The Big Apple, an Homage.

23 Oct


June  2012 


Chelsea Market Wall Art


It is a brilliant midsummer’s day, in downtown Manhattan, there have been thunderstorms and there will be more later, but presently it is clear, probably just like it was on that morning nearly 11 years ago.

We pick up passes for a 3.00pm entry to the World Trade Centre memorial site. It is an attempt to manage the day-long continuous crowd.  This part of the city is already hugely disrupted. People who are early are asked to go back and start queuing at their designated time. We arrive at 3.00pm and start winding our way around the perimeter of the site so that we can access the reflecting pools memorial. There is a sign thanking us for coming and listing the board members of the memorial site trust; two former US Presidents, two former Mayors of NYC and a handful of instantly recognisable movie and media names listed among many others. As we progress, we pass huge pieces of machinery and thousands of workers in hard hats. Dust and grime fly about, jackhammers pound and jar, whistles and sirens signal crane movements, and workers call out to each other as they do on any building site. We get only occasional glimpses of the construction; the vast majority of the site is screened off with blue plastic. About half way around our path is blocked as cyclone wire gates about 20 feet high swing closed to make an exit route for a mining-sized truck carrying debris from the site. There are countless NYPD members, security guards, and para-police personnel – they are a presence but they do not intimidate. Occasionally we pass through the shadow of Tower 1 that has this week become NYC’s tallest building, eclipsing the Empire State.

It takes nearly 45 minutes to get through security but mostly it is the length of the line that takes the time; we move slowly, steadily, inexorably. But for the noise and dust we could be queuing for Space Mountain.

Suddenly we emerge from the closeness and mid-afternoon shadows.  The contrast could not be greater. We are looking at a large open space that has been planted out with trees and areas of grass. It is bathed in sunshine and small groups sit in the shade of the avenues of oak trees about 15 feet high. It is midsummer and the overall impression is of a green and open space similar to the pockets of parkland that can be found scattered across Manhattan Island. It is impossible to imagine that this was the centre of that mountain of carnage that lay like a fallen titan after the attacks of September 11.

I pause and try to remind myself what was here before … what lives and lifetimes once lay dead and dying here, on this serene and gentle piece of inner-city space where I now stand. I look around at the windows of the neighbouring buildings and wonder how much their occupants saw; the first strike, the immediate convergence of thousands of emergency vehicles or the chaotic swirl of dust and debris as those two towers fell into themselves and settled into that crazed, urban Everest they became. I wonder if anyone has been able to look out since without seeing every new day through the ghost of that day’s memory.

All that is visible of the memorials from here is a low, long, black wall that surrounds the perimeter. There is an unfinished museum in the centre of the space and an electronic directory of the names of those honoured here and where that name can be found. About fifty feet away from the entrance, the crowd gathers at one of the corners of the South pool before it moves further around the edges. I become aware of the noise of the water and we walk towards it.

The two rectangular falls are constructed on the footprints of where the twin towers stood. I knew that their dimensions were those of the twin tower area yet still I had not been prepared for their size. From here they seem mammoth. As we reach the edge, the names of those who died at all of the sites on 9/11 are etched into the angled top of the surrounding wall that stands about four feet high. Water spills gently over a shallow platform that runs around the inner wall and then thunders down a further rectangular space whose drop seems endless. It then drops yet again to a place that cannot be seen from anywhere one might stand. Perhaps it will be visible upon completion, perhaps it is never intended that it should be seen.

We are silent. In this moment there are no words to be spoken.

A woman and her companion move to stand beside me beside me, they produce a specially prepared scroll to trace over one of the names, ‘Stackpole’. They fumble as they try to lay the paper flat and work their pencil over the cut-out of the letters to make another memory of this place and this person now lost to them. They work together without speaking. If I am quieted by this place, I wonder how it must affect those whose family’s blood was spilt here, whose future and history came screaming so terribly and incomprehensibly down that day.

