Thursday, October 09, 2003

LILEKS AT HIS BEST

James Lileks has a gift for writing that is remarkable. He mostly writes about his life -- his job and his family. Amazingly, he can write five different really entertaining posts for his blog and two or more columns for his employer each week.

But every so often, he lets his guard down and writes about something else. In his post today, he talks about his visit to the World Trade Center site:

Walked with my editor a ways until he had to head towards home. Said goodbye and marched south, down to the hole in the sky.

Late Saturday afternoon, almost five. Hundreds of people looking up at nothing. Hundreds of people looking into the pit. Everyone had come to see what wasn’t there.

Flowers stuck into the fence; journals and candles, gifts, votaries, offerings, messages. The daily crop, removed at dusk. To my surprise they didn’t just throw up a fence, but put up a series of signs that explained the history of the site, back to the Hudson Terminal Towers and beyond. The historical plaques, the fence, the reactions of the visitors - it felt like a death camp site. If you had no idea what had happened here you would know almost at once that it this place had suffered a hideous calamity. It had an emptiness I can’t describe, an emptiness made all the more obvious by all the congestion around the site. It was like entering a parlor whose walls and tables were filled with framed photos, and you notice that there’s nothing on the mantelpiece.

One building had a gigantic mural devoted to hope and remembrance. I’m sure it’s just an accident that this wretched culture of ours didn’t put up something reminding us to smite the bearded foreigners and run their blood into the gutters. An oversight. Last minute mistake.

Walked around, up the walkway. You look down and see the new construction; you see the naked subterranean floors still exposed, still raw. Back down the stairs, and there’s-a few square yards of painted wood, smothered with the words of the grieved, the widowed, the friends and neighbors and people who always bought smokes from that store in the concourse and only knew the woman behind the counter as Maria, and everyone else who probably brought a Sharpie intent on saying what they had to say, and so what if they paint it over, it’ll be there still. Something isn’t gone just because it’s buried.

T-SHIRTS TWO DOLLA, TWO DOLLA, TWO DOLLA said the vendor near the bottom of the steps, and I felt like walking over and kicking him in the nuts. But. Well. No. I went south instead, and once I was half a block away I was suddenly in a different world. South of the WTC site is the Deutsche Bank building, now wrapped in black fabric, abandoned. There was no one here, and there were no sounds. I’ve never ever been anywhere in Manhattan where it was this quiet. No horns, no voices, no car alarms, nothing. Absolute silence. The wind had picked up, and was rippling the shroud over the DB tower. All the ripples went up. It looked as if the building was still shedding souls, and they were running beneath the thin dark blanket, looking for the way out.

I paused at the plaza on Liberty, took a picture of the empty sky, and turned around -

And there were old friends. The Trinity Building. The Equitable Building, God bless its unlovable bulk. I walked around and saw the other giants of lower Manhattan - 40 Wall, Cities Service. The Woolworth building. One after the other - giant monoliths old and new, gargantuan towers assembled in the sky by human hands, each one just another piston stroke in the motor of American commerce. You can’t begin to knock all these down. And if you managed to fell them all, you’d have to head north and work on that Olympian lance on 34th, and if you brought that down - it would take you years to make your way ten blocks.

The men who brought down the towers did nothing more than take a hammer to the tooth of a sleeping lion. Oh, you can do that.

But you can only do it once.



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