This is part seven in Scott Raab's "The Rebuilding," published in Esquire's September 2011 issue. To read the rest of the series, click here.
A gorgeous morning, but Katherine is uneasy. She asks Charlie to put the television on, just to distract her. From what? He doesn't know. He'll never know.
"Would you mind turning the television on? My mind is not at ease."
The same words he remembers her saying then he now repeats — ten years after that Tuesday — with the faintest trace of Katherine's Welsh accent.
Charlie hails from Buffalo. He met Katherine here in Greenwich Village, on holiday with a corps of London-based musicians who swapped visits over the years with a light-opera group Charlie had joined.
"I simply must get to know that woman," Charlie remembers himself saying to a friend after he first spoke to Katherine in a church basement during a rehearsal. Charlie sounds like Cary Grant the way he hits "simply must," but that's more his attitude than an accent: Charlie is a bon vivant. Charlie Wolf didn't settle in New York City by accident. No one does.
So that Tuesday, Charlie clicks on the TV for Katherine. He's at his desk, online, working. A tiny apartment in a good building on a nice block in the Village with a sushi joint to die for down the street. Thirteen years they've made their home here, all of Manhattan humming and thumping around them.
Katherine's leaving for the subway to work early — 8:06. She left yesterday at 8:14. Charlie notices this sort of detail, mentions this to her. Katherine doesn't want to hear it. Something else is bothering her.
At dinner on Friday, Charlie had brought up the subject of trying to make a baby. Could that have been on Katherine's mind? A few years before, she had talked about getting pregnant in two years, and there things had sat ever since.
Letting things sit isn't Charlie's way, and now Katherine is past forty, and so he feels it's time for them to make a proactive decision: yes or no? Not that the question was resolved at dinner, but it was back on the table.
"She's about to walk out without kissing me goodbye," Charlie remembers. "I would stand here" — on the second-topmost step leading up to the kitchen area — "and she would stand right here, which would put us about even height. And I would give her a hug — a hug and a kiss — and then walk her out the door. Our normal routine."
Katherine takes the E train. Hers is the third stop: Spring, Canal, World Trade. It's the beginning of her third week at Marsh & McLennan, on floor 97 of the North Tower. A good job for a Fortune 500 outfit, excellent benefits, a steady salary. Nice folks. The week before, her boss asked if she could come in at 8:30 instead of 9:00 — not an order, a check-with-your-husband request. Not a problem. A half-hour head start on the day. Of course.
On the bulletin board above Charlie's desk, a small Stars and Stripes is tacked above a small Union Jack.
He and Katherine married twice: quietly the first time, in Swansea, her hometown, in 1989, just to get the immigration process rolling; then again the following year, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, with a forty-five-voice choir from the light-opera company singing along with Charlie as he serenaded her with Sigmund Romberg's "The Desert Song": "My desert is waiting. Dear, / Come there with me. / I'm longing to teach you / Love's sweet melody. / I'll sing a dream song to you, / Painting a picture for two."
They hug and kiss and Charlie goes back down the stairs to his desk. Turns off the TV, goes back to work. The sliding-glass balcony door is open to the cool air; the traffic noise from nearby Bleecker Street is the usual background. From out of nowhere, a metallic yowl — too low, too loud, directly overhead — has him on his feet and out on the strip of balcony.
He's on the third floor and sees nothing in the sky, and so he steps back inside and just then hears the thunder of American Airlines Flight 11 as it hits the North Tower at 440 miles per hour, carrying ten thousand gallons of jet fuel. The impact zone stretches from floors 93 to 99, all occupied by Marsh & McLennan.
Charlie's thinking sonic boom. Then he hears a woman on the street shout, "Oh, my God, a plane's just gone right into the World Trade Center."
Charlie runs downstairs in his pajamas, out into the middle of the street. The North Tower stands at the end of his sight line with a gaping hole near its top. He thinks about rushing to find Katherine, imagines the chaos, and goes back to their apartment.
"She'll come down. She'll come down without her purse, which is where her cell phone is. She may not remember my cell number, but she will remember the home phone number. Two moving targets can't find each other. I will be the stationary target."
Charlie tries Katherine's work and cell numbers. Then he gets the phone book and calls the FBI.
