NEW YORK — All we said to the cabbie was "Ground Zero," and he took off for the former site of the World Trade Center towers in Lower Manhattan. Often the drivers may need cross streets, numbers and the like, but not for this. Not for Ground Zero. I'd never been there before, so I can't get a perspective on this profoundly historic and tragic piece of ground in terms of comparing it to the days when two towers rose spectacularly into the New York City skyline, making some other skyscrapers seem almost small. Now, though construction is ongoing and some stages of completion are supposed to happen by September 11, the site still has the feel of a crater.
All around it on this sunny but frigid day the New York bustle is in progress, with shoppers and business people going to and fro as if Ground Zero was just another construction site.
For tourists, though, the feeling is entirely different. The first thing, the very first, you think about is where you were Sept. 11, 2001, around 9 a.m. Eastern, when the first plane slammed into the Trade Center towers. That we do not forget. I was at the Circle K store on Glenwood Avenue at Five Points, getting gasoline. I walked inside and people were staring up at a small television set behind the cash registers.
For days thereafter, the attack by al-Qaida terrorists seemed like some movie playing in the country's brain. The United States attacked? It does not happen.
But it did, and now I am standing at the spot known only to me as the place where 3,000 innocent souls died, the place where then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani walked through the dust with his mask, where President George W. Bush stood on a pile of rubble with a fireman, where the city and the country gained a powerful respect for the people in those FDNY or NYPD hats (now for sale all over town) and where survivors still mourn. I thought I saw a couple of folks who might have been survivors of victims standing by themselves and weeping, but I certainly didn't approach them.
A multitude of hard-hats patrol the area, said to be about 16 acres in total but seeming much smaller. That's the first thing that struck me, in fact. Ground Zero, as it came to be called in the days following the attack, seems like a relatively small plot of land, perhaps made to seem more so by the fact that it is surrounded by tall buildings. And while the damage done that day is breathtaking in scope, it seems a miracle now that more people weren't killed and more buildings weren't destroyed.
The neighbors now range from a tobacco shop about the size of a small closet (pack of cigarettes: $13) to the men's clothing icon Brooks Brothers in a sleek, multistory building.
What appears to be a temporary store and mini-museum that raises money for related causes is jammed most of the time, a fellow tells me, even when it's not the Christmas season. Most of the people there on this day, a couple of weeks before Christmas, were tourists getting New York Fire Department T-shirts and mugs and other memorabilia, most of it, I must say, rather subdued, certainly by New York standards.
At this point, standing across the street from the site, there is not much to look at and yet you can't stop looking. Looking and thinking about the images of that day, from the explosions to the people who jumped from windows to the gruesome aftermath to the memorials in virtually every church in the United States.
Many public figures were defined that day, at least for a while. George W. Bush led the nation's mourning with compassion and grace. Giuliani, the former prosecutor and then the mayor, would in many ways be touted for the presidency based on his actions after the tragedy, even if that fame wouldn't take him to his goal. But most of the heroes whom we associate with that time are, as they should be, the cops and the firemen who risked, and in too many cases, lost their lives.
They came to symbolize, and still do symbolize, the courage and the strength in a country whose buildings were destroyed that day, whose confidence might have been shaken. But now, as the 10th "anniversary" approaches, that country still stands.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jim Jenkins is the deputy editorial page editor for the News & Observer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.