The day started with a trip to Lower Manhattan. First stop, Wall Street, because, well, you have to, don’t you? I’d been expecting to find myself on the grandest of boulevards, having already seen how much else of New York is wide and tall. So I was astonished to find that one of the city’ most famous streets was tiny and narrow, virtually an alleyway in comparison to the streets elsewhere. Somehow this discovery made it all the more interesting, in a city I seemed to already know so well, how could I know so little about this place?
We got breakfast in the nearby Pearl Diner. A proper, old fashioned diner, where the feeling of having stepped into a film was greater than ever. Sat in a booth, I had some delicious bacon, egg and hash browns, as the construction workers and cops came in to get some food. When the waitress came over to top up drinks with exactly the same coffee pot that’s been in every movie ever, the experience was complete.
We then walked the few blocks to what for the last decade has been known as Ground Zero, but now as the new buildings near completion is starting to be thought of once again as the World Trade Center. I’d been feeling uneasy about visiting the site as a tourist, it felt a little ghoulish to include a trip to the site of nearly three thousand deaths in an otherwise fun weekend, and the sight of people selling trinkets and souvenirs on the street nearby made it feel even worse. But there was something else that made me want to see more – watching everyday New Yorkers, who I’d started to realise are like Londoners in many ways, going about their business in these streets made the events of 2001 somehow feel, for want of a better word, more real. I watched the events of September 11 2001 unfold on a tiny television set in the mountains of the northern Philippines. I can’t even relate to the way people I talk to who watched it in London felt, wondering if they might be hit next, as I really was a world away from what was happening. But now, seeing the sorts of people who would’ve been caught up in those events walking past me in the street and eating in the booth next to me in the diner, seeing that they were people just like me, removed all of that distance in an instant. I needed to see more.
Although the 9/11 memorial was now open, the main large museum on the site was still under construction. However, there was a smaller museum nearby, opened by some of the families, full of artifacts I will never forget. A menu from the Windows on the World restaurant, knives and forks bent out of shape from the heat of the impact, a wall covered in posters put up by people searching for missing loved ones. And, so hauntingly, a small piece of one of the planes, with the unmistakable shape of a aircraft window. I was stuck by the thought that someone was looking out of that window on that morning, and it’s a thought that I don’t think will ever leave me.
Outside was a fire station, still in operation and the first to respond on that day, suffering so many losses. Every time I saw a fire truck go past in the city, I noticed it carried a list of its station’s lost, with that one date dominating. On the outside was a large bronze plaque with an image of firefighters racing to the towers, something I imagine will still be there for years, probably centuries to come. We then went into the memorial. While the museum was intimate, this was all about scale. It was difficult, nearly impossible, to take it all in. The footprints of the two towers were marked with two enormous holes, with waterfalls noisily gushing in. The names of the victims were inscribed around the edges, too many to count. And above it all was the new tower, disappearing into the clouds. While the museum was full of tiny details which slowly built up to give an understanding of the sadness and horror of what happened on this site, here it was perhaps too overwhelming to take it all in – so many names, such huge buildings now gone – with the beauty of the park that now stands here making the events of that day all the more unimaginable.
It was an emotional experience, the museum in particular showing the most pivotal international event of my lifetime for what it really was – thousands of heartbreaking personal tragedies that happened to innocent, everyday people. At times it was very difficult, but it is a place I would recommend every visitor to the city to see. I looked around at some tall, old buildings overlooking the site, trying to absorb the fact that these same buildings bore witness to everything that happened here. That these were the very same buildings people would have been staring out of their office windows at that morning. We walked down to Battery Park to see one more reminder of that day, The Sphere, the damaged and dented sculpture that was once sited between the twin towers and was pulled from the rubble and placed here.
We then walked to the nearby ferry terminal to get on the Staten Island Ferry, something pretty much everyone who goes to New York does. Mainly because it’s free. It was really nice to stand on the deck with a beer from the on-board bar and watch the Statue of Liberty go by with a light breeze in my face. Really lovely. There was plenty else to see along the journey, from the New Jersey shore to the Queen Mary 2 ocean liner, and was a good chance to gather my thoughts after a weighty morning before moving on to the fun things later in the day. Of course, like most tourists, as soon as we got to Staten Island we immediately walked through the terminal and got the next ferry back.
It was then time for lunch at the Stone Street Tavern, which was a nice bar with friendly staff in the middle of the financial district, and it didn’t feel too dissimilar to a pub in the City of London at lunchtime on a working day. We then decided to walk north, which might have been a bit of a mistake because the skies were clearing and it was starting to get very, very hot. I found myself looking up throughout the journey at the stone, gothic skyscrapers, nothing like the tall glass and steel buildings I’ve seen elsewhere in the world. Along the way, we also found the fire station used in Ghostbusters. It was weird to think that as a young kid I played with a toy version of this very building and now here it was in front of me, looking much smaller and hidden away than I’d expected. We also thought we might have seen the apartment used in the external shots in Friends (it probably wasn’t, but we’ll gloss over that), before stopping for a thrist-quenching drink at an “English”-themed pub, which was probably the least impressive place we visited, perhaps because it just felt like a run-of-the-mill fairly dull pub back home.
From there, feeling a little exhausted after a long walk in the heat, we arrived at Bleecker Street, for a drink in Off the Wagon, where we went the day before. I had a cider, which tasted like apple flavoured Jolly Ranchers, quite different to any I’ve had before, and rather lovely. As we walked down Bleecker Street towards another bar we wanted to try, the Village Lantern, we were hearing the sound of the Beastie Boys from every passing car, hearing the news from the radio that MCA, Adam Yauch, had died. The only thing I remember like it was a few years before, when you could hear Michael Jackson from every radio. We then got a cab back to the hotel meaning we’d seen all the way from the tip of Lower Manhattan up to midtown.
We then returned to Chelsea, to some warehouses that had been converted into the McKittrick Hotel, to take in the extraordinary immersive theatrical experience that is Sleep No More. I’ve written in some detail about the show here, although that contains spoilers – so all I’ll say for now is that it was the most unforgettable, beautiful, unsettling and amazing works of art I have experienced. Walking around in silence, wearing a mask and interacting with the characters, fellow audience members and the six floors of corridors, hopsital wards, bedrooms, offices, streets, graveyards and forests was just incredible.
It was also very tiring, after three hours of walking and running, often up and down several flights of stairs. We had dinner at McDonalds, partly because it didn’t involve much walking but mainly just because I wanted to see what the difference is – the answer is much bigger portions, the taste is exactly the same – before entering the famous lobby of the Empire State Building, thinking of going up to the top. But even at this time of the evening, the queues were much too long, so we headed back to the hotel.
It was an amazing day, but my feet hurt. Really hurt. I mean, really, really, really hurt. All worth it, though.