"I had to do something. I said, 'That was no accident.' I said, 'That plane was going full throttle — it was no accident.' "
Charlie hangs up, then realizes the FBI might not believe him. So he calls again.
"Listen, I just called. I want you to know I'm a pilot. I know the sound. Those engines were maxed out."
Charlie turns the TV back on. The phone starts ringing — Katherine's parents, his parents. He sees the South Tower get hit, the pilot banking so steeply just before impact.
"I believed one, but I couldn't believe two. Then I watched Tower Two fall. Then I heard all kinds of commotion outside. People running. I stayed right here. The door was closed. The television was on. I stayed here waiting for her call."
Charlie remembers the moment he knew that Tower One was doomed, too.
"Ten-twenty — it's off the vertical. I said, 'It's going to go.' I was sitting here watching this thing — and I just watched it come down. I said, 'Well, I guess I've got to start my life over again.' "
Charlie starts getting hungry in the afternoon. Katherine made peachy pork picante last night, and there's a portion left over in the fridge, but he can't bring himself to eat it, and so he walks to Bleecker Street, to Ottomanelli's, where he and Katherine buy their meat. The doors are locked and the store is dark, but when the men inside see Charlie, they let him in.
"They opened the shop for me. They always tease me about the fact that I asked for a receipt, just like I always do. And I went home and I cooked dinner for myself. The peachy pork picante sat in there for a couple of weeks, then it got thrown away. I couldn't eat it."
On Wednesday, Charlie goes to a building on the East Side to fill out an official form for those missing loved ones. On Thursday, he bags Katherine's hairbrush and toothbrush and takes them to another building where the authorities are collecting DNA samples, and there he sees the sandwiches — cardboard boxes and picnic hampers full of homemade sandwiches. And the sight of those sandwiches — of kindness incarnate — cracks open his heart. He cries at the Armory, weeping on a policeman's shoulder as the policeman comforts him, and thinking that this much kindness must mean that evil hasn't triumphed, God has.
By Friday, Charlie realizes that Marsh & McLennan lost its entire tower workforce — 355 souls — on impact. He is comforted by the thought that Katherine didn't suffer long — "She was vaporized," Charlie says — yet he also understands that there will be no remains, no DNA match, no grave. Nothing.
Charlie goes back to the apartment and packs the clothing Katherine had worn to work on Monday into plastic bags.
"I took her bra, everything. Oh, yeah. Everything. I wanted so badly to retain her smell for as long as I could. But it didn't last."
On September 11, 2011, Charlie Wolf will join with other family members of the murdered and walk the tree-lined plaza to the heart of Ground Zero — to the twin pools, north and south, that mark the voids left vast and eyeless where the fallen towers stood, lined now in black granite, bordered by bronze panels with the names of all the dead, and alive with water falling in a ceaseless thirty-foot cascade from the parapets on each side — a walk that began ten years ago. For the first time since the slaughtering, something timeless — not temporary, not tossed up and taken down like the tent raised like a stage prop each 9/11 to shield the VIPs — something created to embody a collective sense of memory, loss, and hope, something built to last, will finally grace this patch of land.
Little in life is certain — ask Charlie — but this: On that Sunday morning, 9/11/11, there won't be a dry eye in the house; and on Monday, 9/12/11, there will be a chorus of complaint, however muted, about this, that, and the other thing that should have been done — or left undone or done differently — to perfect the memorial and preserve the sanctity of each life lost.
Sorry: Strike "muted." This is New York City, where the same blunt hunger that built and buttresses the place, the drive to make it, to be heard and heeded — gentled briefly by the first shock of 9/11, harnessed to sandwich making and numbering the dead — has long since jackhammered loudly and without relent at each and every aspect of rebuilding the sixteen acres of Ground Zero.
Multiply that drive and hunger by the value of the land itself, owned by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and held in lease by a real estate developer, then consider the physical complexity of the job: With the 9/11 wreckage cleared, what had been the World Trade Center was a slab-on-grade pit sunk seventy feet below street level, bordered by a badly damaged concrete wall built thirty years before 9/11 to keep out the nearby Hudson River and stitched by the tracks of a ruined railroad that had carried forty thousand daily commuters into Lower Manhattan.
