“There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside them.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
When they reopened my office in lower Manhattan on Tuesday, September 18, 2001, I rode back into the city on my usual morning bus. All through the Lincoln Tunnel, a mile and a half under the Hudson, I gripped the armrests with white knuckles, certain that a bomb was going to go off. Nothing happened, just like nothing had happened during the previous week when I’d awaken in the middle of the night weeping, sweating, terrified. Then I’d check each window and door of our three-story house in the Jersey suburbs, making sure they were bolted. No terrorists out there. Back to bed, but not to sleep.
So after an eternity I made it through the tunnel, out of the bus station, up the escalator to the corner of 40th and 8th. At the entrance to Port Authority, on every wall, pillar, window, column were little 8½ x 11 posters. Each one was homemade, and said much the same thing: have you seen this person? The name, the family’s contact information, and a big picture of someone. Happy pictures of people on vacation, or at a birthday party. In those early confused days, some held onto the belief that missing relatives might be in local hospitals, disoriented or unconscious. Suddenly seeing those hundreds of smiling faces, and their little messages of love and grief, like candles held out to me in outstretched palms, the pain almost felled me to my knees. I felt stunned, like a man who’s been punched in the stomach. I stood there for a long time with them all watching me, not turning away, just feeling it.
The subway ride downtown. The World Trade Center had been a major transportation hub, and with it gone, there were fewer trains. What trains there were in service were all half empty this morning. Now normally on the train, people bury themselves in the paper or their iPods or sit with their eyes shut. You learn to avoid eye contact in a big city; it’s safer. But this morning, and for several days after, everyone looked right at you. Not just at you but into you, the way a lover looks into you sometimes, with a probing, delicate curiosity and defenselessness. A look you might flinch from, especially from a stranger. But our egos had crumbled to rubble and now we knew that looking away wasn’t going to make us any safer. Far, far from it. We had nothing left to hide from each other. Our faces all spoke the same holy, unspeakable thing.
Out of the subway and up the stairs to downtown, where everything was as silent and white as after a snowfall. Every surface still covered with the ashes of the World Trade Center. No color anywhere, it seemed — only the green camouflage of the soldiers who stood on every corner of the twisted little streets of lower Manhattan. The soldiers were all young men, huge GI Joe types with hulking V-shaped torsos and biceps like hams. God knows where they’d been shipped in from; nothing like that grows in New York. Their faces, at least, were not open. Each stood stock-still and expressionless at a wooden barricade with a huge semiautomatic weapon strapped over his shoulders. On guard just like I had been at my house, against a threat that wasn’t coming anymore because the most terrible thing that could happen already had.
The other thing about downtown was the smell. A week earlier, it hadn’t been so bad. Running to the water, I had given the rag that was covering my face to someone else, so I had breathed in the smoke and ash—but I didn’t recall anything like this. A burning smell, but not a sweet burning smell. A big white-noise charnel house smell that entered not just your nostrils but your pores. In it you could detect traces of plastic, rubber, wood, metal, and maybe something else. It’s the worst odor you can imagine, and if there’s a Hell, that’s how it smells. An elegantly dressed woman on the street next to me cried out something wordlessly about it… a sound I’ve never heard before or since. An animal moan of revulsion and sadness and protest.
Later, people put flowers and other memorials on the sidewalks, but for now there were just a few signs in windows: little makeshift printouts of flags, or pictures of the towers with the date. As if to just say “we were here,” the way miners trapped in a shaft might scrawl it on a wall. The merchandising hadn’t begun, nor the bickering over what to build at Ground Zero, nor the lies about how the air was perfectly safe to breathe—only the first of so many lies. In the blasted silence of downtown, with the smoke still belching from its enormous wound, there was only a terrible, stricken kind of humility and awe that had its own special… what?
Beauty, I guess.
The beauty of finally seeing, and knowing, the worst.
Photo of Ground Zero by Eddie Selover, September 2001.