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GROUND ZERO, INC. "But when you look at it, a big hole is the last thing you see. You see what was there, and then you suddenly become aware of what is not. Every building in the vicinity was smashed by falling debris. The brand new Millennium Hilton a beautiful, sleek, austere black tower, had no windows for the first ten floors. Ditto across the Plaza with the first 20 on One World Financial Center, the home of American Express. The old Federal Building across the street seemed hardly touched. It was so hard to imagine that three tall buildings once stood there (don’t forget Building 7, the 47 story box that took most of the brunt of the Towers collapsing and went down itself). It was certainly a testament to the economy of space in our major cities."
By Charles Shaw


When I lived in Manhattan in the mid nineties I subletted a tiny Co-Op studio on 23rd St. and 9th avenue in this massive prewar structure called the London Terrace Towers that rises fifteen stories and takes up the entire block between 23rd and 24th, 9th and 10th. This was during the mid point of Giulliani’s gentrification juggernaut, and Chelsea was exploding as the new gay stronghold in the city. As such, my best friend and I counted ourselves in the barely perceptible minority of unmarried straight men who resided in the hood.

London Terrace has an amazing parapet roof deck that runs around the whole building. I used to stand on the corner turret and stare down the West side of the Island at the WTC Towers in the distance, who always reflected the midday sun into schizophrenic lasers of financial furor. They were the most prominent thing around, and everyone in the Tri-State area used their peaks like the mountain ridge promontories that direct wilderness travelers, guiding all towards the Big City and then through the canyons of skyscrapers once there. I was unimpressed, growing up in the shadow of the Sears Tower. I thought they were ugly.

When I moved back to Chicago two years later, I remarked that I never once walked across WTC Plaza while a resident of the city. I never touched the towers, never went inside the buildings, never even took a photograph of them. Like I said, I was unimpressed, and my life was about as different from what went on in those towers as anything you can imagine.

My return to the city was predicated on seeing my best friend from college, whose office was two blocks from the WTC, but who was in Las Vegas during the attacks. His girlfriend, however, was still in the city, in the same office, and became one of the thousands of Grey Ghosts that streamed out of Lower Manhattan on September 11th. With all air traffic grounded, my friend drove back to NYC from Las Vegas. He swore never to fly again. He also proposed to his girlfriend. I missed their engagement party. I was there to make up for it, pay my respects as it were.

My girlfriend and I drove for twelve hours through a wall of fog and spray from miles of Semi’s heading East to arrive in Manhattan early Thursday. Because the weather was so bad, we could see no further than a hundred yards ahead of us. The Manhattan Skyline was hidden as we approached the Lincoln Tunnel. How appropriate that we could see nothing, and once we emerged in the city, clouds made a thick ceiling around the twentieth floor all across town. We checked into the Algonquin and took a shower. We decided to wait a day before heading Downtown, to see if the weather would change.

The next morning was exactly the same as September 11th, the same clear blue skies, the same temperature, and the same calm stillness. The city was quiet, almost deserted it seemed, compared to what I was familiar with.

We cabbed from Midtown to Chelsea, then walked down to the site. It was late morning, and it was beautiful…and again, it was quiet. All along the way shopkeepers and restaurant owners stood outside and beckoned for us to come in. Business was terrible everywhere you looked.

We first arrived at the Hudson Street entrance to the WTC Plaza, and was met by a veritable sea of trailers and trucks and mounds of construction shit behind chain link fences, and a whole tent village for the workers, and there ahead, the huge, open gap of air, and a 35 story building in the distance covered with a black debris screen, where hanging in the middle was an enormous American Flag. This was the shot 6 billion people see on CNN every day.

There was too much in the way to see anything directly, and we were quickly chased away by a cop, who interrupted his discussion with a rather attractive young tourist asking the same questions as we. We were told to go to the reviewing stands on Broadway. The young lady was not instructed as such.

