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U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer's Mate Eric J. Tilford

Magazine | Okiecentric

At Melville’s Birthplace

• By

Posted 10.17.11

Everybody who was in NYC that day has a story to tell.

I was supposed to report to work at the New York Public Library later that morning, and was at home with my wife in Brooklyn when the attacks began at 8:46. We watched the coverage on TV and were stunned at what was happening just four and one half miles from our home. When the south tower collapsed at 9:59, I jumped in my car and drove toward downtown Brooklyn to get my son at his school because the subway trains weren’t running. The air was filled with dark smoke from the fires and charred scraps of paper that had been sent airborne when the planes struck the buildings. I had to park and walk the last several blocks when the traffic became completely gridlocked. On the way home, we heard on the radio that the north tower had gone down as well. By noon the wind had shifted, slightly pushing the smoke and debris further to our south. I remember walking in Prospect Park that afternoon under glorious blue skies filled with hovering police helicopters and F-15 jets streaking overhead instead of the usual commercial traffic on its way to LaGuardia.

They were waiting for the Manhattan bound “F” train at 4th Avenue and 9th Street. Father and son, of Arab descent. The man put his hand in the small of the back of the boy and gently pushed him forward as they boarded. The father was dressed in a brown light-weight sport coat, a blue oxford-cloth shirt with button down collar, khaki trousers. There were wisps of grey in his neatly-trimmed beard. The son was in typical teenage attire—oversized Old Navy T-shirt, ballcap, jeans and sneakers. The father was serious but did not appear to be anxious. The son kept looking around as if he were not used to riding the subway. The next stop was Smith and 9th Street, the highest of all the elevated stations in the entire New York City subway system. This station has a panoramic view of brownstone Brooklyn and the Gowanus Canal industrialized area, of lower Manhattan, New York harbor, and the Statue of Liberty. It was apparent that the volume of smoke coming from the former site of the World Trade Center was only slightly diminished today.

Another glorious day in September. Just like a week ago.

I got off the train at Jay Street in downtown Brooklyn. I had intended to walk over to Brooklyn Heights to take in the view from the promenade and have a look at the various makeshift shrines of burning candles that are to be found in nearly every public space in the city. But seeing the signs for the Brooklyn Bridge and having read in the paper that it was now open to pedestrian traffic proved irresistible. So I undertook the reverse of the journey that so many others had made last week while fleeing the falling towers.

Some cops were standing guard at Tillary and Adams streets to prevent any cars, except for police or other emergency vehicles, onto the bridge’s entrance ramp. But the walkway was doing a lively business. Without the normal whining sound the cars make when traveling over the bridge’s roadway to drown it out, the chug of the engine of a New York Waterway boat traversing the East River below was quite audible. It sounded something like a distant and incessant drumbeat. Incidental music to set the scene in an action film. Heightened tension. Danger is near. I kept looking to my right through the webbed steel cables of bridge supports—what Hart Crane had called its “choiring strings” in his poem “To Brooklyn Bridge”— towards midtown and the Empire State Building, formerly, and now once again, the city’s signature skyscraper. To my left, standing in the harbor in the middle distance, was the Statue of Liberty, whose torch remained lit even in the daytime. The smoke from the Trade Center loomed from behind 1 Chase Plaza, now the tallest structure in the financial district in lower Manhattan.

By the time I arrived on the other side of the bridge, the wind had shifted. The smoke and the acrid smell were drifting due east of the World Trade Center site and pervading the spaces between the buildings that line the narrow streets of lower Manhattan. But people were moving briskly about. They had been instructed by the mayor to go back to work. It was a Monday. The city was back in business. Police barricades surrounded City Hall Park. Many of the police officers, as well as the National Guardsmen in camouflage uniforms, wore military-issue gas masks. Ordinary citizens made due with simple dust masks of the kind that are sold in hardware stores. Although the smoke and the dust were everywhere, I wasn’t bothered much by it and did not feel short of breath or uncomfortable. Awnings over most of the storefronts were filthy. Proprietors of the few shops that were open were attempting to hose off the awnings, clean their windows, wash down the sidewalks. I walked south on Broad Street past Federal Hall and the New York Stock Exchange and took some pictures of the enormous American flag hanging there. I was in a hurry and there was so much activity about that I didn’t bother to examine the pockmarks still to be found on the nearby buildings that had withstood the 1920 Wall Street bombing by anarchists that had killed thirty people among the noontime crowds. A horse-drawn cart loaded with dynamite was the delivery method on that particular September day.

