When Tourists Meet an Open Grave
There are many reasons we say we come. To pay respects. To understand. If we are from out of state, to support New York.
It is said that it's not real until you see it for yourself. Congressmen, Manhattanites and random celebrities exclaim that its full magnitude and terror can't be known unless you see it first-hand. That, unlike popular mythology, the camera doesn't make it larger than life.
I was hoping they were right. I never bought the other common saying that it was like a movie. It wasn't a movie at all. Not at all. The soundtrack was too dead still and the aesthetics were all wrong. But neither did it feel real.
Like most people in this country, I watched that crumbling tower obsessively; again and again until its images took on pornographic dimensions: the shock value numbed me like the nudity of escort ads. I watched and watched until everything about it seemed as cheap as Hollywood gimmick. Flags waved from antennas, networks and Burger Kings like the latest fad, the new Macarena. Violins played to two minute stories of unimaginable tragedy and I gagged. I shut my mouth, disgusted by own apathy and thought: Soon, New York. I was on the road and would be there in two weeks. I may be emotionally distant, media-saturated and jaded, but wait 'till I see it for real.
Two weeks later, and here I am. Walking down the length of the island, I feel too weird to ask the best way to get there. Hell, I don't know what to call it. Ground Zero? Too much network dramatism. Saying the Trade Center feels kinda cruel. So far, "Down There" seems the most popular. It makes reference to both its Manhattan location and its Hades-like imagery. Though even in its subtlety, "there" is said like a whisper, like the superstitious whisper of "cancer." So I don't say it at all. I just go where I think is south and follow those who are bold enough to pull out the maps. There are many on this pilgrimage less shamed by their voyeurism than I.
From uptown, things really didn't seem that slow. After the small towns I've been in on the road, NYC looks pretty damn happening. As I walk south, I find occasional ghost streets between where the traffic is cut off and the people have filled in. Once I arrive at the closest open subway stop, however, the sidewalks writhe with movement. Lines like ants wind around barricades and mass congested at red lights. Stands of flags, ribbons and commemorative WTC postcards wait in even paces from the next. New York's yellow taxis are replaced with the NYPD's blue-lined cop cars, their drivers standing behind barricades in starched navies.
Unlike its images on TV, the actual object of my pilgrimage is not much to see. A brown smog. A distant pile of dust. A piece of equipment that rises up like a mast. An emergency vehicle and space in the skyline. Instead, the crowd stares at an absence; an absence where so many of us were never even familiar with a presence.
Yes, there are many reasons we say we come, but it doesn't feel that complex when I'm here, standing in a chorus of snapping cameras. It feels like I am at a tourist site. Plain and simple. And like most roadside attractions, it is impossible to divorce the experience of seeing the thing with the experience of being surrounded by a hundred other people seeing the thing. You can angle in and take a picture that does not show the mass of other cameras, but that shot will not show what it is like to actually be there.
I did not bring a camera. I thought about it. I had it in my hand my when I first went out the door, but the same self-consciousness that refused a map went back and left it behind. So without a shot to frame, I stand staring. Waiting for something -- just what I can't say. I stand with others paused in this gaping limbo: the crack of lightening seen, we wait here to feel the thunder.
One of the others is a professional photographer from 15 blocks up. He has been here many times, and has yet to take a single shot of the wreckage. He claims a purity in this; of taking photos of those on the margins rather than the nucleus they circle. I agree, I guess. But I also wonder if it's because the shots accessible are still two blocks away.
So while its true that it's nothing like it is on TV, it's not in the way I expected. There the screen was only as far as the living room's width. Even from the southern side, where instead of a mass of beige, you can see floors and twists of metal, it seems so remote. That's horrible to say, I know. This is an open grave and wanting to get closer is sick and selfish and disrespectful.
But here we are, all of us circling the barricades in search of a vista that will show it best. One of us has the gall to ask a cop if this is the closest she can get, and I watch a nearby man cringe. Shortly thereafter, he lifts up a camera with a telephoto lens a full foot long. I wonder, does it make him feel closer? Is the impact I'm looking for magnified at all through that long lens? And why does it feel like he is cheating?
It was not always so distant. I had my moment where it felt real. I heard the news in Livingston, Montana -- Big Sky Country -- and it seemed the whole lot of it was falling down. My chest got trapped, my mouth fell open and my throat closed. Tears surprised me. I spent several hours at a stranger's house watching the networks stammer for info and spent the rest of the day driving through Yellowstone, listening to the radio buzz between tidbits of shock and the white noise of no reception. I even visited a church that night; my first time on a non-holiday. But that seems like a different event than this.
A laugh draws my attention. It sounds less harsh than you might expect. There are three people in suits standing outside their building smoking cigarettes which, with air still ashy and grimy, has the appeal of crowding a space heater in the middle of the Serengeti. One guy steps on his cigarette and scoffs, "I don't care. This is obscene. They are out here with their telephotos and shit. If I had my wife in there, I'd be pissed."
The people with him concur. "I mean, I asked a cop yesterday why he lets them do it. He told me, 'It's a free country isn't it?'"
I suppose there is some kind of irony in that, but I find more in the fact that the moment someone articulates what I am feeling, I recoil from it. Cause, yeah, it's gross, and it's human too. My reaction to his disgust triggers the thought that perhaps not that much has changed after all. Like most Americans, I am keener on New Yorkers than before. He reminds me that some can still be arrogant fucks. Like he didn't stare. Like his voyeurism is all the more evolved than ours.
Plus, though I'm still mostly glad I didn't bring my camera, I'll admit there are some shots that I might hate to take, but I would love to have. The high rises with their film of ash, a cop and a flag in the foreground. A window's dust marked with slogans, one with three unmistakable waving lines. A woman's gold hoop snagged on her facemask's rubber band. A shot to show I was there and this is what it was more or less like.
Instead I'm left looking at photos of what is not. The black and white photos of the towers peddled by enterprising salesmen. Photos of human absences taped on walls and mailboxes, all labeled with the euphemistic title "Missing." I read the love stories and the spontaneous poetry I'm still too cynical to appreciate. Their sentiments may be true, but all this tragic pain doesn't necessarily make the poetry good. Yeah, I'm an arrogant fuck too.
I see a woman cry and I can't be alone in being impressed. In this mass, she is the only one I've seen. She must know someone, I say, because I can't just be a cold-hearted monster, too jaded to let even the most wrenching tragedy hit me.
Have those movies so desensitized me? Or is it maybe natural that not having this skyline mark my world, not having my circle of friends and family be touched, not having my job be in danger, not being a celebrity who meets the people working around the death, only seeing the ethereal ashes to ashes and not the bloody terror, that my emotional distance is, dare I say, normal? That maybe I had my moment, under that Big Sky of shock, and that I won't feel it again? That it is natural to numb it out and that even this journey here to stab the wound could fail?
Is it more real to me? I guess. But is it real to me? I don't think so.
A man comes up to me. He asks, is it possible to get closer? I'm not sure. But it's not a bad question. Not at all.
Alicia Rebensdorf is a freelance writer who is working on a travel book.