But all of that was small potatoes, rendered trivial — if infinitely more complex — by the sorrow and fury that followed the sudden loss of so many innocent lives. In an instant and forevermore, an urban office park — the World Trade Center held seven buildings and ten million square feet of office space — was an American holy land. And the question of what to do in view of its consecration and in response to the act of war that destroyed it would require lengthy reflection and open dialogue to even begin to answer.
Problem is, in New York City lengthy reflection is reckoned in seconds and minutes, and open dialogue often is marked by a tone and decibel level that might be construed as a prelude to fisticuffs. Within a couple of days, Larry Silverstein, who'd signed a ninety-nine-year lease on the WTC only six weeks before 9/11, was publicly stressing his moral and legal obligation to rebuild office towers. He took an enormous public-relations hit, and the battle was joined immediately by politicians, architects, urban planners, neighborhood activists, labor unions, the local and national media, and, of course, by many of those who, like Charlie Wolf, were only beginning to figure out how to piece together what remained of their lives after the attacks.
Two days after Christmas 2001, Mayor Rudy Giuliani delivered his farewell speech at St. Paul's Chapel, just across the street from where crews were still clearing wreckage from Ground Zero.
"Long after we are all gone," he said, "it's the sacrifice of our patriots and their heroism that is going to be what this place is remembered for. This is going to be a place that is remembered a hundred and a thousand years from now, like the great battlefields of Europe and of the United States."
Rather than rebuilding office towers, Giuliani urged New Yorkers to "think about a soaring, monumental, beautiful memorial that just draws millions of people here that just want to see it. And then also want to come here for reading and education and background and research."
But this was no battlefield — the Twin Towers long had been an international symbol of the audacity and ambition that beckoned the rest of the world to rush over and grab its share. Nor was this Oklahoma City, where the creation of a memorial for the victims of the terrorist bombing of the Murrah Federal Building had taken five full years of headache and heartache.
This was Manhattan — three blocks north of Wall Street — and a construction project that would bring in tens of billions of dollars, untold thousands of jobs, and a chance for New York City to pick itself back up, restore its pride and its skyline, and flip off Al Qaeda. Any design essentially transforming Ground Zero into an American Hiroshima would have been strangled in the crib.
Giuliani, in fact, understood this perfectly. Within three weeks of 9/11, just before a mayoral election that most folks assumed would put a Democrat into City Hall, he and Governor Pataki, a fellow Republican, created the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, engineered to give Pataki decisive power over the rebuilding process — and over the billions of dollars sent from Washington — and also as a shield to deflect any controversy away from Pataki, up for reelection the following November. The governor would make the Ground Zero promises; the LMDC would either make them good or take the heat.
The heat was relentless. By March 2002, before Ground Zero had even been cleared of its wreckage, wrangling among the LMDC, the Port Authority, Silverstein Properties, and various community groups was a daily news staple. In April, gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Cuomo had dismissed Pataki's Ground Zero leadership publicly. "He stood behind the leader," Cuomo said. "He held the leader's coat." It was a ghastly call back to those days right after 9/11, when Rudy Giuliani became America's mayor, and it sank Cuomo, but it also reflected the impatience and anxiety surrounding the rebuilding.
Among some of the families of the 9/11 victims, that impatience and anxiety, fueled by grief, turned fiery. There were screaming matches at public meetings, lawsuits, and a media atmosphere that amplified every angry word. Groups and causes multiplied, and not for nothing. Some were enraged when WTC wreckage was removed to a landfill, where it was supposed to be sifted for evidence of human remains. Some insisted that each inch of those sixteen acres was sacrosanct, off-limits to anything but a memorial. Some spoke of civil disobedience to stop construction. Some blamed the Port Authority's exemption from meeting the city's building code for the collapse of the towers. Some hounded Congress to investigate the attacks. Some wanted a separate Ground Zero memorial for the 343 firefighters and paramedics who'd died there.