We had to wind around to Fulton and Broadway where they had erected the reviewing stands just astride the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church cemetery which, like everything else down there, had been converted for the use of the “Rescue” workers. This was where the largest memorial wall stood, all across the cemetery fences of the church, as people from all over the world posted their memorial pastiches amongst old missing person ads and flowers and flags. Immediately we saw a long line, and asked about the viewing area. Cops of an entirely different nature (who were acting more like press agents) and volunteers from various organizations working at the site were directing people to the South Street Seaport, where we needed to obtain tickets to see the site.

Okay. Maybe that was to discourage so many people from just wandering by. Who knows? But to this day, I haven’t figured out what the tickets were for. It wasn’t that crowded. They didn’t even take the tickets, when I asked to keep mine.

We set off across town to the Seaport, following a pilgrimage mass that had arrived at the site just before us.

Here’s where things got seedy. EVERYWHERE were street vendors selling WTC and FDNY memorabilia. You would have thought half the population of New York was in the fire department, seeing all those hats. But nonetheless, it was an open market free for all, and the vendors were pushy. It became abundantly clear that half of them were making a sick buck off the tragedy, and half were just desperate to survive, as their businesses were all but destroyed in September.

Most sold tasteful or touching trinkets, paintings, old framed photographs…until we reached a table (above) where on display, for sale ($1.00 per photo) were photographs taken September 11th of the carnage, of people jumping out of the Towers, of bodies in the rubble. I was speechless. It transcended poor taste, and I began to take photos of my own. Immediately the two proprietors—a middle-aged man and women (above) with thick accents—began flipping over the photos and informing me I “was not allowed” to take photographs. I told them to that unless I was mistaken we weren’t in Red China and I had the right to take a photograph of whatever I wanted.

Some construction worker behind me (who most likely saw this couple everyday) told me to fuck off, mumbling something about me being a “goddamn Commie journalist.” I replied that they all should be ashamed with themselves, and I took the shady couple’s picture again and again until they turned and hid. The construction worker eyed me, waiting to see if I was stupid enough to start a fight with a NYC construction worker at Ground Zero. I wasn’t. He was all right, though. He, like every other construction worker I saw, was walking around like they owned the place.

My self-righteous, Liberal indignation was alive and kicking up a storm.

But then again, was I any better? I was there to do a story. Was that just as exploitative? I felt guilt, whether or not it was warranted. Guilt usually cares little about whether or not it is warranted; it just likes to show off.

We got the tickets and then walked around the tip of the island through Battery Park. We eventually went back to the site to have lunch and wait for our 3:00 viewing time. We went to the Houlihan’s that was a block away, a cracked and flaking remnant of the mighty Bright Lights Big City era Manhattan, now wallowing in Chapter 11, a keen metaphor, even if an unwilling one.

We sat for an hour with an unobstructed view from the second floor of the entire site and the World Financial Center across the plaza, still empty, still riddled with shattered windows and plywood boards. This was the first time the emotional aspect started to burp up…out of nowhere I start to cry, just as the waitress arrives at the table. She takes one look at me, rolls her eyes like great, another fucking touristand puts her hand on my shoulder.

“You must be from out of town,” she says. “It’s okay, they all react like that.”

Out of respect, I thanked her silently for her condescending remarks. She spots the camera on the table, the open notebook, takes a longer look at me.

“Are you famous or something?”

“If I was famous, honey, would I be eating here?”

People always ask me that. I think it’s because my girlfriend is so pretty.

I smiled, decided to be nicer to her. She might have seen the whole thing happen, it was only a block away, who knows? Anyway her stock rose as she compensated by delivering two double Bloody Marys. We ate largely in silence. I think I looked at my food twice.

When we got in line (“on” line for you east coast folks) for the 3:00pm showing, I met a volunteer named “David” from the B’nai Jeshurun Conservative Synagogue, who had been volunteering his time at the site since late November, every day, all day. He stands there and watches that line and directs folks to the South Street Seaport. I asked him why he does it. He looked at me like I was crazy.

