My (very long) post yesterday was mostly about the people affected -- killed, traumatized, or emboldened -- by 9/11. One thing, or two things, that rarely get discussed anymore, however, are the buildings themselves. I don't mean the Pentagon. Not only does it still stand, repaired, the section that was hit had, coincidentally, just been reinforced just before Flight 77 crashed into it, which probably saved more lives than would have been lost otherwise.
By "the buildings," therefore, I mean the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers. This is old news by now, but shouldn't be forgotten: these were two ugly buildings that Osama bin Laden knocked down.
Somewhere, I have a picture I took (but can't find), looking down Seventh Avenue from Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village -- my old neighborhood -- in which the Twin Towers stand prominently at the end. As they did at the end of most avenues in downtown Manhattan. It was hard to miss them.
But in all honesty, nobody much loved those buildings. Yes, together they represented the largest office complex in the world. But who gets sentimental over an office complex?
They took up the entire horizon. I remember a trip to a Sandy Hook beach on the Jersey shore one weekend. Even there, looking north, you couldn't miss the Twin Towers. Sometime not long before that, I had moved up to the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan, as far north on this island as you can get. From our higher points (including the #1 train platform), you couldn't miss the Twin Towers. And landing at JFK or LaGuardia, the first thing you'd see if your seat window faced downtown Manhattan would be the Twin Towers.
Which is not to say that anyone had any fondness for them. They were just...big. Shorter and they'd be squat. But they were too tall to be squat. They were just big.
Other buildings in New York actually have fans. The Empire State Building is so popular, for residents and tourists, that it's basically a part of pop culture. The Chrysler Building is one of the true New York icons. Philip Johnson's AT&T (now Sony) building, the Citicorp Tower, the Woolworth Building, not to mention several insurance company skyscrapers -- any of these (which still stand) were probably better loved than the behemoth towers anchoring the south end of this island.
Now that they're gone, however, there's definitely more nostalgia for them. Since they went up in the early 70s, they're susceptible to the same ironic reference that accords the Atari logo, shorty-short NBA uniforms, and other such references for Generation X.
And, admittedly, for some people they said more than words can express about this city: big, bigger, best -- with no apologies. A decade and a half before Donald Trump entered the real estate scene, they were the brash points on the skyline that residents and tourists couldn't miss.
A good visual essay about the towers can be seen in Keith Meyers portfolio and the special Twin Towers presentation they're showing of his work at the New York Times site. Meyers's photographs show the World Trade Center -- at least the two most visible elements of this seven-building complex -- from many of the perspectives New Yorkers and New Jersey residents experienced these architectural icons and, now, memories.
In my neighborhood, a group of locals created a memorial here in Inwood to the fallen of 9/11. In one of the large parks nearby, they commandeered a soccer field to plant 3,000 American flags in formation, to recognize the approximate number of victims on that day five years ago. I went down there just before the sun set on Thursday to get some pictures, and again just now.
It's impressive and touching in many ways: all those flags, hanging silently on their poles, standing in memory of a person who went to work or got on a plane that day and didn't come home.
Even from a distance however you can see that something seems wrong with these flags. As you get closer you realize that each one has a white strip, maybe 12 inches high, along the bottom, which in aggregate makes the field seem far more white than red or blue. Getting even closer, you can see that the white strip has printing on it.
On most of the flags, it says:
Flag of Honor
This flag contains the names of those killed in the terrorist acts of 9.11.* Now and forever it will represent their immortality. We shall never forget them.
*As of 9-11-2004
And, sure enough, on the white and red stripes are printed all the names known, as of this day three years ago, of those who died that day.
The flags around the perimeter of the field are Flag of Heroes flags. Using only the red stripes, these list the emergency service personnel who responded that day and, when the buildings collapsed, died trying to save a few more lives beyond the 15,000 they had already saved that morning.
Not everyone who died that morning was an American, of course. Being New York, there are bound to be citizens of just about any country affected by anything on a large scale that happens here, and this was one of the largest. So to the side of this field of flags they have placed the flags representing the countries who lost citizens on 9/11.
I understand and appreciate the impulse behind this field of flags. So it probably seems catty to say I think this memorial would have been a stronger statement if they'd just used actual flags, without the printing, especially the printing below the flag itself. And it sounds churlish to point out that, even if it's the names of victims of these attacks, there are generally no exceptions made for defacing an American flag.
But I can't deny the very real motivation that drove people to plant these flags. So it's not exactly the way I would have done it. Maybe my armchair stage-managing such an event is a worse motivation than their honest attempt.
