I just got back from Ground Zero, which is always a disturbing and enlightening experience. Several of the major new structures, including the transportation hub and the Freedom Tower, are getting closer to completion, and the architecture is staggering. The site of a terrible tragedy has become a bustling, international tourist destination. This was on a much smaller scale, but I was reminded of visiting South Beach in Florida, a few months after the designer Gianni Versace was shot to death on the steps of his mansion. Tourists were already posing for photos on the steps, with their young children, and searching for bloodstains.
I was watching a forgettable rom-com on cable, which was called, I think, Someone Like You and starred a young Ashley Judd and Hugh Jackman, often in their underwear, as battling roommates. At one point the couple steps out onto their balcony, and as they chatter, the Twin Towers loom behind them. After 9/11, some moviemakers would digitally remove the Towers. If you revisit the musical The Wiz, you’ll find a vast, choreographed number swirling through the World Trade Center plaza. Seeing the Towers, especially unexpectedly, is unnerving, but it also makes me grateful for the photographic record.
Among the New Yorkers I’ve spoken to about it, no one seems enthusiastic about visiting the new 9/11 museum, which has been painstakingly thought out – there’s been a recent dispute over the depiction of Muslims in some of the exhibits. For people who were in town on that day, the events still feel raw. I’m not sure why, but I have more trouble looking at photos of the crumbling Towers now (I watched the buildings come down from my rooftop.) At the time, there may have been a numbness which has only just begun to recede. And I don’t want to claim any personal stake in the tragedy, as my home wasn’t harmed and I didn’t lose anyone.
Many artists have set stories in and around the events of 9/11. Because I’m a comic writer, I took a more oblique route. In my play The New Century, a group of characters from all over the US end up in Manhattan, and at least two of them visit Ground Zero. Shane, a young hustler/stripper, visits Century 21, the discount flagship which sits right beside the site. In the days following 9/11, I was always struck by the fact that the large Century 21 sign was just about the only landmark still visible amid the rubble. The fact that the store re-opened, in 2002, felt like a hopeful development, and the store’s motto, on the shopping bags, had always been “Fashion Worth Fighting For.”
I wrote The New Century as a tribute to the spirit of Century 21, because I think of the store as an emblem of survival. When the play was produced at Lincoln Center, I received a wonderful note from the store’s owners, who enjoyed the play; they also enclosed a gift card, which I used immediately. Today I was back at Century 21. It’s a great store, and one of the country’s last few true discount palaces. Most such stores don’t really offer designer goods at a substantial savings; they usually just sell not-so-great merchandise manufactured especially for the outlets. But a passionate shopper can still unearth amazing bargains at Century 21, from topflight manufacturers. The Ground Zero store is always busy with customers from all over the world.
While I was shopping, I ran into one of the store’s owners and we had a terrific conversation. This was the sort of encounter that could only happen in New York, and I was so impressed that the owner was shopping at his own store. Because I’m an idiot, I immediately asked him if he got a discount, and he said yes. Then I asked him, “How much?” As soon as I said this, I realized that I was being insanely rude, so I yelled, “Don’t answer that!” and he smiled.
There’s no correct way to approach a tragedy. The facts, and the loss, remain indisputable. My favorite depiction of the Twin Towers remains the truly awe-inspiring documentary Man on Wire. This film follows the fearless wirewalker Philipe Petit’s 1974 highwire travel between the towers. The footage is terrifying and breathtaking. Even just thinking about this movie gives me vertigo. But it’s a way to remember the doomed buildings. Watching Petit scamper back and forth between the buildings’ summits is unsettling and triumphant.