Why did I spend my Artist’s Way artist’s date at the New York City 9/11 memorial? Why does anyone go there? I’m not asking rhetorically to underscore that I don’t think anyone should go. I’m sharing the question that popped into my head at 2:25pm that day, after standing in line 10 minutes waiting for the 2:30pm estimated entry-time stamped on my ticket. What was I expecting?
My cartoonist’s brain was expecting to see the two twin towers laid-up in hospital gowns like John and Yoko during their Bed-In: recumbent, signing autographs, speaking in hushed tones of all they’d been through. Though cartoonish, this was, in a way, part of what the 9/11 museum offered. There were, in fact, a few tons of collapsed-tower-iron on hand to be ogled. Huge girders twisted by massive forces into shapes duplicable only by aluminum foil.
Why did I come here? For what was I looking? Hey, why does anyone come here?
First, I didn’t know where the hell it was. How is that possible for someone coming-up on his second decade in the NYC? The National September 11 Memorial & Museum (official name) ought to be right where the Twin Towers stood, right? Yep. But, years of flux have spawned a complex of chain-link fencing and construction-redirects at Ground Zero, which would give Feng Shui itself nightmares.
Is it that spiny-looking building? I asked no one in particular. Nope. That’s the WTC transportation hub. Down the stream of tourists I floated past signage and into one VERY long line. This must be it. No. This line is for the newly-built Freedom Tower, and slaloms visitors a serpentine quarter mile, only to have them rise another quarter mile into the sky. Before today I thought the Freedom Tower was foolish defiance. The Freedom Tower, I thought, is just a giant middle finger to Al-Qaeda. My opinion changed by the time I left.
Alas this was not my line.
I wandered toward what would prove to be the most perfect part of the whole memorial: the absolutely free-of-charge fountains. These fountains, as you may know, are deep holes in the ground surrounded by cascades of water falling into eternity. The names of the deceased are laser-cut into the monument-grade metal lip which runs all the way around it. The design invites you to lean and reflect. I accepted. Maybe these pools are supposed to prepare you for the 9/11 museum proper. I leaned and prepped. Like giant graves these chasmic fountains make you feel very far from the eternal downrush of water before you.
I gained the courage to go find out about prices and how long the correct lines were expected to be.
A blondish, sun-burnt man wearing 9/11-memorial-blue, who looked like he felt pained at the prospect of a new inquiry, answered my questions, with an attitude I can only describe as energy-conserving. I feared I was annoying him by the time I asked my third question. I did what he told me and now I was in line. Signs said veterans could get an $18 ticket which was better than the $24 ticket that those who never served were forced to pay. With this pricing the museum made its first statement about patriotism. The girl behind the ticket window glass had a pale-green crossed-eye which was slitted like a cat’s pupil. I knew immediately these were noteworthy eyes but I made a Gladwellian Blink decision to focus on the non-feline eye. This to send her and the whole 9/11 Memorial Team the message that I had seen a lot in my day and was ready for anything they could bring.
I don’t think anyone tuned-in to my message.
I’ve finally learned that visiting a place firsthand is completely different from guessing what it’s like from a distance. Over the last 14 years, I had deemed most of the busy-ants-after-the-anthill-is-kicked log of activity down here at “Ground Zero” as insensitive at best, and, at worst, downright: money-changers-at-the-temple. As a trained actor who, in his college days, read voraciously about the masochistic lengths gone-to by your DeNiros and your Day-Lewis’s, I do get it that flesh-and-blood visits to locations gain you the deepest, fastest knowledge of a places guts.
My first surprise inside the museum was that there were children there. And moreover, that none of these children (ranging from 7-17) were any older than 3 when these towers fell. None of them. But, more on that later.
Will I need the audio tour? It’s seven dollars. No thank you. Right away the term “Islamic Group” is spoken on a looped recording. The ice is broken.
My first tears inside the memorial spilled fast. I was primed for grief anyway. I tend to sense when I’m pregnant with a sadness (my late mother’s 65th birthday was the day before) and so I’m also aware of when I’m in need of a sad film, song or venue to midwife any newborn blues. I think that’s why I went.
So many tears fell after the towers.
