*This post first appeared as a column in the August 25, 2015, edition of the Manistee News Advocate following my first legitimate trip to New York City. In recognition of the 16th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, I offer it, and its description of my stop at Ground Zero, here once more.
On a flight from Queens’ LaGuardia Airport to Detroit Metro Airport on Sunday, the elderly couple sitting next to me snoozed away, the man resting his head on his wife’s shoulder. And while it was cute — a Kodak moment, if you will — I was much too tired myself to absorb the cuteness for too long.
From Wednesday evening until Sunday afternoon, I’d spent my time in America’s largest city, the one they say never sleeps, and I’d tried to follow suit with that oft-used phrase while there.
New York City is at the other end of the galaxy compared to the City of Manistee [my hometown]. That’s neither a positive nor a negative; it’s simply an observation of difference.
Its streets and restaurants and landmarks and buildings have been in so many movies that I couldn’t help but think of some iconic scenes as I drifted in and around the sites.
The Plaza Hotel between 58th and 59th streets had me thinking about Macaulay Culkin’s shenanigans in “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” (1992); the lake in Central Park reminded me of the closing scene of “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011); the Empire State Building’s observatory took my mind to a climactic scene in “Oblivion” (2013) with action-movie magnate Tom Cruise; and the list goes on.
My movie in NYC was a little different. Whereas the typical feature length film lasts 90-120 minutes, my personal production spread out over four-ish days, more of a TV marathon with limited commercial interruption.
My mantra while in the city was thus: you can sleep when you’re dead. Even so, it is a gargantuan place and there was hardly enough time to see it all. I, and the friend I stayed with, managed to squeeze a lot of sites and sounds into the minimal timeframe, however.
There was Broadway and the Brooklyn Bridge; the Museum of Modern Art and the Meatpacking District; the Waldorf Astoria and the recently-opened- to-the-public World Trade Center; and my alliteration train stops there.
Many things we only had time enough just to walk by or through, such as the offices of The New York Times (by), NBC Studios (through) and Madison Square Garden (by). I was okay with that; the façades of the buildings were typically impressive enough.
One place that deserved as much time as was feasible, though, was the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, situated on the site of what became known as “Ground Zero” shortly after the attacks on the Twin Towers 14 years ago this fall.
Where two towers once stood in Lower Manhattan, there are now two large fountains with the names of the victims of that fateful day engraved all the way around each.
The museum was built between and underneath them, occupying the towers’ original foundations, and houses many artifacts from the attacks, including the damaged fire truck of those serving with FDNY Ladder Company 3 on that day (the crew’s last reported location: the 40th floor of the North Tower before its collapse at 10:28 a.m.) and the Survivors’ Stairs, which served as an escape route out of 5 World Trade Center — a nine-floor building that stood adjacent to the towers — for hundreds of people.
Though I was only in second grade then and I do not personally know anyone that was killed on 9/11, the museum and the memorial brought the infamous day and its devastating effects into focus. When you listen to the voicemail messages that people trapped in the towers left for their loved ones that September morning, you cannot help but tear up.
And when you see the images of small, dark human shapes jumping (falling?) from the windows of the highest floors, choosing to escape the heat and the flames, frozen in the sky in their final seconds — well, you may think of how trivial day-to-day problems are.
It’s all very sobering, and I wish I’d had more than three hours to spend there. Ideally, it’s something you need to allot half a day for if you ever have the chance to visit.
I realize this has metamorphosed from a happy-go-lucky piece about a young adult’s trip to NYC into something much more serious over the last few paragraphs, but that’s the way writing goes sometimes — it’s a journey full of surprises.
Keeping in that vein, let me transport you now to another scene in my four-day movie — does that metaphor still work? — to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building at approximately 10 p.m. on Friday night.
My friend and I did what was typical and took a host of pictures of the view and ourselves, but once that was out of our systems, we took the time to really look at the city down below.
The north and south — or, in New Yorker parlance, uptown and downtown — views provided for the imagination more so than did the west and east views. I preferred gazing downtown, toward the other tallest structure in the city, the Freedom Tower, or the new World Trade Center.
At night, you look out and see the skyscraper, along with its shorter neighbors in the Financial District, lit like pillars guiding the way. You look down and see the avenues, which run uptown and downtown on the island of Manhattan, teeming with life — ant-sized people, delivery trucks, taxis.
It’s a sea of lights — no, that’s too easy. Let’s call it “a vast expanse of effervescent illumination.”
That sounds mystical and dreamy and poetic maybe, but it’s an accurate description. We didn’t plan on staying atop the Empire State Building as long as we did, but that view was mesmerizing, magnetic; it drew me in and didn’t want to let go.
And I let it have its way with me for a good while, because that’s what needs to happen sometimes; you need something to sit you down, to ground you, to plop you on top of one of the tallest buildings in one of the largest cities in the world and just make you appreciate it all.
So I let the scene play out, the longest still shot of the extended weekend production. And the image followed me to the airport as I rode away from Manhattan on Sunday, trying to keep those tall buildings in sight until I could not. It stayed with me on the flight as I sat next to the elderly couple on the way to Detroit.
And it stays with me now, a welcome specter, a “wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”