Friday, July 09, 2010


Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot—
For one brief, shining moment
King Arthur, to a young boy, at the end of Camelot

Several months after the World Trade Center disaster, I visited my old home, Manhattan, checking in on some old acquaintances. I of course had to head down to Ground Zero, to see what all the fuss was about.

I had been in these buildings—who hadn’t?—and I had been riveted by their unimaginable collapse, narrated live on media worldwide. I can still distinctly see in my mind the welded autograph of Philippe Petit in a steel beam at the top of one of them, visible from the tourist platform, signed after he had walked a tightrope from one to the other. I still owned—I still own—the T-shirt I had bought at the world chess championship held on the top floor a few years before, which I had attended on a day off for curiosity, not about the buildings, but about the sporting world of chess. For me the eight-wide bank of escalators coming up from the subway below into the immaculate atrium is a permanent memory.

Friends of mine had close calls, and more than one had stories of that day. But I had to look for myself.

I’m reading a book by Michael Chabon where he talks about hoisting his toddler son on his shoulders in Bryant Park the night Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election. “Look at them,” he tells his son. “Look at them, remember them. You’ll remember this night for the rest of your life.”

“How do you know I won’t forget?” his son asks, with the inconvenient candor of a child.

I remember standing outside the fence, a few blocks back, where there was still a crowd surrounding a great hole in the ground, where trucks and tractors and excavators worked around the clock. I had walked the circumference of the site; there was no viewing platform to speak of, but nobody was stopping anyone who wanted to have a look. The atmosphere was not mournful or angry or bewildered; mostly there was a sense of respect and alertness, a distinct curiosity. We all knew what had happened here. It wasn’t a packed crowd; we gave each other enough room to digest in private. But numbers-wise, we were a crowd.

A man had his kid on his shoulders; they were looking south toward where the buildings used to stand, where now there was a big gap with no buildings, then some buildings on the other side of that gap. We were not right at the fence, but a good way back.

“Look up,” the man instructed. “They were tall . . . they went way, way up.” The kid had never seen the World Trade Center towers, and never would. The man had seen them, and remembered them, clearly.

The kid looked across at the tallest buildings across the gap, then looked up at where there was nothing, trying to imagine.

“How high?” the kid wanted to know.

I remembered the dizzying scale of the WTC. Pretty much by design, from the bottom it was impossible to gauge their height. The parallel white lines went straight up their sides and vanished in the forever. You could see they had tops, but there was no sense of scale, no detail adorning a topmost cornice by which you could judge—falsely or truly—how far away it must be.

When I had visitors from out of town, the best spot to show them New York was from the Empire State Building, older and smaller. It nestled in among other buildings; from the Empire State, you could see cabs on the street below, pedestrians, apartment windows. You were not quite eye to eye with the Chrysler Building, but you looked across to it, not down at it. You could see the bustle of the street below.

The WTC was an attraction, sure, but the top level was so far removed from the ground that you didn’t feel as if you were amidst Manhattan; you felt way up there, too far to up to reach across—or even down—to touch the other buildings, too far up really to see them. If a fire truck pulled up below, would you hear a siren, so far up? This was a platform in the sky; you looked for mountains on the horizon, not other landmarks in the inconsequential city clustered below like so much green lawn.

“How high?” the kid wanted to know.

I looked up into space, trying to remind myself what they had looked like, reaching far, far up and away beyond estimate.

“Farther . . . ” the kid’s father started, mumbling, unable to articulate—

“They went up farther than you can imagine.”


B.G. Andersen said...

Thanks for sharing

Kangamoo said...

I recently pulled out photo albums, looking for something else, and came across the pictures of Chris at the top of the world. Now I am sorry I didn't take more. What a memory.