Sep '02 [Home]


Silent as the Aftermath at Gettysburg
by Paul McDonald

Most people don't do what they believe in.
They do what's convenient;
then they repent.

—Bob Dylan

This past March, I went to New York for the first time since September 11th for a book tour. Between readings, I was determined to make a pilgrimage to Ground Zero—the operative word being "pilgrimage." I have yet to come to any degree of acceptance about 9/11. I can't watch the news footage of the towers burning. I refuse to look at the photo-laden coffee-table books. I couldn't care less that the September 14th Time magazine is a collector's item; it's a horrible thing to relive.

Whenever I go to New York I stay with my friend Greg, who lives in the quasi-bohemian Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. He works just a few blocks from the Trade Center. On the day of the attacks, emergency workers were passing out breathing masks to everyone as they were leaving. By the time Greg left they had run out, so they gave him a wet towel. He later taped the towel to his wall with the numbers "911" written on it in black ink. Greg and I had hoped to visit Ground Zero together, but my schedule was really tight, so I went alone.

I wanted to go to the viewing stand, but you had to walk several blocks east to South Street Seaport, get a ticket, then go back and wait in line for three hours so you could have five minutes on the platform. I couldn't stay long and the wind chill was well below freezing, so I decided to just get as close as I could.

The first thing I noticed was an acrid smell. Apparently, it had been in the air for all those months. Plywood barriers bordered the site, and I was one of several hundred straining to see over them. All the buildings in the area sustained some kind of damage. Most had windows blown out or broken. One Bankers Trust Plaza on Liberty Street, to my immediate left, was covered with a black scrim and had a huge gaping hole in the side, like someone hit by a mortar and, remarkably, still alive. Near the top, workers had draped an enormous American flag.

It was as silent as any church. I wondered if this was like the aftermath at Gettysburg. I left quietly after paying respects at one of the memorial walls.

That night was the first of the month-long "Tribute", twin columns of light beaming into the night sky from where the towers used to be. It was a magnificent display that you could see all over New York. Looking at those lights, I realized that I had taken 9/11 personally. I felt assaulted. I wanted, and I still want, to turn back the clock and put everything back the way it was.

I spoke to Greg just a couple of days ago and he told me a lot of New Yorkers are still trying to come to grips with what happened. Everyone is moving through an immense grief process. They want their skyline back, their loved ones back, and their lives back.

As for myself, I don't know when or whether I will ever make peace with what happened that terrible day. In my previous visits, I would step out of Greg's apartment building and the World Trade Center seemed to rise up over the East River directly in front of me. Despite its somewhat sterile appearance, it was a presence so familiar and reassuring that you took it for granted. I'm not a New Yorker, but a part of me will always ache to see those towers again.

(Kentuckyian Paul McDonald is a Regular Contributor to the magazine [Masthead]. This piece aired in June '02 on WFPL-FM, the National Public Radio station in Louisville.)