Although misty-eyed in line right after committing to the ticket, my first rainfall of tears fell after I saw projections on some concrete walls of the famous missing people flyers. Help. Missing. Phone numbers.
The waterfalls outside just deepened.
This terrible, beautiful museum is inviting deep reflection on a missing-person’s poster. A cheap piece of paper, printed out either at home or Kinko’s (the one on 35th and Madison or the Staples downtown?) and cluttered with “We Love You’s” and “Missing’s” and portraits of the Gone. This thought arose: whomever made the poster had hope, yet what we know now makes these papers seem hopeless. And with the knowledge of what was to come, that almost no survivors emerged, it occurs to me that perhaps the term missing applies to us. We are the ones with gaping holes in our hearts. Missing our loved ones. Missing fellow citizens. Missing the way things were before 9/11. The posters claim the dead to be the missing. The dead aren’t missing anything. We are.
Maybe that’s why I came here. To find what’s been missing since that day.
But what sealed the deal on my tears was a little brown-skinned boy (Indian?) wearing thick, heart-string-tugging eyeglasses, visiting the museum with his father, whose hand he held, looking up and saying of a picture filled with a burning tower, “The whole thing broke down?” To which the father pushed out a solemn “Yes.”
I was leaning again. The whole thing broke down.
After winding down an enormous dark-wood walkway which snakes through the main cavern like a huge constrictor, I felt my chest tightening and my throat closing as if in fact under the muscle of a big snake. Constructed thusly the planners expose you slowly to more and more evidence of the main event. The snake drops you off into what is a mausoleum-like concrete canyon, which looks like it was all part of the original Twin Tower foundation. If it’s a marriage of the new and the old, it’s seamless. Once in the canyon, greater trauma and destruction are unveiled. A whole fire truck, dwarfed by the canyon walls and path you’ve just descended, sits rusted and crushed amid dazed-looking visitors. Disfigured over a decade ago on that now-infamous date for which you and all the others milling around (now in silence) are here gathered.
Why did we come here?
At this point, having descended the wooden snake and having been dumped in the canyon of heroes, I’m feeling disappointed and I’m questioning the minds that went into this joint’s design. My disappointment is momentarily assuaged by a huge wall of mounted squares. They’re in a palette of aquas, blues and surf tones. And they are an echo of the missing persons posters we New Yorkers all saw on every available surface. The chain link motif behind these 100’s of panels convinces me that this was a work of art. And this gave me hope. I have tended to think that those most directly effected by 9/11 were New Jerseyites in finance. Read Republican. Read not into the arts. Read: only willing to sign-off on a museum with Zero sense of subtlety or translation.
These are the prejudices I bear.
I lost no one on 9/11 and so I feel like it’s callous of me to want to be artistically satisfied at a museum which is intended, I’m thinking, to be more like a funeral. At any other funeral, especially one for an unexpected death, there isn’t much expectation that anyone is going to have an oil portrait ready-to-go in honor of the decedent. But here, this wall of squares, was a work which elevated this place above the level of tomb-with-admission-price.
Yet I was still shrugging my shoulders at this point and saying to myself, “Where’s the exclusive?” If I’m paying good money and spending my time in this place I want to experience something. This is a selfish notion. This is insensitive. Put me in front of someone who lost a loved one and I would never utter these words. I fear right now that a grieving woman in black and her scowling now-grown children are going to tearfully confront me over these thoughts, thoughts held by me at one early point in this journey about how this memorial lacked a punch. Was it the museum? Or was I not letting myself be penetrated emotionally by the elaborate displays of carefully lighted and carelessly mangled debris?
Then I saw the entryway beyond which photography is not allowed. Cut-off from the canyon by a sound-resistent glass wall, this promises to be the area the Museum Layout has prepped you for up til now. This is the inner sanctum. The holy of holies. If this whole place has been a funeral parlor I was about enter where you view the casket.
