On Election day, I found myself at Ground Zero.
I didn't mean to go to Ground Zero. Before the trip I had thought, I'd like to see Ground Zero. But then there were museums, and restaurants, and galleries, and skyscrapers, and I realized our agenda was packed already, and Ground Zero wasn't high on the priorities list.
We had thought about seeing the Guggenheim on Election Day. We only had a morning before our plane left at 5:00. But we were tired of museums and wanted to get outside and be in the city for our last day there.
We took the subway down to the Brooklyn Bridge stop. When we got out and emerged into the sun, we paused for a moment to look at the skyline.
"Britt," my dad said. "It brings a tear to my eye. Right there is where the twin towers would have been."
I looked for a moment but I didn't feel much. It's hard to miss something that isn't there, that you've never seen. My dad knew what the skyline was supposed to look like. We were just across the street from his college dorms. But I didn't.
We walked out onto Brooklyn Bridge.
We walked down to the NYSE, and across from it was this sculpture of George Washington. Lots of asian tourists were there, smiling ear to ear, posing in front of him.
It was cute. We waited our turn.
There were lots of tourists out that day, and in that area. People speaking French, German, Swedish, Japanese. We wandered down a street on our way to Wall Street. I looked up and saw this sign:
Wow. Election Day and there it was. Reminding me of the first women to fight for my right to vote. I didn't know yet that that day we were about to elect Barack Obama. I didn't yet know that his election would be driven heavily by the women's vote. That a higher percentage of women than men would vote Obama. Looking at the sign and thinking of Stanton and Anthony, it made me proud that I had voted. (I mailed in my ballot early). This was the first election I have voted in. Without these women, along with Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, I may not have been able to vote at all. Did you realize that black men received the right to vote before women did? Do you know what our foremothers went through to win us this right?
You must watch Iron Jawed Angels.
Thank you Stanton and Anthony, and Burns and Paul.
From there we walked down the street and passed in front of an old church. We were going to pass it without going in, but I stopped to read the plaque. This church, it said, St. Paul's, survived the great fire of 1776. George Washington visited there. And in 2001, it survived the attacks on the World Trade Center.
So we went in to look. Little memorials and plaques line the chapel.
Peace Cranes sent from Japan after 9/11. Children's drawings of firefighters climbing up ladders into burning buildings, carrying people to safety, reading "Thank you for saving people". Hundreds and hundreds of badges. It turned out we were standing in a place where workers had congregated in the days following 9/11. Firemen had come there to sleep. One plaque on a scuff-marked bench said that they had clutched donated teddy bears. Their boots had blackened the benches and the decision had been made not to clean them off. People had come bringing food, prayer, giving massages, coffee, blankets. Love. It made me teary to see it all. See what an amazing outpouring of love had taken place there. We walked around, but not for long. Then we stepped out the back door.
And we were looking at Ground Zero.
There was the graveyard, and then a street, and then a giant, gaping, fenced off space where the towers had fallen.
I had no idea we had been that close. That the church was literally in the tower's backyard.
One tree had been damaged by a piece of debris when the towers fell. It stood just feet away from the chapel walls.
It was very moving. Very disturbing. It upset and saddened me more than I thought it would have, to see it there. There were buildings and stores all around it. I wondered what it would be like to go to work every day and look at that. It was an enormous hole with debris and machinery in it. Still clearing it out. Still trying to level the ground. We couldn't see it well.
All around me people were affected. People speaking French and German and Swedish and Japanese. They walked around the memorials. They climbed a staircase to get a better look at the hole. They were reverent. Not too somber. But appropriately respectful.
We left ground zero behind us. Turned our backs and walked away down a dirty New York street where vendors were selling gyros and hot dogs and sweatshirts and fake designer handbags. Found the colonial Fraunces Tavern that must have some history, but I wasn't quite ready to absorb it yet. Walked down the the seaport where we could see the statue of liberty and Ellis Island. Half of America has ancestry that came here through Ellis Island. That day across the country voters were turning out in record amounts to elect Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States of America. That night around the world, people would celebrate--people from Africa, and Italy, and France, and Japan. That night he would give a speech that would make me cry. Cry with hope and pride. And strength, and unity.
On Election Day, I saw a monument to Washington. I saw a street corner named after Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. I felt grateful to them. I felt proud that I voted.
On Election Day, I saw the church that survived. And I saw the massive empty space of ground zero.
And on Election Day, I turned and walked away.
Toward our future.