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Coming up empty

There's a joke about mountain climbers. Word reaches the mountain-climbing community about an imaginary mountain in South America no one's ever climbed before, with towering heights and expanses of ice and the whole deal. So they all gear up and start raising money for an expedition; everyone wants to go climb it.

Before they leave, an adventure-sports writer asks one of the climbers, What makes you all so excited about this new mountain? Why do you want to go climb it?

And the climber answers, "Because it isn't there."

That's sort of how I felt this past Friday, walking past the site of the no-longer-there World Trade Center towers. It was chilly and windy and there were all these people standing on the sidewalk looking at a big empty space. From the southeast side you could see where they were working on the remains of the South Tower, but only barely; most lines of sight were blocked by construction equipment, vehicles or work shelters. I looked at the curb and wondered where the various bits of debris there had come from. There was no way to know. I looked up at the sky where the towers weren't, but that wasn't satisfying, either.

If you walk a few blocks south from the site, you find yourself in Battery Park (on the south tip of the island), where "The Sphere," the sculpture that was in the World Trade Center plaza and was damaged in the attacks, has been since March 11. (There are pictures of it, undamaged, here and here. This page currently has a picture of the damaged Sphere in its new location, in the left margin below the site navigation.) It already looks like it's been there forever, somehow; it looks old and heavy and weathered and aged; and it's too big to really see the damage done to it. Its head was caved in, but, looking at it, I couldn't imagine it intact, couldn't sense what it had been. Its new form was too present, too vivid. A piece of awesome and terrible collaborative art.

Walking up Broadway from Battery Park takes you past the viewing platform, where I imagine you can see more of the hole. You have to go someplace else (about a block away, I think) to get tickets to go on the platform; I think the tickets are free but I thought I'd already seen too little. Or something.

I walked around Manhattan for three hours or so, looking at people and buildings and stores. The place always astounds me; it forces me to stop and try and let it sink in, but it's simply too big, too vibrant, too awesome. The destruction of the towers isn't, though. It feels big, unimaginably so, and I'm still searching for a way, not to understand the thing, but to let it hit me, let it leave some impression — but I can't, somehow. It isn't too big, at all; it's too unreal, too empty, too far gone. There's no there there. No matter how long I stare into this void, I never feel like I can see anything.

March 25, 2002 11:54 AM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer

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