Nobody talked much in New York City’s 9/11 Memorial Museum. Why I was there I’m still not sure. I was almost a week into my ten day tourist trip, one funded by an inheritance from my recently deceased father. I’d been to New York City years ago in early summer. It had been holy hot as hell. I was still staying in hostels in 2005, somehow able to sleep in a room with a dozen other people.
Now I was over 50 and staying in my first Air BnB , located in Harlem, very close to the 155th Street Station. The apartment building was a typical New York one for the area– small, old with a kind of scary elevator ( although that there was an elevator at all was quite the perk), and steam heat so hot that many New Yorkers kept their windows open even in the bowels of winter I had read.
I was there in early to mid-December, before the bomb cyclone winter weather hit. It sometimes snowed during my stay and the streets were pretty gloppy but almost instantly salted, although I did hear a woman say that she’d nearly fallen six times in two blocks. Uh yes. Outside I walked stealthily as I had learned to do growing up in Winnipeg – kind of like a penguin. This was familiar.
All else was not. I was travelling alone as I usually do – my friends were either too broke or had families to vacation with. I’d always travelled on my own, something that had been good and bad. The good was that in 2003, I’d met Dale at a hostel in London. Fifteen years later and by pure coincidence, he and his husband were in New York City on a business trip. His last day in the city was my second day so we met up for lunch and gleefully browsed at Strand Bookstore in the East Village. He then ran me around the city – there were chocolates to buy at some shop I don’t remember the name of and a pet store to visit so he could get their dogs NYPD vests (which turned out didn’t fit but their neighbour’s dogs are enjoying them). We climbed up and down more subway stairs than can be counted and by the time we hit Times Square I ran away from them.
“But how will you know where the subway is?” Dale called after me as his husband looked for a cheap backpack in one of the zillion luggage shops in the square.
“I’ll find it,” I shouted back. Okay, it took me 30 minutes, a Google map, and asking four different groups of people for directions before I stumbled onto the C Line.
Well, you don’t so much stumble as wander aimlessly and march up and down stairs and more stairs into the bowels of the city. Under the city.
“The subway is more challenging these days,” a building mate in Vancouver had told me. She had lived in New York for 10 years and still had many friends there.
“Oh,” I’d thought at the time, no problem. The subway hadn’t been an issue back in that hot summer of 2005.
Turned out the subway was more challenging this time. You didn’t know if your line was running and if it was, when it might be coming. And if it came, it might sit at the station for five minutes or an hour. And when it moved, it often stopped dead. The train conductor mumbled. A lot. Something like ‘Bzzbzz bzzz thanks for your patience,’ was often heard. I decided to take my cue from New Yorkers crammed in the subway car with me – they generally looked resigned and no one even sighed with impatience. Apparently a fairly common reason for subway delays was a sick passenger somewhere along the line. Union rules stated that subway employees couldn’t take a sick passenger out of a car but had to wait for EMT’s. I could understand for sick passengers when I was standing, jammed in between other straphangers. Winter coated, it was a sweaty time. Don’t faint, don’t faint, don’t faint, I told myself. Such a strategy had never worked but oddly enough it did in New York. I had travel insurance but I couldn’t imagine having to use it and holding up a whole subway line because I had passed out. The reverberations of a sick passenger went on seemingly forever – backing up other lines unto infinity. I also hadn’t figured out how to get crosstown – from east to west – on a subway, especially uptown. One afternoon after a visit to The Met Museum, I got on an M6 bus I think it was. It apparently went uptown to the cloisters which in my mind meant it would go near 155th Street. As we crawled along the streets that didn’t look close to anything I recognized, I stumbled over to the driver.
“Oh, no no,” he said. “Get off here and wait for the M3.” The M3 sidled by 40 minutes later while I was trying to figure out where I was so I could pin it for an Uber driver. “What street is this?” I’d asked a thundering group of middle-schoolers. There were no street signs anywhere nearby. “Don’t know,” one of them mumbled. “No idea?” I said. “No one knows the name of this street?” A nameless street. Ah! The M3. It was busy, busy. Mainly parents taking their kids home from school.
