Columns

Column: ‘I remember tears’

In the wake of a highly successful field trip to the Empire State Building observatory with our grandson, Max, 14, a couple months back, we arranged for another Manhattan rendezvous with him to patrol the observation decks of One World Trade Center, the soaring glassy needle that replaced the destroyed Twin Towers.

For me, the New York City skyline will never be the same without the Twin Towers. From a distance, One World Trade seems borderline measly, if you can call the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere anything but grandiose. Even now I choke up a bit whenever I spy the Twin Towers in an old movie, and I still reflexively look for them as the Jitney churns over a hill toward the Midtown Tunnel.

Max Ubered over from Brooklyn and we met smack dab in front of the gleaming skyscraper, which up close is stunning to the point of disbelief that mere men and women could possibly construct such an edifice.

After a bit of a hike we were ushered into an elevator, ears popping as it jetted upward. Our timed-ticket group was assembled in front of a frantic film collage of Manhattan scenes for about five minutes. Then it suddenly stops and the screen quickly rises and the city explodes before you, looking north, as we all gasp in unison.

The Empire State Building looks pretty stubby from this vantage, and you start avidly searching for landmark buildings and developments and then settle down a bit as you slowly make your way around the observatory’s compass points. My favorite is south, gazing over New York Harbor, dotted with working ships, boats, ferries and several sailboats, dead in the water on a windless day.

Lady Liberty seems absurdly tiny. Ellis Island is just a minor chunk of land. The view is mesmerizing and emotionally gripping. After about an hour, I’m ready to go but Jane and Max linger a while, displaying their superior sensibilities.

Back outside, on street level, the day takes on an entirely different vibe. We wander over to the memorial waterworks in the footprints of the fallen towers, the names of the dead surrounding the pools follow you everywhere you turn. The footprints seem too small to have contained the towers, but when you walked among them before they were pulverized, they were immense beyond belief.

Like every New Yorker who experienced the day of the attack, we have our crystalline memories. We had arrived home from a bike trip in Ireland the night before. Jane was heading to work at the Times the next morning and I was waiting a day before taking Amtrak back to Philadelphia to my job.

She hit the dry cleaners before her commute and encountered a very upset woman who had seen on TV, on that perfect September morning, that a plane had hit one the towers. Jane raced upstairs and we stood for hours as the horror unfolded and expanded, held in the grip of the unimaginable.

Later, I walked around the corner to Lenox Hill Hospital to give blood, but they said none was needed, one of countless moments that day of dreadful insight. Jane, by this time, had made it to work and, as journalists do when dramatic news engulfs a newsroom, cast about to contribute somehow to the grim professional activity around her.

She ran into a freelance photographer who had a motorcycle. They went as far south as they could until the cops stopped them. Jane saw a bunch of ambulances lined up with nowhere to go. One of them was from Cherry Hill, N.J., where she used to live. She cajoled with her hometown connection, and the EMTs said come on along, as they we’re going down to what soon became known as the pile.

Jane describes the scene precisely as the photographs engraved in our memories: a gigantic mess of beams and shattered building materials in a steaming, stinking cauldron of evil. Some cops kicked her out and she eventually made it home where I was still standing in front of the TV.

To this day, I’m utterly amazed at how calm she was when she walked through the apartment door. I would have been shattered, but all she wanted was to shower and go to sleep.

Over the coming months, we would occasionally journey down to the pile. Although they wouldn’t let you anywhere close, you could see parts of it as you moved around the neighborhood. The smell — unforgettable — lingers forever.

We told Max about Grandma’s exploits on Sept. 11, 2001. He listened intently but the condition of the site of the attack today makes it hard to re-imagine (even for us witnesses) that such an event occurred. On the so-called memorial campus, the crowd seemed mostly international and respectful, phones snapping photos continuously in America’s most famous scene of terrorist malignancy.

We had lunch at noted Italian place a couple blocks away, and then it was time for Max to Uber home. In the taxi back to the apartment, my thoughts turned to New York Harbor and away from thoughts of the pile. But a memory shoved its way into my brain. When I trained back to Philadelphia on Sept. 13, once on the Jersey side, I looked back at the city. Where the towers once stood, a tall column of smoke had taken their place in the skyline. I remember tears.