Some of the most contentious aspects of the rebuilding of Ground Zero — foremost among them the question of what to do with more than nine thousand pieces of human remains recovered from the site and still unidentified — are impossible to resolve to everyone's satisfaction. You put an office park on a fresh graveyard and you're going to royally piss off some folks, particularly among the eleven hundred victims' kin like Charlie Wolf, who never received remains of any kind. But from the very beginning, the details of the controversies hid a larger truth about New York City: All of the public pushing and pulling — all of the yelling and questioning of others' motives, all of the posing of politicians and the editorial harrumphing — all of this was, and is, the healing process writ large, city-wide.
This was the world's greatest city putting back the pieces of its collective life the only way it could — at full roar, elbows out, ready to scuffle. If fighting back from shock and grief and fear required some refracturing, some bumping and shoving, some fighting words, some insult, amen. In New York, it must always be so. By definition. Ask your cabbie.
And if it took the Okies five years to plant a lawnful of chairs — and seven years after the fall of Saigon for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and seventeen years after World War II to dedicate the USS Arizona Memorial — why would anyone expect it to happen more easily and with less aggravation in New York City? To make a great sandwich is no mean thing, but to design and build a fitting 9/11 memorial — a battlefield tribute without a battlefield, a place of mourning, contemplation, and catharsis sharing its plot of land with monumental skyscrapers, to capture at one swoop the sadness and strength forged in that day's flame — to pull that off is not chopped liver.Joe Woolhead
Michael Arad did it. Arad was thirty-two years old, an architect working for the firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox, son of an Israeli diplomat, a Dartmouth grad and an Israeli army vet, and a bit of an outsider after only two years living in the city — until 9/11, when from the rooftop of his apartment building he saw Flight 175 bank and plow into the South Tower.
"That day made me a New Yorker," he says. "Not just that day — the week that followed, seeing how people came together. I'd sort of stayed on the cool surface of being removed from New York, not being part of it. All of a sudden, that just shattered."
Arad is forty-two now, tall and lean and quick. He walks the memorial site in his yellow safety vest and black hard hat as if he owns it, and right now — eighty-seven days before 9/11/11 — he does. Crews are still installing the last of the bronze panels bearing the names of the dead, still painting the bottom of the pools, still testing the waterfalls, still planting the trees.
"At this point, it's not about a design — it's about making sure everything gets done."
Ah, but for a visitor, even now, it certainly is about the design. We're at Ground Zero, under a sky dark and thick with storm clouds, hard by the north pool, where Tower One once stood. The void is itself a few feet smaller than the footprint of the original tower, yet it seems vast, a bottomless, black-clad pit where the plaza and the surrounding city fall away to reveal its cored heart, an open wound, forever unfillable.
The parapets rise waist-high, their panels — nineteen per side — angled so that the hand is drawn to touch the letters cut from the bronze to form the names of the dead. The air, heavy with heat, electric, seems to pull at the sky. The south pool sits in the near distance — impossibly far somehow — the second footprint, the other twin, also bordered by seventy-six bronze panels.
The scale and symmetry pack a shocking wallop; you will find no mercy here. Six summers ago, on my first visit to Ground Zero, I stood — not here, exactly; seventy feet below, at the bottom of a pit scraped raw of all it had held except the sheared tops of the perimeter columns, outlined in orange traffic cones, of the Twin Towers — stood and felt my throat knot. The site has risen, slow and inexorable — always in dispute, always with the absolute certainty that New York City would finish the job, that whether good and evil exist in the sense meant by Charlie Wolf is moot, because the human soul of this city and this country is in its essence beyond the reach of terrorists — and now, at last, with a completed memorial at hand, and with the Freedom Tower just a few yards away and already seventy stories high and climbing, I feel an overwhelming awe and sadness, as if the sky had kept falling after 9/11.
"It's like going to Gettysburg," Arad says. "It's like going to Pearl Harbor. It's like going to the National Mall. This is part of America's historical fabric now."
Yes, but — raise your eyes only slightly and the downtown skyscrapers claw at the clouds, and the old, narrow streets run south to the tip of this island empire, and there it is, the rush of life and spirit that pulses at the city's heart, even here.
Even here, if only you lift your eyes.
"I always thought of this entire site as the memorial plaza, which a lot of people disagreed with when the design was unveiled — 'No, your memorial is on the plaza; it's not the plaza.' But it had to be the entire plaza. The moment you step off that street onto it, you feel this sort of charge. You sense it now, when you stand on that pavement. It's one of New York City's blocks, and that's what it should always be."
