JERSEY CITY, NEW JERSEY — Last Friday, at about three in the morning, my friend Steve and I were sitting on a ferry dock looking across the Hudson River at where the World Trade Center Towers formerly stood. We’d come here because this was the place Steve had gone as the buildings were collapsing. It was a hazy night, muggy. There were no boats on the river. It was so quiet that when we heard a single wave slap against the bank, we both looked around for a boat. We saw none. A few police cars, their lights flashing, patrolled up and down the West Side highway. Above the site, a thin cloud of smoke hung suspended in the air.
In the ten days before coming to New York, I hadn’t been able to see any of this. When I talked to Steve on the phone, he told me what he’d seen and, because he had no television, I told him what the news people were saying. When he phoned, he asked me what I was up to; most of the time I was sitting in front of my computer, reading new articles in the Times. I gave him a rundown of the headlines, reported the alarming increase in the number of people believed lost, relayed some bit of progress in the federal investigation, and asked him what he’d seen, being there.
On television, I could barely see what the site looked like, and what I saw was fleeting, lasting only seconds. It was inconceivable to me that two 110-story buildings could be reduced to something glimpsed only in peeks, to rubble visible in thin slices between surrounding buildings. The reality, which my brain rejected out of hand, was that a reporter, positioned just so, could now eclipse what remained. Video footage of the wreckage was rare and often played behind an expert talking about the Middle East or counter-terrorism measures. I tried to concentrate on what I was seeing, tried to make some rudimentary sense of it, but inevitably, my attention drifted, my eyes glazed over, and I focused instead on the talking head. On Fox News, live feed from downtown was shrunk to one corner of my small set. An expert talked from the opposite corner of the television, 1-800 hotline information ran from right to left near the bottom of the screen, and beneath that, the hour’s headlines appeared in a grim shorthand: “Bush Says: Act of War” and “Giuliani Orders More Bodybags.”
When Steve and I talked on the phone on the afternoon of September 11, I still couldn’t grasp that the buildings had collapsed. I’d seen it. I’d watched it on television. I’d heard the news people say the buildings had collapsed, but as the cloud of debris filled the screen, I thought that behind all that smoke and ash, surely there is a building, or at the very least a good part of the building was still standing and still intact. I hoped that when the news people said, “The buildings have collapsed,” what they actually meant to say was, “Part of the buildings were gone,” or “The top floors have caved in, partially.” I convinced myself that “collapsed” was just an imprecision of the language, the best word that could be found, but like so many words, not exactly correct.
I said, They reported on the news that the buildings collapsed.
That’s right, Steve said.
But so when they say collapsed do they mean they really collapsed? I said.
They’re gone, Steve said. They’re all gone. They’re just gone.
In January when I visited Steve, we had looked at the skyline from just about a hundred yards to the north. Then and now, development and construction on the Jersey side were booming. What had then been a four-story outline in girders had, in the last nine months, grown at least six more levels. Now two American flags, one the standard size and the other large enough to cover a roomy sedan, flew from the crane mounted on the outermost corner of the top floor. The foundation for another, larger building was nearby. That new building would rest on new land created out of poured concrete and heavy pilings, land that once was river.
The Trade Center was our main point of reference then. Everything downtown existed in relation to the towers. In the mornings, I rode the PATH train with Steve to work, and we and thousands of others, people with purposes, shot up the stairs, two at a time, wound through the wide, maze-like hallways of what amounted to an entirely underground mall, went up the escalators, and then, just like that, we were outside. A homeless man held the doors open for pocket change. A woman sold loose batteries. A guy was hawking those cinder-block-sized software manuals. Next to him, at another table, someone was unpacking new Super Bowl T-shirts. Glancing back behind me at the building, I didn’t believe it possible that what we had just walked through could even fit inside what we stepped out of. Later, when I was lost and late to meet Steve for lunch, I kept an eye on the towers and made my way through the crowd of people, never not moving briskly, never not shoulder to shoulder, and toward the buildings. As I walked, I mentally repeated certain basic directions: Steve’s at 61 Broadway, that’s three blocks south of the towers, that’s toward the park. Back in Jersey, when I looked out the windows of his apartment, at the skyline, my starting point was always the towers. Once I took them in, paying the respect due them, only then did I let myself look to the north or south. Then, after a few seconds, my vision snapped back to the towers. They exerted a heavy gravity, bending eyesight in their direction.