I entered. This is where it hit me how the kids abounded. They were everywhere… Looking. Gaping. Absorbing. Learning second-hand about something for which I was present (in Manhattan). Suddenly I understood my grandfather’s experience, 40 years ago, as we leafed through his Time/Life book on World War 2, an event for which he had been present. When you’ve experienced a thing first hand and you review it with a child, part of you wants to say to the child, get out of here. Don’t know about this. It’s too much for your tender mind to hold. And the other part wants to say, you’ll never understand. Pushing them out of your private club and insisting they go get a tragedy of their own. I felt protective of this event. What? That doesn’t make any frickin’ sense, yet there it is. I felt an ownership of this event which I didn’t know I felt until I crossed into the casket room and saw a group of four young girls agape in front of some of the replay footage.
A dark alcove. What’s in here? Oh, it’s a small theater. By the time you sit on the wooden benches in the audio story theater you’re ready to sit. Weak-legged. Tear-stained. The mini screening room features recorded accounts of first hand experiences in the towers. Two things stuck out here. Two different people recounted how the officials who were giving instructions said: “Run and don’t look back.” The other “Do not look up! Do not look back!” Two different survivors relaying that two different first responders were giving the very same warning Lot’s wife received just before becoming a block of salt.
Maybe we’re here because after 14 years it’s safe to look up and look back. Have we run far enough yet, officer?
The part of me that periodically binge-watches 9/11 videos was celebrating that I could now share this till-now isolated activity with others. I’ve seen the documentary by the french brothers. I’ve seen Loose Change. On Youtube I’ve watched the towers get hit, in my spare time, upwards of 500 times. The driving thought being: which angle will reveal to me the Why? Which viewing will help me really feel what happened here?
There are pictures everywhere. Images of people in shock. Heads in hands. Hands over mouths. Bloody faces. Scanning eyes. Ash covered. This hall of photos which currently houses our (the visitors) shared tragedy and is allowing us all to be in close proximity to other living strangers, each as-compelled to drive slowly past the wreckage as I, brings to light what we share as humans. Our basic frailty. Young firemen marching up to their deaths. So ineffective and archaic to the challenge were their techniques that I stood there wondering if there was now a better way to fight fires. We museum-goers in 2015 know more than everyone in every picture. The fruitlessness of some of their efforts in the face of what we visitors now know is coming (building collapses, years of revenge wars) adds another layer of helplessness to the images. Debris covered voting booths — it was, after all, election day.
Yes, accumulating like the ash in lower Manhattan is, for me on this visit, the fact that, in the face of such devastation, we were helpless and vulnerable that day as individuals, as a city and as a nation . This basic vulnerability is what humans strive to hide from each other (and as nations) every day and always have. On September 11th 2001 it was laid bare and you can see it in the wet eyes and incredulous gestures both in the pictures and on the faces of today’s visitors.
I learned that the firemen making it up as many flights as they did, gave hope to those descending as they passed. Their presence told the victims that the way out was clear, otherwise how would they have gotten up there? I was relieved to learn this since so many stair-climbing firefighters died that day; it hadn’t been for nothing.
I saw an area which I almost ignored due to the low foot traffic. Upon closer inspection, the flickering light behind the obscuring partition turned out to be a video of the jumpers. Those who were forced out of the windows on that day.
I learned that many people jumped. I never realized how high a number. I’ve heard it spoken-of many times about how terrible it must have been inside the towers if leaping was the better choice. My tour through the museums contemplative passageways caused me to think beyond ground zero, about anyone who jumps to their own death and how terribly they must perceive all that’s behind them to be in order for a plunge into death to seem the better option. Let me clarify: the tower victims were murdered by the actions of murderers, however, this visit deepened my view on those in peril elsewhere.
In a frame there’s an emergency instruction panel from WTC elevator. “In case of fire elevators are out of service.”
This funereal room looks small upon entry but wends endlessly, winding it’s way past tastefully camouflaged tissue box stations shaped (likely accidentally) like single Twin Towers.
By the time I got to section on the terrorists themselves (photos, planning notebooks, histories) I was worn out. I had no capacity to give their side an open-minded view. The psyche (mine, at least) can only process so much in one day, and the terrorists, by happenstance or incredible design, get none of your open-hearted contemplation. I buzzed through this section as fast as I could without appearing to jog.
I heard anchorman Brian Williams give me a succinct summary of the terrorists motives. I had been wanting this. According to Mr. Williams voiceover, they did it so that the U.S. would withdraw forces from Muslim lands to make room for the rule of Islamic law.
