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Last Updated: February 27, 2002
September 30, 2001: By Alex Marx
 

Weeks Later

There wasnít as much damage as I thought thereíd be. The building above is burned completely through; the steel has started to turn red from rust. From the distance you can see right through to the other side, and half of the upper floors are crushed from the falling towers and from 7 WTC. It reminds me of a burned out wire garbage can, something from my youth. A New York thing.

The Borders bookshop, destroyed but still recognizable on this level. The plaza level. Windows still intact, dirty, scorched but intact. Amazing in all the surrounding destruction.

I wander around; the smell of destruction is evident, water, soot, and debris. Soggy paper, destroyed woodwork, what is a bookstore but a reseller of organic material. I spot the place by the front door where I sat back in August reading a book of war letters, overwhelmed with the human spirit within its pages.

To the left is the magazine racks blown over, a mass of colored pulp on the floor. The windows, facing south are long gone, blown out. Behind me, on the north wall, are the remains of the check out lines, the registers drawers hanging open. Like a row of mouths in shock.

Slogging up the remains of the escalator, the damage on the upper, larger, main floor is worse. But I can make out the cafť, the seating section. Go past it and there lies the melted remains of tens of thousands of CDs, the music of mankind reduced to globs of inorganic chemistry.

Past that is the computer section, its stacks of books sagging the shelves in their wetness. I always stopped here when I visited. Being a geek, I was drawn here, almost involuntarily as a moth to a flame. I rarely bought anything, for some reason book publishers think that computer books need to be overpriced. But it didnít stop them from publishing thousands of them, many of them on the same subject. You could always see someone sitting on the floor, gleaning some bit of knowledge. Sometimes it would be me.

I turn and head back down the stairs, clogged with debris, boot prints have already trampled through the mush and dirt. I look out the windows towards the east; windows dirty but intact, the big BORDERS sign still hanging. The smell, the stench overwhelms me and I start to chokeÖ

I wake up. Sorry. It was a dream, fostered by a visit downtown, on the newly reopened Broadway. It puts you a long block away from some of the destruction. You have to keep moving, but the tourists fight to stop and take pictures.

I am brought to a stop by the sight of that BORDERS sign, still hanging in the intact window, below the gutted building. It is one of the incongruities of this horror. It sticks with me for days; I still see it now, even as I type this, weeks later.

The choking is real; itís what woke me up. Even today, the smoke still rises, almost a month later. Itís whiter and lighter, but has turned more noxious. When the wind changes, it seeps in to the loft and clings to your throat and sinuses. Itís vile. Itís burning debris, plastic, carpeting, wall coverings, wood, paper, inorganic matter, organic matter, DNA.

Itís a smell you will never forget, like the roar of the first jet that woke me up and the site of the hole in the North Tower. So long agoÖ Itís almost a month already.

Itís been awhile since I last wrote and I want to give you a tour of life here. It will encompass several weeks of observations. For real this timeÖ

It is the first weekend they let people south of Canal Street, no id necessary. Layla and I head downtown to our favorite ďhang outĒ a little Belgian place with decent food and great coffee. And great chocolate too. We know the crew there, weíve motorcycled with the manager and one of the owners.

Itís a gorgeous day, clear, bright, blue sky, some cottony clouds. Ideal. Except for two things. Our view south is marred by the missing towers and replaced by several cranes. And smoke. And that smell... Three thingsÖ

We bump into a mutual friend, Mark. We always seem to do this on our way to the restaurant.

A resident of Tribeca, he has just been allowed back. We chat, exchange stories, pleasantries and current headings. Same as normal. We part.

Heading further south we notice that we can now see buildings weíve never seen before from this vantage. Like children picking out the characters in the Macyís Thanksgiving day parade, we try to name the buildings.

1 Liberty, whose collapse was feared, but turned out to be structurally intact stands tall, now. Its south face is draped with an orange mesh from the top to the bottom. I suppose to protect what was left of the glass from any further damage.

