Tuesday, April 17, 2012

It was a Saturday.  November 10th, 2001.  On the following Monday I would be returning to my office building; across from where the World Trade Center had stood just two months before.  In preparation for it, I decided to go down to my building; to what was now being called "Ground Zero."

It was very early in the morning as I came up out of the subway; carrying a bouquet of roses.  I walked to the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street.  Wooden a-frame barricades prevented going beyond that point.  All I could do was stand there and look at the still smoldering ruins of Building Number 5 of the World Trade Center; the smell of burning debris still thick in the air.

I don’t remember many other people being there.  It was so still and quiet.

I broke down, putting my face down into my hands, sobbing.  I felt an arm go around my shoulders.  I looked up into the face of a policeman who looked down at me and gently said "let it out."  I buried my face onto his chest and wept; his arms holding me tightly.  A moment of simple, grace filled humanity I will never forget.

As I composed myself, another officer joined us; his partner I assume.  I told them my story of where I was the morning of 9/11.  Of what I did; what I saw; what I felt.

Their kindness in listening prompted me to ask if it would be possible for me to go down to Ground Zero; to stand where I had stood that morning when everything changed.

They led me past the barriers and we walked down Fulton Street towards what had been the World Trade Center.  It was now a massiveness of rubble.  Debris accented with skeletal sections of the towers that had stood there.

The two police officers stopped and allowed me to walk up to the devastation.  It was the most grievous place to be.  I was unaware of anything else.  My heart ached and I cried.  I got down on my knees and placed the roses on the ground; a bit of beauty among the ruin.  It was in that moment I knew I was kneeling before sacred ground.  I imagined the spirits of those who had died rising up to the heavens.  The sanctity that those departed souls brought to this place.

I was at the graveside of many lost lives.  I was humbled and honored to even be allowed that close.  I know I must have prayed.  I trust that my heart was speaking the words I couldn’t give voice to as I paid my personal tribute to those who were gone.

As I walked away from Ground Zero, and those two angels in blue uniforms, and headed back to the subway I cried once again.  But it was with a feeling of gratitude toward God, the world and the universe for the gift of having just stood on hallowed ground.

I have continued to remember Ground Zero in that way.  I always will.

And now, on April 6th of 2012, I was heading to the 9/11 Memorial for the first time.  I tried to have no expectations.

My partner, Bill, and I, along with two of our friends, went to where the line to get into the Memorial began; at the northwest corner of Albany and Greenwich Streets.  We each held a pass needed to get in.  One can’t just come to the Memorial on a whim.  You have to reserve a free ticket online; print it out and have it with you at all times; along with a photo ID.  I had reserved our tickets, which would allow us to enter the Memorial at 5:00 p.m., weeks before.

Taking our place at the end of the very long line, I was thankful for the pleasant weather, since we were standing outside.  But I immediately began to feel uneasy.  The line was too reminiscent of being at an airport or waiting to get on a popular ride at an amusement park and that bothered me.  I knew we were all there to see the Memorial but I wasn’t there out of curiosity or with a sincere desire to see where the tragedy had taken place.  I had been there the morning of that tragedy so, for me, this was as if I was waiting to see a loved one laid to rest.  It didn’t feel right; standing there among people in casual conversations; waiting for the line to move.  Just as it wouldn’t if I was forced to stand in a long line of strangers outside of a funeral home to view a member of my family.  That’s the degree to which I feel connected to those who died on 9/11.  The ones whose deaths I witnessed and those I didn’t.

I don’t mean to give the impression that I presume that my grief is deeper than anyone else's or that my experience of 9/11 makes me special in any way.  We all were affected by what happened on 9/11.  We each have a story of that day; whether we were there or across the country; whether we lost someone or just wept for all those we didn’t know.  There are those, though, who were affected personally; be it losing a loved one; having a physical or mental affliction now; dealing with guilt for surviving; or living with images that can’t be erased.  What we who were there experienced that day is unique to each of us.  We may have witnessed the same things; smelled the same smells; heard the same sounds, but what the day did to us, individually, is our own.  The imprint of the trauma on our lives or the repercussions or the loss can’t be compared or measured.  It is unique for every person.

All of this was going through my mind as we eventually came to a sidewalk covered by protective scaffolding that led us to a room where we were scanned; taking off our belts and jackets; emptying our pockets of everything; from wallets to cell phones. 

Past security, we were led back outside where we walked a short distance down another walkway.  Turning a corner, the Memorial was before us.  The first thing I noticed was that all of the trees were leafless; bare and skeletal.  They weren’t the lush green as pictured in an aerial shot of the Memorial that I had seen.  The trees have been symmetrically planted on an expanse of concrete; stark and impersonal.  Those two words can also describe what I was feeling.  There was no emotion.  No tears.  That bothered me and I asked myself why I wasn’t feeling anything.

