The weekend after the World Trade Center collapsed, I went down toward the Promenade to see what was left of the skyline. The Promenade is a walkway at the edge of the Brooklyn Heights bluffs where you can see all the landmarks of the city at once, from the Statue of Liberty to the Empire State Building. When I got there, I found a crowd of people, as still as I’ve ever seen a crowd, holding candles and looking at Manhattan. The air was clear, except for the plume of gray smoke coming from downtown. The smoke glowed white at the base, reflecting the klieg lights we couldn’t see behind the buildings, and I remembered reading that some of it was really dust, pulverized gypsum walls and steel particles.
Five thousand missing, two hundred found. The smoke drifted just to the south, but it had been hitting us in the face for days. Sitting near a window of my apartment on State Street, I’d watched a charred bit of paper, thumbnail-size, land in my lap. As the sun set, our eyes were drawn to lights — those of the now-empty office buildings of downtown Manhattan, the police boats sitting on the water, the fighter jets veering overhead, and the candles everywhere.
The Promenade’s iron fence had become a grand candelabra, with candles stuck on the points. Some candles left long stalactites hanging from the railing. Some were down to wicks sucking up their reflecting pools. Here and there, they were grouped into shrines on the paving stones: red and white candles; a few blue candles; fat little votive candles; tall slim dinner-table candles; candles in tumblers marked for “yarzheit,” the Jewish anniversary day of a death; a candle in a coffee cup that said I (heart) NY; candles in rainbow layers like the kind children make at camp; a candle in a wax-paper cup with peace sign; a candle picturing Jesus in agony and the words “gran poder”; a candle in a tin inscribed “bougie verveine”; a rose made of wax whose petals glowed a loving, human peach, the color you see at the edges of your fingers when you hold them in front of a light.
Among the candles were notes and flyers that said “God bless America,” and “We stand united,” along with teddy bears, a toy fireman’s helmet, and a photo of the twin towers. A stenciled sign commemorated the lost members of Local Fire Co. 205, Ladder 188 of Brooklyn Heights, just a few blocks away. The biggest candle-shrine stood at the flagpole at the center of the Promenade, which happens to commemorate a defeat — George Washington’s retreat after he lost the Battle of Brooklyn.
There, hundreds of flames flickered furiously from a city of candles, with its own shimmering skyline. Maybe this was the city I’d been trying to see. Darkness arrived. The heat reached out. The smell was holy. People stood there for a long time, tilting their own candles to let the wax drip harmlessly, admiring a fire that was gentle, fire that, this time, they controlled, a back fire of small flames built against a great one. That night there were vigils like this all over the city. Soon after I left, the wind shifted across the Heights, bearing the smoke from Manhattan, and I went inside and shut the windows.