The LMDC chose Arad's design in January 2004 over fifty-two hundred other entries in a global competition. And so began another round of the years-long skirmishes that came to define Ground Zero. Arad battled the LMDC, which insisted he work with a landscape designer. He wrestled with the landscape designer over the number, kind, and placement of the trees. He fought with Daniel Libeskind, the architect whose Ground Zero "master plan" — chosen by Pataki — called for sinking the entire memorial thirty feet below street level. He clashed with family groups over the arrangement of the names on the panels and the placement of the pools.
Arad was fighting for his vision; the Memorial Foundation, which included family members, was trying both to placate all parties and to raise funds to build and maintain whatever was finally built. Every change and delay meant a rise in estimated construction costs. What was planned as a $350 million project rose to $500 million by 2006, at which point the foundation president decided to halt fundraising until the memorial and its cost were more clearly defined. At which point Mayor Michael Bloomberg replaced the foundation president, under whose direction only a little more than $100 million had been raised, and took upon himself the job of fundraising, negotiated with the Port Authority to share some costs and supervise the memorial's construction, and helped finalize the design details.
Arad lost as many fights as he won, but he doggedly preserved the vision put forth in his contest entry statement, of a memorial site that served as a sacred memorial ground and as a large urban plaza.
"We have to make this part of the city again. It has to be alive. You have to bring people in. The people in these office buildings should be able to walk out, cross the street, and sit under a bench on a normal workday. But it also has to work for the people that come here once in a lifetime, like a pilgrimage. How is it an urban park and a national landmark at the same time?"
It was a battle more subtle than listing the names. The master plan called for ten million square feet of office space at Ground Zero, plus a new train station, plus a performing-arts center and a cultural center, all while keeping sacred the old towers' original footprints. The goal, in short, was to build a new, better World Trade Center complex on eight acres rather than sixteen.
The jigsaw-puzzle aspect was three-dimensional: In terms of access and below-grade infrastructure, each individual building project on the site was linked. This meant that the memorial plaza's underside was part of the roof over the transportation hub's concourse, and Arad's wish for the plaza and the streets around Ground Zero to form a seamless whole meant keeping the plaza at street level, even if raising it made room below for an extra level of retail space.
"At no point do you have more than two or three feet separating the surrounding sidewalk from the memorial plaza. You can walk right off the sidewalk onto the plaza. The streets won't continue onto the plaza, but they'll bring that flow of people."
In New York City, that flow is no small thing; it's an integral part of Manhattan's persona. And at Ground Zero, where the original World Trade Center was built on a "superblock" that deliberately set itself above and apart from its surroundings, the plaza represents the restoration of a connection severed forty years ago, a literal rebirth of these sixteen acres with the rest of downtown.
"It really was about mending the urban fabric, and if this is a scar, it's a scar that's still visible. But it's not a scar that's concealed or hidden — there's no desire to hide it. There's a desire to make it whole again but not erase the past. It unifies this entire plaza as one entity, this vast urban plaza cut by these two massive voids. You feel it, right? The sky, the wind, the water — but you also need Lower Manhattan to feel this place. You're not going to forget that you're in the city."
As Arad speaks, the storm breaks and we cross the plaza and duck inside a construction trailer until the rain lets up.
"I've never been out here in the rain," he says. "I had imagined it, but actually seeing it, the rain flowing on the names, it's beautiful. It's another way you feel it — you graze your hand across the names. When you have light reflecting from under it — at night it's illuminated from within, so you'll see light coming through the letters — they look like shadows during the day, but at night they'll glow from within. It's beautiful. It's going to be powerful."
"It's powerful now," I say.
"Yeah, but it's going to really be powerful once people are a part of it. That's what's going to charge it. Once people come here, it'll make this place alive again. Standing here in the presence of others is such a key component. It's really about not being alone in the face of this, about being a part of a much larger community, which, in my mind, is critical to facing the history of that day. That's how I got through it" — he's referring to 9/11 and the days after — "by going to Washington Square Park and standing next to other people. You don't need to talk to them. You just need to be in the presence of others."
