When Bill Olson got off the subway at Canal Street in lower Manhattan at around 9:00 on a bright, clear Wednesday morning in mid-November, he tried to figure out where the hell he was. He had honeymooned here 17 years ago, and he had returned in 1998 with his wife to celebrate their 14th anniversary at Windows on the World, the restaurant that used to top one of the twin towers. But this time, without the help of the World Trade Center, it took Olson a few minutes to get his bearings.
When he'd figured out where he was, Olson strode toward ground zero, looking for Nino's Restaurant. It was, his wife had told him, where New York City police officers and firefighters often congregated during the continuing clean-up efforts in the wake of the attacks on the twin towers September 11. Since then, Nino's has been serving as many as 7,000 meals a day to clean-up workers. More than that, it has become a magnet for people wanting to help out the efforts without getting in the way at the actual site; sometimes as many as 100 volunteers show up during the day to serve food.
Olson, a 47-year-old with thinning blond hair, carried a card signed by 22 third graders from Our Lady of Peace School in south Minneapolis. Made from a piece of construction paper a foot tall and two feet long, it contained a bumper sticker of an American flag and the message "Thank you for all you've done," written by Olson's wife Mary. Most of the students had scrawled good wishes to the emergency workers; Olson's nine-year-old daughter Hannah had written, "I love you Daddy."
On Broadway Avenue, across from the eatery, he spied a makeshift memorial of cards, pictures, and dead flowers pinned to two large pieces of plywood. "I thought, 'Do I steal someone else's thumbtack to hang it up?'" Olson recalls. He approached a group of New York state troopers on break, some sitting curbside, others huddled around vats "three feet deep and the size of half a bathtub" spooning chunks of hot beef into bowls. All around him jackhammers were pounding broken blocks of concrete.
Just then a woman came out of Nino's and told him she'd find space in the restaurant window for his card. More than that, she offered, she'd get a couple of cops to pose with him holding the card while she took a photo. "It completely choked me up," Olson says. "They didn't look at the card any more than I looked at any of the other memorials, but I just got the time to say, 'It makes me proud to be an American, all that you have done.'"
With that, Olson had done what he had come to do: see the destruction for himself, drop off the card, and somehow pay his respects.
For weeks before he made his pilgrimage, Olson had been nagged by a feeling that he should do something in reaction to September 11. He had some vacation time saved up from his 26-year stint as a maintenance man for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. Originally he had planned a trip to Las Vegas with a buddy, but following the attacks the friend decided to stay home. Olson and his wife briefly toyed with the idea of going to New York together with their daughter, but they decided against a family trip. "Maybe it's not a place to bring a child, because we didn't know what to expect," he explains. "I didn't want to expose her to the smell of death."
So Olson went alone. "I went there, number one, because of my love for New York and the people there," he says. "But more so, I went because of my belief in the historic nature of the event. I've never been involved in a historic event. I never went to Vietnam, but my father had been in World War II. I couldn't necessarily be a part of this, but I hoped to be a witness to it."
Oddly, it's a human experience that plenty of other people are seeking, too. At any given time of day, packs of visitors from all over the world are shuffling silently around the site, mourning collectively.
The week of Olson's visit, the burned-out shell of 5 World Trade Center is taking repeated hits from a wrecking ball just a half a block from the mouth of the Fulton Street subway station. Shock paints the faces of people stepping out of the station. They congregate at the edge of a concrete barricade or crowd the corners of ramshackle sidewalks of plywood, jostling to take pictures. Which one is it? they say, or I can't believe we're this close. Then, inevitably, there is the silence of incomprehension.
An African-American truck driver from North Carolina named Terry stands at the edge and stares into the clear night sky, trying to ignore the powerful stench in the air. He's making a delivery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but left ten hours early so he could stop here. "This is something you've got to come see, just to begin to understand what it means," he says. "I understand now it's just a burial ground. That's it. When you talk about somebody doing something evil, you've got to say this is the best there is. I don't mean to put it that way, but what can you say?"