Visiting the 9/11 Memorial

It is a late spring afternoon in New York. Ethnically diverse tourists clog the street in front of me as I wander through what is likely the most secure construction site in the world. I’ve only lived in the city for three days, but slow walkers are already starting to annoy me. Maybe I’m the wrong person to be writing this.

Today, I plan to visit the 9/11 memorial museum. I will be visiting during lunchtime on Tuesday, May 27th, the fourth day that the museum is open to the public, a date I chose because it was close enough to the opening date to be interesting but would avoid the bulk of the crowds.

I feel remarkably out of place. I didn’t get early access to the museum. That was reserved for people who have a right to this space, people like professional journalists and families of the people who died. I didn’t even pay full price for my ticket (I got the student’s discount).

I’m the worst person to be writing this. I’ve never given money to the homeless, never forwarded a chain letter. I didn’t even cry at my grandmother’s funeral. I despise emotional tourists, but this visit makes me feel like one of them. I’m going to the museum because I know I’ll write an essay about it. I’m also curious for a variety of reasons. I want to know how this particular memorial turned out.

I’ve visited a lot of museums before, but the 9/11 Memorial and Museum is different than anything else I’ve ever been to. Lots of museums incorporate recorded audio narratives, videos, touch screens, and other technological gizmos, but very few museums do it well. Here, all of the displays work. The audio phones are loud and comfortable, even the touchscreens feel snappy. Maybe things feel new because the museum is new. I’m one of the first members of the public to visit, and it’s possible that things haven’t had a chance to break.

I don’t remember very much about 9/11, which is especially bad because I was there. My brother — ten years older than me and a high school junior — was flying from New York to an exchange program in Spain, and the rest of the family drove 10 hours in a minivan to see him off. His flight was supposed to leave on Friday the fourteenth, but you already know that didn’t happen.

We had a lot of stuff with us and it filled our hotel room. New York hotel rooms are small, and we filled this one with two queen beds and a cot, along with all of our luggage and my dad’s Walt Disney World sweatshirt tossed over the back of a chair. My brother’s suitcase was larger than I was, and we joked that I should hide in it and go to Spain with him.

I remember hearing my mom get a phone call, and listening to the news turn on. I remember packing all of my stuff up while my mom checked out of the hotel and my dad got the car. I remember driving and not getting far because all of the bridges were closed. I remember pulling off the unmoving highway and going to a bagel place where nobody could use a credit card because the phone systems were down. The guy in front of us didn’t have cash, and the clerk gave him the bagel for free. That’s when it really struck me. My family is always checking out of hotel rooms. The news always shows crazy things. But free bagels don’t just happen, and that’s how I knew something was wrong.

Over the next few weeks I started to understand more, but none of it directly affected me. The uncle of a girl who went to my sister’s school had been in one of the planes. My family had been in one of the towers, years ago, to buy baseball tickets. I was told it could have been any one of us: we were right there!

In the years since, 9/11 has come up it flashes where I didn’t expect it. “They’re just different than us,” a family friend says while serving a boxed Oreo cookie pie. “They’re hateful. I 100% believe that being Muslim should be illegal.” In school I learned that ‘Islam,’ literally translated, means ‘peaceful submission to god.’ There was a war, started because of 9/11, and even now I hear about it on television and late night radio. The place it’s been absent? My classrooms. I’m in college now, and no history class I’ve been in has talked about 9/11, no book in my English classes, nothing. Maybe it’s too soon for academia find a place for the disaster in their slide decks.

But I’ve also never taken the time to form my own opinions. I doubt that most of my friends know I was in the city on 9/11, and if they did I’m not sure that they would understand or care. My exposure to 9/11 has been average, maybe even less than average. I’m uninformed and unopinionated about my own history. I’m the worst person to have these memories because I can’t find anything to do with them.

The memorial is underground at the spot of the original towers and right now that whole area is a massive construction site. The message is clear: we will rebuild.

The Freedom Tower, the new World Trade Center, is also almost complete. The building fascinates me, both symbolically and aesthetically. From the ground near the tower it seems to bulge out and swirl. It stands thick, hanging solidly overhead and colossal. From farther out you can see that the building actually tapers. The top floor is half as thick as the basement, and it looks stunted like a bonsai tree. I heard on the news that its first four floors are entirely concrete, and I idly wonder if it could survive a plane crash. I’m sure somebody did the math.

