Profiles

Photograph by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Pieces of the World

For people who lived near the World Trade Center, 9/11 can still be traced to debris that lingers around the neighborhood. A map of what the tourists don’t see.

I don’t know exactly when I first noticed the metal strip and rubber cord. It must have been in the first weeks of moving back into the building, months after the nearby World Trade Center towers had fallen, that I became aware of them hanging from a tree in the rooftop garden overlooked by my living room window. The metal piece—flat, ribbon-like, and not much longer than a forearm—folded over a tree branch in an upside-down V. The rubber cord resembled a thick strand of shoestring licorice, maybe three feet long. They weren’t always easy to find, but once I noticed them, I made a habit of looking for them when I passed the window. The Hudson River breeze sometimes rearranged them in a way that blended them into the scenery. In winter, the snow hid them; when the seasons changed, they often disappeared in the springtime regrowth. The shine on the metal strip could be mistaken for window glare from a building across the street, and the rubber cord could stand in for a long drooping twig. Sunny days made the search easier—the reflection from the metal strip gave them away—and there was now plenty of sunlight, unlike my first few months in the apartment, when the shadow of the towers two hundred yards away darkened the sky like a perpetual eclipse. For most of the eight years that I lived in that apartment, I often found my thoughts tugged by their quiet mystery.

Despite all that fell on that sunny September day, these pieces stayed behind. Other debris were excavated and transferred to the unfortunately named Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island—1.8 million tons of crushed wreckage and brokenness. Still other pieces were washed away by rain or plucked off by the wind. Birds flew by with strands of magnetic tape in their beaks. That rooftop garden was closed for about half a year as the building management restored it from the gray moonscape of dust and intact office documents it had become. Neighbors talked of men in rubberized protective gear who roamed the roof collecting plane parts and human remains. Those that did the clearing, cataloging, and identifying might have deemed my strip and cord unimportant, or simply too high on the tree to bother with a ladder. So the pieces hung on, ignored by bird and human, and unmoved by the weather.

I should have invited the tourists to my window, rolled up my blinds with a quick tug, and made a sweeping, showman’s gesture. Would they even have raised a camera-phone?Two of the tallest buildings in the world and nearly everything in them had fallen apart. Correction, they did not just fall apart, they dissolved. Walking around downtown Manhattan in the weeks afterward, you could appreciate the degree of atomization when you stared at your shoes covered in gray dust. When I looked at the pieces outside my window, I wondered. The metallic piece must have been made of some kind of non-corrosive material, maybe titanium or aluminum alloy. It barely dulled over the years. At certain times of the day the light reflecting from it could be so bright that I rolled my blinds closed. The rubber cord flat-out defied biodegradability. Through the years it stayed intact, unshredded and uncracked. Both the pieces had been manufactured to be durable, part of a greater engineered to last, as well. I couldn’t tell if they had parted from building or plane.

In 1996, when TWA Flight 800 broke up over the Atlantic, the U.S. Navy recovered over 95 percent of the aircraft from the waves and the ocean floor. More than 20,000 pieces were taken to a hangar facility in Calverton, New York, where they came back together on a steel framework, like pieces of a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Metallurgists and other accident investigators used serial numbers, the varying luster of the paint finish, and the thickness of the pieces to identify their former location on the plane. They gave each piece a number corresponding to the sequence in which the plane likely broke apart. If they wanted to, the investigators could have created a very faithful stop-motion animation off the plane’s destruction with its actual pieces. The nearly complete plane sat in a hangar, also an altar to the rebuttal of disintegration.

The tourists who visit Ground Zero wouldn’t have such a spectacular altar. When I walked to the subway, I’d pass by blue and gray corporate citizenry walking to work in the World Financial Center, and then, inevitably, the throngs pointing cameras towards the carved-out space in the ground. On Church Street a tall man who had appointed himself chronicler and bard dished out factoids from homemade signs and photocopied maps. “History! Don’t let it be a mystery!” he’d yell out to the crowd encircling him. They seemed hungry for something to touch that would justify why they’d come to visit a dust-strewn construction site. It no longer looked like the field of destruction they had seen over and over again on TV. They now stood in awe of nothing, an audience searching for explanation after a magician had pulled away the veil. Years earlier, when the wind still lifted an acrid smell of burning from the piled ruins, people left flowers, cards, and candles in the outpouring of grief. Now, there was less mourning, more curiosity. Many stood in long lines for the visitors’ center on Liberty Street. Inside, at least, you could gaze at artifacts like recovered firemen gear, bent silverware from the Windows on the World restaurant, and a mangled plane window.

