Postcard From Ground Zero

Erin Eitter

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?"

"This is the best place to see it," says a strawberry-blond woman from Toronto, walking up Washington Street from south of the site, training her digital camera on the expanse. "I mean, look at that, there's just...nothing." The foreman of a clean-up crew standing nearby in a ten-foot-deep ditch admonishes her for ignoring a series of No Video signs. When the woman looks taken aback, he smiles and says, "Aw, hell, go ahead."

If you go to ground zero to pay respects, to work out grief, or to simply rubberneck, you will do so with surprising ease. What was once tightly closed off is now loosely patrolled, give or take a couple of blocks. Most of all, if you go to ground zero, forget any paranoia you may have about another catastrophe. There is nothing left to fear there. The worst has already happened.

In fact, the compulsion to see ground zero has become more evident as the weeks go by. Pauline Boss, a family psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota's Department of Family Social Science, has traveled repeatedly to the site with graduate students and other faculty in the weeks since the attack, counseling members of a union who survived and relatives of those who were lost. Initially, she says, ground zero was like a ghost town, save for rescue workers and some family members. Now, she says, there are packs of visitors everywhere.

"I think it's showing respect, in that people understand it has become a sacred burial ground," claims Boss, adding that the hushed voices and somber mood around the site is akin to what she has seen at the Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. "Clearly we have taken to empathizing with people who have lost. It's as if this loss is part of the American family."

The author of a book about dealing with unresolved grief, Boss came up with the concept of "ambiguous loss," when a loved one may be present in someone's psyche, but physically absent. "Ambiguity is the biggest culprit here," Boss says of the mourning going on throughout the country, noting that uncertainty over who led the attacks, anthrax scares, and whether another attack can happen make it especially difficult for all Americans to cope. "This is a different time, way beyond human comprehension."

Still, Boss notes, humans are "drawn to the unknown," and there is a need to validate such large-scale death by witnessing the carnage. "There is a curiosity that's also about being in control," she says. "Going to witness a brother or sister's plight, even in death, is a good thing."

While Boss has been touched by the sentiment of most visitors to the site, she does have some misgivings about the pilgrimage phenomenon. "I've been concerned with families who still have people in that pile," she says, adding that many relatives are waiting for some kind of proof before acknowledging the death of a loved one. New York City has offered certificates of "presumed" death to friends and family of the missing, along with urns of ashes from ground zero. But very few people, Boss says, pick them up.

"It's human tendency to wonder," she emphasizes. "But I wish people wouldn't take [pictures]. It's taking on the feeling of a sacred ground for survivors, and that can be disrespectful."

George Wozniak, president of Hobbit Travel, says he is largely unaware of travelers booking flights specifically to pay respects at ground zero, though he has heard claims that a number of schoolteachers from the area have booked flights over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in January. Even so, last week his business ticketed 172 flights to La Guardia, JFK, and Newark, the three major airports that serve Manhattan. "That's only off by about 25 percent for this time of year," Wozniak says, especially high given that business travel is virtually nonexistent since September 11.

Olson left New York on a Saturday night, flying out of JFK on Northwest flight 1267. He craned his neck toward the window and the back of the plane, hoping to catch the lights of Manhattan one last time. Alas, the pilot turned the plane first east over the Atlantic, then north toward Westchester County.  

"I went in thinking there wasn't a whole lot to see other than what we've seen on the evening news every doggone day," Olson says. "But you can't get the scope of the soot that's everywhere. It wasn't your typical 'throw a little water on it and squeegee it off' type of thing. It was much more intense.

"I was totally impressed by the way the people of New York handled this," he continues with awe. "I found people trudging through their daily lives like we do, except their neighborhood, where people live and work, is blown to bits."

As the glow of the residential portions of upstate New York came into view, Olson ordered bloody mary and a beer. His mission was accomplished, he said, and he was happy he went. As he settled into the calm of the cabin, he reminded himself that memorials are for the living as much as they are for the dead.

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