Manhattan Christmas Eve (vii)

Walking down Broadway, I felt the level of our inquisitiveness grow as well as our level of reverence. We all felt a sense of need-to-do-this vs. I’m-not-sure-I-want-to-do-this. We saw the police stop a delivery truck at a checkpoint near Franklin Street. Two soldiers were nearby, one in a recently built wooden guard house, the other standing by a barrel filled with burning lumber. The heat felt good as we passed and the wood smoke gave the air a homey aroma, like a good, safe hearth. It was a welcome feeling.

As we passed City Hall, I whiffed the smell. It had to be the smell referred to every day since September 11. I turned to Sue and simply said “Smell that? That must be it.” She and Lee and Mattie knew I was alluding to the overwhelming smell that journalists, rescue workers, residents, visitors had said was the ever present, ever constant reminder.

And everyone says “I can’t describe it,” but you can actually. It’s just you can’t decide which smells to compare it to. I said it was like concrete dust, Sue said it was like burnt electrical wires. It was both and many, many more and it was cold. It was a cold smell. At least it was this Christmas Eve morning. And as soon as it was discernible, it was gone. The last of the fires had just been extinguished a few days before, so certainly the whiff we got on Christmas Eve morning could not compare to the permeation of the smell just days and certainly weeks before.

We reached Barclay Street, the first place, which looked like a route to the site. I never called it Ground Zero. Didn’t before during or since that day we visited the site. I call it the World Trade Center or simply the site. Calling it Ground Zero seems somehow to lessen the place for me, using an over used cliché for a one-in-the-world place.

We walked down Barclay Street to Church Street and saw our initial glimpse of the faces of the buildings surrounding the site. They were torn and ripped, like a curtain too long the scratch place for the cat, bits and pieces ripped away, tattered windows and ragged facades. The site itself was not visible because of a ten-foot chain link fence covered with tarpaulin, which blocked the street and any dead-on look of the site.

For the first time that day, I looked up, where the towers were. I would do this repeatedly throughout the day, look up and into the brilliant cool blue December sky. I looked where those towers had been and where all those people last were.

[an essay in 13 parts from Pablo Notes, 2001]

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