Monday, May 08, 2006

Memorial in Light

Memorial in Light (broadband)

Memorial in Light (quicker)

MEMORIAL IN LIGHT March 12, 2002

It is still spooky going down to ground zero. Maybe it'll always be that way for me, having watched the towers go down; I'll certainly never forget the day -- walking home to my sweetheart's place in Brooklyn as the sun sank down in a brownorange sky with the nauseating sweet stench of ozone and burnt plastic (and flesh?) in our nostrils, large flakes of ash falling like lazy snow in the dead still air -- was I wearing cremated remains in my hair when I got home? Had I breathed them in? Likely.

Sunday night's documentary was as sweet as it was sad for me. There was none of the Rah-Rah America of recent months -- it was just a group of brothers thrust into an unthinkable situation, beyond comprehension and certainly beyond their ability to affect or change - their only option was simply enduring it and then going back down to The Pile (as they call it) to move it bucket by bucket and search (almost entirely in vain) for survivors. As Edmund Rosstand wrote (in "Cyrano de Bergerac"), there is greater honor in the utterly futile fight -- you're not fighting because you have a chance at victory, but simply because it is right. I speak here not of any war against the "bad guys" but rather the fight for hope when you know deep down there isn't any. The buildings fell, thousands died. But if they couldn't put out the fires, or evacuate everyone, they could dig through the millions upon millions of tons of rubble with their hands, a five-gallon bucket at a time, if only to pull out a foot that might be ID'd by DNA so a family somewhere would have something, anything, to weep over and then put into the ground.

After six months, after listening to the war drums and cheerleading drown out any sort of informed debate regarding my nation's actions -- indeed, in an environment where even the merest hint of dissent is met with cries of "treason!" -- all the noise is silenced when I once again emerge from the subway at Church and Fulton streets. For now, the gigantic pit where once the rubble rose stories high is still hallowed ground. People are overawed even now, when visually it cannot compare to the mind-warping carnage that remained back in September.

I purposely did not go out to the memorial until after the politicians and functionaries had moved on. I didn't need them to put anything into perspective for me. I approached the platforms on which the lights had been set up. The area was awash with people, and as I melted into the crowd I had the thought that this would be a perfect time and place for an Al Qaeda bomber to make a statement. Such an idea, once unthinkable, was only too plausible. But in the world as it is, especially here in the City and most especially in the shadow of the WTC (and although the towers are gone, their shadow remains, believe me), it was an utterly mundane moment. And sad as it is, to actually live one's life in these sorts of times and situations, one has to countenance the possibility of its extinguishment (no matter how unlikely a bomb might be in any given moment).

It was chilly out, but not uncomfortable as I'd dressed for it. I found a space beyond the edge of the crowd and leaned up against a temporary fence (temporary for how many of the coming years until the reconstruction is done?) and, tilting my head back, took in the squared columns of light shining up at the sky. Dust and moisture in the light wind marked the beams' passage, and occasionally a plume of diesel exhaust from a generator or one of the many trucks rumbling back and forth (after all, this is maybe the world's largest 24/7 [de]construction site, no?) passed through a beam and made me think of souls, and the transient nature of things, of how flimsy and inconsequential even the greatest of our edifices are in the immense design of things. Many in the crowd held up cameras or video recorders to capture the sight (while missing the moment entirely, in my book), and a number of people wept openly and unconsoled. A woman near me repeatedly looked up for a few seconds, then doubled over like she'd been punched in the gut. Tears trailed down her face and the wind blew her blow-dried moussed coiffure about. She teetered on her (uncomfortable looking) black high heels, then she straightened to gaze up once more. A muffled sob, hand going up to her mouth, glancing around stricken like she was looking for somebody, or to see if she was being watched, then bending over as the sobs tied her insides up and shortened her. It went on for some time like that. I watched several cycles of this, wondering why she wore heels into the middle of this mess, my eyes getting wet but not dropping tears.

The memorial was fitting and elegant and true, in a way that didn't surprise me (there has been talk of something like this since only days after 9/11) but which pleased me nonetheless. Two blocks away, earthmovers and backhoes plied the lowest levels of the wreckage under the glare of arc lights. Directly in front of me, a crowd of gawkers, mourners, cops, visitors from across the world, the curious and the thoughtful mingled, quiet conversation and sorrow passing between. It was beautiful and angry-making, tragic and exalted and utterly insufficient. Nothing really, to my mind, could ever make right 9/11 and what happened here, or make right what happened elsewhere on this little blue-green orb that encouraged a gang of bitter, wicked and desperate men to do what they did on that day. The longer I live, though, I begin to understand better and better that it isn't really about fixing things or evening everything out. But for a quarter of an hour on a chilly March night, two pillars of light marked a place of immense sorrow and shame, despair and failure, and shined upward at hope, hinted at joy hidden beyond the lower edge of the clouds which even these blinding beams could not penetrate. They were two columns standing next to each other, and when they reached high enough, they seemed to finally come together into one - in a place far above where we stood watching below.

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