Way back in September, when the big story in downtown Manhattan was the opening of the new 9/11 Memorial, I went online and reserved an entrance ticket. The demand for tickets in early September was so great that I couldn’t get one until the very end of October.
Last week when I saw the date of my reservation on my calendar I had almost forgotten about the 9/11 Memorial. I don’t think I had heard about it since it was unveiled on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, an event marked by moving talks by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the reading of the names of the dead by loved ones and Paul Simon singing “The Sounds of Silence.”
I reflected on how fickle the news media are. One day it is Tunisia, then Egypt, then Bin Laden, then the 10th anniversary of 9/11, then Occupy Wall Street, then Abbas at the UN, then Gilad Shalit and then Kaddafy.
The news is too much with us. There is simply no time to digest it all.
The 9/11 Memorial seemed like old news, but I had my ticket, so I took the No. 1 train down to Fulton Street and followed signs to the memorial. I walked along Fulton and then along Church Street and then, much to my surprise, right by Zuccotti Park. The drummers, dancers, folk singers, sign bearers, preachers and soapbox orators were there — in full force. They were ringed by tourists and journalists and the lunchtime crowd from the neighborhood, but I kept going. I had been to Zuccotti Park before, but never to the 9/11 Memorial, and that was my destination.
I was surprised at how placid the plaza leading to the memorial was. There was virtually no wait. I showed my ticket, went though airport-like security and then, standing under gray skies, I found myself before the two great cascading memorial pools that sit on the footprint of the once-mighty World Trade Center towers.
Everything about the architecture of the memorials pulls you down and down and down into the earth. The water shoots out of the sides of the pools and then descends, first into one dark pool and then into another, an abyss that seems to have no end. Even the names of the dead, recessed in the black granite that surrounds the pools, are pulled down into the stone. It is hard not to cry; the tears too are pulled from one’s eyes and flow easily down the cheeks.
The 9/11 Memorial was like no other memorial I’d ever been to. Each one I’ve visited in the past seemed to have “insiders” and “outsiders.” When I visited the Auschwitz Museum, I felt like an insider, but at places like the African Burial Ground or the Irish Hunger Museum or the Armenian Genocide Memorial, I feel like an outsider. Others belong there; I am just a visitor.
But I felt a sure sense of belonging as I walked around the 9/11 Memorial pools, running my fingers over many of the nearly 3,000 names boldly etched there. Jewish names like mine, Irish names, Polish names, Indian names and Spanish names, and on and on and on.
I took a look at the others who had come that day, and they too came from many cultures and many places. There were African-Americans, Asians, Europeans, Latin Americans. There were chasidic Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Mennonite Christians. And, somehow, we were all insiders. The 9/11 Memorial represented as universal a tragedy as I could imagine.
At the pool where the north tower once stood, I saw a name that took my breath away. “Monica Rodriguez Smith and Her Unborn Child,” the inscription read. I leaned over to take a picture. What I saw in my viewfinder was not only the name, but also the sky above, reflected in the granite. I composed a picture of a lost mother and child against the clouds reflected in the stone and then I saw it — the shadow of an airplane coming out of the clouds above. I gasped and desperately searched the sky but there was no plane above me.
At that moment, time had not just stood still but scrolled back 10 years. The cascade of recent news events seemed to matter not at all. For those few minutes I was back to 9/11, one news event that should never leave us.