Why There Is Rust

by

12/31/2003

St. John the Divine, 112th St. and Amsterdam Avenue, 10027

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

Aspiring poets learn, early on, the value of concrete imagery; of replacing metaphorically huge words with small sensory explosions which blow the reader into reality. Allen Ginsberg didn’t write “live life,” he wrote of those “who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup.” Sylvia Plath didn’t say, “I mourn the dead,” but rather, “Thirty years now I have labored to dredge the silt from your throat.”

It is both dismal and ironic then that the eight finalists for the World Trade Center memorial, with access to real concrete and unlimited silt, have chosen paths of poetic abstraction. Streaming water, floating lights, the engraving of name into stone and the revelation of bedrock are all apt conceits of how we remember, but tell nothing of exactly what it is we fight not to forget. They are big ideas that remove us from the reality. The designs reveal an insulting lack of fire, smoke, crumpled metal, flesh. We are asked to recall chaos by taking a tranquil stroll, as if everything is all right. As if what I witnessed from a cab stuck in panicked traffic outside of JFK was less than horrific, less than personal.

And so, this question: What’s a nice Jewish boy from midtown doing hanging around the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on 112th Street? I am visiting a memorial that has long been my favorite chunk of city sculpture and which deserves consideration as perhaps the most appropriate remembrance space for the Trade Center tragedy, despite its home at the wrong end of the island.

The firefighter memorial stands in half-light and near obscurity within the Cathedral, in honor of the men who died on October 17, 1966 at a fire on 23rd Street and Broadway (as well as all “their brethren who have perished in the line of duty”). This was the Wonder Drug Store fire. In its day it was the deadliest building collapse in N.Y. Fire Department history. Ten were killed when a floor gave way and they fell into a flaming cellar. Two others who escaped the fall were killed in the ensuing ball of fire.

Pieces of that day are the material of its memory. The pedestal is an amalgam of brick, stones and, yes, concrete, along with bits of broken colored glass. A ruddy claw of thin, knuckled, I-beams rises up from it, like the bloodied hand bursting from the grave in the film version of “Carrie.” The claw clutches a horizontal post, 12 inches thick and maybe 5 feet long. It is heavily scarred and both of its ends are charcoal. Attached at the post’s midpoint and jutting more than 20 feet into the air, a 3″ x 14″ plank, probably a surviving floor beam, draws the observer’s view up to the dark cathedral ceiling, and also serves, mortifyingly, as the upright of an upside-down cross. Wedged underneath the claw’s palm are the nozzle off a fire hose, a helmet and a small pick. The initials, F.D.N.Y., are welded above a plaque in the pedestal that bears the names of the dozen victims.

It is gutsy and bloody, and dares even to question religion, here of all places. It is one tower fallen and a second tower caught in mid-collapse, struggling to right itself. The soaring plank implies a leap of faith heading skyward, even as it symbolizes a descent into evil as it intersects into its wronged crucifix. The iron fist is Satan’s firm grasp of fire, weakening each moment in a slow surrender to rust. Meanwhile, the space surrounding the memorial echoes with my footfalls, casts shadows and absorbs the light of stained glass, accommodates holy altar, tacky gift shop, Jews, gentiles, Muslims, agnostics. The cathedral is the largest of its kind in the world and remains a work in progress. Known in the neighborhood as St. John’s the Unfinished, it is thus a microcosm of Manhattan where everyone is welcomed.

Of course, I am not the only one who has discovered that this overlooked piece is the real deal. Others have come and left their markers. Today, a small vase of fresh flowers sits at the foot of the sculpture, with a note written in French. A tattered prayer card for a 9/11 victim rests on the pedestal as does a toy panda bear and a golf tee. And draped over various parts of the cross are a small flag, a necklace with silver stars, and a rosary. They are small reminders to those who would otherwise forget, given a peaceful seat in front of a gentle waterfall: Mourners abhor abstraction.

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