Last week I had the opportunity to go home. It’s true, what they say, you can’t go home again. Things are never the same as what you recall. Time doesn’t stand still. It isn’t possible for things to remain the same. However, home is still home; and there is comfort and memory and deep emotional attachment, both good and bad.
I grew up in Connecticut, but at 13 I moved to a small rural town about an hour outside of Seattle, accessible by ferry. There were lots of trees and that was about it. From the age of 13 to the age of 18, I burned a lot of brain cells trying to get out of the boonies. When I received my acceptance letter from Barnard College and Columbia University I was only too happy to leave behind my family, my teenage life and all those years that felt like my personal gulag.
I still remember flying out of SeaTac on a redeye, my mother weeping against a column in the terminal (back then, family and friends could escort travelers to the departure gates – and meet arrivals, too). I remember thinking, “I wonder why she’s crying.” Teenage daughters and their mothers; it would surprise no one to learn we had a complicated relationship back then.
I spent about 18 months in New York before I came home to Seattle for a break, met the man who would become my first husband and my life went off the rails I had so carefully constructed. But those 18 months made it very clear to me: New York was my home. There was something about the city — the anonymity, the speed, the smell – it resonated with me on a visceral level. I felt safe and happy and I became the person I am. But that’s a story for a different time.
Last week, I had the opportunity to go home, and to bring my forever husband (that would be husband #2) to see New York City for the first time ever. I found it amazing that my sophisticated English husband, raised in London, and world-traveled, had never visited New York City. It put me into an overload of planning and research because it’s been a very long time since I’ve been home. Last time I visited was before 9/11. Before the day the world changed.
Everyone has their story of where they were when 9/11 happened. I remember watching those horrifying events play out on morning television as I readied my two children for daycare and school, before starting my two-hour commute to Seattle. I remember holding on to my youngest son, blindly, watching the horror unfold, and still only half-believing what I was seeing. I remember being at work, everyone crowded around the lunchroom television, thinking, how would I get home? Ferries are great targets. I wanted to be with my kids. That was a bad day. And it changed everything moving forward. My children – children of that generation – have no idea what was lost that day. I suppose that’s a blessing. I guess it’s good that those of us who are older bear that burden. After all, in large part, I suppose it’s our own fault. And the children were and are innocent.
I apologize for the digression. I knew that in addition to going back to Barnard and Columbia, I would want to visit the 9/11 Memorial, and One World Trade. I wanted to experience the humility and remembrance as well as the soaring resurrection and hope, and to see that the world still stood.
The day we visited lower Manhattan was a Friday. Just a regular work day. No holidays – Christian or Jewish.
We started our visit at Trinity Church, made a stop at the statute of the Bull near Wall Street (with about 100 other tourists),
and made our way towards the gleaming edifice that is One World Trade. It’s visible from just about everywhere. We saw it coming in from New Jersey. We saw it every evening from our hotel room in Union Square. It’s everywhere. I wondered how the families of those lost on that day, and subsequent days, felt about seeing it everywhere. I wasn’t sure I could have stayed. But I was sure I couldn’t have left. That would be a terrible thing to live with day after day, the tug of war between leaving it behind and staying where it happened.
We visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum first. We made our way with hundreds of others through the exhibits. We watched a fully-coiffed Matt Lauer lead in over and over again, as news coverage from the day showed those planes flying into the twin towers without end. Here, one can see the trajectories of the three hijacked planes on a map of the U.S., and see – through news coverage and ensuing stories and research – how the attacks were planned and carried out in New York, Washington, and on Flight 93.
In Foundation Hall, my heart turned into a hard lump looking at the last steel girder that was marked by the first responders and then lovingly retrieved to be preserved at the memorial. The sheer enormity of the slurry wall dwarfs Ladder 3, the fire truck placed for eternity in its crumpled form close by.
Following the outline of the perimeter of the original buildings brings the enormity of the tragedy into sharp relief.
None of that prepares one for the emotional response to the Memorial Exhibition, where visitors can learn about the actual people who were lost on that day. Upon arriving at the bottom of a very long escalator down, one is confronted with a gigantic wall, upon which is inscribed the controversial quote from Virgil, “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” The quote is placed on a blue wall, the only piece of art commissioned specifically for the opening of the Museum. Spencer Finch, a New York artist, created “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning” by hand-painting different shades of blue on each of 2,983 square sheets of Fabriano Italian paper, each piece representing one of the victims of the 2001 attacks and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Each paper is hung in a manner to evoke memories of the missing person notices that filled the city’s streets in the weeks following the attack. I think we all remember the shattered beauty of that early Fall day. This piece of art captures it in a manner that is instantly recognizable.
Behind that wall lay the unidentified remains of those lost in the attack on September 11, 2001. In another part of the exhibit you will find their faces, each photograph lovingly selected by family members to show each person’s unique personality and vibrancy.
As part of the 15th anniversary of September 11th, an art exhibit, “Rendering the Unthinkable: Artists Respond to 9/11” was added, featuring the works of other New York City-based artists. A series of approximately 3,000 paintings, each “tile” is the same size, and arranged by tonality, providing a surprisingly peaceful interlude in what is otherwise a very dark and deeply disturbing place.
