey.