I was dealing with some family stuff the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I had a couple minutes so I swung into a gas station to get a coffee. As I pulled in someone on the radio was talking about a breaking report, something something airplanes World Trade Center in New York City.

In the gas station a crowd was formed around one of those little TVs they kept behind the counter. A confused narrator and smoke coming from some tall buildings, the World Trade Center.

I’d been in the Trade Center a couple months earlier, in New York on business. We rode the ferry over form the New Jersey side and it docked right below the World Trade Center. Massive building, very busy; the streets outside were very busy, cars, horns honking, and people walking, people all over the place. It was a busy thriving hustling place. The New York City of popular imagination, it was that, lots going on.

It was toward the end of the year when I was back again, now after the attack.

It was quiet. Oh, cars, cabs really, less due to all the blocked streets, an occasional horn honk, but not all that many people walking around. A lot less bustle. The area surrounding (what was now the former) World Trade Center was fenced off. The fences were plywood sheets side-by-side, short end on the ground, long end together so there was no seeing around or over.

There was a smell. If you’ve ever been around just after a house burnt, it was that smell, the smell of, what? Burnt chemically-treated construction material, insulation, the things of people, with that near-petroleum almost-acidic smell, it was all over, that odor.

You could smell it before you got off the ferry, which had dropped us off further up, the old docking station having been destroyed when skyscrapers collapsed.

We had a client in a building right next to the hole left by the fallen towers. From their conference room up on the 70th floor or so you could look down into it. They even had binoculars on the windowsill. The hold was full of workers, machines, twisted steel and mud as trucks hauled load after load out. Bustling, but, I guess, to far below street level to make any noise outside the fences.

The plywood fences were covered with sheets of white paper that had been stapled or tacked up on them. Most were more-or-less the same. Across the top of each one was the world “MISSING” in bold, followed by a name, followed by a picture, usually of someone doing something fun, a keepsake snapshot, maybe smiling for a snapshot at a party or gathering of some sort. Men and women in relaxed poses, raising a glass, or petting a dog, holding a child, maybe holding some sports equipment, a ball or club or something. They were flat, like the picture a word processor sends to your printer for your missing flyer.

The plywood fences were painted gray, a dull, neutral color, the white sheets on them. Each sheet, after the picture, had a name, some description. Older people, younger people, this nationality, that race, tall, short, they had worked at this place, or some other, details of lives. Each sheet had those tear-off strips along the bottom with a phone number printed on them vertically. “Call if you have any information.” Someone would have taken the time and made quick scissor cuts between each tear strip so you could pull if off the bottom, if you recognized the MISSING loved one.

There in the quiet foul smell you could hear the tear strips fluttering in the breeze, rustling, a bustling sound. I don’t recall any sheets having a strip torn off. I can close my eyes and see it, smell it, hear it, blocks and blocks of flat pictures on plywood fence, phone numbers that would never be called, rustling in the breeze.

I’ll never forget.

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