It’s been nine years since September 11th, 2001. I have never seen the World Trade Center. By the time I got to America, they were gone. I’m leaving New York today, and I don’t know when’s the next time I’ll be back. But I wrote this piece last summer about Ground Zero, and thought it would be appropriate to post it today.

It’s our last day in New York. I still remember the first time I saw this city with my dad, right this time after freshman year. But it’s my mum’s first time. Tired of walking, she insisted on getting three tickets for the open-top tour buses, so here we are, traffic wind in our faces, trundling down Manhattan. We pass the much-abused Wall Street bull, even now bearing a troop of tourists on his bronze back, and the tour guide directs our attention to the next attraction. “People come to New York and they want to see two things,” she says, “the Statue of Liberty and Ground Zero. If you want to see Ground Zero, get off at the next stop and turn right.” True to form, my mum feels she must not miss the site of the Twin Towers. So we get off the bus and pick our way towards the massive, grating construction site.

There is something peculiar about an attraction defined precisely by its absence. It’s been eight years since 9/11, and that date has not lost its vivid nearness – perhaps because the year has dropped off the end of the date, perhaps because, in the wake of all that’s happened since then, it is necessary for it to stay a fresh, open wound. Ground Zero does seem like a wound, a great gaping hole in the bristling forest of skyscrapers. Three years ago I had been shocked to see it was still a hole, the cardboard timeline of events posted on the wire fence somehow inadequate for the tourists coming to pay homage to the fallen towers. This time around it is still a hole, the construction dust, the grating sound of machines at work a constant from three years ago. Metal cranes heave and creak purposefully in the mess of earth and concrete behind the chain-link fence. A couple of enterprising people have set up booths selling little pamphlets about 9/11, the burning towers superimposed on the statue of liberty on the cover.

I don’t know what it is about all this that was unsatisfying. Everything about the place seems to say, “move along now – nothing to see here”, and yet at the same time it has the look of a recent catastrophe, too recent for anyone to begin to grapple with yet. But we kept on walking along the fence, as though expecting something more substantial – a museum, a memorial? – to appear, even my dad and I, who had been here before. We got to the entrance of what had been the subway station, where a middle-aged black man in a blue windbreaker howls at the passersby – tourists and locals alike, gesticulating wildly – “How many buildings was there, I ask you?” he yells, “Some of these people calls themselves New Yorkers an’ they don’ know! I ask you, how many buildings? How many buildings was in Ground Zero?” His eyes are wide, and he holds in his hand a folder filled with photographs and clippings, which he flips through wildly as he accosts first one and then another group of people, who mostly shuffle away as if to avoid catching the crazy. Around his neck he wears a navy lanyard with “9/11” printed on it over and over again. I wonder if it’s a uniform he’s given himself – I wonder if he’s out here yelling every day. Something about his crazed fervor makes my parents swerve away from him. Most people give him wide berth, as though craziness, or even passion, can be infectious. But I want to hear what he has to say.

“How many buildings were there here, sir?” I ask. “How many do you think there was?” he asks back. “Two? The twin towers?” my dad ventures. “No, no, no! They always say the twin towers! The twin towers issa nick name, that’s what, look at this picture here…” he flips through his file. “Look, there was seven! You see, seven, but they don’ tell you that, do they? They don’ tell you that! It was like a whole family, you see, with the little ones – ” Sure enough, he has a couple of aerial shots of the World Trade Center before 9/11, and a whole cluster of buildings, now vanished, rise eerily in the shadows of the twin towers. “There was more than just two towers! You see these people, they call themselves New Yorkers, but they don’t know! You see that building there?” I shield my eyes and look up at the tallest thing one in sight. It looms above me. “You look at it here, it’s the same building as here – you see how big the towers was?” he says, showing me a picture of that same building dwarfed by the towers, more than twice its height. Height, I reflect, ceases to mean anything after a certain point, much like the way ten trillion and twenty trillion sound much the same to me. After a certain point, the brain simply ceases to register it and abdicates to infinity. Did the fact that the twin towers were twice as tall as this one make their fall twice as tragic? “So my mum asked me, if I had gone to work that day, and I work in security – how long would you have stayed in there helping people get out? You think about it – one hour, one hour and a half hour – that was not enough time, and the buildings, they just come crashin’ down.”

Happy to have our attention, he goes on to describe the horrors of the facts he’d gathered. He wasn’t working that day – his boss said to take the day off – he was taking his kid to school three blocks down when it happened. He shows us a picture of his son, smiling with the World Trade Center framed behind him. Then he shows us an aerial shot of the collapsed buildings, tells us about the man who was flying a helicopter past that day, who was puzzled to see a whole crowd drift towards the towers instead of away from it, until it dawned on him that they must have been following the first guy in front – blindly, like a lost herd, right into the heart of their deaths. He’d wanted to fly down, to warn them, but knew that the dust rising up from the site would simply sink his helicopter – that all he could do was watch.

“How many people you think died in that buildings?” he goes on, gaining momentum as he flips frantically through his clear folder of newspaper clippings, of photographs – “How many?” There was a list, wasn’t there? A list of missing people… “Yah, there be a list, but what about the little people? What about the illegals? The Mexicans mannin’ the doors? Wha’ about the cleaners? Dey ain’t got no paperwork – and dey died too – No one knows! No one even knows! Their families, they can’t claim insurance! They can’t claim nothin’! No one knows!”

All I could do is watch. I didn’t know what to say. This man had a mission. I don’t know what sort of price he was paying with his family, without his job, just to stand in that street corner however many days it was he stands in that street corner – but something changed in him the day the towers fell, just as something changed in me the day the towers fell. My dreams of America fell that day too, the moment the war machine ground open to a start. The America of Disneyland, of power and strength and generosity and commerce that had lived in my mind, was suddenly substituted for a far more dangerous leviathan. This man’s heart was ravished by the horror, compelled by something strong to tell the truth. A tiny, perhaps unimportant slice of the truth – but nevertheless, the truth. The least I could do was listen.