Two gaping holes dominate the park above the memorial, exactly mirroring the footprint of the old buildings. Around the holes are the names of the deceased, etched in granite. Tourists are taking pictures of the white roses slotted into some of the names, although it’s impossible to get a picture because the fountains are too big to see without a wide angle lens.

The museum is split into two sections, an exhibition and a memorial. The exhibition is what you’d call a proper museum. It contains a timeline of the day and historical context surrounding the tragedy. The memorial is a kind of slideshow, slowly progressing from one victim to another as their family members read off some facts about their life, their character, maybe an amusing story. Both parts of the museum are underground and are fit into the twin tower’s foundations. Around them is a concrete atrium that doesn’t echo, called Foundation Hall.

Foundation Hall

I expected the entry of the museum to have all the grace and tension of Dante’s Inferno, but the museum defied my expectations. The security staff chew their gum and search your bag before waiving you on through airport surplus metal detectors. It felt more like entering an amusement park than entering the gates of hell.

After security, you descend some stairs and see the warning signs of a museum. Guides wander around looking for people to talk at. A gift shop and cafe sit self-consciously in the corner. You descend more stairs, and the museum literally starts to speak.

I usually avoid art’s emotional impact by looking deeply into how it was produced. I pick things apart so that they don’t affect me. I plan to do this now. It’s not enough to experience the museum on its own. I need to pick it apart and take notes. I need to feel control over the situation.

This is a narrative museum. As such, it sets the stage like a children’s book: “it started out like every other day.”

For the most part, visitors are urged forward not with signs but with lighted points of interest. It’s a cool effect, to be grasping toward lit detail in a sea of medium dark, but it’s also a little confusing. For example, I took the tour backwards. I started at the memorial, which didn’t make much sense to me. It was too simple, a space for reflection that I wasn’t ready to have yet. I still sat for a minute and listened to the audio stories of the victim’s lives that loop in the background.

It’s worth noting that the room isn’t really about the victims. Yes, they form the backdrop, but the room is structured in such a way that the visitors face each other. So, you sit and you think, and you look into each others eyes and you try to figure out what everyone else is thinking. It’s quiet in this room. No one is talking. There are touch screens that allow you to flip through the photos of the dead, but no one is using them.

There is nothing tacky about this place, which is remarkable given the speed with which it was put together and the freshness of the disaster it memorializes.

I know, even as I write this, that it isn’t quite true. There is Hollywood style disaster music in the exhibits that’s hard to ignore. They play a digitized “Taps” on the escalators to street level. Barring those choices, and most likely a handful of others I’m not sensitive enough to notice, the museum is tasteful and well done.

I leave the memorial and head into the exhibition. The museum proper is a winding path, continuing the narrative structure from before. On the walls there is a timeline that details the events of the day in fifteen minute intervals. It’s strange to see the exhibits, none of which have had time to age, in glass cases. These artifacts could have easily come from my parent’s basement.

I knew, going into the exhibit, that the curators had intentionally decided not to use the most disturbing material because they worried it might traumatize visitors. Going into the exhibit I had expected to receive an emotionally dumbed down version of the day, like the ‘historical reenactments’ that you see on TV. Worse, I imagined that it might feel like propaganda, and read like a red, white, and blue Pravda. The truth was entirely different.

Yes, the curators removed traces of hysterical fear. There are no tears in any of the recordings, no screaming, no bangs or loud noises. Even the sirens are quieter than what you might hear from an ambulance racing by at street level.

But what the curators revealed was a subtler kind of fear. I got chills listening to a recording that ended, ‘I’m on a hijacked plane and things don’t look good.’

I learned that man down alarms, a safety device that goes off if a fireman is still for more than thirty seconds, sound like crickets. Listening to the recordings they had, of all the man down alarms going off at once, reminded me of a summer night in my hometown.

The result of this, the hollowing sense of fear that the museum captures, is odd. There are conspicuous boxes of tissues in every nook and cranny that no one touched. Nobody needed them. No one was traumatized. The curators did a great job.

