The cab driver, the one who nabbed you near the Empire State Building, he barely turns around. “Where on Wall Street you want to go?” he asks.
You pause to consider. You’re not going to Wall Street, not really. But as for where you’re really going, it sounds so crass, so voyeuristic and banal — even after all these years, you’re chasing those pictures seared into your skull. So “take me to Wall Street,” you said, because you want to see it anyway.
Asked now to specify, you are at a loss in this overgrown city. “I don’t know,” you stammer. “Maybe the bull statue?”
“Okay,” the driver replies. “I take you down the west side. So you can see everything. Freedom Tower and Ground Zero.”
Well, at least someone said it. Oh right, I realized, people live with this place every day.
This is the final pilgrimage of ten days in Washington, D.C. and New York City, the final blistered trudge down miles of dominating streets. In a cloud of black humour, we called our voyage the Death and Destruction Tour of 2012: there’s Jack Kennedy’s grave, and Bobby, and a few steps away Teddy has joined them.
There’s the Pentagon, there’s the field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania where aluminum and people streaked into the soil; the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the house where Abraham Lincoln died, the black and twisted shoes of the millions who walked into Auschwitz.
History does not record the group hugs, I suppose. But it does enshrine places like this.
As a culture, America is not prone to outbursts of subtlety, especially when it concerns the act of committing its stories to history — the latter a waypoint to mythology. So it’s easy to imagine the memorials that might have been, the spires of dignity that might have been proclaimed amongst the over 5,000 designs submitted to shape the fate of this place.
That the 9/11 Memorial is exactly the opposite of what you might have imagined is what makes it so stunning.
Construction is still underway — Freedom Tower is still rising, the museum is still unfinished — so for now, it’s a closed site. An efficient process to sweep you through the metal detectors and around the fences and into the courtyard, speckled with trees. And the sound of rushing water, and as I walked toward it, I let out a sigh and looked at the sky and whispered -
It is beautiful, for all the enormity of what happened here, it is a block of serenity in the middle of the steel and human hive. And I thought — a place to sit and reflect. I looked up into the sky that was once hidden by the towers, and tried to imagine. Tried, and I couldn’t. But still I was at peace.
Then I stepped to the edge and looked into the void, and my ankles blurred and my knees bent under, and I pressed my palms into a man’s name — Rodriguez? Roberto? He was a firefighter — just to stay standing, my guts sinking down to the ground.
It’s the falling, you understand.
A quick tour of the 9/11 Memorial. Designed by Michael Arad, it is perfectly simple: in the exact footprint of the original towers, twin 30-foot-deep square holes. Around the edges, a metal rail inscribed with the names of the dead, grouped by where they were and who they knew. In the center of the holes, a “void,” designed so that you cannot see the bottom.
And into that void the water falls, and falls, and keeps on falling.
As an artistic statement, the 9/11 Memorial is remarkably literal: the towers’ collapse continues forever in negative space, told through the endless rushing of the water. The towers, the grief, and all the people: as journalist Tom Junod so brilliantly explored, we don’t like to talk about their falling and, for many years, we suppressed it.
Here, now, their last moments are allowed to be experienced, if only in metaphor: falling out of frame, as Junod so aptly put it. Cascading into the void. And your heart sinks down with them and your ankles blur into the ground, and your eyes follow the water down, down down.
I’m not sure it photographs well, all that considered. But it’s a tremendous reflection, an emotionally challenging design.
When the light hits the pools just right, rainbows dance along the cascades. A bit of life amongst the starkness of the space — the rainbows, and then there is also this: these names, these people, they have had visitors. You see them crowded together on a bench, a little ways away, and tears streaking down their face.
I turned away from that. But I looked instead to what they had left behind.
I don’t know; this post feels unfinished. Something profound left unsaid but maybe that’s how it ought to be: maybe the space of it, the negative space and the void, the falling and the water — maybe that says more than any words I could find ever would.
It’s a beautiful place, though. And worth the pilgrimage, for all of us born of a generation that defines our lives by “before,” and “after.”