Monday, September 11, 2006

Landmark Memories

My first and last glimpses of the World Trade Center towers were on television. While they were being built, we cursed them because they interfered with our reception. All through high school, I could see their uneven shadows growing up the TV screen in my parents' Westchester living room.

I always thought the towers ugly--two Saltine boxes grotesquely out of scale and style with the Gothic spires of lower Manhattan. But they were a landmark, twin beacons that slowly flashed on and off, on and off, all night. Standing on the fire escape of my tenement apartment in Little Italy, where I lived from 1978 to 1988, the towers were 45 degrees to the left; the Empire State 90 degrees right. They were the only compass I needed. One or the other--sometimes both--was usually visible during my frequent nighttime outings.

I worked in the towers several times as an office temp. The elevators went so high and so fast I had to keep yawning to make my ears pop. Once I took my stepbrother to the observation area. He was a daredevil skier and surfer, but so afraid of heights that he stayed a good two feet back from the windows. And once, I and the man I thought I'd love forever had drinks at Windows on the World while Manhattan twinkled below us in the velvet dark.

I started writing about my experiences on that bright and awful day five years ago, the last time I saw the towers standing in real time on TV. But I can't continue. The emotions are still too raw; the words to express them seem trite and banal.

Many people have made the pilgrimage to Ground Zero. I can't, though I've often stayed with a friend who lives just blocks away. She heard the first and saw the second plane crash. An air purifier runs constantly in her loft, filtering out toxins released in the wreckage. Nevertheless, she has developed a chronic cough.

I used to feel so free in New York. Twenty years ago, you could go everywhere, walk through the lobby of any office building. And there were plenty of lobbies worth seeing--elevator doors too--as I discovered during my temping days.

I took my son to the city two years ago, just before the Republican convention. We went down to Wall Street. I wanted to show him the fabulous Art Deco lobby of the Irving Trust building. No dice; only open to employees with ID badges. I thought it would be cool for him to see the Stock Exchange, where 25+ years ago I'd watched the frenzy on the trading floor in incredulous fascination. (And that had been a slow day, a trader told me.) There was a labyrinth of police barricades on the street in front of the Exchange, which was also open only to employees; the visitors' gallery had been closed for years. I stood there in the bright August sunshine, fighting back tears, my son watching me in befuddlement, a policeman with mild disdain. (I could almost hear him thinking, "Frickin' hayseed! Everyone knows you can't visit the Stock Exchange.")

I was crying for what we had lost on that day in 2001: our precious freedom, never to be regained.

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