Digging at “Ground Zero”

In those days and weeks and months following the Fall when I would not leave the city lest I see the skyline, when I would not venture below 14th Street for fear of nearing the abyss, when I would pause in the middle of Sixth Avenue to gaze downtown in a vain effort to recreate by sheer force of will those storied edifices; in those times when I would in my turn receive looks replacing a former indifference, when I would instead be subject to a blaming regard shared by Sikh cab drivers defensively draping their cabs in patriotic buntings, when I would silently suffer a naming stare also forced on Afghani immigrants ironically reduced to selling Tower tchotchkes in Battery Park, when I would halfheartedly return the shaming epithet found in the sidewise glance of a street beat cop whose grandfather was equally thus assaulted; in that painful year of wondering how a country that so despised its Hudson-side Sodom could now claim that city’s wound as its own crown of thorns, at that time there was amidst this vast unspoken, this great unsaid, a naïve question, voiced despite this silent judgment, every day breaking the somber reverie of my work-bound subway treks downtown during the daily recreation of where I was and what I did on That Day, a question dreaded for its reminder, for its subtle allegation, a question posed by eager-eyed tourists from far-flung American places during a visit to a New York formerly communicated to them via faux Los Angeles soundstages, a question of direction and purpose belying its very directionlessness and purposelessness, a question of seeking the unseekable: “How do we get to Ground Zero?”

It was, of course, impossible to correct such precious yet imprecise usage, it was, of course, illogical the attempt to dissuade the use of this term, this phrase referencing an infinitely more lethal blow dealt to a no-less civilian population in a more-or-less equally cold and calculated manner on a likewise calm and clear day similarly if not sinisterly also without warning during the debut of the most recent phase of this Empire’s ascendence; it was, of course, pointless to attempt to deter these tourists from their quest and questioning given the mediation of that event and its evocation as the grounds for a New Crusade; the site of destruction now a Holy Grail, the N train now a convoy of pilgrims, those of us attempting the impossible task of simply living our quotidian now assigned the involuntary duty of existing as signposts with no say, as memorials of no credibility, realizing the truth of Kiju Yoshida’s words: “The only people with the right to speak of Hiroshima are those who were there, who saw that light, who are dead; only the dead have the right to speak about Hiroshima”. We ferried those trains without freedom of speech, allowed but the ability to point, and nod, and stare; tongueless harbingers; gesticulating scarecrows signaling Oz. Weak the seeker, and weak the sought.

But one time I found my voice, and I met question with question; not to satisfy a curiosity but to force an awareness of its injurious nature; I wished to make known the crudeness of the inquirer, the gracelessness of the query, the depth of depravity of a question that mimicked a president standing on an incinerated graveyard and stating, smirking, that we would “smoke them out”; that aped an email order from my then-boss asking us to “remember the economy” and return to work; that echoed a New York magazine editor who blamed that date for the demise of her fledgling magazine: “Damn September 11th!” she said to her assembled staff, reflecting the unfeigned zeitgeist of a certain stratum of New York and a particular subset of New Yorkers made painfully aware of life outside their bubble, like children fallen from swings, a co-worker relaying gravely that she couldn’t imagine “leaving New York and her satin sheets”; an acquaintance stating that a sign on his office door now reads: “Henri Bendel: Ground Zero for fashion.” I rest my case. And I stood my ground, I demanded that someone realize that what occurred did not happen to them personally, what took place had not transpired or conspired against them individually, I prayed that someone might remember something of community, of communal injury, of shared mercy; I stared back and asked rhetorically: “Why would anyone want to go to Ground Zero?”

He reared back, offended; he stepped back seeking backup; and he roared back: “To see the Hole!”, ignoring his statement’s self-contradiction, this oxymoron ignorant of what was actually missing, of who went truly missing; ignorant of the “Missing” posters that wallpapered entire avenues, manifestations of grief from a class of people grieving their loss with no outlet or conduit that might do their woe justice, a class mocked by the New York Times in measured paragraphs of individualized daily obituaries, the untoward coverage of this class never given validity by that paper of record’s editorial offices except now as martyrs of Capital; a class of people shuttled endlessly through the halls of an Armory turned psychological triage center, their loved ones now shuffled in stacked bureaucratic forms, their images now portrayed in the endless reams of office paper adorning every edifice expanding out from 25th Street on Lexington Avenue, the epicenter of smiling faces found on these makeshift posters from snapshots and family archives belying the dreadful end of those so epitaphed, denying such non-existence as willed by governments and fourth estates; he ignored the Invisibles, the unmentioned, the undocumented, the hundreds laboring in the halls and interior walls of those buildings gone unnoticed except for tears shed in small towns of nether Mexican regions unable to fathom death at such lofty heights; he ignored the class of people called in to attempt to save the unsavable, who tried to salvage the unsalvageable, who worked that pile of molten rubble, who inhaled those toxic vapors, who cleared debris in endless treks to outer landfills where half-buried steel girders now make reference to former Empire as Pennsylvania Station columns too once littered the Meadowlands, where a building thus receives a burial denied to those mired inside its offices on that day; he ignored the Missing for the missing and I felt obliged to remind him, I felt compelled to have him know what was known to those for whom this city was unfortunately still Home: “The ‘hole’ isn’t in the ground; the ‘hole’ is in the sky.”