I should have invited the tourists to my window, rolled up my blinds with a quick tug, and made a sweeping, showman’s gesture. Would they even have raised a camera-phone? On their own, my two pieces of debris couldn’t tell any gripping story. They barely hinted at what many likely came to find: confirmation that something terrible had happened here. They were scraps of something vaguely mechanical. Still, I would instantly think of sudden annihilation. I would be reminded that, in a few morning hours, two skyscrapers could be felled and thousands of lives snuffed out, and my thoughts might then move on to some recently absorbed headline about fatal shootings in East New York, or the quiet, heaping aftermath of Antietam. The metal strip whispered, “Death.” The rubber chord chimed in, “Yes, death.”

Over the eight years that I stared at the debris, at some point, memento mori gave way to memento vivi.Like those consumed by memento mori meditations, I couldn’t help but look. The two debris pieces became my companionate skull. They became windows to the passing of worldly life, as had the Victorian-era jewelry made from the bodily relics of relatives, the cloaks of human bone donned by Tibetan monks to commemorate cycles of death and rebirth, and bootlegged copies of Faces of Death screened in secrecy by teenage boys. As dark and unsettling the awareness of our certain end might be, we are piqued by its unknowable finality, maybe even obsessed. After the First World War, Freud offered his controversial proposal of a death drive (todestrieb), a subconscious instinct to “re-establish the state of things that was disturbed by the emergence of life.” Although modern psychologists largely deem the idea outmoded, Freud may have been onto something. When tourists gazed at exhibited carnage and when I stared at the morbid artifacts outside my apartment, we were maintaining our fascination through artifacts, through reenacment—albeit in a very mild form—of the awful trauma.

The reverse of that compulsion is also true, and the resistance against death’s hold is strong, if not more powerful. Over the eight years that I stared at the debris, at some point, memento mori gave way to memento vivi. The dramatic end no longer dominated the whole that preceded it; I am neither saint nor messiah, but I found myself capable of raising the dead. In my mind’s hangar, I returned the pieces to what I supposed were their original lives. I restored the metal strip to the cladding that protected an airplane wing from lightning strikes, or the fastener in a ventilation duct or the rails in somebody’s file cabinet. The rubber cord went back to sealing the edges of a window or suitcase, or a hose in a hydraulic system. And when I saw the parts and where they might have belonged, I saw the whole.

At some point within the past year, the pieces disappeared. I don’t know what happened, but I suspect that the branch that held them broke off. The pieces finally reached the ground and perhaps the landscapers threw them out. Not so long after, I moved. I underwent my own process of disassembly, hauling bags to the compactor room, discovering the hiding places of lost things. There were stray tupperware lids left behind from long-ago potluck dinners, books I meant to read, clothes bought and forgotten. As I considered the fate of what I found—to discard or not to discard—the past eight years in that apartment returned in bits and pieces. Physicists today conjecture that information in the universe can never be destroyed, except maybe in a black hole, and that if you had the means, the information remains; you take a pile of ash and sequence it back to what it was, perhaps a person, perhaps a building.

I had a recurring dream while I lived in that apartment: I am walking home at night from the Cortlandt Street station through the subterranean shopping concourse underneath the towers. I notice the concentric rings of lights on the ceiling as I step into the mall area. I pass by the Bugs Bunny jerseys in the Warner Bros. store’s window and the black-and-white panels of the Sephora entrance. Normally that area filled up with late-evening commuters, but in the dream I’m alone. I follow the black stripe of tiles that zig-zags across the concourse floor and eventually find myself marching up stairs to the lobby of Tower 1. Now the lobby is empty. Not a single guard is muttering into a walkie-talkie, there’s none of the tuxedoed and evening-gowned set waiting for the elevators to the restaurant 106 floors above.

When I woke up, I looked outside, and there they were again, the World Trade Center towers, although my eyes could not see them.