Manhattan Christmas Eve (viii)

St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church stands on that corner Barclay and Church, its face looking north, away from the site. It is possible to climb the dozen or so steps to the church’s porch and gaze over on to the site. Tourists were making the climb. At the top, only a few feet of one end of the porch offered a view, and one by one, tourists inched to the railing and made photos. I attempted it, but then stopped when I felt the need to be competitive for a spot from which to gawk. I stepped back and was immediately replaced by two Japanese tourists waiting for two Americans to finish taking photos of each other with the site in the background.

But even in the polite bustle to gain a better vantage point for the photo or just a look we first noticed the hushed voices and the general quiet that was all around. Construction noises came from the site and traffic was moving at a clip on Broadway so there were city sounds all around, but the people seemed to be quiet and cognizant of each other’s presence.

We did not speak as we walked back up to Broadway and headed south with the idea of getting a little closer. We were not looking for a particular entrance or gate or place where the experience would begin. It was more like Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when they are drawn to a place to have an experience. We were being drawn to the site. There was an experience waiting for us. We didn’t know what the experience would be, but we needed to be near the place where so many died. So many like us.

The first shrine we saw was in front of St. Paul’s. The narrow little building has heavy stone columns. The stone walls are dark with age. Its 235+ years makes it Manhattan's oldest public building in continuous use. George Washington came there after his inauguration and since September 11 it has been a round the clock relief center for rescue workers. The chapel literally sat in the shadow of the World Trade Center when it cast a shadow, and yet suffered only a few broken windows.

Along the front of the chapel runs a wrought iron fence about eight feet tall. The entire fence and a foot and a half of the sidewalk in front of it was filled with mementos, offerings, remembrances, gestures given to those who died just a few yards away just a few weeks before. There were big home made cards from school children in the Midwest and T-shirts and helmets from fire departments in the South and flags signed by everyone in a small Western town’s police department. And there were flowers, flowers, flowers. Some fresh having been placed that morning, many others dried in the days and weeks since they were placed there.

Then there were the photographs. A wedding photo, a guy in a chaise lounge on the beach, a girl with friends in an office, a women on a sofa with her family, a man standing with a small boy, perhaps his grandson in a park. With each photo there was a name and a phone number to call with information. Across the top or the bottom of each mini-poster was the word, in all caps: MISSING.

The day before I had read in the Times of the construction of a high wooden platform making it possible for visitors, like us, to walk up a ramp and look over into the site, much like the networks do with their live cam shots. The first viewing stand was to be on Fulton Street, and we stood for a few minutes looking at it and watching carpenters hammer with a fury. It would not be open for another week, and even though we had not yet seen the site for ourselves, I was glad the viewing stand was not open yet. If it were, we would have felt the need to be in line to have that experience. I did not want to be in a line to receive this experience; it had to come to me in my own way. I realized I was quite satisfied with being near the site. It was our way of connection, each of us alone as we walked down Broadway, yet we were very much together, a unit, a family. And besides, I was still stopping to look up in awe where the towers had been. I might not feel the same looking down into the destruction site.

We decided to go ahead and walk the parameter of the site, thus we would continue down Broadway to Rector Street and then would turn east. The streets in lower Manhattan are not the well-measured grids of Midtown. This is an old part of the city and the streets are narrow and crooked and there are a lot of them. Cortlandt Street is one such narrow curved street and there we saw another shrine with flowers and flags and more photos and shirts and cards from entire elementary schools. We stopped in front of Trinity Church and looked down Wall Street, marveling at how small it was for a place with such a big name.

Turning the corner and walking along Rector Street, I noticed two large tombs in the churchyard, one of Robert Fulton the other of Alexander Hamilton. Must have been some day the day Hamilton was buried, I thought. The duel and all. Must have been a crowded street that day. Mattie stopped to take a photo of the tomb.

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

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