A Walk to Ground Zero

by James Boorstein

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Sunday, November 18, 2001

A brilliant sunny morning. I was pleased to have free time before the weight of next week drops. I sat close to the large south-facing loft windows to read a magazine, something I rarely do, and would only do on a Sunday morning. The article revealed details of Osama bin Laden’s youth and family – he had more than twenty siblings. Everyone has a human side.

Just before noon I biked down to my studio, and noticed that the streets and sidewalks were crowded; the sun, like a rare earth magnet, was attracting people, pulling them outdoors. In my small Soho space, I couldn’t settle or even get started with the essay I was working on. Unable to resist the force, I headed back out.

Walking south and west, I reached Canal Street and crossed six lanes of traffic to reach the Hudson. As always, it was refreshing to be near the river – the expanse of open space that a broad river provides is a tonic for those who live in forests or cities.

After a short walk south my route along the riverfront promenade was blocked. No explanation, just the word “Detour.” A gigantic red crane, an industrial-scale puppeteer, dominated the forbidden landscape near Pier 25. The oddly articulated crane puppeteer controlled a large yellow wedge-shaped bin as its marionette. In the sky the wedge seemed small, but on the ground I could see that it was more than twenty feet long – a full-size dumpster sliced diagonally from the top to bottom at the opposite end.
The wedge was the principal character in transferring millions of tons of the former World Trade Towers from land to sea. This spot was the pivot point for these architectural remains on their journey from their urban home to an unknown final resting place. The impact of two commercial airliners precipitated a series of unusual and unexpected technological challenges. I had stumbled upon an inspiring show of human response executed with ingenuity and skill. The show was precise, enchanting – an unceremonious ceremony – if there can be such a thing.

Nine loaded dump trucks, in all shapes and sizes, waited for their turn with the wedge. The front truck pulled away from the line and backed into a position precisely where the wedge would arrive. The red crane dropped the yellow wedge quickly, slowing just before it touched down – like a high-speed elevator reaching the lobby from the 33rd floor. Back on earth, it aligned with the waiting trucks and the river’s flow less than twenty feet away. Just before the ready truck started to back up a worker beside the wedge turned on a fire hose. His orange hard hat snapped backward from the pressure. The stout man in brown coveralls, work gloves, and no respirator needed two hands and a solid stance to direct the thick glistening arc of freshwater as the truck backed all the way into the wedge. Nothing was rushed, but not a moment was wasted; the truck’s bed started to tilt up before it reached the back wall of the wedge.

Depending on the configuration of the load, the mangled mass either dropped with one loud burst or fell with several smaller crashes. Certain loads were surprisingly quiet. All were dark, twisted, tortured. Taking it all in I began to notice that some of the steel remains appeared almost human, childish stick figures with broken and distorted body parts. Like clean skeletons on the Serengeti Plain, without a trace of flesh remaining, these steel bones were mostly free of attached material – all burned or blasted off by repeated hosings.

After filling the wedge, each truck pulled slowly forward, allowing lingering bits to drop. The empty dump bed lowered as it continued out of the wedge and back to the site to collect another ten-ton load. The same cycle had been continuing, probably twenty-four hours a day, for weeks. There was a lot to haul away.

The puppeteer jerked the strings and the front edge of the colossal wedge tipped up slightly to contain its new load. A burst of black smoke from the crane puppeteer and the wedge lifted twenty-five feet in the air with its tons of steel. Then, with barely a breath, it swung out over the river. It steadied in a way that a plumb bob or any dangling mass does not readily do, then dropped straight into position just over the target barge. It paused for barely a moment before another burst of black smoke. Then, with the deep bow of a Shakespearean actor, the wedge tipped forward. The charred load dropped.
No time to celebrate or mourn, the empty wedge leveled, lifted, and, followed the identical arc back to receive another load.