The Millenium Hotel, a tall, ugly narrow rectangular building, was also feared to collapse but survived, is also similarly dressed.

We can also pick out the ďBTĒ (Bankers Trust) building, 134 Liberty. Itís a tall, black modern building. Itís the one I saw that first night we went to help. The one with the big gash in the front as if some giant claw had dug out a hunk. We were told one of the jetís engines had come through it. Later I saw a photo on the FEMA website that showed the extent of the damage. A large chunk of the wall of the south tower seems to have pierced it, and it dangled from the enveloping damage. It may be fatal.

Layla used to work there; she tries to count floors to find her office. To find out where she would have been when her building was wounded. It would have been close.

We enter the restaurant. It is busy, but not crowded. We greet and are greeted. During the disaster, they stayed open as the dirt and debris swirled by. They gave food and water to the rescuers and tended to some wounded. I had called them that day to make sure they were all right.

Funny, I remember that. And after I called, I packed a knapsack full of stuff from my medicine cabinet. Aspirin, some gauze, some masks. I tried to get down to help. But the police already had a cordon up and I didnít have the energy to try another way. I suppose I could have. I just gave up. I feel badly now, I should have tried harder.

We settle into seats, facing the street but not the view. As we watch, a parade of tourists builds, cameras and kids. Dressed for Disneyland. Same empty pleasure smiles too.

We sit facing the windowed front. Itís a bit strange, being back. The place is clean, nothing happened. There are less employees, not needed yet, not enough business. We chat about this and that, but always we return to the obvious topic, often obliquely, sometime in the middle of another sentence. We are happy to be here, we are sad to be there.

We watch the parade. For it really is. They trundle down, couples, families, some dressed some casual, shorts and tee shirts. Itís almost surreal. Like they are off to visit the Statue of Liberty, or stand on the line for the Observation Tower.

Except one is closed and one is forever gone.

Some pose, arms around children as one parent or the other snap a picture. Of what? Not much from this position. I mean youíd have to know that the towers used to be there, bit looming, blocking the vista south. Now just a couple of cranes, the vaguely visible black hulk of 4 WTC, and the endless white smoke. But they snap and film away. Life lived through the viewfinder.

Some stop, peruse the menu, come and dine. Welcome to New York, please see why we stay, please spend money here.

Some pop there heads in and want to know if they sell disposable cameras. Get go to the wake without one.

We eat and talk. The restaurant is doing reasonable business, not what it should be, but good for the circumstances. At least theyíre open, two blocks down everything is still behind the frozen zone. There is a mix of neighborhood types and the paraders. Cash only as the phone lines are out for at least the next four weeks.

We finish up, and head out. We wish our friends luck and once again welcome them back. Home.

Instead of going back to our intended chores, we decide to join the tourists for a bit, just to see what our neighborhood looks like. This is as far down as we had gotten since our forays in so many lifetimes ago.

We walked south to the first barricade, a trip that took us one block. A group was gathered around the police line, taking pictures and talking quietly. This one block brought much more in focus then we had seen on our trip down that morning.

The last time the both of us had been here had been on our trip back on our first night in. Then it was dark and quiet. No power and few rescue workers. It was here that the line of white debris tapered off into nothingness. Now, of course, it was clean; swept and washed away.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

You couldnít see much from here now. A lot of sky and some buildings. A few weeks back, you wouldnít have seen much either. Two huge towers would have blocked your view. From this perspective they would have merged in your eye as one wide tower. Silver and striped. Maybe its lines interrupted by the automatic window-washing scaffold. Below would be the low, black buildings of 5 and 6 WTC. Perhaps you might catch the edge of 7 WTC with its carved pink granite side.

Now, blue sky, clear but tinged with clouds and smoke. You can just make out the burned out skeletons of 5 and 6 WTC. Shattered and crushed. Too far away to make out details except smoke and large debris.