We walk to the other pool, and I start to wonder what I think of this memorial; I try to imagine the angst and soul-searching that have gone into deciding its form. I can’t help thinking of Niagara. The volume of water is epic. If this is a cleansing it is of a scale never before contemplated and of course never achievable. I look for an aspect that might give me cause for hope. It might be too soon, maybe I am not close enough and if I had been the wife, sister, or parent of someone whose life had been needlessly consumed by those acts of insanity I would not need to do this. I remind myself that I am looking at something unfinished and that when the seven new buildings, and the two tallest towers in particular are completed, it will evoke a different emotion, a different quality of appreciation.

People stand by the edge and take photos. I resist my usual impulse to ask if they would like a picture together.  We visited here close to a year after that day and I was not so much appalled as I was puzzled by this need to be photographed at the site of such devastation and carnage. Even then, so early after the event, tourists posed, smiling and laughing giving cheery thumbs up and peace signs in front of the mesh fence that bore flags, notes and photographs of those lost and still listed as missing. I imagine them back home, “Here I am at ground zero”. The reason for the need to record this eludes me. If you need a photo maybe you could take yourself out of this picture, and not use this place as a backdrop for your holiday snaps; better yet, don’t take a photo here at all.

There are many young children around me, most of them born after the attacks. A father stands next to me; his daughter is maybe 6 or 7. I wonder what he will tell her and I listen … “There used to be two giant buildings here. They fell down, and a lot of people died”.

I am moved by what for me is at once the pain and the beauty of his understatement. Maybe he has decided that this young mind is not ready for an explanation of the horrors that humanity can inflict upon itself, maybe he does not have the words. Whatever the reason I contrast this measured response with images I have seen from other parts of the world where parents, in what seem to be hysteria driven frenzies, stand with children this age and encourage them to spit on and burn the flags of their supposed ideological enemies.

Not all New Yorkers are as prepared to grapple with this dilemma similarly. Of all the cab drivers we meet on this visit, there is only one who wants to vent about this. He is an interesting character, white, 50ish, with wispy, shoulder-length grey hair. There are two crutches on the front seat and he wears hearing aids. His speech is just a little foggy, reflecting his hearing loss. We drive past a group of Muslims gathered outside a Park Avenue building, “They all love Muslims here, he says, “Everyone else in America hates ’em, but here they love ’em. I don’t get it”.

I wonder out loud whether New Yorkers reflect a greater diversity, they live with so many cultures; maybe they have a more direct and sophisticated experience of Islam and its followers. He’s not buying it.

“They bombed us, they’re our enemies, there’s nothin’ sophisticated about liking your enemies. I had two friends who died at the World Trade Centre”, he went on, “I live in Queens. We had a couple of ‘em in our building, but we kicked ’em out”. I think about the Spanish Inquisition, the unspeakable torture of dissidents and innocents conducted by followers of a prophet who in fact did suggest that we love and understand our enemies, but I think better of it, Jim gives me a quiet look of warning, “Oh well…” he says.

After we leave the memorial site, we walk towards Greenwich. Within 20 minutes the clear bright day has gone, clouds are racing in and a fierce and wonderful summer storm rains down upon the city. We are safe and dry in a bar. I look out the window across a traffic island where a striking sculpture of a swimmer gently sleeping in an inner tube sits, and I wonder what the pools look like with yet another deluge pouring down into them. I doubt they have been reduced to insignificance even in this most torrential of rain. They will consume anything that falls within their reach; they already have. It is as if nothing can escape them, they will give nothing up. The water will flow endlessly, surely for as long as this city stands.

Several days later and it’s our last night in New York. It is a perfect summer evening. We have seen and tasted so much of what she has to offer and I want one last look at the delight that is the fireflies in Central Park at dusk. We stroll into the park and the tiny, fairy-like insects dance across the grasses and shrubbery. I have not seen them until this trip to New York and I am captivated. We sit and watch them, in this jewel that is Grand Central Park. Jim catches a few in his hands and they obligingly twinkle and shine for us before they fly off. It is enthralling.

