After September 11, I realized that I had been in survival mode that
day, photography notwithstanding. My thoughts were, in order, 1) I
need to get out of here, 2) I need to get to friends or family as soon
as I can, and 3) I want to take photos. Any time I spent processing
what I was seeing would cause me to lose focus on getting out of
there. My account of the attack, written that evening, reflects this
through its descriptions of what I saw, and its lack of description of
how I felt about it: there were no feelings, just an imperative need
to get out of there.
I wrote the following account on a return trip to Manhattan later in
September. I haven't published it until now because the wounds in my
mind were too fresh.
On September 11, 2001--the day of the World Trade Center tragedy in
Manhattan, I wrote of my experiences as I witnessed the unfolding
events and escaped them, showing images I saw with my own eyes and
captured on a camera.
Two weeks later, on September 25, I revisited lower Manhattan, this
time without my camera. The images I bring to you now are ones that
you cannot see with your eyes: I can only paint them with words.
There is more here than you have seen on the news.
I exit the Subway at Wall Street. Looking up past Trinity Church, half hoping
for proof that the last two weeks have been a bad dream, all I see is
the sky. It is blue, with few clouds.
I cannot get to my usual breakfast spot: the street is barricaded yet
busy nontheless, with a variety of vehicles and people carrying out
their jobs. Instead I walk to another place I know of, one nestled on
the ground floor of some office buildings and oddly quiet for the time
of day. The street is filled with a foul smell: the trash has not yet
been picked up. Walking into the take-out restaurant, I get my bagel
and coffee then stand on line to pay. An employee of one of the
trading houses is standing near me, the sullen look on his face--even
as he looks forward to breakfast--reminding me that the tragedy that
started two weeks ago is still happening.
Leaving the take-out place, I walk toward my office. I see a woman
hurriedly walking to the entrance of a building, holding her nose. At
that instant, I realized that what I smelled was not garbage but
death, the decay of flesh under the ground, spreading beneath the
city, escaping the horror of two weeks ago even though there was nobody
left to save. I don't have time to process this now, and my mind
stuffs it away for another time, and it strikes me that I have the
luxury of dealing with the tragedy for a more convenient time, when
time ran out for so many.
My favorite lunch place, The Daily Soup, moved from a previous
location that became unusable and unreachable. On the way there I
looked to my left and saw the hulking remains of the steel skeleton
that once held places that weren't just offices, but places where tens
of thousands of people went each day to work toward worthwhile ends.
I can't help but keep my gaze focused on the structure as I walk
through the intersection, until I moved out of sight.
Today was apparently The Daily Soup's first day open, and I think I
was the second customer. The manager is apologetic that some things
aren't in order yet, meanwhile I'm happy to see that they were able to
pick themselves up and keep moving.
I know how hard it was for me to visit Manhattan so soon after the
attack. I can't imagine what it must take for these and all the other
people who work here every day to do it. I can't imagine not moving
away, but then again I don't have the same stakes in the ground that
the New Yorkers have. I admire their tenacity.
At the office I look out the window. Through the grimy remnants of
the World Trade Center showered on the building's exterior, I see
workers cleaning off a nearby building. This is a job that will last
for a long time, not unlike the task of cleaning up and sorting
through a part of my personal reality that was shattered by the attacks.
I leave the office. After weeks of images shown on the TV, I have
been frustrated by my inability to orient the pictures to match any
vantage points I was familiar with. I tell myself I will view the
wreckage because I am grasping at anything I can reach that will help
me understand anything better, no matter how small or inconsequential.
When I reach the street corner of my first few photos two weeks ago, I
see the skeleton again, and I realize the source of my
disorientation. The World Trade Center was so massive that my
reference points were it itself, and only peripherally, the facades of the
buildings to my left and right. Those buildings that were on the
periphery, though only vaguely familiar, are now all that remain.
Next to me are dozens of people, all trying to get a view. I think of
them as voyeurs then look at myself and realize that I can't be the
only person who needs to see this for some personal reason. Or am I
the voyeur while others look at what has happened to a part of their home?
I near the area where I picked up the business memo blasted out of the
building two weeks ago. The ground
has been cleaned but is still dirty. Everything is dirty, and the
wind blows dust around and into my eyes. The towers were huge and
left a lot of dust behind.
I continue walking. After another block or two, I see one of the
smaller buildings, its frame still standing on the plaza; and I realize
that the image I had seen on TV was not where I had done some work,
and that the one I had worked in was leveled.
The TV cameras can't put the picture into perspective. They either
focus on something and leave out the context, or they try to show as much of
the scene as they can but lose the details.
I walk up Broadway some more, finally moving away from the disaster.
I saw what I needed to see. With my attention now away from the
wreckage, I realize how grimy I feel. Dust has blown everywhere, and
some particles are stuck under the collar of my shirt, irritating the
skin they were sticking to. I feel the dust in my eyes, and in my
nose and throat. I don't know why I didn't bring a mask with me.
Approaching City Hall, I notice the police barricades are covered with
yards and yards of paper, containing well-wishes from other places.
"We love you New York, you are not alone." Tears well up in my eyes
but I save them for when I can grieve privately. I pass posters
of missing family members, but they are isolated. It would be
unbearable to see, in person, walls covered with these and I am glad I
do not pass any.
I slowly make my way toward the hotel where I had stayed the night of September
10th and abandonned my belongings during the evacuation the next day.
On the way I can't stand the thought of the dust in my throat and I
try spitting it out into the street, an act more symbolic than
I think I may have to try passing a barricaded entrance into the
police zone to get to the hotel, so I stand behind a few people
wanting to get back to their homes. However, I soon discover that the
sidewalk leading to the hotel was not barricaded and I don't have to
justify my presence to the police officer.
I finally reach the hotel and end up chatting with the young man at
the desk. He is bored out of his mind, as only 20 rooms out of 150
are occupied, and talks my ear off for the five minutes it took us to
wait for my bag to be found. A couple of rescue workers are staying
there, and the FBI is doing stuff on two of the floors. The phones
are still out, but they will come on tomorrow but with different phone
numbers because the lines are all screwed up. The old numbers will be
restored in time. The bottom couple of floors are filthy from the
dust two weeks ago and their mattresses had to be thrown out. My bag
shows up, and I'm only being charged the one night I stayed. "Thank
you, please come back soon!" he says in jest, knowing how ridiculous
Bag in hand, I walk over to Broadway, up to Canal Street, then over to
Lafayette where I hop on the subway to get back to the hotel I'm staying
at on this trip..