The boy at the fence

I had to wait until Sunday had past to write this post. The 10th anniversary made everything too close, too raw.

I was sitting in my office on that sunny Tuesday when one of the partners came to my door with the news. We asked the hair salon next door to turn their TV slightly so we could watch (and hear) CNN across the tiny alley that separated the more than a century old buildings our businesses occupied. It was so warm; we could keep the windows open. By early afternoon, the police were going door to door, advising everyone to close up and go home. Being a national capital, there were concerns that the city might be a potential target, so an effort was made to clear the downtown, which is chock-a-block with official buildings. As I went to catch the bus, I passed the relatively new American Embassy, which was surrounded by security vehicles. I was later told there were men with guns in the turrets on the roof. If that’s true, I’m glad I didn’t see them. The day was surreal enough as it was.

But then, I didn’t know my most indelible 9/11 memory would be made months later. In June of 2002, I was in New York City on business and my colleague and I had a free afternoon. After lunch in Soho and shopping for knockoff bags on street corners, we hopped a double-decker tour bus to Ground Zero. The sun was shining and it was unseasonably warm. It felt good to be back in New York, which seemed a lot friendlier than I remembered. My dad grew up close to the city, in New Jersey, and my parents lived in Queens when I was born. New York for me was shopping at FAO Schwarz and Macy’s, peering off the observation deck of the Empire State Building and the scary neighborhoods my parents drove through slowly and silently when I was 13 and threatening to run away from home. At 17, I won a public speaking contest that bought me several days at the United Nations with more than 100 other teens. I remembered talking with friends on the plaza at the UN, shaded by the high towers of the relatively new World Trade Center. That was my New York.

Ground Zero, nine months following the attack, was still raw. Tattered messages and photos were stuck along the wire fence that ran the perimeter of the site. There were cranes and equipment and small groups of visitors lining the street. It was eerily quiet. The open gash in the earth was far bigger than I could have imagined, but it was the light that threw me, the abundance of it, the overly bright open space where buildings were supposed to be. The enormity of the towers’ absence was overwhelming.

Behind me, a young father balanced his son on his shoulders so he could see farther into the hole where the towers had once stood. He was explaining that the cranes were there now because the towers would be rebuilt and they would be better and higher than before. Many stories higher. His bravado barely hid the emotion in his voice. As he explained, the child went rigid and started screaming, “No, no, no.”

“Why not?” asked the father, obviously confused and a little embarrassed by his son’s tantrum.

“No, daddy no,” said the boy, his voice on the edge of tears. “It can’t be bigger or higher. No.”

“Why?” asked the father again.

“Because,” said the boy, matter-of-factly, “Next time it happens, even more people will die.”

The father looked like his heart had fallen out on the gravel beneath our feet. He silently picked up the boy, encased him in his arms and walked away. I watched them until they disappeared in the direction of the Port Authority.

I felt a stab of pain in my hands and looked down to see that my fingers were threaded through the metal fence so tightly my knuckles were turning white. I could barely see for tears and while the sun was strong, I felt chilled through. I let out a loud sob. I didn’t know if I’d heard prophecy or fear, but either way, it was devastating. My throat ached just thinking of this child carrying such a horrible burden at such a young age.

I finally stopped crying, cleaned up, found my colleague and headed back to my hotel in midtown. I went to the Hershey shop near Times Square, had some dinner, saw a comedy show at Caroline’s, and got a tiny bit tipsy on the two drink minimum. I’ve forgotten what I kind of chocolate I bought, who the comics were and what I ate or drank. But I’ll never forget that little boy at the fence.

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