Beyond that, one can now see the hulk of 130 Liberty, the Bankers Trust building. Itís dark and looming. Itís the one whose faÁade looked like a giant hand had dug into it and removed a wide swath. Layla used to work there. She counts windows again trying to find her old office. And her bosses. The ones she picked out the interior decorations and furniture for. The conference room, the cafeteria. Did people die there?

I think she sees herself there walks the halls and offices, wonders ďwhat ifÖĒ

Wanders inside.

Wonders inside.

Cries.

Inside.

Two FBI jackets walk past the barricade and toward ground zeroÖ Itís a crime scene too.

The crowd stands, mostly quiet, in the street and stares. Cameras click and video cameras are silent but all seeing. Flowers and posters decorate the blue police barricades. Not much to see here.

We wander up to Broadway, recently opened for pedestrians, but not vehicles. Normally crowded with traffic, it is now truly a broad way, a wide, cavernous conduit. We, and many others, walk down in the street. A few stores try to ply their wares, but, for now, it is mostly just a path between here and there.

To our left lies City Hall and park. Black and purple bunting hangs from the portico but it is otherwise quiet and unattended. To the right is Warren Street, which reveals the first signs of the destruction, way down the block, to the west.

A slim view of a sliced faÁade is visible in the far distance. Far, in this case, is about 3 blocks down. You would need binoculars to really see the damage. But cranes and emergency vehicles are clearly visible. As are the police and National Guard who guard the intersection.

As we approach Park Place and Broadway there is a larger crowd. Disneyland. This is the first close vantage point to ground zero. A block away from the corner of 6 WTC.

In front is St. Paulís church, one of the oldest in New York. It through luck or miracle survived without a broken window. It was covered in dirt, but undamaged. I have walked this block so many times on my way to the subway, and you never noticed the towers. They were just there. Now, you notice they arenít. You can see one of the towers of the World Financial Center. It suffered faÁade damage and missing windows. A large, I mean large, American flag hangs over the front of the building. Where you once saw silver tower, if you even noticed, you now see American flag, which you now donít miss.

Peaking down the street, Vesey St. you can see a piece of the twin towers poking out from between 5 and 6 WTC, right at Church Street. You have to squeeze in between the crowd and through the trees, but itís there. A remnant, a survivor.

The crowd is growing and the police start asking us to move on to the sidewalk, which is already crowded. We shuffle over and stand on the corner. Directly behind us is J & R, a large discount electronics and appliance store. They recently completed a new building on this corner and it is covered in dirt. That same concrete, plaster and DNA. Peeking in the windows we can see there is a lot of dirt and damage. Broken glass litters the floor by their revolving door. The display windows are dirty and destroyed.

To the left of the window sits a small yellow plastic device. Itís a portable eyewash, another miracle of modern science. It sits, and I imagine it has been there since day one, left as the crowd ran from the onrushing debris. Or maybe it was set up after to treat the victims unable to escape the thick debris laden cloud of death.

We wander further down Broadway, but only along the east side, the west is still closed, police and National Guard troops everywhere. I realize that the National Guard is not armed. It would be too much like martial law and we are too free for that.

We pass a clothing store, dark but open. Everything is covered in a thick coat of dirt, every scrap of merchandise. He is open and doing business but I think he is now selling the merchandise as souvenirs. He doesnít look happy and I canít bear to watch.

We come to a corner where you get a clear view down the block to the side of 5 WTC. I think itís Fulton Street. From here you have a clear shot the one block to Church Street and the Borders of my dream. There is the sign, clear and large in an intact window.

BORDERS.

It is incongruous as is so much of this epic tragedy. Above it sits the ruins of a building, burned out completely, half crushed by the collapse of its large neighbor. A victim of civilization and the lack of it. And yet here is a sign that beckons one in to enjoy the real fruits of civilization, for better or worse. 

