I've shared this story before, but something brings it out of me every year, so forgive me for repeating myself...
I was in NYC on business three weeks after the towers fell. I still remember how different the city was from the last time I'd been there. Everything seemed so much quieter, everyone so much more polite and subdued. They weren't back to "normal" and no one really seemed to know what "normal" was anymore.
I skipped the last day of the convention and took a cab down to lower Manhattan. I felt an overwhelming need to be there, to see it, to feel it.
When I told my cab driver where I wanted to go, he told me that he'd worked in the towers. He would have been there that day, but he'd taken the morning off work to take his son to the doctor.
I'll never forget the smell in the air as I opened the door of the cab and stepped out. The rubble was still smouldering at that time and that smell filled the air.
The merchants in lower Manhattan were in crisis as they'd lost so much business, so they were having a big sidewalk sale that day. Tables were set up all along the streets to sell their wares at discount prices. The tactic worked, as there were lots of people wandering around buying, but the mood of the people was undeniable and palpable. I made some purchases at the stands to support them.
I looked around to determine exactly where I was (my only instruction to the cabbie to take me to Tribeca), and I began to walk in the direction of the site. Everything was covered with a layer of soft, white dust. There'd been no rain yet, to wash it away. The large plant containers along the streets had a thick layer across the surface of the soil. I took out a film canister and filled it with the dust and put it into my bag.
As I walked along, I noted that every surface, every building, every light pole was covered with "missing" posters bearing pictures of loved ones up to a height as far as hands could reach. I paused to look at many of them - the smiling faces, the mothers holding their children, the fathers playing with their dogs, the friends with their arms around each other posing for the camera. I looked at those faces, knowing that their friends and families would never see those smiles in person again.
I walked as far as I could toward the site until I reached a barrier, then I turned to follow the perimeter, which stretched a couple of blocks from the actual site. There were police officers at every street intersection. A few people had there cameras out and were trying to take pictures down the street. The police officers told them "no pictures." I did take my camera out and hold it up to snap a few when the officers turned away.
I passed the little church that's become such an iconic reminder of the day, the place where people gathered for comfort and refuge during the rescue operations.
I continued all the way around the perimeter, straining to see at every corner anything I could see. This was before they built observation areas for the people to view it. I guess the authorities finally realized that it was not a sign of disrespect that some people NEEDED to see.
I turned a corner and saw a stack of I-beams taken from the site. It seemed so odd they were there. They were thick and massive and impossibly twisted out of their normal shape. I placed my hand against one and just stood there for a moment.
After walking the full perimeter, I finally tore myself away to return to my hotel for my bags. I had a plane to catch to go back home to my quiet little town in Ohio.
The memory of that day is seared into my mind as no other. I never did have those pictures developed. I don't need them.