We walk further south towards 59th Street and we hear the unmistakable sound of a glorious tenor, we have stumbled upon one of two opera performances in the Park’s Naumburg Bandshell this season. People sit, stand, lie, embrace, skateboard, jog and cycle by as the sounds of Puccini’s Tosca swirl about us. The tragic ending is nigh. To the north, Shakespeare in the Park is presenting As You Like It. People have queued since 6.00am for tickets or have won them in the daily online lottery. This village is thriving, diverse and life giving. It is irresistible and irrepressible.

There is early evening light, though it is fading quickly now. The boats are gone from the pond and only the ducks remain but elsewhere in the central fountain, people still paddle. It is a gentle, charming and joyful scene. I think of the memorial at ground zero, imagining the giant rectangular waterfall hurling itself again and again over one ledge and then another and another.

How do we move on? How much should we remind ourselves of the inexplicable that happened here? How much of the extraordinary courage and the outpouring of generosity? Goodwill, appreciation of our own failings and celebration of our achievements can never overcome acts of insane individuals or those driven beyond reason by generations of poverty, a sense of injustice or a feeling of hopelessness. Can we ever reach a place where this will not happen again?

Two sayings keep revisiting me, one from my young adult life, “All that needs to happen for evil to triumph in the world is that enough good men should do nothing”, and the second, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance”. The first is from a time when as a young adult I believed that if I wrote enough letters, handed out enough pamphlets and hassled enough politicians I could achieve change and justice, even enlightened administration. Today I feel less confident. The rise of centralised power, self-interested politicians and agenda driven media owners seeking to silence dissent and turn us into paler, more obedient imitations of our previous selves are hard to withstand. It’s not that I lack confidence in my ability to articulate what I believe or what I believe is unjust or immoral but that increasingly this battle feels like it has to be fought at every turn.

Anti-slaver Wendell Phillips’ words make up the second quote. Earth can easily sustain and nurture us all but state sponsored genocide and brutality, prejudices, discrimination and hunger and chronic disease for most of the planet’s inhabitants, is accepted as the norm. That public policy and private opinion reflect this is undeniable. Increasingly I find that my protests and attempts to resist my own demise into this milieu of callous indifference take more effort than I can manage. My lifelong efforts to draw the attention of others to what feels like a loss of moral centre suffer similarly.  Our indifference to the plight of our fellow travellers on planet Earth, abandoning them to toss around on oceans, denying them safe landing, shelter and sustenance, remains incomprehensible to me. If we were travelling from Earth to Saturn in the safety of a well equipped spaceship and we encountered a family adrift surrounded by the wreckage of their destroyed vessel, would we pass by and leave them? Well we are, and we do, it is no different.

9/11 was not the first time that events too terrible to find words for have produced a human response too magnificent to chronicle. We are not always able to learn from the past, history tells countless similar stories. But our literature is also full of tales of the kind of people we hope we can become. Some are drawn from dreams and some from acts of valour that only ever find light in the shadows of anguish and terror such as those produced by that day nearly eleven years ago when we watched as the heart of the world turned to grey ash. In the midst of memory and despair, there was hope and courage. People did terrible things here; others performed acts of heroism beyond measure and beyond belief and this place is now defined by them both.

Wendell Phillips’ words come back to me, ‘eternal vigilance’. His words were a warning; liberty is too precious a thing to be careless with and it needs a watchfulness that looks inward as well as out. Too many times we have grown lazy and cavalier as time passed; we took previous sacrifices for granted and forgot the hard learned lessons of predecessors.

That day in September became a warning klaxon for us and for our era’s vulnerability as well as a beacon for our strength and capacity to survive and overcome. We know we can meet an uncertain future and that we bring resilience and adaptability to whatever we encounter; but eternal vigilance, well that might just be the most important adjunct to our preparedness for tomorrow.


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