But this leaves the museum’s guests in an awkward position. Where do you put the feelings you have, after not being traumatized? It’s not fear, and it’s not loss. I imagine that it’s something very similar to what the average American felt watching the news from their living room couch, which David Foster Wallace best described in his essay ‘The View from Mrs. Thompson’s’ when he described both the day and the feeling as “the Horror” with a capital H. He describes the expressions of the people he watched the news with that day as “somehow both childlike and terribly old.” This description applies to the faces you see at the memorial as well.

No one knows how to handle this feeling. Walking around for only thirty minutes I could see that the museum staff had trouble meeting visitor’s gaze. What do you say, to this new emotion?

In some small way, I lived 9/11. Even if I don’t remember very much about it, it’s still an experience I went through. It offends me slightly that the memories I have of this museum will be stronger than my actual memories of the tragedy. What’s more authentic: the Horror I barely remember or the horror of listening to crickets chirp near hallowed ground?

I’m starting to remember new flashes of my own experiences as well. I remember what the TV looked like when the plane hit. I remember the gasps of the reporters. I remember oceans of parked cars, every single one tuned to the same radio station. Are these real memories that have surfaced after all these years, or are they fake ones implanted by the museum? If the memories are implanted, does that make them less valid?

The museum’s timeline reaches its emotional peak as the second tower collapses. As I watch it crumble in on itself, a kind of conclusion is reached. Everything afterward feels like an epilogue.

I’m left, mostly, with curiosity. The designers must have anticipated this need, and the museum takes a break from its timeline to give me some historical context. After that, it deals with the emotional fallout, the rebuilding effort, and the construction of the museum itself.

I cannot say whether this part of the museum is biased. It presents a lot of facts and I don’t know enough about modern politics to say whether they are from the Republican or Democratic set of facts. Ultimately, the section answered some of the questions I didn’t know I had. It seemed to reassure me that this was not an isolated disaster, that it came from somewhere and ended up somewhere, which makes it easier to deal with.

I found the section on the hijackers compelling. Seeing their passport photos, their application to flight school, all of their official documents laid out elicited a strangely personal connection. While I was looking at their photos, what surprised me the most was how unsexy they were. They were not handsome or rugged. They were not the cool kids in high school. There was nothing to romanticize about them. Their flight school application read like a piece of spam mail, with poor english and a kind of snake oil salesmanship. Ultimately, the context was like trail mix. Enough to take the edge off my hunger and nothing more.

Coming out of the exhibition is like coming up for air. You don’t realize how claustrophobic the space was until you reenter Foundation Hall. I reiterate that the space doesn’t echo, which is supernatural for a concrete box of its size.

Conveniently placed benches are scattered around, and the guests gather in small groups, talking quietly. I sit by myself, listlessly refreshing my Facebook Newsfeed and taking notes. Every person around me seems to have come with family. I feel lonely. I don’t want to say anything, but I want to hear people talking. I don’t want to be alone.

I feel like I’ve just been though a war zone, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what was so stressful. No one was sad, no one cried. Why do I feel upset?

That being said, I know what I’m supposed to do with my memories now. I’m supposed to experience them. It’s up to me as an individual to figure out how I feel about 9/11. I need to remember what it was like on my own, and this museum helped me do that.

This disaster left traces that were more than geological, emotional, or historical. They were digital. The traces were in answering machines, video cameras, and DSLRs, and the curators tackled the herculean task of sifting through them all, all in the name of getting me to remember.

As I leave, listening to a digitized “Taps,” I can’t help but look at the kid riding the escalator with me. His tshirt proclaims that he is a member of the class of 2014. He is a recent high school graduate, a student wearing a baseball cap with stickers on the brim. Like many of the other guests here today, he is sun tanned and touristy. His gym shorts and sneakers belong in Times Square, but instead, he’s here, running his fingers along the smooth concrete of the escalator’s wall. His friend makes a joke, and suddenly they are laughing and hitting each other.

I don’t know what he’ll take away from this museum but I’m glad he’s here. I’m glad that all of this is here: the museum, the new tower, even the gift shop. I’m glad that there’s a place I can go and remember my own history, even if I’m the worst person to experience it.

Published on 9/11/2014

Thanks to Harold Navaro for the topmost photo.