During a post-Christmas trip to New York City, my wife and kids and I walked to Ground Zero, the site where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood. At first, it seemed that our visit would be underwhelming: the site now looks like any other construction zone, with cement trucks rumbling around and construction workers ordering coffee from a lunch wagon. I found it hard to imagine that two 110-story skyscrapers had once stood on that spot. We began to walk further south, to catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, when we passed a bronze mural, about fifty feet long, that had been embossed on the side of a nearby building in commemoration of the 9/11 victims. The mural, to my mind, was unremarkable and might have merited only a few minutes of our time. But then we noticed a middle-aged man who was polishing the mural and shouting while doing so. He had a plastic bottle slung around his neck from a string. Most pedestrians moved away from him as they walked by, but we decided to move closer to see what was up.
“Three thousand people,” he was crying out. “From 86 different countries. People from every race and religion died. Seven buildings destroyed, not two.”
When he paused for a moment, I ventured to ask him how often he came to the site to polish the mural. “Most days of the week,” he replied. He explained that he wasn’t paid by the city or any agency to do so. He accepted change and bills from passersby, which he dropped into the bottle around his neck. But his real reason for coming to the site, most days of the week for the past nine years, was simply to tell anyone who would listen about the reality of the tragedy. He mentioned something about having a son who was almost killed in the collapse of the towers.
The man had a photograph album with him which he opened and began to show us postcards of the Twin Towers before the attack, as well as photos after the attack when the buildings were standing and burning. He showed us pictures of the structures after they collapsed. He pointed to a nearby building and asked us how tall it was. “Twenty stories,” my fifteen-year-old son guessed. “Twenty-five,” said the man. “So the towers were more than four times that height.” My son’s eyes widened.
He asked us where we were from, and when we told him Canada, he talked about the role that Canada played in allowing U.S. airplanes to land on our soil in the wake of the attack. He told us how many Canadians were killed when the towers collapsed, including — he said — a nurse named Christine from Manitoba.
For twenty-five minutes we stood there in listening to the man as he told us about 9/11. His descriptions were detailed and vivid. He used analogies and metaphors and even rhyme for emphasis. He was impassioned, gazed directly into our eyes, and spoke like an evangelist addressing a crowd of 500 people. Despite the cold, our kids were rapt by his narrative. Other pedestrians began to gather around and listen as well.
Eventually, we had to leave in order to catch our ferry to the Statue of Liberty. We thanked him for his time, and I stuffed a few bills and some change into his bottle. As we walked away in silence, we could feel the twin towers crashing down behind us.
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