One of my former flatmates years ago called me a “culture vulture,” one who can’t get enough of museums, theatre, dance and so on. And it’s true, I adore museums. So, you’d think I’d be thrilled to bits to visit New York’s newest one. You’d be wrong. I have been dreading my first trip to the 9/11 Museum since they decided to build one. On Thursday, I got it over with. It was about as difficult as I expected.
Like most New Yorkers, my life falls into two distinct phases: before and after Sept. 11, 2001. It wasn’t my first experience of terrorism — while a student in London, an IRA bomb missed me by about 30 minutes. And my younger brother was working as a law clerk in Oklahoma City when the Federal building there was blown up (he’s fine, thanks for asking).
But 9/11 is, for my generation, what the JFK assassination was to another or Pearl Harbor to the generation before that. If you are of a certain age, you know exactly where you were and what you were doing when it occurred. It is the watershed event in your life.
In addition, I was in New York that day, safe and sound in Queens. For 11 days, I could stand on the front steps of my house and see the plume of smoke from the pile, but I was perfectly safe during the attack. However, I had worked for five years at Moody’s, four blocks north of the Twin Towers. I spent lots of time at the World Trade Center, corporate offsites 100 floors up, drinks after work at Windows on the World, hopping the E train in the basement of the complex for the ride to Forest Hills. In short, I was lucky when others weren’t — like Richard Allen Pearlman, whom I believe was the youngest to die in the towers. At 18, he was delivering a package to One Police Plaza and headed to the burning towers when he heard what happened. A Newsweek photo showed him helping someone out of one of the buildings before he went back to help others. He will be 18 forever. There’s a memorial to him at the headquarters of the Forest Hills Volunteer Ambulance Corp. I go past it about five times a week.
It was appropriate that Thursday was gray and that I visited between bursts of rain. If it had been a sunny clear day like Sept. 11 had been, I don’t know how I would have reacted.
What is also appropriate are the metal detectors, the first things you experience after you pick up your ticket ($28 per adult, membership $70, I opted for membership. Civic pride, you know?). At least, they let me keep my shoes on.
Once you have shown yourself to be unarmed, you head down the escalators. The museum is essentially in the basement of the old complex. As you head lower into the space, you come across the Survivors’ Staircase, the dedication plaque from the opening of the WTC in 1973 and a line set on the wall from Virgil’s “Aeneid:” “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
You walk through the south and north excavations where what little of the buildings’ skeletons remain. It’s huge. And it’s largely empty space.
Then, there are two areas chock full of stuff. The “In Memoriam” section has a photo of each and every person who died there. I sought out the picture of Richard Pearlman. He was a good-looking kid. There are touchscreens there to help you navigate it all.
The other area is the 9/11 exhibit itself. This is where the ID cards, and the shoes and the burned bits of paper are displayed. The “Today Show” from that morning is on a loop. As you walk through this part, it is unnerving how quiet so many people can be. Then, you get to the section that talks about Al Qaeda and bin Laden and beyond that is the area that informs the visitor about the events following the attack. Right now, it’s rather silly, but you have to remember that in 30 years, most people who visit it won’t have any memory of what happened.
Of course, this is Fleet Week in New York, when the Navy lets loose a bunch of sailors to see the Big Apple. There were lots in their dress whites at the museum. The powers that be frown on questions being asked there, and at least one reporter was tossed out on opening day for asking a question.
I had promised myself I would behave, but I saw a couple guys from the USS Cole, the ship Al Qaeda had attacked off Yemen in 2000. I won’t use their names because they really weren’t supposed to talk to me either. They had been in high school in 2001, and they still look too young to be wearing anything but a Little League uniform (you know you’re old when the troops protecting you look like your kids’ friends). They had joined the Navy to see the world (and because the Air Force was full, one told me). Their California accents didn’t stand out too much, but I don’t think they could pronounce “fuggedaboutit” if they had to.
“What does it mean to be here while serving on the Cole?” I asked.
“It’s very emotional,” one said. Navy guys don’t tear up, but he was obviously sincere about it. He’s a machinist. His post was almost exactly where the bomb blew up. He said he has a new lathe because of it.
His shipmate said, “The Cole and the World Trade Center are kind of the same thing, the same place.”
The first one said, “It’s why we do what we do.”
I let them move on — when you’re a sailor on shore leave, you really have better things to do than talk to a guy like me in a museum.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. There are quotations posted about the Towers themselves and what they meant to New York City in the 1970s when they were dedicated. I always thought they were ugly, to be quite honest. They lacked the artistry of the Empire State or Chrysler buildings. There is a quotation from The New York Times that likened them to a box of staples. It was the only smile I had all afternoon.
The one thing that I am glad they didn’t get right is the smell. I had to go down there while the pile burned — what kind of historian would I be if I didn’t? The air clawed at the back of your throat. It was a nasty mixture of pulverized concrete, burnt paper, melted electrical wire and plastic insulation mixed with the scent of a metal shop — all of it on top of the stench of what one reporter at the time delicately called “organic aromas.” By that, he meant the smell of burning flesh and shit. I can’t get that smell out of my nose.
As for the unidentified human remains that sit behind the memorial wall with the quotation from Virgil, the decision to put them there displayed weapons-grade callousness and stupidity. A Tomb of the Unknowns above ground (where you don’t have to pay money to pay your respects) remains a goal worthy of any fight with the powers that be.
Then it was time for the gift shop. Yes, it’s bad enough that you have to pay to get in — in a civilized nation, all museums would be free. But some of the gift shop’s offerings are in poor taste. Sure, all net proceeds go to paying the bills, and I don’t mind the books about the attack nor the flags nor even some of the NYPD and FDNY jewelry. Do they really need to sell stuffed dogs with the first responder vests? Toy fire trucks?
I’m pretty sure that ISN’T what the guys on the Cole volunteered to protect.
Happy Memorial Day.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.