“I don’t think you understand just how terrible it was. There is no physical evidence that this happened anymore besides what you are about to go see. Picture this place like the moon, or Hiroshima. There was nothing but ash and paper and bodies and debris for as far as you can see right now. It was Hell, and I saw it. I’ve never seen anything so horrible. Have you ever seen what a body looks like after it falls from a thousand feet up? Would you like to ask me again why I am here…?”

I declined.

When they finally let us in, we walked up a long plywood ramp with ten foot high plywood walls that were covered with hundreds of thousands of signatures, and then we reached the top of the ramp and there it was…

What is there to say? It is a giant hole in the ground, surrounded by a bustling construction site. I saw more watching a C-Span program where they took a camera into the site a week ago. It was a nice point of reference to have as I squeezed between others to get a clear view. There was only one tiny pile of twisted rubble, which I learned from C-Span was the remains of 70 odd floors that are compressed on top of each other in the space of 5 floors along the sides of the pit, and it keeps spitting out debris like popcorn in a Jiffy Pop tin.

The site, with the Milennium Hilton to the left.
Across is One World Financial Center.

But when you look at it, a big hole is the last thing you see. You see what was there, and then you suddenly become aware of what is not. Every building in the vicinity was smashed by falling debris. The brand new Millennium Hilton (inset) a beautiful, sleek, austere black tower, had no windows for the first ten floors. Ditto across the Plaza with the first 20 on One World Financial Center, the home of American Express. The old Federal Building across the street seemed hardly touched. It was so hard to imagine that three tall buildings once stood there (don’t forget Building 7, the 47 story box that took most of the brunt of the Towers collapsing and went down itself). It was certainly a testament to the economy of space in our major cities.


Needless to say, the tears were inevitable.


I talked to John, a member of the NYPD on duty, stationed at the top of the platform. His face said, leave me the f@#k alone, but I asked him questions anyway, because how do you go to Ground Zero and not talk to the police and fire department? He told me that where we were standing on the reviewing stand was once under a mountain of debris. He told me to thank god I never saw what used to be there. He said that even though it is gone from the air, he can’t get the stench out of his nose. He doesn’t think he ever will.

We left, as a group of firefighters with a body recovery cart were headed in.

We stayed two more days and had a hell of a lot of fun and completely forgot that Ground Zero was even there. It was easy to do, every New Yorker was a willing conspirator. One night we sat at a bar and talked to the bartender, a woman of 35, for almost an hour. She said everyone is fleeing the New York City area. People she has known since the late ‘80’s, when she moved there, show up, bags in hand, and say their goodbyes. We three agreed that that was to be expected, that New York would recover like always, and we joked about buying into the tremendously depressed real estate market in Manhattan. But underneath that jocularity is the gnawing fear that our sarcastic jokes about the downfall of New York might bear more truth than either of us wished to acknowledge.

Rome fell too, didn’t it? We left the next day, back to Chicago, a far superior place, in my humble opinion.

Charles Shaw is the Politics and Non-Fiction Editor for 3am Magazine, along with being a regular contributor of fiction and interviews. He is also the co-editor of 3am's sister site, SinglesFAQ.

A graduate of Boston University with degrees in Literature, Psychology, and Creative Writing, Charles’ work attempts to address ontological themes such as our relationship to ourself, those around us, and that which is beyond us.

In 2000-2001 he was scriptwriter for J. Harrison's award winning nationally syndicated radio show Reality Check.

In 2000 Charles launched Spiritus Creative, a consulting company, and designed The Spiritus Creative Project, an online Arts and Humanities site. In that time he published a number of freelance articles on the loss of meaning in American Culture at the end of the millennium.

In 2001 he was selected as a semi-finalist in the International Library of Poetry’s annual competition. The 33 semi-finalists were selected from a field of over 3 million total entries.2001 also saw the debut of his daily rant column, Signs of the Decline of Western Civilization.

In 2003 he will publish The Politics of Recreation: The History of Chicago Public Land (Lake Claremont Press), and his debut novel, Unfinished Portraits.

Aside from his fiction and essay, Charles has worked extensively writing and directing film and theatre.

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