We didn’t stay terribly long. It was a very emotional experience. Everywhere we looked we saw people overcome with emotion, quietly crying on benches placed throughout. And everywhere, people taking photos amid a buzz of noise. I was struck by how much noise. I felt like I was in church, but I know from the noise that for many, it was just another visit to a tourist site. We passed the gift shop. I know there have been many articles written about that gift shop. I found it in appallingly bad taste. I understand the need to cover costs, I do. But I don’t understand that.
I know that the families of those lost in the World Trade Center attacks are welcome to visit the museum free of charge. I suppose that’s appropriate. But I do wonder how comforting it is to “visit” a loved one in the midst of so many strangers, snapping photos and chatting in languages from all over the world. I hope they find some comfort in knowing that the rest of the world grieves with them.
We escaped to the outside, the buzz of lower Manhattan mid-afternoon just ramping up for the weekend. We wandered the beautiful Memorial Plaza created in the footprints of the original two towers. The sky was a similar crystalline blue. The memories were almost palpable. We found the white roses left in the names of those departed, signifying the anniversary of their birth, and we watched people create etchings from the carved names of friends, family, or perhaps just strangers. It is said that one can’t see the bottom of the waterfalls, and I found that to be the case. It isn’t a sad place, but I’m not sure it quite captures the pathos of the events it serves to memorialize either.
We had reservations to “See Forever” at One World Trade at 5:30, so we needed to pass some time. We wandered across the street to “O’Hara’s Pub,” an Irish pub just across the street from Ground Zero. It’s still there. It’s open and flourishing in an old brick building. While it was originally a watering hole for local business professionals and other workers in the area, it has become something of a 9/11 destination in itself. O’Hara’s was closed for seven months after the towers came down, its windows blown out and the carcinogens too plentiful. When it reopened, it became a before- and after-shift place for those working on the clean-up of Ground Zero. You can find the story of O’Hara’s here. We were struck by the patches covering the walls of the large two-level public house. They’re everywhere, over 6000 now. And people come from all over to visit. The $3 Bud Light is doubtless a good incentive, but the fact that O’Hara’s carries on — and people go on with their lives — may be even better. It was a high point of our visit and a relief from the heavy emotions experienced at the Museum and Memorial.
When we finally got to One World Trade, we really were impressed by the views. Having worked in a very tall building in Seattle for many years, I’m not too easy to impress. I was on the 70th floor for years. 102 stories are notable, and the view of Manhattan – 360 degrees of view – is breathtaking. It’s a somewhat theatrical presentation, beginning in the elevator ride. As the elevator rises, riders are treated to a graphic video display on all four walls of the car showing the physical and architectural evolution of Manhattan over the years since it was founded. Upon arriving at the 102nd floor, visitors are asked to stand behind a railing which looks out on what would be a view, but there is an artistic “reveal” (really just a sneak-peak to the real view), soon seen upon shuffling off to the right and into the main viewing area.
There are two floors where one can “See Forever,” and visitors can rent an iPad for a “guided” tour, or just wander freely. There is a stand-and-eat takeout refreshment bar, as well as a sit-down restaurant and bar. The lines are long, and I’m sure the prices are pretty high. There is also a gift shop, and every guest gets their photo taken (a la Disneyland or cruise ship embarkations), and your smiling visage is digitally placed against two backdrops of the Manhattan skyline which can then be purchased for $25.
While beautiful, there was a distinct disconnect – for me – from the 9/11 Memorial Museum. I was glad to visit both in the same day and to finish on a more uplifting note, but One World Trade seems to bear little relation to the events of September 11, 2001, and perhaps that’s the point. The views are quite spectacular (although covered in finger prints), and between this (and a ride up the Henry Hudson Parkway the next day), my husband finally got a real idea of the size of the city. I can understand why some refer to it as America’s big “middle finger” to terrorism.
I was struck, much like a mother, by how much the city has grown since I was last there. But some things were clearly still the same: the sense of recognition – and belonging – was strong. I think the thing that may have been most difficult to bear was the loss of “accessible” New York. It’s just so hard to get around now. The subways (while I was delighted to find the trains now air conditioned) were hot, humid and plugged with humanity. The cost of an Uber or taxi to go 3 miles north to Central Park was $50 to $60 dollars. And the walking is HARD. The streets are crowded with people, construction, cars, and everywhere development, vehicles and people are noisily living their lives. Some of my favorite times were spent in the small neighborhood parks, watching the children from the YMCA camps and daycares and private schools, holding hands, and finding a protected patch of grass to play in. Central Park was as lovely as ever. Riverside Park, Bryant Square Park, Union Square Park and Washington Square Park were all as beautiful as I remember them. Even the parklets just south of Times Square were charming. I suppose they become more and more important as the city becomes more vertical.
So I did go home. And it was – not surprisingly — a relief, and a bittersweet reunion. While there’s much that was familiar from my time spent there, it’s a city that’s ever evolving, and one that has been through some serious trauma, which leaves a mark, and changes everything. Although I wonder, too, if it’s not me that’s changed. I’m no longer the young, idealistic woman that I was when I fell in love with New York. I, too, have had my traumas, and they have certainly have left their marks. Ultimately though, it was comforting and wonderful to know that despite it all, the City that Never Sleeps is bigger, better, and more beautiful than ever, giving proof to the phrase that she’s “aging well.” I’d like to think we both are.
I would love to hear your thoughts about your visit? I am sure it’s deeply personal and a different experience for each person. Please share your experience in the “comments” section. Thank you!