I had to go to New York recently on a short business trip- my first to the city since Sept. 11-and in the back of my mind the inevitable question lurked. Should I go to Ground Zero? I felt no compelling urge to do so. I'd seen it enough on TV-the cranes, the wreckage, the steam rising from the ground. And there's something about looking at wreckage that should not be encouraged. It's what little boys who torture cats like to do.
But the minute I saw the New York skyline from the New Jersey Turnpike (I admit it, I'm still too afraid to fly) I knew I had to go. One glance at Manhattan told you there had been an enormous change. And the only way to understand it was to confront it.
In fact, I couldn't go soon enough. The next morning-a Saturday-I dressed warmly and set out. None of my New York friends cared to join me. They either haven't been or have paid only the briefest of visits. In fact, many of them can't even bear to look south. They saw the whole thing happen and now they wish they hadn't.
But thousand of others, mostly tourists, felt they had to see for themselves. From Canal Street south there was a steady stream of them. Most came in groups, and they all had cameras. The mood, though subdued, was clearly touristy-they were heading off for the next item on their sightseeing agenda and this one promised to be a doozy. That's the thing about visiting Ground Zero. You think you're getting the latest tourist attraction. What you're really getting is the shock of your life.
The first thing you notice is the smell. It's everywhere, and it's an ugly, all-pervading odor that's so aggressive it gets in your clothing. It smells differently depending on the time and the place and which way the wind is blowing, but I would characterize it as the interior of a charred house. It has other qualities as well, and though there are constant reassurances that it is not the stench of death, one can't help but wonder.
The next thing is the dust. For the first time it really hits you-when those buildings collapsed they turned to dust, and the dust is still there. It's a grayish brown and it covers everything. It sits in the gutters, turning to mud. They keep hosing the buildings down but it keeps coming back. I made the mistake of wearing my suede Hush Puppies, which are now ruined.
The dust is so pervasive that it gets in your mouth. Though I'd had nothing to eat and was starving, some instinct told me it was not a good idea to get a hot dog from the street vendor. My body was sending me a message-don't eat down here.
Most people head down Broadway, as I did, and the first sign you're getting close is the vendors. From card tables and cases strapped around their necks they are selling a variety of patriotic souvenirs-pins, T-shirts, flags, pictures of the twin towers, FDNY caps. I suppose I should have been offended but I wasn't in the least. They all seemed to be recently arrived immigrants and there was something rather touching in their attempts to make a little money. Brecht's Mother Courage would felt right at home.
The first glimpse you get is down the side streets off Broadway. You're perhaps two blocks west of the sight and as you move southward, each new street gives you an increasing and escalating view of the destruction. Most prominent is a long four-story building, apparently one of the concourses that ran from building to building. All its windows are gone and it's charred black.
Still, the mood remains "touristy." The chain-link fence is hung with flags and banners and teddy bears. Teen-age girls get their pictures taken with an obliging fireman. He was so obliging and so perfect for the role that I wondered if he had been placed there specifically for picture duty.
But when you get down to Rector Street the mood begins to change. The crowd thins out; many people assume they've seen it and head on. But the real journey for me was just beginning. I think it was the tomb of Alexander Hamilton that did it. There, as you walk past Trinity Church at Rector and Broadway, you glance into the graveyard-and do a double take. Right in front of you is the tomb of Alexander Hamilton and it's covered with dust from the World Trade Center. In that single, startling image you see the whole sweep of American history, and Ground Zero starts to assume its true meaning.
From the south side of the wreckage you get a much better idea of the destruction. That giant trellis-like piece of the façade is plainly visible, and big plumes of smoke and steam, sometimes white, sometimes a poisonous yellow, spew up from the ground. Then you notice the trucks. This is where they enter and exit, and each time a flatbed goes by with another charred and twisted 40- foot-long girder everyone stops and stares. Other things unsettle you. A tree split down the middle; a six-story parking garage, empty and closed except for two or three cars covered in brown dust, still there after all this time. You realize whom they must have belonged to.
But it's the west side of Ground Zero that really gets to you. Here you're much closer to the damage. One of the things that amazed me over on Broadway was the almost non-existent damage to the surrounding buildings. Well, not over here. When you stand in the broad plaza behind the World Financial Center you see appalling damage. Half the windows are broken and an enormous gash, three stories high, has been ripped out of the building. Its glass atrium is smashed and broken. And just beyond you can see a giant office building with the glass front of its lower 20 floors blown out. And, in many ways the most grotesque sight of all, high in a tree is a mangled mini-blind.
By this time any sort of joviality has left you. You want to leave but can't. At that point in my visit, a group of relatives came through. The police herded the sightseers off the plaza and about 50 or so family members, each wearing a yellow hard hat and clutching flowers, were escorted through. They were crying, and then the sightseers started crying, and for a moment the whole situation became almost unbearable.
What you see at Ground Zero is history in its purest form. It's like Appomattox the day after the battle or Pearl Harbor right after the attack. It forces you to examine what you believe in and to ask yourself some very hard questions. Would you die for your country? I decided I would, if I really, really had to.
Then I got a cab uptown.
At 54th and Eighth, a restaurant awning caught my eye. It was the Kabul Café. Well, if this wasn't a sign from God I don't know what was. I immediately decided to dine there that evening. It would be a gesture of understanding, a sort of people-to-people program. Plus, I couldn't imagine it would be crowded.
I was right on that score. These days, the Kabul Café may well be New York's most unpopular restaurant. There were four other diners the whole time I was there, which is a shame because it was quite tasty and cheap. Lots of lamb and yogurt flavored with mint. I decided that if I end up in Afghanistan on some sort of mission for my country, at least I'll like the food.
But the owner was creeping me out. First of all, he was making his wife do all the work. (Although, with four customers, there wasn't much of that.) The whole time he just sat in the corner, totally engrossed in his laptop. What is he doing, I kept wondering. Looking at diagrams of something? Contacting his cell? Finally, when I got up to pay the bill I was able to look over his shoulder.
He was watching the World Series.