After Mason and I crossed Broadway, we stumbled upon a memorial to the firefighters lost when the World Trade Center collapsed. Bright chains of origami cranes decorated the fence around an old brown church. Beside them hung tattered “missing person” flyers. Amongst the ephemera fluttered faded navy blue T-shirts, each silk-screened with a different fire company badge. My eyes stung, burned by the eloquence of those empty shirts.
Around the corner, we peered through the big iron fence into the churchyard. In the afternoon light, the grass glowed intensely green. Dense trees raised a verdant canopy above the old stones. I longed for the sense of peace inside, but a big padlock held the fence closed.
I wound my fingers through the bars and gazed at the old headstones. The graveyard seemed strangely familiar. Not until we came home and I looked through my files did I realize this was St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Churchyard. A photograph clipped from the Boston Herald captured the tranquil cemetery snowed over by debris fallen from the Twin Towers. Papers and torn insulation drifted against the old, irreplaceable monuments. A volunteer in a hazmat suit wheeled the junk out by the wheelbarrow load.
The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries reports that St. Paul’s Churchyard historically had its own ghost. After Shakespearean actor George Frederick Cooke died destitute in 1812, his skull was allegedly sold to pay his bills. Rumor says that he appeared, posthumously, as Yorick in Hamlet. His ghost prowled amongst the stones, seeking his head.
Unable to enter the church or the cemetery, Mason and I moved on. Another block farther along, a huge destruction zone gaped. Dust stirred up by the earthmovers hung motionless in the air. Entirely by accident, we’d reached Ground Zero.
Mason huddled against a nearby skyscraper to look furtively into our guidebook. “The subway station should be right here,” he insisted.
Should be, but was gone. Our guidebook had been published pre-9/11. The station we wanted had vanished into the crater of the World Trade Center.
Mason recovered sooner than I could. He led me up the shadowy canyon of a street between skyscrapers to another subway station. From there, we had an easy ride uptown.
Collapsed on the subway seat, I had the same sick feeling that came over me outside the Genbaku Domu in Hiroshima. The realization that thousands of people had shrieked in the face of death — right where I’d stood — nearly reduced me to tears. I’d wanted to visit the World Trade Center site, pay my respects, but not like this. Not by chance.
Looks like I’ll have to wait until September 2012 to visit the museum dedicated to the tragedy. The monument opens this weekend: http://www.911memorial.org/