The puppet show was transfixing and free. Other walkers arrived; most stopped to watch the industrial choreography before detouring. It was compelling and graceful with an unlikely human feel. Onlookers stayed for a full cycle or, like me, lingered longer. As the next truck readied itself, I noticed a second crane – older, higher, and in command of a more rusted wedge. On this glorious fall Sunday afternoon, it was still.
Occasionally a truck’s load wouldn’t dump. The problem was always a piece of steel wedged crosswise in the truck’s bed. A mid-size dinosaur looking machine on bulldozer treads approached to quickly pick the stuck steel out. One of the pried-loose pieces mistakenly dropped over the side of a dump truck, like a piece of kindling, but large enough to crush a car. The scale was impossible to take in.

Several barges and one tug lined up to receive their load of ferrous carnage. Barges hold a lot of material, more than what can fit into ten full railroad cars. Moving material over water is far more efficient than moving it by road or rail – even more so if the load is very heavy. Water supports all loads.

At two p.m., the second crane came alive. Perhaps the operator was back from lunch. No trucks were waiting in its queue – though after a few minutes they arrived. In less than two cycles I could see that this crane was operated in a more “cowboy” style – faster, with less finesse than the first crane, which was more like a ballet. Exceptional performances unwittingly teach viewers what “average” means.

At the first wedge, a white NYC dump truck did not back into the wedge-like the other trucks. Instead, it dropped its load just in front of the wedge, like a bad puppy missing the newspaper target. With the jerky mechanical motions of an early King Kong movie the entangled bits of the fresh dump were plucked up and maneuvered into the waiting wedge by the dinosaur machine. Was this a new driver who did not know that he was supposed to back into the wedge? Or perhaps certain loads would perforate the wedge’s floor, so dropping on the pavement was safer. This was a complex operation with endless divergent issues to balance, yet it appeared simple – like with a good art installation. The planning, labor, and experience do not need to be seen by everyone, they remain present.

With no trucks ready to dump, the show paused. I moved on. After re-crossing the West Side Highway I reached Chambers Street and turned toward New Jersey. To stay close to the river I followed the northern edge of landfill that was deposited into the river in the 1960s. At that time the Twin Towers were only a twinkle in the developers’ eyes. Ninety new acres of lower Manhattan was created with unwanted dirt and sand, modern-day alchemy – minting real estate.

Air monitoring devices were perched behind the Stuyvesant School, each powered by impossibly long extension cords. Who reads their data? What are they recording and will we ever know the findings – dangerous or not? Government officials don’t have a good track record for being honest about dangers, especially those that are invisible.
The river’s surface sparkled around me. I stopped to watch more of the wedge shown from a different angle. From the loge, I could see that both of the crane puppeteers were balanced on huge work barges. Cranes need sturdy bases to brace their high towers against their leveraged loads, but these puppeteers were afloat.

I cut south through the northern end of Battery Park City, traversing the goose shit covered Great Lawn; a green carpet laid over the landfill when the upscale residential apartments were completed. The mostly empty, river-view apartments looked unchanged since they were evacuated in September but there was hardly anyone around.
At the recently completed New York Mercantile Exchange I watched a man walk past the entrance with his video camera rolling. A guard rushed out to stop him. “Let me see your camera,” she demanded. He refused and the short interaction ended – the guy walked away with the hardly valuable footage, the restrictions on photography mystify me.
Past the waterfront Exchange, the blue-green Winter Garden came into view; surprisingly, for such a fragile material, the glass pavilion appeared intact. The last time I was inside there were more than a dozen full-sized palm trees – a delightful juxtaposition. As I kept walking I could see that nearly all of its eastern side was ripped open and most of its arched roof was gone – a wounded building. Beyond the Winter Garden and the sovereign void where the towers once blocked the view, the Millennium Hotel had become visible. The dark tower, wrapped in red netting, seemed taller than I remembered it last spring. Size, among other phenomena, is relative to what came before, to what we have experienced.

