Eight years later, on a cool Sunday evening in May 2009, I felt a certain restlessness. I had just enjoyed a late dinner with a group of friends at a New York City restaurant and one friend and I had decided to walk it off. When he headed underground at 23rd Street to catch an uptown subway, I continued on my way to 34th to catch a train home to Long Island from Penn Station.
Four blocks into my trip, however, I decided I needed to take a much longer walk. It was time to go back. Back to Ground Zero for the first time since September 11, 2001. I was there that day and I hadn’t returned since. I’d never been able to. But something had happened a week earlier. I’d learned that an NYC detective who had been involved in the search and rescue mission at the World Trade Center site had died from cancer. He was a friend, a high school classmate, and he had been in my thoughts since I’d heard the news.
In an attempt to retrace my steps, I tried to remember the path I had taken to get away from the area that awful morning. It was all a blur and I’d never been able to figure out how I got to my aunt and uncle’s house after the attack. The need to “find the path” had never faded. I had tried to figure out how I lived through that day. And how I got away when so many people around me did not. But it was really pointless. Some things, I concluded, never make sense.
As I stared up at the new 7 WTC, I remembered the career I used to have, the good times and the bad, the friends and colleagues and the great view of the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty and New Jersey. I remembered the fear that drove me away, too. But something came over me as I stood there, and it suddenly became profoundly clear that “letting it all go” was long overdue. It’s all gone, I thought. The people. The job. The building. The fear that was so much a part of that day. It only exists in memory. I turned and walked away swearing that I would only ever look at the site again as a place of construction and rebuilding. Maybe I would go back to the museum one day when it was complete. Maybe.
I started my trek back from the WTC to Penn Station — a long walk I often took after the most stressful of work days. A few drops of rain started to fall, so I ducked into the Canal Street subway to catch the E-train. Some club goers were dancing and goofing around on the platform. I sat on the bench and watched in amusement, feeling momentarily free of my restlessness and the dark memories. I found joy in watching kids at play.
A young woman came down the steps and sat on the bench next to me. She made a few comments about how well the kids danced and I nodded in agreement. When an A-train pulled into the station, the kids got on and the platform was suddenly quiet. In the silence we introduced ourselves. Alana was from Louisiana and had just finished a night class at the French Culinary Institute. She was 28, new to New York and had a boyfriend back home. She was upbeat, with eyes that smiled, and we continued to chat as another A-train came and went. She, too, was waiting for an E-train.
It was a Forest Gump moment. Lost in conversation as the third A-train appeared, we began to realize that the E-train probably wasn’t running. Fifteen minutes later I told her that I wasn’t going to wait any longer; I was going to catch a cab to Penn Station. I asked if she wanted to share the ride. She did. Up on the street, we discovered that the rain had stopped. Walking was an option again and I said I was going to make my way to midtown on foot. Since she was still unfamiliar with the city and always took the subway everywhere, she agreed to join me.
We walked and joked the whole way up Sixth Avenue, stopping at several sidewalk cafes in an attempt to get something to eat but it was later than we realized and every place was closing up. We ended up being the last patrons at a bar a few blocks from Penn Station — close to the very spot where I had decided to trek down to the WTC earlier in the evening. It was last call at this place, too, but the bartenders saw that we were enjoying our conversation and they allowed us to linger for another hour while they cleaned up.
We continued to joke and babble on about everything from the metric system to cooking. The time flew and she taught me more cooking terminology than I will ever remember. As we left the bar, we exchanged email addresses. I found Alana a cab and I caught a 5 a.m. train to Long Island, settling into my seat as the train slid out of the depths of Penn Station and through the tunnel under the East River. My eyes were barely open as the train broke ground in Queens. Staring at the hole in the New York City skyline in the cool spring dawn, I thought of the kids dancing on the subway platform, I thought of Alana and I thought of the fear, the fear that no longer held me in its grip. I had found my way back. Finally, I had found my way back.
Photos: Michael Graziano