* * * * *
At 8:46 a.m. five years ago, I was in a rental car, driving into the front entrance of my company's corporate headquarters in Westchester County. As I walked into the third floor for my 9 a.m. meeting, I noticed several of the executives who had TVs on their desks were watching something happening on the news. As we sat down in the conference room, someone came in to the meeting and said that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. From the way they said it, we figured it was a small twin-engine plane.
At 9:03 a.m. five years ago, the meeting was just getting underway. Someone else came in to say that a second plane had hit the other tower. I suppose because we still had no idea that these were major jetliners and not just some small prop planes, we continued with the first item on our agenda, whatever it was.
At 9:37 a.m. five years ago, I was in a meeting, wondering why two planes had hit the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, someone came in to tell us that yet another plane had crashed into the Pentagon. At which point the person chairing the meeting said that we had more important things to worry about, obviously, than whatever we had been discussing before that. It was hearing the Pentagon was hit that I remember going from "I wonder why two planes would hit the World Trade Center within minutes of each other" to the cold realization that the country was under attack. Everyone had that moment on that day at some point -- probably earlier if you were watching TV rather than hearing about it second hand. For me the realization came about 9:40 a.m.
At 9:59 a.m. five years ago, I think I was watching CNN on one of the TVs in the conference room when the South Tower fell. Or else I was already out in the cubicle area, crowded around a smaller TV on someone's desk. At some point that morning, I called my parents to tell them that I was okay, not even in the city that morning, safely in Armonk.
Around 10:06 a.m., when Flight 93 crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, I was probably trying to leave a message for my mother at the school -- my alma mater middle school -- where she taught, so that when she heard about the attacks in New York, she'd also hear that I was okay.
During all of this, the television was reporting rumors that an explosion had occurred at the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, that the Sears Tower had been hit, and other such things that hadn't happened.
At 10:28 a.m., I think I was sitting in the conference room again. I've seen the footage so many times -- saw it nearly 100 times that day alone, I'm sure -- I can't remember if I saw the North Tower collapse when it happened or not.
Many of us there in the office that day -- including Tom and me -- lived in Manhattan, but everyone was probably equally stunned. Tom even lived across the street and one block south of the New York Stock Exchange at the time, and I remember for a long time he had no idea whether or not his building and any of the other buildings in the blocks around the Trade Center were still standing.
Since all of us in the conference room were part of the company's communications staff, we had work to do immediately. Over the next few days, we learned that we had lost two employees that day -- one on a flight, another at the World Trade Center for a meeting. I was editor of the intranet at that time, so I had several updates to make that day and other questions to field from various areas.
In one of the only moments of grim levity I remember that day, someone fielded a question from the site operation for a local office in, I think, North Carolina. Or maybe it was Minnesota. Or somewhere else. Driven by that very human and very admirable motive to help, to do something, anything, they wanted to know -- perhaps around noon or a little after -- if they should be flying their flags at half-mast. We all looked at each other in confusion and disbelief that that was what someone was worried about, when finally someone said, "Tell them to look out the window to see what the post office is doing, and follow their lead."
Not very funny, I admit, but there wasn't much funny that day. Tom and I ended up staying at a friend's apartment in Westchester that evening, since all the bridges and tunnels back into the city were closed. (Our friend was stuck in Dallas, because his flight home had been canceled along with every other flight in the country, but another friend of his had a key to his apartment, which we were able to retrieve.)
That's some of what I remember about 9/11 -- before "today" became known as "9/11" or the "World Trade Center" was called "Ground Zero."
It's inevitable, of course. We experience tragedy and we remember and memorialize it in human ways -- emotionally, greedily, hopefully, fearfully, spiritually, mawkishly. We may even be driven to war by the memory.
The site of the World Trade Center is a burial ground. Ground Zero, however, is the first of many battlefields.
As a burial ground, it continues to keen loudly in this town and will probably do so at least until new buildings and grassy berms are allowed to scab over that wound.
But as a battleground, it demands satisfaction, however unsatisfactory it feels, and even if that leads us into countries that had nothing to do with 9/11 and between factions not represented here on that day.
* * * * *
The tragedy represented by those 3,000 flags didn't end that day. The death toll on 9/11 was, officially, set at 2,973. As of today, however, the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan and Iraq has grown to 2,999. How many of those had to die to rout the Taliban from Afghanistan, to eliminate al Qaeda and capture Osama bin Laden? And -- because we've obviously been sidetracked from that mission -- how many didn't?
I went back down to look at those flags again a few hours ago. The weather today was, yes, exactly like that day five years ago. But seeing that field again made me wonder just who those flags stand for now.