Seven years ago on September 11, a good friend and rode our bikes down from the West Village to the World Trade Center site, what was then called Ground Zero. Both of us, had been here that day in 2001. We'd met a few months after. Below is a moment we made our fourth 9/11 bike ride down to Ground Zero. I had written it a few days after that ride.
On a cool, clear September 11, 2006, at around one in the afternoon, two friends riding bicycles met at a fountain just off Christopher Street alongside the Hudson River in New York City. The fountain was the pre-chosen starting point for the two friend's annual pilgrimage downtown to ground zero, a ritual they've repeated for the past four years. The two friends, both in New York during the attacks of 2001, experienced the immediate effects of the disaster in different ways. One witnessed United Flight 175's crash into the South Tower from his fifth floor Soho apartment. Unbeknownst to him at the time, an old friend was on that plane. He later watched both buildings collapse from his building's roof.
The other friend, at the time a resident of East 14th Street, was at first oblivious to the event's magnitude. He was on his way to work at the World Financial Center finding himself underground in a Subway tunnel for over two hours. During that period, not knowing what was going on up above, the towers fell. When he was finally evacuated at City Hall station, just a few blocks from the collapse, he emerged among dust and smoke..
For the next few months like millions of New York residents, inhaled the smell of death, experienced pain that still has the ability to overcome joy but all the while they found a new sense of connectivity with their city.
The two, one originally from Alabama, the other from Germany, had met through friends just a few months after 9/11/2001. They first bonded that following June at a large outdoor dance party on a West side pier at 13th Street. As fireworks blasted from the Jersey side and a disco version of "Somewhere over the Rainbow" played on loud speakers, the two took in the new downtown skyline, its front tooth missing. Then, they discussed the event and one shed tears as the other who'd lost his friend in the crash, began to talk about that friend's zest for life.
"He was such a fun guy, he'd be here now, if he were around" said the German, with an almost empty smile on his face.
The bond between the two new friends was instant.
Over four years later, pedaling slowly down the path along the Hudson, destination Ground Zero. Along the way, several people, some with photographs of smiling faces in happy moments, others with wedding pictures or young men and women showing happy moments all passed by. One elderly couple dressed in sensible shoes and matching white top's, each wearing a photograph of the same smiling bright eyed woman held hands as they walked on the path uptown. Men and women in uniform, many with peaceful expressions that have long since dealt with the horror and loss this now day represents walked up the path, some smiling, others holding a single flower. Motorcycles, many with POW flags, whizzed by on the West Side highway, horns honked in the distance from back at Christopher Street, an area they now call Point Gratitude.
When the two reached the Hudson side of the former World Trade Center as bells rang in the distance, the two friends paused, and then, without a word, they separated.
As they stood among TV trucks, law enforcement officials and other observers watched down below, as dirt and dust, driven by the wind, kicked up from the 16 acre pit. The spot is one of Manhattan's rare unpaved, plant free massive patches of earth. The site resembled an angry ocean, the way giant waves crash against a sea wall. Suddenly, the memory of the first anniversary of the horror, when dust had swirled from the freshly cleared site where the towers fell, up into the sky in an almost poetic cyclonic motion.
But in 2006, it was different.
The two reunited, and then, they rode the bikes a little further downtown, crossed the West Side Highway, hopped off the bikes and walked among the crowds past the contaminated Deutsche Bank building and around the corner headed towards the site itself. As they walked towards Liberty Street, now a giant observation area, they came upon Engine/Ladder Company 10, the firefighter's station directly across from where the twin towers once stood.
On the side of the fire station's wall, a bronze memorial honors members of the New York City Fire Department who died just across the street that day. Later, research showed that the interactive memorial was designed by Martin V. Rambusch and was a gift from the Holland and Knight Law firm.
The top of the firefighter's memorial reads "Dedicated to those who fell and to those who carry on- May we never forget."
On this day in 2006, the wall was dotted with photographs of victims, mostly firefighters with names like Scott Larsen and Michael Kieffer.
Flowers and candles covered the base of the memorial and at one end of the structure, a large stuffed red heart that said in big gold letters, Angel.
All around, tears began their slow descent down countless faces forever marked by pain while the bells continued tolling in chaotic rhythms in the background.
While people of all shapes, shades and sizes stood quietly staring, reflecting or mourning, the two friends slipped into the huge shuffling crowds that moved at the steady pace of deceased head of state's viewing.
Once past the site, the two crossed the street to find the bells they'd been hearing, four of them, all around the size of the famous one in Philadelphia, hanging at waist's height with large ropes attached so that anyone could walk up and ring one in tribute to the fallen.
But, the earlier reverence was overshadowed by the piercing anger of protests competing for ears, cameras and notepads.
To some, the sadness of 9/11's memory has been overshadowed by a tragic evolution of national and world events, politics and the selfish evidence of National division on vivid display at Ground Zero.
Clearly, the long extinguished flames of 9/11 continue to cast a pungent smell over a dvided nation and tumultuous world.
In the crowded blocks surrounding the 16 acres that changed the world, the smell was stronger than ever. The two friends inhaled the scene and mood around them in disoriented silence and sad awe.
Many in the crowd appeared to revel in the division, the conspiracy folks who claim "Bush knew" with their shrill condemnation of all that is mainstream to the "we support the President and our troops" crowd, brimming with self righteous certitude and shallow patriotic arrogance.
One wonders, if the angry people pointing, accusing, shouting and politically exploiting the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent souls had lost a loved one when the towers fell. In fact, one wonders if members of this circus were even in New York City on this day back in 2001.
According to a "New York Times" "CBS News" poll, around one third of New Yorker's think about September 11 terrorist attacks every day. I know that I do.
As the two friends made their way through the new town square of democracy, a police officer said she didn't find the protesters offensive.
"They have a right to do and say what they want" she said.
Such is the beauty of a free society. But, had any of the shouting, pointing and exploiting people taken some time to go over to the memorial wall at Engine Company 10, and if they had, did they take a moment to digest and understand what it means to not forget? Had any of them even been here that day?
The two friends had completed their annual ritual in less than two hours. It was time to get on their bikes, ride back uptown to the village, and contemplate all that has been lost.