My Comedy Brain tried to find the lighter side of this trip a few times. Comedy Brain came up with very little. One thing was that other than to help fund the museum, I can’t imagine what incentive anyone would have to join this museum. Members get free access…yay! I doubt this place gets frequent repeat visitors.
I wanted to be thorough because I’m not going back.
Funny idea number two came at the end when they display genuine originals of the missing persons posters. Amid this dread search for a shred of hope I imagined someone’s ridiculous-by-comparison poster attempting to find a pair of gold snakeskin Nikes. You have to forgive Comedy Brain, he was trying to cope.
Little details got me. There was a second damaged fire truck. The rear end had some paint and fire damage but was pretty much intact, except for the thick steel grating, formerly used for the firemen to stand on. It was ripped up through the middle and distorted the way a plastic frisbee would be after resting on a red hot sword. What forces were at work on the physical world that day?
And then I saw it. A quote by a widow that helped me understand my own prurient desire to watch this stuff over and over again. Why I was at the museum with hundreds of others. This quote was near the end for a reason and I must again acknowledge the designers and curators for their thoughtful layout. The wall before me said:
“I didn’t want that day to end, terrible as it was…It was still a day that I’d shared with Sean.” -Beverly Eckert, wife of South Tower victim Sean Paul Rooney.
At the end of your journey they’ve done something brilliant. You will be full. Some will need a stiff belt of booze. Some will suddenly want ice cream…really badly. Some may just sit and sob. People do many things to cope. One of the oldest is prefigured into the museum experience. Sharing.
“There’ll be a time for sharing your story at the end.” What? I’m going to get to go on camera or make an audio recording? I thought: this is too good to be true. I would love to not only make the tragedy of this event somehow about me, but I will, maybe, get a laugh or a letter of thanks and appreciation from the Mayor’s office for my thought-provoking yet clearly-heartfelt insights. I couldn’t wait. I even got to projecting negative outcomes: the recording booths won’t be open today, since I am so eager to speak, they’ll be getting a new coat of paint or some more soundproofing foam. My luck.
There were private booths at the end where you could decompress and share your 9/11 experience. This place is like receptacle for all the difficult feelings you might have about 9/11. I shot two videos which will join the procession of others projected endlessly on the screen of the next room. One survivor after another is shone onto the wall, like the procession of souls which exited this same spot years before.
After spiraling you down into the belly of ground zero and then through the viewing galleries, your visit is done. And just when you need a lift you get one, literally, on two of the most beautiful sections of escalator I’ve ever seen. Both stair lanes rise skyward toward the daylight. You move up and out. This tunnel’s lighting reminded me of the spotlights which scan the night sky to mark the anniversary of the towers. And their boxy escalator shape makes them look like twin towers. As you rise you hear the same 4 notes played 24 times in artful succession to create the dirge: Taps. Then you hit the original set of escalators upon which you initially descended to the boa constrictor and this set has two stair lanes also. One with people descending of which you were one 2 hours ago. Newbies. Pre-911 memorial folks. Looking placid and a little eager. Then there’s us. The emerging. The battle scarred exhibition vets, complete with weary posture and 1000-yard stares.
I didn’t regret skipping the audio tour.
When I woke up the day I went to the 9/11 Museum I thought The Freedom Tower was a dumb idea. The museum changed my mind.
Twin Towers on eulogizing the buildings themselves. There is a final yellow room which is home to two huge scale reproductions of the twin towers. They’re taller than me if they were on the ground. On the table they’re 9 feet high. Like the phoenix they rise up in memoriam. The posters on the wall remind you that the Twin Towers were movie stars, featured in such films as: King Kong, Superman (w/Christopher Reeves), Working Girl and Spiderman. As well as surviving in perpetuity on such pop culture staples as 3 New Yorker covers, men’s neckties and the Chock-Full-O-Nuts canister. The golf balls, chatchkes and keychains with the Twin Towers upon them weren’t even necessary to seal these building’s status — but they were there, too.
Why did I go to the 9/11 museum? To be reminded that I am at my most open and relatable when I’m vulnerable. We all are. And it would be nice to be able to dwell in that state without needing a tragedy in order to do so.