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 The Brancatelli File

joe EMPTY

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

September 15, 2005 -- This, I believe, is true: You and I and all of us who live our lives on the road have never truly come to terms with 9/11.

We haven't grieved enough. There's never been time. We've never reflected enough. The rush of the news and our lives has made that impossible.

And, in a way, we haven't had courage enough. Lord knows, we are not cowards, but we instinctively know the rules. If we looked 9/11 squarely in its horrific face, we would be forced to admit that the big lies we tell ourselves to keep going--it could never happen to us, we've already made peace with it if it ever did, our loved ones understand and are as tough as us--are just big lies. We'd be naked, exposed to our own fragility and the stupidity of how we live our lives on the road.

But I couldn't take it anymore. I vowed to myself, four years on, that I would look 9/11 squarely in its horrific face and tell you about it today.

So I went down to Ground Zero last weekend and came back empty.

I have nothing to offer.

I have pages of notes. Hundreds of mental images. Little vignettes and big tales. Interviews with cops, firefighters, tourists, politicians, hotel general managers, bellmen, bartenders and even a pizza man who works a block from Ground Zero and carries a piece of World Trade Center rubble in his pocket every day.

But no truths. Only the same emptiness I have felt since 9/11. And no explanations. Only the same jumble of disjointed and dispiriting frustrations I have had since 9/11.

You tell me what I should make of this: World Trade Center 7, the last building to fall, has been replaced. It is a sleek and shiny sliver of black against the mostly white masonry that makes up the streetscape of New York's Wall Street district. But it has no tenants and apparently no hope of tenants anytime soon.

And you tell me what I should make of this: Across the vast, empty rectangle of Ground Zero from the new World Trade Center 7 is the 40-story Deutsche Bank Building. Irretrievably damaged, it is empty, clad in black mesh to hold back the environmental horrors. It may come down soon, but no one knows. And no one knows what would take its place.

Or what do I make of this little observation? "See," said the woman, pointing two blocks down the darkness of Fulton Street. "There's the World Trade Center. That big hole." When I watched it happen late Saturday night and scribbled it in my notebook, I thought I had the lead for this column. Now I look at the words and all I remember is a New Yorker standing in the middle of the street and pointing to a hole where almost 3,000 people died and the world as we knew it changed forever.

Or there's this: New York has rebounded, at least financially, to the point that I had to beg a favor from a friend at Hilton to get a room at the Millenium Hilton, the hotel facing Ground Zero. When the hotel reopened after a top-to-bottom renovation, neither Hilton nor the owners knew for sure that anyone would return. Now you have to know someone to get a room.

And how do I face my own cowardice? On Sunday morning, when the family members of 9/11 victims stood up on a platform in front of Ground Zero and read the names of every person who died, I stayed in my room at the Hilton and watched it all on the 42-inch flat-panel TV. I drank coffee and ate a bagel and watched on TV.

And why did I walk down Broadway, just to check that all the office buildings I once worked in were still there? I knew they were there. They've always been there. Yet every time I go to Ground Zero I end up walking down Broadway and looking at the building where pieces of my life used to be.

Why was I angry that tourists kept walking up to the high chain-link fence that surrounds Ground Zero and taking pictures? It's just a big, damn hole. What's a picture of that worth?

What was I thinking when I walked into Century 21, a famous discount store across from Ground Zero? I knew there'd be oblivious European tourists buying shoes and clothes and schlepping shopping bags back to their rooms at the Hilton and congratulating themselves on the bargains so big that they covered the cost of their plane tickets. What does any of that have to do with 9/11?

Does this matter? I ran into Bernie Kerik, trailed by a little entourage, hours after all the other dignitaries had left. Kerik was New York police commissioner on 9/11, then made millions, wrote a book and had his sordid personal life exposed when President Bush nominated him as Secretary of Homeland Security. Last Sunday, at least, I thought it was good that he was still walking around Ground Zero hours after anyone else.

Why did I end September 11, 2005, walking a mile and a half north from Ground Zero and standing in front of the old Asch Building? That's the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 25, 1911. More than 150 people died when fire swept through a sweatshop. In a desperate attempt to escape, some of the immigrant women jumped from windows to their death. The building eventually became part of New York University. All that's left to mark the tragedy is a plaque on an exterior wall. I walked by that plaque almost every day when I was in college. I'm not sure I ever read it.

Like I said, I have nothing to offer you today. I tried to look 9/11 squarely in its horrific face. Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't. Either way, I came back empty.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.