One or two days after posting Tearful in NYC, I visited Ground Zero. The skies lowered and wept as I meandered lost through the plaza. A day of such dimness, of visual images blurring, of persons indistinct, of sounds muffled, of voices softened as if retreating from the pressing silence.
I arrived at Ground Zero unburdened by foreknowledge or expectation, carrying only the vague apprehension of linguistic hyperbole: ‘Ground Zero’ is – or used to be – the expression for the epicentre of an atomic explosion. The original ground zero was a location in the Nevada Desert in the Manhattan Project during WWII. What were the Americans of the new millennium claiming – in this place, in this moment – for New York City?
The plaza was gray. Not the gray of the rainy weather, a gray in any weather, charcoal coloured, the colour of the burned, the colour of char. A rectangular shape rose before me in the gloom, formed by four bulky walls a little above waist height. Stencilled into the steel upper surface of the walls were the names.
I read Japanese names in their staccato syllables, I read the flowing polysyllables of the subcontinent, I read Mayflower names, names from Arabia, Hispanic names, Jewish names, names of all the tribes of modern America. Where a person had more than one forename, all additional names were duly inscribed. Those multipartite names claimed their solemn space.
I walked the walls and read the names, pausing here, stopping there, where the stenciled lettering was unclear, my gloved fingers wiping away the obscuring water. I felt the call of the names, their need to be seen, to stand distinct.
I didn’t want more than my first glimpse of the space enclosed by the walls, the space that fell, tumbling with the eye to a depth beyond sight. Water cascaded with a muted rushing from the interior of these walls, falling, falling to the unseen depths. The walls wept mutely, immutably, for the names.
More meandering brought me to the entry to the Museum. Young women in skyblue tops stood smiling in the rain. ’Welcome sir. Thank you for coming here.’
An hour later my wife arrived, together with my sister and her husband. Both the latter have resided in New York City since 1978. My brother-in-law has become an American patriot. On the day America found itself under attack, he found himself aroused, engaged, American. ‘I saw the footage, the destruction. I ordered my team at the hospital to be ready for casualties. I expected casualties in the thousands. But they never arrived. The injured were few, the dead too many.
‘I walked down to towards the World Trade Center. The air was thick, you could feel it. Ash, grey, soft, floated and fell onto every surface.’
Listening, my mind in Hiroshima.
‘You could smell the air. A smell of burning.’
Listening, my mind in Auschwitz.
We descended a long way into the museum. Here, in darkness dimly lit, tortured steel relics, visual images, sound recordings of speaking voices told the story. One wall showed faces of watchers looking upwards: hands flew to cover shocked mouths, frantic hands flew to clutch at anguished heads. These were civilian faces, firefighter faces, police faces – human faces facing the immolation above of humans. A nearby wall panel recorded verbatim reports of horrified watchers as people emerged from above, pausing in agonising premeditation, before leaping from the fire engulfing the upper storeys.
One said, ‘ I saw a man leap, tumbling end over end. I looked away. He took so long…’
Another reacted differently: ‘A woman appeared at the window. She waited for a time, preparing. Then she leapt. I wanted to look away, but I forced myself to watch. I felt she had the right to claim me as a witness.’
Around a corner I stumbled upon a tall colour photograph of a building of immense height standing out against a blue sky. The camera captured one, two, three bodies, each separated by a good distance from the others, all three falling from that great height. The bodies were black against that brilliant sky.
At every turn, my eyes, my eyes smarted and teared.
We spent hours in the subdued spaces underground: Ground Zero is apt, no quotation marks, no hyperbole.