Four months later, this is what normal looks like. People queuing up for tickets to a tragedy.
The rain falls, cold and persistent, on a line that snakes halfway down the pier at the South Street Seaport. Men in baseball caps hunch their necks against the drizzle. Women seek shelter beneath their umbrellas. Waiting.
Just ahead of me, one woman is telling another about this rerun of Friends she saw the other day. There was a shot of the Towers in it. You saw them so much, she says, that they no longer registered. And now . . .
And now the line moves forward, a perverse echo of a summer afternoon in the amusement park. But when you get to the head, you don't find Space Mountain. Instead, there's a kiosk where a woman hands you a ticket. It tells what time you'll be allowed to stand on a platform above the place where, until Sept. 11, skyscrapers used to be. Mine says 2 o'clock.
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The streets around Ground Zero have, as always seems to happen in communal tragedies, been turned into a makeshift shrine to the victims. Fences festooned with baseball caps bearing the logos of unions and ball teams. With American flags and inscriptions entreating God's mercy. With poems, posters and placards still bearing the smiling faces of the lost. And with prayers. Lots of prayers.
It's a mountain of detritus that has been left to the mercy of the elements. Some of the images have been burned away by the sun. Some of the cardboard posters have been chewed up by the rain. Some of the flowers are brown and forlorn. Some of the poetry lies among cigarette butts.
The calendar, after all, has turned. Suddenly, the headlines are no longer all terror, all the time. Suddenly, there is also Enron, tax cut politics and Michael Jordan's divorce. Ballgames are being played again, late-night talk shows are booking flighty actresses again, people are cutting one another off in traffic again.
We are doing all the things we thought we'd never do again.
It seemed unthinkable then. Inevitable now. You can't exist indefinitely on the razor's edge of the crisis. Sooner or later, even against your own best effort, regeneration takes hold. Healing comes. It cannot be Sept. 11 forever.
And yet, the paradox: Sept. 11 will be with us, always. Part of who we are, forever.
So when 2 o'clock comes and the police officer motions me forward, I'm not sure what to expect. Sometimes, you see the artifacts of atrocity with your own eyes, and it has the power to make the terrible thing real in ways nothing else does. I've walked on battlefields side by side with ghosts, seen emptiness fill the shoes of Holocaust victims.
But this place is different, and it takes me awhile to figure out why. It's because I've already been here. Indeed, I never left. I've been here every day since the morning I saw the planes crash into those towers again again again again. Again.
And, too, it's because what used to be the World Trade Center now looks like a construction site, toy trucks rumbling and stick people in hard hats working far below. The image is misleading, of course. This is actually a deconstruction site. Deconstruction of wreckage. Deconstruction of naiveté, false assumptions and innocence.
Deconstruction down to the base, to the fundamentals, to the core. Deconstruction that will leave us a foundation upon which to build. And we've never required anything more.
I realize now that I already knew this. Because I've been here.
You have, too. We have mourned and prayed here, cursed and stammered here. But we have not stopped here. That, to me, is the most important thing. Indeed, for all the celebrated heroism of firefighters and police officers, it strikes me that this, too, is a kind of courage. The planet turns, winter to spring, life to death, certainty to uncertainty. We wake upon a new normal. But somehow, like water, we adapt and go on.
I stand among a group of strangers clustered against the railing above the abyss. I find myself waiting for weeping.
But all that comes is the rain.