MIDNIGHT AT GROUND ZERO
November 4, 2001
NEW YORK -- It’s midnight at ground zero. During the day, the endless funeral procession crosses the Williamsburg Bridge or comes up out of the subways or arrives on streams of yellow taxis. People cry on the way to the towers, a Haitian cab driver will tell you. Or they’re quiet, as if holding their breath.
The smell is famous by now, a new kind of celebrity. But it only comes now and then, when the wind shifts. During the day, ground zero is dominated by the familiar spine and its attachments; the teeth and skeletal fingers reaching up toward the lost bowl of the sky. But at midnight, the fingers and the teeth disappear, and you see something else.
From the chain-link fence at the edge of the abyss, two blocks from where the south tower once was, you see black tarps draped like mourning crepe over surviving buildings. High up, the tarps billow, as if breathing. At the center is the light: high-intensity lamps mounted on racks. Now, instead of clawing fingers, you see a cathedral -- shining medieval spires, smoke rising around them like incense. The structure, blinding in its beauty, is a statement of hope and faith and sweet defiance.
Look closer, and you see something moving behind the spires, a long-necked machine, prehistoric, its head dipping and rising, jaws gaping and closing. You look away.
“As long as it’s burning, we can’t get away from it,” someone says, but the speaker is unknown. Perhaps the comment comes from one of the two young men wearing black leather jackets, or one of the contemplative Hassidic Jews, standing at the fence in long dark coats and flat black hats, hands folded behind their backs; or the young guy wearing shorts trying to capture this scene in his 2-inch digital viewfinder, as if he could.
Only about 20 people are gathered here. These pilgrims are respectful, solemn. If they talk at all, they whisper. Janet Fout and Laura Forman, from West Virginia, stand at the fence. They’re in New York this day to receive an award for their work fighting mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Fout turns to Forman and and says, “It reminds me of Buffalo Creek.”
She is referring to the 1972 slag heap flood that threw a wall of water and coal refuse 30 feet high down a valley, killing 125 and leaving 4,000 homeless. “One woman still sleeps in her clothes because she’s never sure when the flood will come again,” Fout adds, then falls silent. Forman begins to weep, and whispers, “But this, this . . . “
Ground zero is a black hole, a gravitational field so fierce that it sucks matter into itself; galaxies can disappear into such a hole, where they are condensed to an infinitely small speck of darkness or light, no one knows for sure. You are struck not by the enormity of the scene but by a strange intimacy. A tailor’s sign, barely legible under a coating of dust: “Repairs and Alteration.” Steam rises from manhole covers. Tanks of nitrogen line the sidewalk. In the lobby of a closed apartment complex at 110 Greenwich St., people have used their fingers to scrawl cryptic messages on caked glass and marble: “Put on mask.” “Dead man walking.”
Most of the adjacent businesses are closed, but some defy the abyss.
Laughter and the sound of glasses clinking come from Moran’s Ale House & Grill, an Irish pub inside the converted St. George’s Chapel. A plaque quotes James Joyce: “A good puzzle would be to cross Ireland without passing a pub.” On the door, someone has taped children’s crayon drawings of hearts, rainbows, smiling clowns. One says, “God bless our firefighters. All your friends will watch over you from heaven. Love, Katie Pentek, Girl Scout Troop 1735, Sayreville, New Jersey.” Above it, a depiction of the U.S. flag: “We will rebuild; these colors do not run.”
Most flags along the street are modest in size -- quiet, understated, like the people at the fence. But one business is an exception. Scores of flags cover its red awning, thrust out over the sidewalk. This is the Pussycat Lounge, which bills itself as “Wall Street’s favorite sexy watering hole,” located in a building that once “housed a notorious bordello.”
Wonderful. Bars in churches, sex joints clothed in red, white and blue. Here’s a New York thumb in the eye to freedom haters and lethal moralists from any country.
Suddenly, a great roar shakes the sidewalk. Two flatbed trucks rumble toward the fence, carrying sections of corpus -- twisted pipes and girders. Workers in yellow slickers employ high-pressure hoses to blast dust from the rolling tires. “Asbestos,” explains a hard-hatted worker with the hint of a moustache. He looks all of 17. “Don’t want them tracking it through the city.” The trucks seem to shake off the water. They rumble past like great locomotives and disappear into the night.
Midnight has come and gone. A Pakistani taxi driver named Nassar Humayum picks you up.
“Nassar, like the space agency, but with an ‘r’,” he says. Has anyone harassed him since Sept. 11? “No . . . oh, one man. He saw my name and began to scream and swear at me, and I asked him, ‘Sir, are you OK?’ I told him, ‘I understand how you feel, sir.’ And he said, ‘How can you know what I feel?'" The driver continued, "He lost his job at the Trade Center. He lost his apartment. ‘Do you know how many people died?’ he asked. ‘Yes, I do,’ I said, ‘and I cried myself, many times.’”
The cab passes under the Williamsburg Bridge. In apartment windows above, you see fresh Christmas trees, and in the sky, a full moon. “God bless this country, there is no country like this,” Humayum says. “I know there are good people. There are bad people. It’s OK. I have to make a living.” He drives away from the black hole toward the lights of the great city, toward morning.
The photograph is of a sculpture by San Diego artist James Hubbell,
in the mountains east of my home.
A few months after I wrote this column for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Laura Forman, who, with Janet Fout, fought against mountaintop removal, was standing at a microphone during a demonstration. She suddenly slumped to the ground and died from a heart attack. She was a young woman. To this day, Janet (now Keating) continues to lead the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. She also advocates for those working to connect children to the natural world.
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