I am not of the faint of heart….except every year when this happens.
Yes, I was here on that date. Yes, I was supposed to be on the plaza working on the book of a musical that morning. Yes, I called my collaborator the night before and asked him to postpone our meeting. Yes, I still call perfect fall weather, “a nine-eleven sky.”
I have an escape story like many others. Ours involved swirling papers, a baby, a stranger’s SUV, a fire warden, a banana, lesbians with a private elevator, a farmer’s market, wet washcloths, passports, tremors, a dust cloud, and seven miles of walking. We all have our stories.
For a month, we relocated because we lived within two city blocks of Ground Zero, but when the armed National Guard allowed it, we returned to our home, cleaned out two inches of dust, allowed the EPA to remove every piece of fabric from our home and cart off all the electronics that had gotten dust-clogged and stopped working — and yes, we still live in the exact same place.
Day in and out, I cross the memorial plaza: on my way to the library, on my way to dinners out, on my way to get some air and watch a sunset on the Hudson. At the memorial, I notice when it’s someone’s birthday (they have a white rose in their name) and I notice when it is 4th of July or Veteran’s Day (there are flags in the names), and invariably, several days before 9–11, I look up and am pierced by the shock of this image:
It is not that I dislike Tribute in Light, quite the opposite. I think that, as memorials go, this one is absolutely spot-on (if you’ll pardon the pun). It was a collaborative design, it is uniquely effective as both a ghostly memory and a spectral reminder, depending on whether you are haunted or need a nudge to think of the Twin Towers and their victims every September 11. I love that it memorializes the actual places, the buildings themselves, fills the hole in the skyline.
What tears at me like a knife in the gut is that I am never prepared for the lights when they are tested. Today is not yet September 11th. It’s the 4th. I watched a Brigitte Bardot movie at the Roxy, and was seated at an outdoor cafe discussing art and film with a portrait photographer when I saw a nearby NYPD cop do a doubletake. I glanced over my shoulder to see what had made him look — and there was the Tribute. Days early.
Splitting the sky in half.
Memories of the day surged in me, but not just the day — the years afterward when we debated daily should we stay or go, will the neighborhood recover. Will our psyches? We were safe, but were we sound? Many things set us off: the sound of trucks driving over metal plates in the road, a roaring F-16 formation, and always, the LaGuardia flight path that brought commercial jets in frequent optical illusion contact with skyscrapers against a too-blue sky. A twenty-year old helplessness in the face of overwhelming uncertainty still bubbles up whenever images of 9–11 take me by surprise.
It is the “by surprise” part that feels like I’m caught in a slasher movie. The testing of these lights affects me like a jump-scare.
I am neither timid nor tremulous. I have been to the top of the new WTC tower six times now, frequently for business meetings. It’s one of my favorite places. I have also attended events at the 9–11 memorial museum underground. (Although I had to visit it while it was empty to be able to conquer my emotions, the museum is curated beautifully, the exhibits are necessary and informative, and the whole experience was far less upsetting than I had expected back when it opened.) I know that the bagpipes will wake me on September 11th.
The testing of the Tribute in Light, though, invariably catches me unawares.
It is not for us locals, this Tribute. Know how I know? Because from anywhere near my house, the Tribute is “elsewhere.” — The farther away you are from Lower Manhattan, the more it looks exactly perfect, but the closer you are to Ground Zero the more “off” it feels. It is centered several blocks south and west of the actual Ground Zero site, which made sense when the site was still burning and still made some sense while the site was under construction, but now? Why isn’t it right on the center of Church Street or even between the two memorial fountains? Every year when I glimpse the lights get their test, for a brief second I think with great joy, oh! A new club is opening! Maybe something great has arrived Downtown. And then I realize what the lights actually are, that they are not announcing a presence, but mourning an absence, and the realization hits like waking up after a divorce you didn’t want.
Then, just as quickly as they lit the sky, the long beams vanish, until the timing is actually appropriate. The 9-11 Sky is back and Downtown sparkles again, as if it had never wept in the first place.