Anniversary of the missing | Vanburen
I was dealing with family matters on the morning of September 11, 2001. I had a few minutes so I rushed to a gas station for coffee. As I called someone on the radio, they were talking about a last minute report, something about the World Trade Center in New York.
In the gas station, a crowd had gathered around one of the little televisions they kept behind the counter. A confused narrator and smoke billowing from some high rise buildings, the World Trade Center.
I had been to the Trade Center a few months earlier in New York on business. We took the ferry from the New Jersey side and it docked just below the World Trade Center. Massive building, very busy; the streets outside were very busy, cars, horns honking and people walking, people everywhere. It was a bustling and prosperous place. The New York City of the popular imagination, that was it, there was a lot going on.
It was towards the end of the year that I was back, now after the attack.
It was calm. Oh, cars, taxis really, less because of all the blocked streets, an occasional horn, but not so many people walking around. Much less fuss. The area surrounding (what was now the old) World Trade Center was fenced off. The fences were sheets of plywood side by side, one short end on the ground, one long end together, so there was no view around or above.
There was a smell. If you’ve ever been around right after a house burned down, it was that smell, the smell of what? Burnt chemically treated building materials, insulation, people’s things, with that almost sour, almost petroleum smell, it was over, that smell.
We could feel it before getting off the ferry that had dropped us off higher, the old docking station having been destroyed by the collapse of skyscrapers.
We had a client in a building right next to the hole left by the fallen towers. From their conference room on the 70th floor or so, you could take a look. They even had binoculars on the windowsill. The hold was full of workers, machinery, twisted steel and mud as the trucks hauled load after load. Lively, but, I guess, way below street level to make noise outside fences.
The plywood fences were covered with sheets of white paper stapled or glued to them. Most were more or less the same. At the top of each was the “MISSING” world in bold, followed by a name, followed by a picture, usually of someone doing something fun, a snapshot memory, maybe smiling for a snapshot when. of any party or gathering. Men and women in relaxed poses, raising a drink or stroking a dog, holding a child, maybe holding a sports equipment or a ball or a club or something. They were flat, like the image a word processor sends to your printer for your missing flyer.
The plywood fences were painted gray, a dull, neutral color, with white sheets on them. Each sheet, after the image, had a name, a description. Old, young, of this nationality, of this race, big, little, they had worked in this place, or some other detail of life. Each sheet had these tear-off bands at the bottom with a phone number printed vertically. “Call if you have any information.” Someone would have taken the time to make quick scissor cuts between each tear strip so you could remove the background, if you recognized the MISSING loved one.
There, in the nauseating and silent smell, one could hear the tears fluttering in the breeze, a rustle, a sound of commotion. I don’t remember any leaf with a strip torn off. I can close my eyes and see it, smell it, hear it, blocks and blocks of flat images on a plywood fence, phone numbers that would never be called, rustling in the breeze.
I’ll never forget.