By Doug McGill

October 13, 2001

At Ground Zero, New York -- When you get out of the subway station you want to get as close to Ground Zero as you can. You want to stand right next to the pile and get a physical sense of its immensity. Sixteen acres of pure destruction.

You think that perhaps if you can feel this immensity, you can understand the magnitude and perhaps catch a glimpse of the full meaning of the event.

So you try to get close, but you can’t.

For many good reasons, not the least of which is that the air around the site is thought to be filled with more asbestos, fiberglass, and chemicals that at first thought, the city has put barricades and chainlink fences around the site forming a perimeter as much as eight blocks away.

The instant the subway doors open at Wall Street, you’re hit by the smell.

It’s an awful, pungent, stinging stench – imagine the odors of an electrical fire, burning rubber, and a dry cleaning smell combined. More than a month after the attack the smell is still intense and pervasive. A mile away, uptown or across New York Harbor in Brooklyn and Queens, the wind sometimes carries the stomach-turning fumes and you smell it strong and sharp. It brings back the sickening reality of the nightmare in an instant.

At every chink in the perimeter fence around Ground Zero huddle two or three New York police in bright orange vests, or National Gaurdsmen in polished black boots and green camouflage fatigues.

The corner of Broadway and Cedar Streets, three blocks away, has since 9-11 become one of the most visited tourist spots in New York City. It has a relatively unimpeded view of one small section of Ground Zero from a distance of only three blocks. Starting every day at dawn, a stream of hundreds of visitors per hour walk to the barricade, snap a photo or simply stand in respectful silence, and then move on.

It feels like mourners passing by a casket to pay last respects.

“ I don’t call it a tragedy, it’s deeper than that,” Yishai Fleisher, an Israeli who is studying law in New York City, told me. “It’s mystical. It’s history.” The bombing of the World Trade Center probably heralds the final “ingathering of exiles” of Jews back to the Holy Land, Fleisher told me. The beginning of the end.

Somehow the fact that most people, perhaps even the rescue workers standing on top of the rubble, can’t see the whole thing all at once, seems fitting. No matter how close you get, it doesn’t make sense.

Two blocks further up Broadway, at the corner of Dey Street, a store called Chelsea Jean took the full blast of the dust cloud. It’s now a shrine of sorts with poems and memorial pictures taped to the glass. “Die Osama,” someone wrote with their finger in the dust.

Through a few spots where the dust has been wiped off the display window you can see the inside. Tall stacks of crisply folded blue jeans and racks of sweaters are all evenly coated with a layer of pearl white dusts.

It’s a strange petrified landscape of death.

I walk further along Broadway, at each intersection looking West down the street toward Ground Zero, to catch another narrow glimpse of the horror. At one intersection I see a red construction crane that sits perched on twisted metal. At another, only a dusty white cloud. At another, two stories of the blackened remains of a building with a sign clearly visible: “Borders.”

A friend told me that when she made her pilgrimage to Ground Zero last week and saw the Borders sign, she broke into tears.

The row of ATM’s at the Chase Bank at Broadway and Fulton Street is transformed into a memorial plastered with photographs of missing victims, children’s drawings of the disaster, messages written to New York City police and firemen, and many poems.

Poems written in dust. Poems written on spiral bound notebook paper ripped out and taped up in a rush. Poems printed cleanly on fine stationery.

One poem by the Jesuit priest Ted Berrigan read:

   The heart stops briefly when someone dies,
   A quick pain as you hear the news and someone passes
   From your outside life to inside. Slowly the heart adjusts
   To its new weight and slowly everything continues, sanely.

I visited a Soho art gallery established two weeks ago to sell photographs of the tragedy taken by neighborhood residents. “Reprinted digitally on archive-quality paper” at $25 a piece, the front window says, with all proceeds going to an emergency fund for the children of those who perished.

The photographs are beautiful, elegant, often witty. Curated for precisely those qualities by the gallery owner, they contain echoes of the great art and fashion photography of Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Irving Penn, and Richard Avedon.

Most of the pictures are in what used to be called “living color,” which seems inappropriate. All black and white would only begin to convey a more appropriate tone. But we are all doing only what we can do these days. And we can only do what we do.

What's a purveyor of beauty to do in these dark days?

One photograph in the exhibit struck me as just right. It was taken in the heart of the dust cloud on the first day.

It looks like a nuclear winter. Dark, foggy, unclear. You can just make out in the blackness a lamppost with a few words crudely written on it by a finger in the dust:

      This can all be rebuilt.
      RIP to the dead.
      The life before, how sweet it was.

Copyright @ 2001 Douglas C. McGill