My mind wanders down this block, and back into Borders. I see where I sat by the plaza door, reading a book on letters, letter sent back home from war. I remember being overwhelmed by the experiences that were being expressed by those boys (for it was then mostly boys who fought) during their service. Some were educated and so eloquent, others crude but powerful and heart wrenching.

Like the site I am seeing now.

The building above is mostly black, they were that way when whole. The upper floors were above the plaza by about 2 stories to make room for the lower level which had large windows flanked by steel gothic arches. The levels above were simple alternating stripes of steel and window.

Now those windows are gone as is some of the steel. Itís as if someone had punched it in the head a few times. In a large percentage of the gaps you can see Venetian blinds and the remains of offices. Through some of the gaps you can see the day light behind, where the building was crushed.

Where the fire was greatest, the steel has turned red, not from normal rust but from the rapid oxidation that intense heat brings. It reminds me of my youth when I would see a burned wire garbage can. Usually an act of mindless vandalism. It would be bent and twisted, patched with black and red. Itís a New York thing, a New York vision.

A New York nightmare.

People snap pictures and stare, but I donít think they see what I see, feel what I feel as they see the BORDERS sign.

We move on, down Broadway, crowds gather at each intersection creating a bottleneck. The cops try to keep them moving. I stop in a quiet place and talk to one. I thank him. He reveals that they are on 14-hour shifts; he started at 4:00AM and would go to 6:00PM. But it was all part of the deal.  All part of what we had to do.

We are shuttled off of Broadway and loop around Broad Street for a couple of blocks. Coming up to the corner you are offered your first glimpse of Ground Zero. Tantalizingly close but still so far and still partially hidden.

We are near 1 Liberty Plaza, a tall black building that was used as a Triage center during the initial hours, until it was thought to be unstable too. The bottom side that faced the Trade Center contained a Brooks Brothers, and it was in there, amongst the remains of the finery that the healers waited. Waited for the injured that never came.

From here you can see the remains the south tower, 2 WTC. Itís a skeleton of a corner of the tower, about 40 feet high. It rises from the smoking ruins, the devastation piled high around it. Its jagged ends pointing up, like the arm and hands rising from the grave in a horror movie.

This is what we saw, from the other side, those nights we went down there. This was the second tower hit and the first down. As ghastly as it was in the night, silhouetted in the harsh work lights, it is even more so now in the bright sunlight of day.

Then there was still hope, not much, but still hope of a miracle, no, the miracle. The moving of some piece that would reveal the group buried but alive, the survivors. It always works that way in the movies, why not now.

Weeks later, we know that will never be. We know now the count, the true destruction of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

No miracle now, just jagged steel, dust and DNA.

No hope now, just harsh reality, jagged ruins and smoke, like our own, new and unknown emotions.

A week later I repeat this trip with my friends Jackie and Susan. They are both New Yorkers now living in the outer boroughs. They called just as I set out to wander, view and photograph.

We meet and repeat the same trip, the same brunch, the same route. The same tourists.

This time we can get further down Broadway, more corners to stop and cry inside. They are signs posted asking people not to photograph, most are hidden by people as they crane to get a better shot. Once and awhile a cop will stop them, but most snap away, unconcerned.

We are able to get all the way down to Battery Park. I notice that lower Broadway is parked with the large trailers I had noticed on Houston Street back in the early days. They are generators. Each is now doing its part to power the city back to life. Thick wires drape from them and go into newly built troughs that run the length of Broadway. Here and there a set duck into buildings, others must drop into the nether world to connect to existing but dormant feeders.

Itís amazing to see. All this power bringing life back to a city that refused to die, that refused to roll over and play dead.

I think ďonly in America, when the shit hits the fan, do we have the power to keep the fan running.Ē

A young couple come up Broadway, and asks where the disaster is. Itís almost funny. My first instinct is to look for the towers, and use that as a reference, you know, to guide us, to guide them. I smile. I point towards the empty space. ďOver thereĒ I say.

You know.

They were ugly.

But they were oursÖ

<A>

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All Portions Copyright © 2001 Alex Marx