To allow the work of looking for evidence and remains one bucket at a time to proceed around the clock, the area around the rubble is now lit up at night with high-intensity white lights donated by a movie production company. Wherever it was possible only a couple of weeks ago to look up and see the Trade Center and, in doing so, orient yourself on the island — and it was possible from some surprising vantages, from anywhere in midtown to Brooklyn — now there’s either a patch of sky and, at night, the odd white glow of a perpetual noon. That and the dust and, when the wind shifts, the smell of burnt things, of electrical fires, melted plastic, and spent toner cartridges.
In the wake of the towers’ destruction, Steve’s and my new makeshift reference point was the World Financial Center Building 1, the squat structure with the dome on top that’s close to the water. Though it didn’t quite reach halfway up the towers, in their absence and in the light of the recovery effort, it had become the most dominant feature of our view.
The thing was I hadn’t even noticed the World Financial Center before. I searched my memory and could find not a single image of that domed top or the enormous glass atrium. You’d think I’d at least remember that dome, I said. For that matter, I had no memory of any of the surrounding buildings — One Liberty Plaza, World Trade Center number seven, the Millennium Hotel, Battery Park City. I now knew the names of those buildings and some of the companies that kept offices there, as well as how many people they had lost, whether the building was damaged, open or closed, in danger of falling or intact. I had only paid attention to the towers before.
Steve asked me how much I remembered, about how things looked.
I said sometimes I look at it, and I see the huge gap where the buildings are supposed to be, but sometimes I look over there and it looks as if nothing’s missing, like it’s crowded enough, and I think that’s plenty of buildings for a normal city.
For a normal city, Steve said, it would be enough.
We left the ferry dock, slipped around the end of a chain-link fence, passed a construction trailer, and walked out across the concrete pier. It wasn’t quite complete yet. Tools and parts, stacks of lumber and piles of rebar lay scattered on the ground. Apartment-sized holes in the concrete went straight down to the river. By the time we picked and wended our way to the edge of the foundation we were a couple hundred yards closer to the other shore. The view, our vantage on the recovery effort, was marginally better.
It was possible now to see the orange crane against the rubble. It was possible to see the tall piece of the tower’s façade standing upright, still intact though buckling in places. It was possible to see long sheets of red tarp, draped over the sides of nearby buildings to protect them from airborne debris. And it was possible to see the damage to the side of Building 1, where a jagged piece of debris had sliced down into a corner of the building.
I’d come to New York to visit Steve, because he was moving soon, leaving the city, and because it was always good to see him, regardless of the circumstances. But I’d also come because I wanted to grasp what had happened and believed, however naively, that seeing the site would bring into alignment how I was imagining things to be with how things, in fact, are. All weekend I corrected my misperceptions, adjusting my sense of scale and increasing all orders of magnitude at least a hundredfold. I hadn’t by any means imagined something rosy, but what I pictured did lack detail. I’d seen the gray and white cloud of dust and debris, but I hadn’t continued to picture it coating the buildings and windows and caking the payphones and fire escapes. I had read all the AP news accounts of the losses sustained by the firefighters, but that was qualitatively different from standing in front of firehouses, each with its doors swung open and the buildings buttressed with waist-high piles of flowers, candles, and poster board signs made by elementary-school children. The men who were on-call at the time sat on folding chairs out front, talking to one another and passersby. I hadn’t thought to imagine the man outside the subway station on the edge of Battery Park, taping up color photocopies of his sister, a doctor, missing, last seen on the 102nd floor of the second tower.
On the night before I left, Steve and I went back down to the waterfront one last time, driving to Exchange Place, slightly to the south of where we were on Friday. A man there had set up two tripods and some other equipment, a professional outfit. Steve found out he was part of a freelance crew, preparing to shoot feed for an Australian television network. All establishing shot footage of the rubble is now shot from the Jersey side. We sat down on a bench in front of the railing and stared across the river at the World Financial Center buildings, at the rubble we could glimpse between them, at the light glowing around the entire scene. Nothing much had changed since two nights before, but it didn’t matter.
The crane pivoted and disappeared from view.
Steve said, The crane just moved.
I see that, I said.
And we kept staring like that for hours.
The guy with the tripods got a call on his cell phone. Yeah, he said. He walked down to the railing and leaned out over the water. He told the person on the other end of the line how to get to where he was. It’s easy, he explained, you’ve been here before. You know what it looks like.
I imagined Australia, tuning in its televisions, waiting for the pictures of what we were seeing just then. It was getting to be the evening over there. I concentrated on what I was seeing. I tried very hard then to commit what I saw to memory, trying like I never had to be, as impossible as it sounds, the person on whom nothing is lost, to forget nothing.