The Twin Towers still stand tall — in memory

By Matthew Hennessey

With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 rapidly approaching, the World Trade Center site will soon be opening to the public as a memorial and museum. Everyone seems quite pleased about this. I’m not sure if I’m ready for it.

I remember the World Trade Center as it was. If I close my eyes, I can see it still. And I don’t mean just the towers or the skyline — everyone remembers those. I mean the insides. If I concentrate, I can take a mental walk through the public areas of the World Trade Center, from the mall at street level, down to the PATH station in the sub-sub-basement.

There was a Sam Goody’s record store near the entrance on Liberty Street. I bought some blank tapes there in the summer of 2001. I picked up a black tie at the J. Crew store near the N/R subway entrance one day in the late 1990s when a friend offered a last-minute bartending shift at a pub on Maiden Lane. I sat and ate a slice of pizza with my sister at Sbarro’s near the terminus of the E train around the time my dad had his heart attack in 1993.

The Mall at the World Trade Center was a sprawling underground marketplace, a kind of always-open way station. There were ATMs if you were short of cash, newsstands where you could buy a British tabloid or a pack of gum, a drug store for when you needed a comb, a Hallmark store for holiday cards, a film developer, a pretzel stand, gift shops, a chocolatier, and a shoe store.

In short, it was an all-purpose hub where you could pick up just about anything you needed while en route from here to there. And I did a lot of here-to-there through the World Trade Center in the 1990s.

I had a standing racquet ball game every Saturday in the gym at St. Peter’s College near Journal Square in Jersey City. Getting there required a 5-minute descent via escalator into the bowels of the World Trade Center. The PATH station was located three stories underground.

Very often my Saturday racquetball game would result in an epic thirst. Many times, my Jersey City friend would join me for the ride back to the city via the PATH train, up from the depths of the World Trade Center, with connection to the New York City subway system, and onward to a jar (or two or three).

There was, in fact, a bar on the PATH concourse at World Trade. If memory serves it was called the Market Bar. I never went in there. But I’ve always wondered what it would’ve been like to be the bartender who closed that place on September 10th.

Every once in a while you’d find the massive escalators out of order. That was a long walk up, I can tell you. Especially after a game of racquetball. Especially with an epic thirst. Especially after a night of slaking an epic thirst.

I remember the surrounding neighborhood as well. I would often kill time by trying to read the headstones at the St. Paul’s Chapel cemetery. I have fond memories of walking down by the waterfront near the World Financial Center, a complex of smaller buildings in the shadow of the Twin Towers. I saw JFK’s wooden presidential yacht, the Honey Fitz, anchored there once. You could have a drink on the patio and crane your neck to look up at the towers or simply gaze across the river at the Colgate clock.

You can probably still do these things; I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been down to the Financial District since 9/11. It may seem strange after 10 years to still be consciously avoiding the place, but I remember that neighborhood the way it was. I’m not much interested in seeing what it’s become.

And besides, when you got a little turned around downtown you used to be able to orient yourself simply by looking up at those towers. If I went down there now, I’d probably be lost forever.

The last time I was in the World Trade Center was in mid-2001. I had a summer lunch with my aunt, my cousin, and my cousin’s fiancée in a restaurant near the Winter Garden.  Afterward, we strolled through the palm trees in the atrium and ambled up the famous grand staircase. We had a lovely time that day.

We could never have imagined that just a few weeks later, the atrium’s glass roof would be smashed by debris from the falling towers. Or that just a few weeks later, the Mall at the World Trade Center would be destroyed along with the hopes and dreams of those who owned those shops and worked in them. Or that just a few weeks later, the city’s skyline would be changed forever.

Or that just a few weeks later, 2,753 innocent people would lose their lives.

If I close my eyes, I can see it all still.

Originally published in the August 31, 2011 issue of The Irish Echo.

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