And thus my own boast, and thus my own pride, and thus my own fall when later informed by a mother whose similar mass transit commute took her by bus down Manhattan avenues today unrecognizable but for churches and other eternal landmarks, who reminded me that despite those metallic structures visible from the suburban Jersey refuge of former New Yorkers the city had now reverted to her version, resembled yet again her memory; my own reference further called into question by a sister-in-law from Santiago who recalled her country’s own mighty toppling, its own towering presence laid low, its own matching date of lived infamy that renders the very statement “9/11” obnoxious and without merit, this declared yearless date that denies history as only those who design a World Trade Center can deny it, a noisome marker in a similar continuum of such decimations denied by the temporary victors of history who fabricate the present as they fabricated those Towers, who craft of their detritus the cornerstone for even more World War and who mark these skyscrapers’ end as a new beginning, a yearned-for Pearl Harbor; a bogus departure point. A False Start. And thus the reality check, and thus the impetus to truly suss out that site, the desire to push deeper into and beyond that Big Dig; a delving deep that reveals the communities now gone, the neighborhood of shops unique in their way of business, the area known by name as all neighborhoods in those days were known by names that stated the very reason for their existence, the very nature of their being, the very core of their essence: and so the flower district; and so Little Italy; and so Radio Row.

And so Cortlandt Street: a true commercial center organically sprung from its locale, an electronic souk, the purveyor of a collective media and a turn-of-the-century magical voice ironically heralding a Modern Age, “a way of life”, so say the survivors, a unique and collaborative enterprise; and here the radios, and there the tubes, and here the repair shop, and there the errand boy running to another store to retrieve the out-of-stock brand, and here the patiently waiting customer unaware of the beehive activity binding these businesses together yet bound to be undone by the notice delivered to the ingloriously future-tensed pre-nonexistent “World Trade Center Site Occupants”, destined to be destroyed as presaged by the received letter that reads like a bomb blast: “To permit construction of the World Trade Center, the Port Authority has made application to acquire by condemnation the property which you occupy”, the tenants now forced to vacate with a dishonorable renumeration, like trinkets unto the Leni Lenape. Full stop. A bombastic revelation; a bum’s rush. 300 businessmen, their employees, their families, their warehouses below, their apartments above, the residents within, the workers and customers from without: Easily 3,000 people; more than easily tens of thousands of people violently wiped off a city map that in its dead ends and bisected streets reveals what once was, in its interrupted avenues shows what is most missing to those who might see the disappeared, who might seek the long-since gone; fourteen city blocks purged of memory and Voice, divested of names no less worthy of being read aloud—Davega, Stewart, Liebling, Schneck, Strauss, Nadel—as city blocks the long of Manhattan likewise silently sound the dirge of their demise, as entire neighborhoods throughout the boroughs and indeed the entire world in turn condemn and bear vigilant witness to the dastardly corporate enterprise of land acquisition, the theft of property, the undoing of livelihood, the grabbing hand, the insatiable Pit.

And so now from that gaping Maw rises the so-called Freedom Tower, a name belied by its bunker base, ridiculed by its very price, mocked by its own storied pomp, an engineered parody; a seeming salve to a nation bereft of all ability to see past this monstrous occlusion, this grandiose beam, this architected disaster, this unseemly ode to Capital, this unsavory beacon of slighted souls, this testament to arrogance; this off-key orchestration of vocal choruses for war without cease, this cacophonous engine of displacement, and dispossession, and marginalization; this dying dragon, now most dangerous in the furious fire of its last gasps, in the final fits of its sweeping tail. And just as Bertholdi’s Lady in the harbor portrayed originally an Egyptian peasant woman meant to light the port of Suez, a humble fellaha bearing a guiding torch unto the West, similar portent likewise hereby comes from the East; this time not delivered in high-tech airways, but in the collective will of women factory workers whose years of strikes now culminate in a Revolution; not received in Internet messages among a passivist chattering class, but in the collaborative work of students actively occupying a central square; not in the imposture of glass and steel and stone of another imposing Tower, but in the return of the disinherited to their Place; in the reclaiming by those who, by violent force, or else for a paltry price, were likewise deprived of their Land; in the restaked entitlement of those to whom belongs this very Earth, the disbanded, now led by those whose lips, from this moment forward, break the dead air; brook no silence. Free as radio waves, their Voice aloft; a message received, loud and clear; a hopeful broadcast beaming brightly to all of those who might give ear.

Daniel Drennan was on his way to work in New York City on the morning of September 11, 2001; he now lives in Beirut, Lebanon and is founder of the artists’ collective Jamaa Al-Yad. He is grateful to the web site “The Sonic Memorial Project”  for its archives on Radio Row, and would be interested in hearing from those of this community. He can be reached by email at daniel.drennan@jamaalyad.org.