The North Cove boat basin, normally filled with rich people’s white yachts and a cluster of small club sailboats remained empty except for the squeaking docks. Two dozen steps beyond the Police Memorial, a black stonewall built in 1997 a lightly weathered white vinyl tarp partly covered an impromptu remembrance. This small shrine was more alive than the immortal Police monument. The flicker of candles and assorted recently left mementos gave it a charge that names carved in stone never have. It was strange to see dead – fully dead – flowers still in their plastic sleeves as though they had just been purchased.
I continued with the river on my right before turning inland and quickly reaching Battery Park City’s small retail section. It was a surreal landscape. The little grocery store, dry cleaners, and restaurants remained mostly closed. The area was intact, not boarded-up, but deserted. Signs reading “Welcome Back – Will Reopen Soon.” were taped into the shop windows. Battery Park City gardeners pressure-washed everything in sight: trees, sidewalks, vehicles even though everything was already very clean.

A few misplaced tourists were peppered into the mostly male mélange of uniformed workers. National Guard personnel milled around with respirators but no weapons, there were police, ASPCA, and others I could not identify, but unlike the previous two months, there was not a single gun in sight.

It is surprising how quickly we forget after most buildings or stores disappear, but as I walked past the entrance to the “VIP viewing area,” the remaining buildings reminded me, in my core, that I was close to where the southern tower once stood.

South of Liberty Street, the city streets had been re-opened to vehicles though I did not see any. Moran’s Ale House, in the old St. George’s Chapel, was “OPEN,” according to a sign spray-painted on a bed sheet, but there was not one person anywhere around.
A row of color Xerox photographs taped into the large street-level windows of George’s Lunch Shop attracted my attention. The images showed the corner restaurant shortly after September 11th. At first glance, the pictures looked like they had been taken during a blizzard, but the “snow” was off-white. It took some time before I realized the yellowish substance was the cremation remains of the towers.

The small restaurant was closed, but its interior appeared intact. I doubt such a place would ever be open on a weekend in this part of town. It was unclear if it had, or would ever reopen. The pictures clearly revealed how much had been cleaned up – an impressive amount. When do you stop I wondered? After a glass breaks I sweep again and again but a little piece of the glass often lingers; perhaps similar reasoning was propelling this relentless cleaning of the already clean. Or was this theatre a way to make all of us feel safer or help residents feel safe enough to move back home?

No one was around at Rector Street, close to the southern edge of the extensive World Trade Center site. Turning a typical corner I confronted my first unobstructed view in; I stood still staring, something inside me was spinning while my head and limbs were frozen.

Only slowly could I take in what I was looking at: a section of the building facade. A fragment, if that word can be applied to something that is seventy-five feet high, taller than any New York City brownstone. The pointed arches revealed that this fragment used to be at the very top of the tower, a cornice if there was such a thing in Yamasaki’s design. Nearly nine stories of building skin, eerily, not only was it undamaged but almost perfectly vertical – gently resting on the same ground I was on. A few months ago this piece had been part of a whole, 1,300 feet over my head. The surrounding landscape was devastated, low crumpled architectural wreckage, all black, except for what had rusted in recent weeks.

To the east, at an adjacent gate, trucks were leaving the site. Each one was showered and covered before heading out, back to have another dance with the wedge. Several police officers loitered by the gate – protecting what? Nothing was left to take or destroy. As the days shorten the low sun could not reach this area. The police huddled near a trashcan fire; except for their service caps the scene reminded me of a homeless gathering.

I turned to leave, to head north. It didn’t take long before I was free of the discordant downtown zone, where normally populated areas were empty, streets were cleaner than they have ever been, loaded trucks were leaving – not entering – a construction site and the police were imitating the homeless. I barely needed to tip my head up to see the top of what was once the tallest building in the world, it was nearly at eye level. 

© 2019
Courtesy of Box 3 Productions

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