New York City: October 2001
On the evening of October 23, I paid my first visit to New York City since the September 11 attacks. I was meeting a former colleague for dinner, and my plan was to drive to Weehawken and take the Port Imperial ferry to midtown.
When the attacks first happened, I had a strong aversion to looking at the skyline even from a distance and I certainly did not want to go down to the waterfront for a closer look. But as the weeks passed, I began to feel a stronger need to see it and come to terms in my own way with what happened.
As you may know, Mark and I lived in Weehawken for three-and-a-half years. We now live in Morris County, about 30 miles west of The City.
Weehawken is a small but densely populated town located on the Hudson River directly across from New York City. It is famous for two things: It is the site where Aaron Burr fatally wounded Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel and it has the most spectacular panoramic view of the New York City skyline imaginable.
Weehawken begins at the banks of the Hudson River then quickly gives way to the Palisades, towering vertical rock cliffs rising dramatically over the river. Understandably, it is on these cliffs where most of the people of Weehawken choose to live. Even though Boulevard East, the road that snakes along the top of the Palisades, is clogged with traffic from dawn to dusk, people who live there have enormous picture windows that frame views of the some of New York’s most famous buildings. From the top of the Palisades, the city spreads out before you as far north as the George Washington Bridge and as far south as the Verrazano Bridge. The height of the cliffs affords you a bird’s eye view of the city, allowing you to practically look the Empire State Building in the eye.
I looked at that view nearly every day for more than three years and I never tired of it, which is why I felt a strong need to go back there to take my first close look at the skyline.
I drove as far south as possible on Boulevard East, parked and walked across the street to Hamilton Park, which overlooks New York. Even as I walked toward the edge of the park, I couldn’t look to my right toward where the World Trade Center used to stand, anchoring New York’s southern tip to the harbor.
Finally, I stopped and stood at the iron railing erected at the edge of the cliff and slowly turned to look south. The feelings of complete sadness that I felt on the morning of September 11 came rushing back like a flood.
From that vantage point, it’s obviously not what you can see. It’s what you can’t.
We all know the Towers are gone, but their absence is incredibly hard to grasp, especially for people so familiar with how they used to stand to the south like two proud sentries keeping watch on New York Harbor.
Instead, there is void so huge it feels like it can never be filled.
About a half dozen others stood farther down the path – a group of teenage boys, a young couple rocking in an embrace, a lone man in a business suit – all with eyes locked toward the south. We are all trying to comprehend.
Along the iron rail were dozens of signs, photographs and handwritten notes.
“Angela, we miss you.”
“Thank you for giving up your lives to keep us safe.”
“We love you all.”
“United We Stand.”
A colorful and splotchy mosaic of wax – the remnants of probably 100 candles – coats the ground near the Alexander Hamilton memorial, along with several American flags, numerous long-dead bouquets and black and purple ribbons tied to the railing. Poems and prayers are tacked up on the wall and someone has left behind their dusk mask, used while they were working near Ground Zero in the days following the attack.
I stared for a long time trying to force my mind to accept the new skyline and everything that it symbolizes, but it’s just too big and too awful.
After some unknown amount of time, I turned to leave. One of the teenage boys asked me if I was OK and I smiled and said yes, but my answer felt forced and false.
I returned to my car and drove down to the ferry terminal. The ride across the Hudson offered a different perspective. The view of the city changes with each foot that the ferry chugs across the river. Buildings once hidden behind others become visible. New angles reveal new sights. And still, from every angle there is that void staring back at you.
Once disembarked into the streets of Manhattan itself, the city seems almost normal. Crowds of people were rushing to get home. Streets were crammed with yellow taxis.
But there are differences. Those people rushing home aren’t just looking at the ground or in their “locked on target” tunnel vision. They make eye contact with strangers; some even smile in a desperate attempt to make contact. Both on the way in and the way home, people struck up conversations with me on the ferry, something that has never happened to me before. And most of those yellow taxis have American flags streaming from their antennas, regardless of the ethnicity of the driver behind the wheel.
And then there is the security. Of the four revolving doors in the 50-story building where I once worked, only one set can be used. People who work in the building must show a photo ID and scan an ID card in order to be able to take an elevator to their floor. Visitors must stand to the side with security officers until the person who they are visiting comes down to the lobby to retrieve them. As you can imagine, this creates a large bottle neck getting into the building.
And yet people wait patiently in that line without complaint. It is a small hardship to bear in exchange for peace of mind at work.
Dinner was nice. My friend told me her “September 11” story and I told her mine. We all have one now – where we were and what we were doing when we first heard about the attacks. She told me about the numerous bomb scares, evacuations and false alarms that have taken place in her building. Employees in the building have also worried about anthrax, since NBC is housed in the same complex.
She lowers her voice as she tells me she’s thinking of leaving her job in the city. “It’s just too much stress to deal with everyday,” she says. At the same time, she thanks me again and again for coming into the city to see her.
The night was warm and pleasant and as I made my way out of the city, I decided to sit outside on the upper deck of the ferry. The view of Ground Zero was more unsettling in the dark. Instead of just a gaping cavity, there was a bright white light emanating from the hole, put there to enable hundreds of workers to continue clearing debris throughout the night.
Lost in my own thoughts, I barely noticed the woman sitting next to me talking loudly on her cell phone. She was reassuring someone that she was on the ferry and would be home soon. When she hung up, she looked at me and said it was her seven-year-old son, who refused to go to bed anymore until she was home safely. She smiled and tried to make light of it, but her eyes drifted toward the illuminating lights at Ground Zero.
“It’s almost beautiful, that light,” she said dreamily. “It’s got a nice glow.”
I disembarked the ferry the made my way to the car, pausing one last time to turn toward the south and take one more look at the skyline before driving west toward my home. It’s nearly silent there on the New Jersey waterfront, but New York City is bustling as people do their best to go on with their everyday lives.
And so I turn, get in the car and go on with mine.
Labels: New York City