When I reached Beaver Street, the air cleared suddenly. Outside the New York Telecom Exchange at 75 Broad Street, two women were smoking cigarettes. I turned right on Bridge Street and crossed Broadway and entered Battery Park. There were police barricades lined up and taped-off areas, but few police to be seen. Several military-looking vehicles were parked on the wide sidewalks on the north side of the park. I continued past Castle Clinton and was by the water near the ferry slips where the Liberty and Ellis Island excursions boats arrive and depart. A U.S. Coast Guard ship lay anchored in the harbor flanked by the Statue of Liberty on one side and the red, turreted buildings of Ellis Island on the other. Emerging from the park I had a direct view up West Street of the cranes at work on the pile of Trade Center rubble.

A procession of trucks hauling away large pieces of steel and shards of glass was coming towards me but then turned off to thread their way through the narrow downtown streets and eventually head for Staten Island. According to the reports, there were no large chunks of concrete at the scene needing to be removed. Virtually all of the concrete and gypsum in the fallen structures was instantly pulverized. Their dust particles, along with the smoke from the fires that were smoldering days later, constituted the grey-white cloud that hovered above everything.

I walked next towards the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and looked for some place to eat. No cars were presently allowed on the ferries and no fares were being collected. For no particular reason, I began hurrying along with the small crowd I now found myself among as the large doors to one of the terminal berths were being closed. I hadn’t ridden the ferry in years. A boat was about to leave. I wanted to be on it.

I got onboard at the lowest of three levels. I went up a level and stood at the rear of the boat along with several other people, including a three-man TV crew. One fellow was doing all the talking, and there was a cameraman and a sound guy holding a long microphone. The sound guy was a heavy-set black man. The other two members of the crew looked very California with their blonde surfer’s pompadours and Hawaiian shirts. Everyone gazed at the picture postcard shot of lower Manhattan on a brilliant day as the ferry pulled away. Every so often the TV guy spoke. He kept rehearsing and repeating his bit about the altered view of the New York City skyline without the Twin Towers. His voice was the only thing that intruded on the dream-like state induced by the sound of the ship’s engine and the churning waters and the column of smoke hovering behind the other buildings where the World Trade Center used to stand. I just kept staring back at the city.

Eventually, we were slowing down at the ferry berth at St. George Terminal in Staten Island. I was still hungry but also remembered that the new ballpark for the Yankees farm team was nearby. I looked around and saw a short distance to the north the light standards surrounding the small stadium. After we docked I walked over to it and read the sign for the “Richmond County Bank Ballpark at St. George.” Across the street was a little store called John’s Mini-Market at the end of a single-story shopping strip. The land rises quickly here such that even crossing the street results in a noticeable change of elevation.

Inside the store there was a nice view of the baseball park and of the harbor beyond. Last Tuesday morning, looking out these windows, everyone in this store would have seen the towers burning and then collapsing in the distance. A woman in her late 30s with dark hair was working behind the deli counter. I asked for a turkey sandwich and went to get a Coke from the refrigerator case. I noticed that the guy behind the cash register and two others who were stocking shelves were Arab–looking. This was an Arab store. The cameraman from the TV crew entered the store. He had come in not to get something to eat but to purchase two packs of cigarettes.