Charlie Wolf's computer is another memorial: On it you can read a history of Ground Zero, a narrative of its undoing and becoming, and of Charlie's. Over the years since 9/11, Charlie has taken to the battlefield for a number of causes. Early on, he campaigned against the Victim Compensation Fund — created by Congress as part of legislation to save the airlines from bankruptcy — for underpaying the victims' families. He also worked with Take Back the Memorial, a family group that successfully pressured the foundation, the governor, and then-Senator Hillary Clinton to put the kibosh on the International Freedom Center, a vaguely defined "cultural center" to be built on the memorial plaza.
The IFC immediately became a political football — and a competitor for Ground Zero funds and attention. The effort to stop it was public, political, and vicious enough to play out on the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Under sustained pressure from Take Back, Pataki offered the Freedom Center alternative space elsewhere on the site; the IFC declined and declared itself defunct; and a lot of folks involved in the rebuilding worried aloud — and off the record, always — that a mere handful of 9/11 family members had shanghaied the process.
Charlie's conservative, but hardly knee-jerk or rock-ribbed about it — he's pro — Ground Zero mosque, for example — and his objection to the IFC was mainly that it literally encroached upon the 9/11 museum's turf.
"You give a memorial wide berth," he says. "I think they honestly thought they were doing a good thing. They were basically promoting freedom — which is a great thing in itself. Wonderful subject matter. But it didn't belong next to the memorial. It doesn't belong there."
The most interesting facet of the IFC affair and its aftermath was the umbrage taken at the nerve of a group of family members who refused to take their compensation and grieve privately, quietly. Here you had two politicians — George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani — hoping to forge a Ground Zero legacy that might launch a White House bid; a real estate developer and a landlord — Silverstein and the Port Authority — who saw the site primarily in terms of dollars and cents; a federal government endlessly milking 9/11 for political capital; an array of architects and construction firms cashing in on rebuilding an area where human remains still revealed themselves; and broadcast and print media harping on discord and minutiae.
All of this unfolded year after year after year, long after disinterested parties — most New Yorkers included — had tuned out Ground Zero and its rebuilding completely. Family members who did more than trundle to the site each anniversary for the reading of the names weren't villains; of all the players, their agendas, however overwrought, were by far and demonstrably the purest. The memorial, for many of them, will be the only grave site they'll be able to visit.
"I wasn't exuberantly happy with it," Charlie says of the memorial, and then cues up cell-phone video of a test of the waterfall in the North Tower footprint.
Charlie's opinion has changed.
"Look," he says. "Isn't this gorgeous? The more I've seen it — it's grown on me a lot. I supported it, but I didn't think, My God, this is wonderful. Then I really got it. It's an inversion of the towers. It's great — it really is."
His phone rings: another family member consulting Charlie about the upcoming move of the family room from the current memorial and museum offices to the museum itself next year — there may not be enough room to bring over all of the mementos that have accumulated over the past ten years.
You're a go-to guy, I tell Charlie.
"I am," he says. "And some people have a problem with that. But I don't have a problem if they have a problem with that, because I do the best I can. I am proud of the work I've done. I'm proud that I've tried to stand up for things that are right."Joe Woolhead
Chris Ward, executive director of the monolithic Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is also a go-to guy. The PA is many things — owner and operator of the major bridges, airports, tunnels, and seaports in the region; patronage pit; builder of the old Twin Towers and still lord of those sixteen acres; a murky quasi-government entity created ninety years ago to split the money and the differences between New York and New Jersey — and until Ward came aboard, in 2008, the PA was having an awful time getting squat done at Ground Zero.
Ward's predecessors were hacks, appointed by George Pataki and his gubernatorial successor, Eliot Spitzer, and the rebuilding of Ground Zero was handled as a series of speeches and photo ops. Deadlines and a Freedom Tower cornerstone came and went, ground was broken and stayed that way, not one rebuilding project completed. Or close. The essence of leadership during those seven years may be gleaned from a single fact: While the PA dithered, Goldman Sachs built and occupied a $2 billion tower across the street, using — thanks to George Pataki's boobery — $1.65 billion in Liberty Bonds, issued by the feds to help rebuild Lower Manhattan.
