Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Looking Up in Lower Manhattan

I never look up when I am in New York City. Like the locals, I always look down toward the sidewalk. I expect that it is like this in most big cities. The danger for a pedestrian is down below, at foot level. If you don’t look at your feet, you may plant a sneaker into a fresh puddle of pee. It’s on every sidewalk, from the ritzy Upper Eastside, to the hip West Village, and on every corner of lower Manhattan. If you are a lucky walker, your nose will give you fair warning that a pet has been here, just before you arrived, at this lamppost, near this tree, or right on this corner of your apartment building. Yellow rivulet’s run to the curb or seep into the soil near the sparse openings in the cement where the trees try to grow. Shop owners and doormen do their best to help. They are constantly spraying the sidewalks with garden hoses. No gardens here. Just watering the pee for the tenth time of the day. The fresh water washes everything into a non-potable swirl. Good luck finding a dry inch of pavement for your pumps; a dry spot that might help prevent the spread what lies lurking beneath your soles.
And, I have yet to mentioned the poop. New Yorkers are good at picking up after their pets, but my god, so many pets live in this city! I am not talking about the dainty apartment sized pups. No, some joker down the hall marches his Alaskan Huskies out each morning to meet a host of Standard Poodles, Afghan Hounds, and yes, even Great Danes. Now, really! Your apartment is 600 square feet. 900 if you are wealthy, and you need to own the largest dog made? So as a walker, you step around dark circles on the pavement, because you know what was there a day ago. You step around ochre circles, because you know what was there just an hour ago. You have to look down. Germs and bacterial fester in the cracks of the sidewalk. You don’t want these buggers to breach your apartment by clinging to the bottom of your shoes. You know they will spread faster than this fall’s flu virus. It is essential that you always look down.
Did I mention the cracks? It is all about superstition. I don’t alter my gait to avoid walking on cracks, but if I can extend a step to miss one, then I do. I certainly don’t want to anger the gods, or break my mother’s back, even if she has been dead for fifteen years. I don’t want to be responsible for my bad karma in the afterlife. So I stretch my feet to step over those sidewalk line breaks whenever I can. Today, I dodged, and weaved, and delicately made my way to the southern end of the island to pay my respects to Ground Zero.
I walked from my son’s apartment in the West Village, down Greenwich Street toward lower Manhattan. He lives in what was originally the storage facility for the US Custom’s Service, nicknamed The Archive. It’s a striking structure made of red brick and recognizable from blocks away by its thick walls and arched windows. It no longer houses government documents. The banner on the fa├žade announces, Luxury Loft Apartments. The Archive also claims notoriety for housing Monica Lewinski. When my single son moved into this building, I told him that I hoped he would meet a nice girl, and winked. He did not laugh.
When I am in New York City, I always try to visit the World Trade Center site. Everyone has his stories. Where they were the day it happened. They list their friends that had gone to work that hideous morning and never returned. When you ask, they are happy to tell you. It floods from them in a release. The retelling becomes a relief. Their stories are better than mine. I was visiting The Big Apple during the third week of August in 2001. I was at World Trade Center standing in line to buy cheap tickets for a Broadway play. I shopped on the lower levels and talked to the sweet young clerks who showed me silk blouses and wool slacks. I can still see their faces. I hope they made it out safely. I went back to Ground Zero in the winter of 2002. I drove by the chain link fence near the site. You couldn’t get close. You couldn’t stop. I looked through the window of the cab and cried.
In 2004, I had an apartment a few blocks from the World Trade Center. My husband and I sublet it from someone who didn’t want to go back to lower Manhattan. People worried about the air quality. Memories were as painful as war flashbacks. Rents were cheap after the attack, and landlords were desperate to attract tenants. I loved living close to Ground Zero. It was holy ground- a noisy, dirty, and bustling holy ground. There was a brouhaha over how the reconstruction was to occur. For years the towers never rose. First, the damage had to be cleaned away. Above the subway entrance to Hoboken, the World Trade Center ground lay like a skin cancer waiting to be surgically removed and sutured back into the cityscape. I felt like crying every time I walked by. I would hang by the rips in the screening, trying to see what was happening behind the chain link fence. I wanted to catch a glimpse of the ramp where the dump trucks had hauled cement and body parts out of the hole that had been the World Trade Center.
Did I mention that my anniversary was on September 11? I was married for 25 years to the day that the World Trade Center came down. My marriage ended almost as spectacularly as the 9-11 attack, and I mean no disrespect here. Today, I walked down Greenwich Street to honor the people who still remain in the cement, and say a prayer for the city that suffered horribly ten years ago.
I was looking down at the sidewalk, stepping over the cracks, avoiding the pee and the dark spots that freckled the pavement, until I saw sparks falling from above. I had reached Murray Street where another old red brick building was in the process of being renovated into contemporary lofts. I tilted my head back to look up several floors. A section of wall had been removed, and I could see workers installing a curved staircase. This would be a very fancy apartment indeed, perhaps for a Wall Street analyst or a hedge fund manager. Wall Street was only a few blocks away. The welders looked as if they were holding a giant New Year’s Sparkler. The renovation was a celebration of rebirth, an old building becoming new again.
In front of me, in the space forged by Greenwich through the schools, offices, and apartments of Tribecca, beckoned the new buildings of the World Trade Center. I hurried passed the massive limestone Post Office, around orange barricades, loitering policemen, and crowds of people. I could see Tower #1 before me. I pressed forward and kept looking up. The screened fence no longer concealed a scab above the pit as before. Enormous cranes droned out a deafening tune as they turned and swayed with work. Two silver cranes grew out of the top of Tower #1 like a pair of giant antennae on tall centipede. An incomplete metal skin covered its belly, reflecting the blue clouds from above. Heaven was imprinting itself on the surface of this new structure. The banner on the fence proclaimed that one day 500,000 square feet of retail space would be opened. Thirteen subway lines would merge below the ground. The new World Trade Center would become a hub of activity again. I felt hope in the simple act of looking up.
Tower #1 is half way to its full height. Men in orange vests and white hard hats, tourist in jeans, and businessmen in dark pinstriped suits walk along the chain link fence. They may not realize it, but they are waiting for the day when the World Trade Center is back. In the face of complete devastation, there is hope in knowing that those towers will shine in the sun and reflect the sky. They will reflect hope for all who pause below and remember how far the construction has come. How far we have all come. Now, all we need to do is look up, and wait

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