I took my food down to the water’s edge just beyond the outfield fence of the baseball park. There were signs all around saying to beware of baseballs flying out of the stadium. But not today. I sat on a bench on the newly built promenade and ate lunch, listening to the water lapping on the rocks below me, and looking back once more at the city and over towards Brooklyn. I was thinking about the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building and how they are usually considered by the residents of New York City to be tourists’ gewgaws, spawning a downscale market for shoddy miniature replicas, cheap figurines, tacky snow globes; their hackneyed, endlessly replicated images mostly suitable for the bottoms of ash trays, the sides of coffee mugs, the fronts of T-shirts. But the sight of them—the actual statue and building—now had a reassuring quality about them. At least they were still standing.

A ferry horn sounded over by the ferry terminal and I started heading back that way; my brief trip to Staten Island was over.

On the return voyage I decided not to stand and stare again at the skyline. I sat off to one side by an open window in the large enclosed seating area on the lower level and got out something to read. I actually nodded off for a bit. A little water-borne, fresh air siesta. I woke up suddenly when some teenagers were making noise nearby.

Back in Manhattan and walking again near the Battery, I saw several red dump trucks owned by the Mazzocochi Asbestos and Demolition Company. No indication of which borough the business was located in or if it was located in New York City at all.

Just north of the shrine of Mary Elizabeth Seton, the first native born American saint, is the site of the birthplace of Herman Melville. There used to be a plaque with the pertinent information located on the side of the Seaman’s Institute Church and Sailor’s Residence. But the red-brick building I remembered was gone. Could it have been torn down? Indeed it had. A new structure—a modern office tower of black steel and dark-tinted glass called 17 Park Place stood in its place. It was set at an oblique angle from the street and had a small outdoor plaza with benches. On the wall of another building in the plaza, or perhaps just a different section of 17 Park Place, I found the plaque. There was even a bust of Melville on display next to it behind a dirty piece of Lucite. The plaque indicated that this site had formerly been 6 Pearl Street and that Herman Melville had been born here on August 1st, 1819. It is in this vicinity that the opening paragraphs of Moby Dick are set, with Melville describing himself and the other “water-gazers” congregating on the docks and the Battery to dream of distant oceans and life at sea. Here at Melville’s birthplace I recalled the poem by Hart Crane in his book White Buildings entitled “At Melville’s Tomb.” I’ve never fully understood the poem in its entirety but I remembered reading an explication of the first stanza:

Often beneath the waves, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched
Beat upon the dusty shore and were obscured.

The author of the explication discussed how the word “numbers” could be referring either to the numbers of waves, or to the numbers inscribed on the dice that are formed by the action of the waves breaking up the bones of the drowned sailors and washing them ashore. The waves were also likened to hands that repeatedly toss the dice upon the shore, the dusty shore itself composed of the dried bones of the drowned sailors. All of this stating something about the interaction of fate and chance with the inherently dangerous undertaking of sailing. Of course the sailing ships and docks that had once lined the shores of lower Manhattan are long gone.

I began walking again up Broad Street and then New Street, which runs behind the Stock Exchange. At the police barricades along Broadway, clusters of people gathered to look toward the smoking ruins. At Wall Street, Trinity Church’s steeple still loomed high. At one time it was the tallest structure in the area. I noticed several women talking on cell phones while wearing face masks. It must be the latest fashion statement in this week’s New York.

Just before Nassau Street a Lubavitcher in a black wide-brimmed hat emerged from the hurrying crowd. The Mitzvah tank must have been parked nearby. But where? There was not supposed to be any unauthorized vehicular traffic below Canal Street. “Are you Jewish?” he asked in the furtive manner that is their custom. I replied, “Yeah, you too?” and continued on.

At Fulton Street and Broadway near the subway entrance the view toward the World Trade Center opened up. The edge of the rubble pile was just across the way. The grill-like structure from the façade of one of the familiar towers was visible through the smoke and dust— but it was all bent and smashed and flapping like a broken limb.

I had seen enough. Another day had passed in New York City. Another week. The search for survivors goes on. Thousands are still reported missing. Tomorrow will mark the eighth day since the planes flew into the towers. Everything has changed now. I went downstairs to look for the “A” train to take me back to Brooklyn.

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