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The Picture Window: My Ground Zero memory

New York City

When I think about those days now, I see a dark street in some continuous midnight.
A man in a tuxedo carrying a cello from Carnegie Hall.
The sound of a sonata behind closed doors.
A Goya by a mansion's staircase, a Shakespeare folio under glass.
A flickering television in the apartment across from my 12th floor hotel window.
Only then, do I see why I was there and where I walked an entire November night—the gaping Ground Zero gash that was once the World Trade Center. The expected images have faded, mercifully if slowly, the images everyone knows without having to go there, the ones we'll always see. But the unexpected, what the mind chooses to hold on to and where the soul finds itself again, can be a lasting surprise.

I came to Manhattan a month after 9/11 to write a book with a crisis chaplain I'd never met. At 11:30 p.m., he walked into the hotel lobby in full blue tactical uniform, introduced himself, then led me immediately to the subway. By midnight, a national guardswoman was waving us past her checkpoint. The chaplain handed me a necklace of badges and a hardhat with a simple black cross on it, exactly like his, and motioned me to follow. I was about to walk into the surreal landscape of every American's 2001 nightmare. Every journalist I knew wanted to visit Ground Zero, and I was no different. Still, I wondered, what would be the cost? The first answer came within seconds. The chaplain coughed, then commented as an afterthought, "The air is toxic, you know."

For hours, the crisis chaplain gave me a walking tour of the entire zone's parameter. We were surrounded by mangled buildings, makeshift firefighter command posts, Red Cross and Salvation Army centers, burned-out storefronts—and the smell, oh the smell: Acrid, metallic, ashen, beyond burned, beyond breath. The site was now moonscape, lit by the floodlights of a 100 football fields. He pointed here and there, describing where he'd been and what happened when. Yet I had to focus to grasp a word, so conscious was I of walking through this current moment of history.

Finally at 4:30 a.m., we descended into the subway again, past homemade altars and the wallpaper of a thousand missing posters. Only afterwards, did I realize how oddly quiet and deathly safe the ride had been.

Back at my hotel room, I rushed into the bathroom to flush the smell from my nose, which would be there the next morning no matter what I did. When I finally headed toward my dark bedroom, I noticed a glow coming through the picture window. Like some sky-high set for Hitchcock's "Rear Window," the window looked out on nothing but other high-rise apartment windows, and the glow was coming from the flickering images of a TV in the apartment directly across the way. It was the only light on at that hour, and it was a strange comfort that I didn't want to disturb. So I slipped into bed and watched the flickering images beyond my window until I fell asleep. And that was exactly what I saw when I opened my eyes mid-morning: the dark apartment and its flickering TV. In the days ahead, no matter when I looked—straight up midnight, 4:30 in the morning, 3 in the afternoon—the apartment's TV was on, and the only sign of life, such as it was, I ever saw there.

For three days and nights, we spent every waking hour recording the crisis chaplain's fresh memories. Very quickly, I felt the familiar cold thrill that comes with catching the thread of a story's possible flow: This is the beginning, and omigod, that is the end. It is the feeling all writers know, the cause for which we live and breathe and have our being: the privilege of telling a powerful story powerfully. It's what pushes a journalist to cover a war without a gun, to walk past checkpoints and breath the dust of a thousand souls. As the hours ticked off, I could hear the book slowly forming. And it was good.

And it was bad. I heard tales of bravery, coincidence, providence, and wonder, but I also heard ones of horror that would never see print, the kinds of stories that emergency personnel share only with each other: Buckets of fingers, jumpers' bodies exploding on roofs, sidewalks, bystanders—the psyche-scarring facts of crisis nothing can erase.

On Friday, after finishing the last taping session around midnight, I went down to the street, rung out from sheer listening. I leaned against a lamppost and quietly watched the crowd coming and going from the Russian Tea Room and Carnegie Hall, until the man in the tuxedo lugged his cello around the corner and the theater went dark.

In the months to come, I knew I would have to relive every moment of every episode, again and again, forcing myself to go as deeply as I dared to tell the story well.

But god—dear god—not yet.

I'd hit a saturation point I didn't know I had.

I had to get a grip.

My flight home wasn't until Sunday morning. So I had an entire day alone in the city. I woke at noon to a world of drizzle blurring the picture window. All was grey. Rain or no rain, though, I needed to go, just go, blessed movement without thought. So I dressed and began to walk. Crossing with the signal. Going with the pedestrian flow. Passing a blur of suits and sidewalk vendors. I was headed toward lower Manhattan and, in an out-of-body-way, I wondered if I were going back to Ground Zero.

At 36th street, though, I stopped. Gazing up at a turn-of-the-century brownstone, I realized I'd been there before. This was the Morgan Library. A richer-than-God tycoon/collector named Pierpont Morgan had built a majestic, 3-tiered, Victorian-plush library inside his home and stuffed it with rare books and original manuscripts now light years beyond priceless—Gutenberg and illuminated bibles, manuscripts by Dante, Chaucer, Byron, Balzac, Hugo, Dickens, Bronte, Austen, Twain, Steinbeck, Einstein, Lincoln, Voltaire Mozart, Chopin, Brahms, Bach, Stravinsky—thousands of seminal works of western civilization.