When Ward began the job — he was appointed by Governor David Paterson, who is best remembered for absolutely nothing else — he tried something new: He treated the site as an actual construction project rather than a series of metaphors fabricated by architects and politicians. He told the truth. He made no promises he could not keep. He made a lasting peace with Larry Silverstein. He took responsibility for getting the memorial built in time for the tenth anniversary of 9/11 after Mike Bloomberg — another go-to guy — took over the job of fundraising for that project. He made two utterly astonishing things happen: He restored the PA as a credible Ground Zero entity, and made the Freedom Tower so attractive a property that Condé Nast, the fashion-mag empire, agreed to lease a million square feet of a tower that for years had been dismissed as a white elephant, a hive for government drones.
"That took my breath away," Ward says. "Four thousand young creatives, people who want to live in the city — we made downtown real for them. It takes everything people think and flips it."
Ward may sound like a real estate broker, but he's actually a guy with a long résumé in capital-project management and a divinity degree from Harvard. A bear of a man who deserves all the credit he gets — and who shares it freely. The memorial was tottering when Mayor Bloomberg stepped in, and Ward and the PA stepped up.
"The mayor made it real," says Ward. "He raised $350 million on his own back, navigated through all the difficulties and the families. He delivered it. Pretty incredible."
Despite his leadership — or maybe because of it — Ward's post-9/11/11 future is shaky. New York's new governor, Andrew Cuomo, may hand the job over to his own appointee; the silence from Albany on this issue, given the tangible evidence of Ward's performance on the ground, says that Chris Ward's sell-by date is any day after the tenth anniversary. It's not a subject he wishes to address in any depth, except to say that he'd like to see the job through — and that he's proud that the memorial plaza will be ready as promised.
"The remarkable thing that I think is going to happen after this ten-year anniversary is that New Yorkers in particular, but also the rest of the world, are going to realize that it doesn't have anything to do with what they've been told it is," says Ward. "The whole site has been so burdened with expectations and definitions — politically, culturally, socially — from that world that creates political agendas and says, 'This will be a place of strength against terrorism,' or 'This will be a symbol of that' — no. It's going to be about what they want it to be.
"It's going to be about Charlie Wolf finding time to go there without having an elected official tell him what it means. And it'll be his moment of quiet. But it'll also be somebody who works there, or who goes down to the park on a spring day and has a sandwich, or somebody cutting across on a rainy day.
"Is it a remembrance of an event? Is it a place to meet a date? Is it where you work or go shopping? And that's what'll make it great for New York — it won't be defined by anything but the people who go there. That's going to be what's beautiful about it."
On May 5, 2011, four days after the killing of Osama bin Laden, President Obama came to the memorial plaza to lay a wreath. The day was sunny, cool, and clear; the mood was wondrous strange. Ground Zero was no longer a pit, a hole left unfilled by earnest, empty promises and proud, pointless ceremonies. Tower One — the Freedom Tower — rose nearly eight hundred feet above the site, Tower Four nearly five hundred feet. No one was working construction here, but the sky was full of cranes, and the plaza's sweep bound the buildings to the land and to each other and to the city visible rising on every side. Time stood still here for too long. No more. Now the ironworkers on Towers One and Four are racing one another to see who tops off first this coming spring.
The president and a fire-department official placed the wreath on an easel beneath a pear tree — the Survivor Tree, scorched on 9/11, nursed back to health in the Bronx, then returned to Ground Zero, not far from the south pool — and then Obama bowed his head for a long stretch of silence. He had no speech to make; earlier, visiting a firehouse for lunch, he'd said, "When we say we will never forget, we mean what we say" — and now, he turned and walked toward the woman standing a few yards from him, a 9/11 widow with her daughters, and hugged her tight.
A fine day at Ground Zero for Obama, who spent a good long while meeting privately with family members; a great day for New York City, whose collective ability to survive — to thrive — in the face of terror is proof of its undying spirit. Any sense of triumphalism over bin Laden's watery corpse is not only the result of the horrible injury inflicted by 9/11, but also a heartfelt reaction to the insulting belief that any act of terror could break this city's will.
For Charlie Wolf, this is an especially good day. At a gathering of family members after the ceremony, he has a chance to meet the president, to look him in the eye, shake his hand, and thank him for avenging his wife's death.
