I am holding in my hands a piece of paper from the World Trade Center that I found lying on the ground in the financial district. It is an expense report from a company called "Cantor Fitzgerald", written by a man named David R. Meyer.
The Cantor Fitzgerald Web Site is down, but according to a cached Google page it is "historically known as one of the largest third market firms", and according to another cached google page it was located in the World Trade Center. There are names of people on this document and on these web pages who are probably dead now. How this piece of paper, along with the many hundreds I saw with it in the very heart of the disaster area, are in such good condition, I can only speculate.
We had to jump a fence to get that close to the sight. It was Benjamin, two friends of his and myself, all of us determined to see how close we could get to the carnage. At Houston street I was very gung ho about it; I was thinking of myself as real investigative journalist, going to do some real investigative journalistic coverage of the greatest man-made disaster of my lifetime. A disaster I had happened to see out my own window.
So that those of you outside of New York can get some idea of the geography, Times Square is at 42nd street. At 15th street there was a police barricade preventing cars from going through, and the all the subways end there now. At Houston street (which is essentially 1st street) there is another police barricade, preventing anyone from going further south without identification proving that they were residents of the streets below there. The World Trade Center is about 40 blocks south of Houston street, near Manhattan Island's southern tip.
In other words, about half of the city's main borough is in total lockdown right now. You can't avoid seeing police; there're everywhere, twice as prevalent as the firemen, or the ambulances, or the civilians wearing dust masks, though all those things are common sights as well.
Everywhere in Manhattan and Brooklyn there is an acrid scent, the scent of burning - putrid and ubiquitous, and the fire and smoke still billow from the horizon more then a day later. In Manhattan the smoke cloud dwarfs the skyscrapers, a monstrous Godzilla in gray and white.
We got to Houston street and saw the Police checking identifications, so we walked west along the barricade line, to see if any of the streets were unblocked. None were, but an entrance into the courtyard of a housing project was wide open in the middle of a block, so we ducked in. We walked through the courtyard, past people milling about, children playing, and what seemed like an abnormal number of security guards, to the parking lot, the gate of which was securely locked up.
Benjamin said "This is insane" every 15 minutes or so.
The fence on the other side of the parking lot was about 15 feet high, and we ducked behind some dumpsters and scaled it.
The other side was a completely different New York. There were no moving cars that weren't police or ambulances or fire trucks or construction vehicles or army units. Everything was eerily quiet. Mostly, the streets were empty except for the few locals we'd see walking about and talking, perhaps with a fearful glint in their eyes and an angsty gate in their step, though that might only be my own inference. In truth I couldn't tell what these people were thinking as they went about their lives in a suddenly protected and isolated part of the city. As we walked south the streets were gradually occupied by more and more police and the smell of the smoke got progressively stronger, until there were police on every block and the air was thick like a mild fog. Soon we were stopped.
"Where are you going?" Asked an officer.
"To see our Uncle on Warren Street." We lied, bold faced, "Do you know how to get there?"
"I don't know, you should ask those guys over there." He waved toward some officers down the block.
"Do you know if it's safe to smoke?" I asked, "I heard something about gas lines." I was genuinely concerned.
The cop smiled, "You can smoke everywhere."
I was about to make some crack about Mayor Guiliani but thought better of it.
We headed under an overpass that led to the Brooklyn Bridge, and up a roadway. This was the point when I started noticing the thin layer of dust on everything. Everything was coated with it, and in the light of the dim New York street lamps it looked orange and brown. I looked down at my feet and my shoes were wading in it, and I started noticing pieces of paper littering the ground. And just as I was taking that in we saw the first car.
The car probably hadn't been damaged where it was sitting, as the cars next to it were in reasonable condition, but this one car was a blackened hulk of twisted metal, hardly recognizable as a car at all except for the landmarks of the hood and tires.
"This is insane." Said Benjamin.
We took some pictures of the car and continued to walk. Then we saw another car, and then another, and another, black contorted creatures lining the sides of the roadway. There were tons of papers everywhere now, just dozens of them all over the place, and at this point I picked up the expense report from Cantor Fitzgerald and put it in my backpack.
The enormity of what we were witnessing hadn't struck yet. My emotions were somewhere else, some other realm that hadn't quite caught up the real world, and I was running on auto-pilot.
I started rifling through the papers trying to find the best ones. This sort of horrifies me now, that I was doing this, but it's what I did. I wanted to find one that said "World Trade Center" on it.
We found a pile of neck ties in perfect condition, that looked like they had been thrown there by some worker. Benjamin and I each grabbed one.
"You shouldn't do that." One of Benjamin's friends kept saying as we were taking things, and sure enough, a police officer started shouting at us.
"What are you doing?! Put that down, have some respect!" He said, and we put the ties and papers down.
We emerged from the roadway into a major intersection, where a ramp led directly to the Brooklyn Bridge, several City Government City buildings stood, and City Hall was fully visible a block away. This was the "Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall" 1-9 subway stop.
When I first came to New York City almost four years ago, I had come to this very spot to take pictures of the Brooklyn Bridge. One of the pictures I took of the bridge that day still hangs on my wall. It was a spot that the World Trade Center once towered over, only maybe 5 or 10 blocks away.
I'm going to try and describe the scene I saw there now. The air was foggy and small particles hung in it like they were waiting for someone to tell them to fall. The entire square was caked in orange-ish dust and dirt, everything dyed monochromatic on the street. Papers, debris, glass and small shards were everywhere, and on everything. The place teemed with workers, police and firemen, and almost everyone was wearing a dust mask or a gas mask. Just behind City Hall and the tall, Romanesque City Government buildings, the fire-cloud clung to the sky like a white specter. The fire-cloud was bigger, by far, then the World Trade Center ever had been. The wasteland that I had talked about in my previous article, the one that we had all seen on television, was now here, right in front of myeyes; here was the disaster area; here was the war zone.
To my relief, there were no body parts.
The cops began to notice we were there.
"Where are you going?"
"To visit our Uncle on Warren street."
"Down HERE? What are you, tourists? You better get out of here, if we catch you back here we'll lock you up."
We started back north. Benjamin's friends had seen enough, and seemly justifiably shaken. They left, and Benjamin tried to convince me to go back in, west and then south this time. I sat on a stairway in front of a bank covered in so much dust that you couldn't read it's name, and decided to call it quits.
"I'm going back in." Said Benjamin, and he headed west, while I headed north, walking past yet another long caravan of police, army and construction vehicles.
Benjamin told me later that he actually made it to the Trade Center's remains, right in front of the rubble, and that he volunteered to hand out water and was given a white paper disposable suit. He said that he saw the morgue. He said the police kept hassling him, even with the suit.
"This was the most unreal thing in my life. It was just surreal. It was like a movie, I felt like I was on a Universal Studios set. That's all I can say." He told me.
I'm sort of astounded that he had the constitution to go that far with it, and I wonder if we are bad people for doing what we did. I'm still in shock from what I saw. I look down at my dust caked shoes and pants and can only think of the Walt Whitman poem, "This Dust was Once the Man". I look over at the Cantor Fitzgerald expense report and think of it being pushed out the window by the air pressure of a collapsing Twin Tower.
What does any of this mean?