9/11 is still vividly burned into my world. That beautiful blue-skied September morning still shimmers in my memory along with the shrill shrieking of the airplane that flew directly over my head as I came out of the supermarket, watching that American Airliner plummeting toward its destructive destiny. An instant later, there in the distance, smoke billowed out of the north World Trade Center tower. Even as the innocence of autumn was ripped apart, I had the sense that something sinister had invaded my city. The Trade Center was about 20 blocks away, and the the gaping crater in the tower was enveloped by a grotesque serenity as the scream of the airliner overhead had dissolved into the eerie silence of the distant target. Quietly the debris rained on the horrified crowd below. In the stillness of that morning smoke was slowly spreading like a grey and black dye in the sky.
In that instant I imagined the horror unleashed on those trapped in the building. Oddly, I thought that it would take a long time to repair such damage, although I knew even then that world as we knew it was crumbling. This was a World Trade Center...and now that world was fatally wounded. Less than ten minutes later the distant tableau was punctuated by a second plane swerving from the west and turning directly into the south side of the southern tower. Fire and smoke erupted through the side and front of the tower... exploding across the world as a mass murder of innocents who had begun that day with such beauty and bright hope. Now America was in the throes of a surprise attack that was beyond our comprehension.
In the days that followed the attack we lived in a war zone. Military and artillery lined Houston Street and zones were established for 14th Street down to Houston Street, Houston to Canal, and then to Chambers Street, and below that, at the center of the collapsed towers, was what became known as Ground Zero. I roamed these grounds encountering people lost and bewildered, strangers in search of validation, vigils peopled by mourners, and reading walls and fences lined with messages and pleas for information of missing loved ones.
Seven years later a city reconstructs its destruction. Even now I walk through the lingering vapor, through the empty carcass of a bleeding landscape, watching workers weld walls and supports into place as the emptiness of Ground Zero is covered by a resurrection, a Phoenix rising from the ashes to bring hope and renewal.
But beneath this restoration, the gaping wounds have turned to fresh scars. The tissues and sinews connecting this space form a network of a tragic sense of loss. It is though I had limbs that are now amputated, but I imagine them to be intact. I feel the clouds of billowing smoke, the suffocating dust, the rush of terror.
Yet I roam through my city, through this tract that has been burned throughout history. This very land has been the scene of the great fire of 1776 as a "scorched earth" left for the invading British, the disastrous fire of 1835 which leveled this entire district with the utter destruction of Wall Street, and now this same ground in its most devastating moment of 2001. What attracts such destruction and death? Does the energy of all those people past still linger throughout these downtown canyons and corridors? These are sacred grounds consecrated by the tangible presence of death and sorrow.
I know a new truth as I wander these streets. There is a lingering sadness even as I celebrate a new season, a new energy of rebirth. I know there are new reasons to celebrate. I touch the fresh fabric covering the remnants of our suffering and find a tragic and urgent beauty... a quiet reason for understanding that from the death of the past, new works and new people must emerge... that is our destiny, the perpetual rediscovery born from our pain where joy is colored by the lustre of a deeper understanding of why we love this city and honor its past while celebrating and mourning its brave new face. The presence of the past is palpable, realms of experience resonate like emerging new music sounding through the desperate anguish that lingers in forever fading half-life radiation....