Charlie brings along a small photo of Katherine and hands it to Obama, who looks at it, beaming, and gives Charlie a big hug.
"Thank you," Charlie says, full of tears. "Thank you. Thank you. My wife told me she would be sitting on your shoulder today."
"That's fine," says the president. "She can come sit on my shoulder anytime."
Glen Ridge, New Jersey, my town, lost seven people on 9/11. Their names are engraved on a stone that sits in a small square memorial that appeared near the train station in 2004. Above their names, it says:
WE SHALL NEVER FORGET OUR FAMILY, FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS WHO LEFT WITH US THAT MORNING BUT DID NOT RETURN WITH US THAT NIGHT.
I didn't know any of them. In the course of writing about the rebuilding, I've met a few folks who lost family members on 9/11, but Charlie's the only guy I've ever sat with and listened to and thought about at any length.
He's a little wacky, Charlie, in a good way — wide-open, a free spirit. We go to dinner one night at a seafood place in midtown, and Charlie makes it an event — an oyster tasting, long and detailed wine consultation with the beverage director, flirting with the young Russian woman who serves us. A great night.
Charlie, I say, you're like a kid. Pure of heart.
"I am, yes. You're right. That's one of the reasons that Katherine and I worked so well together. She had a childlikeness to herself. I was wondering back then whether I was ever going to find somebody. I was really wanting somebody, and it was just — I am not a normal guy."
Charlie's had one long-term relationship since Katherine died, but it fizzled out, and he hasn't dated anyone in a couple of years.
"I said, 'They may have gotten my wife, but they're not getting the rest of my life.' I was determined — around March of '03, I started pushing myself out the door. But I don't play the games. I don't know how to play the games. I didn't know there were games to play. Women can't figure me out if they're looking for a game I'm playing — especially the older women. I get along best with women who are in their twenties and thirties."
Not exactly a curse, Charlie.
"No. If God will allow it, I'd love to have a family someday."
I'm listening to Charlie, but I'm thinking about my wife and son. If my wife never made it home one day, out of the blue like that, I don't know if I would have the gumption to keep going. My kid, too? Forget it.
Charlie's making yummy noises over dessert, a pink champagne cake.
I'm taking you to all my restaurant meals, I tell him.
"What you see is what I am," he says. "I'm not putting on an act."
Enjoy. We can do the interview stuff another time.
Charlie gives me a look, a Bill Murray look — lips pursed, eyebrows arched.
"I love telling this story. My wife and I planned our wedding together. This was as much mine as hers. Katherine was a fantastic piano accompanist. She worked as an accompanist for the Philbeach Society in London. She was good. She was very, very good."
His eyes close for a moment.
"I sang for my wife at our wedding," Charlie says. "And then the same song that I sang to her at our wedding, I sang to her at her memorial service."
"It's called 'The Desert Song,' from the show of the same name, by Sigmund Romberg," Charlie says. "At the memorial service, I didn't know if I could — it was very emotional. It was October 2, 2001."
Charlie remembers. We shall never forget. And then we do forget. We die and so do those who remember us. Stones on our graves, stones at the train station, bronze panels at Ground Zero: We do what we can to remember. We do the best that we can. But we can't live in the past — let the memorial do that for us. We live in the moment, the only moment we truly have.
"I told the organist — the same organist who played at our wedding — 'I don't know if I can. The only thing I have to do is make my thank-yous to people.' And I got up there and talked for about ten minutes, and I just decided to do it. I said, 'There's something here I'm going to try to do.' And I did it a cappella."
And damned if Charlie doesn't start singing right there at the table, too, his eyes closed again, his baritone light and sweet.
I'll sing a dream song to you,
Painting a picture for two:
Blue heaven and you and I,
And sand kissing a moonlit sky.
A desert breeze whisp'ring a lullaby,
Only stars above you
To see I love you.
Oh, give me that night divine
And let my arms in yours entwine.
The desert song calling,
Its voice enthralling
Will make you mine.
Right there at the table. And damned if it isn't the most beautiful thing ever, long after that last note drifts off into the night.Advertisement - Continue Reading Below More From News Sometimes Voter Suppression Is on Autopilot Healthcare Reform Requires Structural Change First
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