“What part of my saying do not open up your juice box on the bus did you not understand?” asked a father to his little girl. “What part was confusing to you?”
A somewhat confused man sat beside me to the amusement of some grade school boys behind me.
“There’s no, there’s no, there’s no, there’s no,” he kept repeating . “There’s no, there’s no, there’s no-“
“Justice?” I finally asked him. He looked at me.
“Fifty, fifty, fifty is a big age. Big age big age.”
“Yup,” I said.
I turned to the boys – “Does this bus stop at St. Nicholas and 145th?” Fancy the street name at Christmas time. You can’t make this shit up.
“Yup, three more stops,” said one of the boys.
Three stops later, thank you boys, I walked 10 blocks and then took the ancient elevator six floors up to the Air BnB. Alicia, the hostess, Air BnBed two rooms in her rental apartment and she and a roommate lived in the other two. There was no common space, other than a tiny kitchen and equally small bathroom.
I unlocked the door and felt no small relief at being out of the constant noise, crowds, and subways to nowhere. “Were you thinking New York City wouldn’t be busy?” A friend asked me upon my return. “I did, I did,” I said. “But I didn’t. I’d forgotten.” Part of me loved the busyness but anxious me often needed a bit of a break.
Alicia was just going out. She was 28 years old, cute and hip. She hadn’t been in to making conversation, something extroverted me was coming to slowly accept.
“Oh, Karen, hey is that your loaf of bread in the kitchen?”
“Uh, yes,” I said.
“Well, there are crumbs on the floor.”
“So the broom,” she laughed. She’d laughed the other evening too when she told me that the pan I’d cleaned wasn’t clean enough. Nervous laughter.
“Got it,” I said, chastened. I knew that both Air BnB hosts and guests wrote reviews of each other after a stay had ended. I’d checked out a few of hers and she was big on guests leaving things spotless. So much for the cleaning fee I’d had to pay, I thought.
I rarely used the kitchen, mainly to eat the offending loaf of bread and boil eggs and one time, I’d made macaroni and cheese, hence the great unwashed pan issue. Pangate. Potgate. But I mean really, who makes macaroni and cheese whilst in New York City. I do, I do.
Alicia’s other issue was the door not being double locked when people left the apartment. I had made this mistake only once. One day, I noted that it hadn’t been done by another guest so I texted her. Not realizing it was me, she texted back that she would tell the ‘older lady guest’ to be more careful.
“Um,” I’d texted in response, “This is the older lady guest! “
“Oh god”, she texted back. “So sorry!”
I laughed my butt off on the subway until I got to the stop near the 9/11 Memorial Museum. I was exhilarated from a day of bookstore shopping and Christmas marketing but also exhausted. I figured I had one museum left in me for the day. On my first visit to New York in 2005, there’d still been a great hole where the Twin Towers had stood. Now there was a $700 million memorial museum that after endless delays had opened in 2014. It was controversial, and I’d read that some families of 9/11 victims were unimpressed with what they felt would become a money-making tourist attracting monstrosity.
Not sure why I chose to go there but there I was. The entrance fee was $24. The museum was a huge open space. And blissfully .which is surely the wrong word to use here, it was mostly silent. It was pretty much as I’d expected, even though I hadn’t read much about it at that point. There were bicycles and bicycle racks covered in soot from the day (no one had ever claimed the bikes), there were parts of machinery horribly twisted. There was a New York City firefighter by some of the wreckage, giving tours.
There was a room filled with photos of the murdered – those in the towers and those in the planes. You could click on each picture to find out more information about the victims. There were voice recordings of frantic calls to 911. There were pictures of the missing posters – so many of them – that relatives had put up in their desperation to find their loved ones. It was haunting of course as it was meant to be.
I was dizzy after leaving the room – mainly from insomniaed exhaustion and hunger. I wish I could say I was more touched by what I’d seen – and it was horrifying of course of course. But . . . I had seen it so many times before everywhere.
I left after noting the recorders where people could leave their own memories of 911 and on my way back to the subway noted that the Jewish Museum was also close by. It would have been better, I thought, for me to have gone there.