Over the past week my time has been divided between walks of urban exploration that would astonish the carbound, housekeeping and preparatory work for my friend’s upcoming show, and the repeated exposure of the subconscious to the dizzying blur inside the wormhole that is New York City.
A week ago I take the subway down to the WTC. It’s not clear to me what the aggregate should be called now: the memorial plaza, quasi-open to the public, is “The National September 11 Memorial Plaza”, which refers to “the former World Trade Center complex“; the new skyscraper to replace the destroyed Twin Towers was called Freedom Tower, but the building’s website has prominent callouts for the NYC Tower, and apparently the Freedom name has been dropped. I am not alone in my confusion, but there is a physical thing to see.
The building is closed to the public, naturally for one under construction, and the surrounding streets are a tangle of closures and gates. Police are in prominent evidence, as are white-painted watchtowers that crane out above sidewalks, their black glass impenetrable. The cops are all sweating in their dark uniforms. All are heavy set and chew gum, and seem very de-energized.
Having not done any research, I don’t know the memorial I saw highlighted in the New York Times isn’t something that can be visited at will. Passes are required, which must be printed out. I try walking around the construction which becomes an exercise for dodging masses of people and more than one opportunistic museum on the surrounding blocks. Everyone is stopping for pictures and English isn’t spoken much.
The site is hot, bright, and loud. It seems like any other site where a big building is going up, all evidence of what called for its erection long cleaned away. I was last here in 2003 when this spot was a giant hole and the mood was very different: a hush over everything, voices low, the main sound the shuffling of feet. My father, sister and I were here in 2003 and I remember getting a food cart hot dog and looking at the missing persons posters still tied to barricades. A little park was overrun with votive candles and a woman in a blue shawl played soft guitar. She was the loudest thing for blocks. It’s a different kind of tourist attraction now. Banal, really.
Circumnavigating the site proves impossible and the overwhelming surveillance is discomfiting, so leave, unsure of the direction. I end up in a little park that is not the park I remember, all stone and tables under trees. Food trucks surround it with their buzzing generators and people eat food and ice cream with tiny plastic spoons. I get a chocolate waffle cone for six bucks, my first food truck item. A ladder truck and accompanying fire department SUVs roar up a street, stop, execute a three-point turn in the intersection, and go back. People stop and take pictures. Three scruffy early-twenties kids ignore this, leaning on their massive packs and complaining about their calls cutting out.
I finish my ice cream slowly, unable to remember when I last had soft serve. The people are a mix: obvious tourists, older native women smoking cigarettes resting their feet on top of their shoes, two young French girls who look like any given Midwestern white kids except for their sundresses. I continue south to Battery Park. The place is hardly older than me, made from fill dug out for the original WTC, but the trees are big and the air smells like the rivers.
I miss a picture of it, but to the left above, in the corner, is a fountain I remember from 9/11 documentaries. A square bronze notch about a foot tall delivers a pleasant stream. In the video the gasping cameraman puts the camera down and rinses the asbestos ash off his face in the remaining trickle. Everything else is ash, paper, drifting carbon snow. It looks and feels nothing like that now. It feels like 1970s TV movies I remember as a kid, all TV movies seeming to be about New York City. I wonder if that grey grit is still here, mixed in with the plant soil, pushed into the paving seams.
Clipper ship tours leave from the little berth here, and the boat pushes off as I walk up. A blonde woman on a bike asks me if I have any questions when I take a brochure. The boat powers out against the wind, sails furled. I don’t ask if actual sailing is done on the tour. Walking the pavers under the trees, benches open up to the river, the scene from a hundred mid-afternoon TV movies you don’t remember. I sit on a bench and watch the churning water, feel the uncomfortable–meaning less than ideal, not impossible–humidity. People walk dogs and rollerblade and talk to each other three abreast and I wonder what my parents’ generation could have seen as so undesirable.
Walking around are the launch points for the water taxis that give the tours, Circle Line boats, this semi-fortification allowing travel to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. People are dense but relaxed. A fountain sprays under the trees and little kids run through yelling, arms up, mothers slouching in their mother summer slouch across the green benches, pointing their bunioned toes as they talk to their benchmates.
A short distance beyond is a memorial to WWII naval losses. Stone plinths rise up and frame the river, an art deco eagle with bug eyes staring through to the water.
Up from this is the bronze sculpture that sat in the original WTC plaza. The sign marking it is crooked, splattered with bird crap, and written in the breathless, aggrieved tone of the times.
Wandering a few blocks north is the famous Wall Street bull statue, a bronze that is not actually on Wall Street. People are more interested in posing under its hindquarters than at the front. I suppose it’s a comfort that everyone the world over never outgrows the poo-poo-pee-pee stage.
It has also been reiterated since my arrival that New York City is overrun with attractive women.
Tired, the wandering becomes determined. A sign points up to the subway, which I locate. Each entry is the transition I only vaguely remember from a semester in Boston, passing out of the upper world and its compass points to the subterranean corridors and signs that bear only theoretical connection. I consult the map on my phone and reason I want uptown with one stop: the theatre my friend’s show has been assigned. Ascending is returning to the world in a new place but still disconnected. The sky is there but who knows where north is or which way to walk. The place is the most deserted I have seen so far, no one around to observe the standard tourist confusion.
That the place is a theatre is clear from the golden figures parading up the sides. Next door is a restaurant named The Smile. No one is around aside from two heavy guys in too tight suits standing with distracted purpose around a giant idling SUV. They roar off when I look the other way, leaving the street deserted. It seems content that way.
Compression is the most astounding thing. Go a block and everything is changed, what is seen and what is felt: the shade, the texture of the urban odor, some transdimensional vibration that is radically different even if it can hardly be imagined that anything is changed. It isn’t the closeness but the space inside the closeness. Volume is devoid of emptiness but the sky is still up there, beyond that blackness and the void. Clouds tell that somehow, clouds I remember, swirls and cirrus that aren’t like other places. They aren’t dramatic or describable but they are this place, unmistakably so.