Years before, I'd stumbled onto the mansion during a wandering tour of the city, and when I had entered that mammoth library room, I'd stood slack-jawed, turning slow circles, unable to believe my modern eyes. I thought I'd walked onto a movie set. The entire collection was under lock and key, book spines out, behind glass as thick as any picture window. On display, though, open for all to see, were dozens of the most precious of the priceless: a medieval monk's hand-lettered illuminated bible; one of Thoreau's journals in his own hand, an "autograph" original of Beethoven Violin Sonata no. 10; a manuscript page of Milton's Paradise Lost.

The experience had been electric for this Texas girl with too many literature degrees who'd found the company of other words from other times her earliest travels into the wide world.

To lay eyes on such things in such a setting had made the legends behind the words bone-jarringly real and very much alive. Here were the words and music fresh from the artist's thought, before surviving centuries on their way to me. The term "divine spark" suddenly held brilliant new meaning, and I had never looked at a dusty old book the same.

And on that rainy day in 2001, here I stood again, across from the deli and the dry cleaners and the fruit stand, so vulnerably close to utter destruction. Hustling inside, I found my way to the library, suddenly wanting nothing more than to be surrounded, not by dust and ashes, but by ancient books. Why had I come here? To see that these books were safe? It was as if I'd suddenly grasped the miracle of anything as fragile as thoughts on paper surviving history. But after all I'd just seen and heard, why did I care? I thought of Alexandria's legendary lost library. An entire portion of civilization's early knowledge had vanished and yet civilization had survived, hadn't it?

The crisis chaplain had taken me through a tiny Episcopal chapel where George Washington once worshiped and workers now congregated to sleep comforted on old pews. Still standing at the very edge of Ground Zero, the scarred survivor of a building had its walls, ceilings, windows, blanketed with a living library link of words: letters, banners, placards from souls around the world and back. Perhaps that was the comfort I was feeling, a communion of words across time as well as space. It seemed, though, something deeper still. And I must have stood in the middle of the library a very long time, because someone noticed.

"Lovely, isn't it?"

A stately, elderly woman in a hunter green raincoat, all buttoned up, was standing by me, her hands in her pockets. She had the air of a regular.

"Yes," I answered.

"Visiting?" she asked.

I hesitated, then told her why I was in the city.

Surprisingly, she said nothing as if she hadn't quite heard. I began to ask her if she'd been here on Sept. 11, but what could she have said that either of us, at that moment, wanted to discuss? Then, her gaze wandering up to the books above us, she asked, "Are you planning to take in the museums?"

I shrugged. "The buildings feel too much like mausoleums," I added, without knowing quite what I was saying.

At that, she pulled a scrap of paper and a pen from a raincoat pocket, wrote down an address and handed it to me. "I think you'll like this one." She patted my hand in a sort of benediction and wandered away.

I studied the paper scrap a second, then stuck it in my pocket. An hour later, though, outside the building, standing again in the rain, I stuck my hand back in my pocket and felt the scrap. Pulling it out, I stared at it for a second, then began once again to walk in the direction of the address.

Soon, I was standing in front of another home, the turn-of-the-century mansion of Henry Clay Frick, the art-collecting tycoon version of Pierpont Morgan, now home of the Frick Collection . No institutional, museum-bunching by era or period here, these paintings were hung over the fireplace, near the sofa, in the library, a Titian here, a Goya there, a Monet over yonder. In the dining room was a Gainsborough, in the library, a Turner, and down the hall, an El Greco. And as I wandered along the Persian carpet, past the winding staircase to a wall covered with Bellini's huge "St. Francis in the Desert," an almost life-size portrayal of the saint being struck by transcendental light, I was aware of a small, splendored calm growing in me. All that was missing, I remember thinking off-handedly, was music.

And that moment, incredibly, was when I heard the piano sonata. I followed the sound through an inner garden to a small lecture hall with a rehearsal sign on its closed doors. I fought a small urge to fling the doors wide. Instead, I eased onto the closest bench and listened, soaking in another kind of solace from souls long gone. But still so very here.

Literature, music, art. On that day's walk I found my balance in the presence of civilization's best after being stunned silent by civilization's worst. And it's been with me ever since, wildly inexpressible.

There are moments in life that transcend time and space and one's very self. And the language of those moments takes a long time to shape into words, and longer, if ever, to understand. So, finally, you learn to let them alone, let them simmer for however long they take to find their place in your own story. And so I did. And so I have. And so, I imagine, I will.

After the museum closed, I walked along the edges of Central Park back to my hotel room. Leaving the lights off, I went to the picture window to stare at the apartment's TV—still, as ever, on. I fiddled with my own TV set until I found the exact station.

Then I fell asleep to the same images as my neighbor, invisible, but there just the same.

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