We walked to the south pool; the "footprint" of the south tower.  I watched the water cascading over the sides and, again, nothing.  I said to Bill, "I’m not feeling anything."

We walked over to the north pool; past the structure that will be the museum.  That, too, seemed stark in its design.  This time I asked Bill, "Why aren’t I feeling any emotion?"  He said, "Maybe because nothing is familiar."  Yes.  That was it exactly.  I was disoriented.  I could have been standing in the middle of any random memorial.  I wanted to point out to Bill where the steps were that I ran up the morning of 9/11; running to save the people I saw jumping.  I couldn’t determine where they might have been.  Nor was there any indication of where I had stood under the shelter of Building Number 5 as I helplessly watched; unable to rescue.

Yes, the two pools allowed me to know where the twin towers stood but there was nothing that reminded me of all that the World Trade Center had been.  The plaza between the north and south towers had always been vibrant and full of life; especially in the summer.  The noontime concerts, the food vendors and their carts, the benches we all sat on as we ate lunch, the fountain in the center of the plaza.  There was nothing to convey to people who had never seen the World Trade Center before 9/11 just how magnificent it was.  The "city within a city" as I called it.

The centerpiece of that glorious fountain in the center of the plaza was "The Sphere," a sculpture created by Fritz Koenig.  The Sphere had been found amidst the rumble and debris after 9/11.  It was damaged but still whole.  The finding of it was one of those small stories during such a dark time that shone a bit of light; a suggestion of hope.  It is now on display in Battery Park, but I was wondering why it wasn’t here in the Memorial; standing exactly where it once stood.  That would have given the Memorial a much needed familiarity.  Ironically, I found out the next day that The Sphere is being moved from Battery Park to be stored in an airport hangar.  Though at one time promised that The Sphere would be a part of the Memorial, it is not going to be.  Supposedly, the designers have ruled it can't be there in order, they say, to protect the integrity of the design.  I say to hell with the design.  That Sphere belongs as the focal point of the Memorial.  The decision to not let it be and the city’s acceptance of that decision are unconscionable.

We had planned on staying at the Memorial until dusk because I was told it was beautiful at night.  I hope it is.  But I didn’t want to spend any more time there; so we left.

Upon exiting we passed a Visitors Center.  I was hoping that the Center would have what the Memorial was lacking at this point.  I was hoping there might be pictures of the World Trade Center before 9/11.  Or, better yet, a miniature model of it.  I wanted Bill and my friends and others to see for themselves what a wonderful place the World Trade Center had been.  But, sadly, there was nothing of the sort.  Instead it was filled with 9/11 Memorial souvenirs.  It was a gift shop where one could buy a 9/11 Memorial pencil or tee shirt or coffee mug; or the men's 9/11Memorial silk tie for $79.50.  I finally felt an emotion and it was anger.  This is what the tragedy of 9/11 has been reduced to; a souvenir key chain?

I want to believe that the majority of people who will visit the 9/11 Memorial will do so with the sincerest of motives; to remember that day in September and those who died.  But I fear that for some it will primarily be a tourist attraction; something to add to the list of "what to see while in New York City"; along with the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.

I know that I am in the minority in my reaction to the Memorial; particularly among other 9/11 survivors and I am thankful for that.  I truly am glad that the Memorial can be a place of consolation and comfort for others.  I’m glad the 9/11 families have the Memorial as a physical tribute to memorialize their loved ones.

But, for me, I will hold onto my memory of kneeling before Ground Zero; overcome by the holiness of that spot.  Sadly, that ground I considered so sacred is now covered with cement slabs and throngs of tourists.

Perhaps nothing built to commemorate that day could be a place of comfort for me.

I hope my sentiment about the Memorial offends no one.  If it does, I do apologize.  But mine is just one opinion; a singular reaction.

Though I didn’t personally know anyone who lost their life on 9/11, I feel personally connected to all those who died.  Their deaths affect me to this day.  I had never witnessed the death of anyone until that morning.  There are images that will be with me for the rest of my life.  I want to bring honor to the memories of those who are gone.  And I want people who had never been to the World Trade Center to know what a magical, extraordinary place it had been; with its buildings, the twin towers, the plaza and the people.

Those of us, who were there, should never stop telling our stories of that day; remembering the ones who died.  The people of New York City who worked there or shopped there or took visiting friends or relatives there can keep memories of the World Trade Center, itself, alive.  And people all over the world will always remember their first impressions of those monumental twin towers when seeing them for the first time.  We can each be a small piece of a mosaic of recollections, reflections and remembrances of the World Trade Center.

I am grateful that I’m here today to tell my story; knowing there are so many stories of that day that we will never know.  So I will do what I can to assure that people never forget. 

Perhaps that can be my own personal memorial to 9/11.

Artie Van Why