Tear of Grief

March 27, 2010 — So...9-11 was kind of just a television event for me. I mean, I didn’t know anybody who died in the attacks, nor did I know anybody who knew anybody who died in the attacks...to my knowledge anyway. Also, lack of empathy has always been my largest flaw, although that’s counterbalanced by a double dose of whichever of the four humours is responsible for self-loathing.

But I can somewhat defend my comfortable numbness. You see, I experienced the intense catastrophe, debilitating grief, and overwhelming tragedy of 9-11 in the same space where I watched Lt. Col. Henry Blake enter a helicopter and never return, where Dr. Cox came to grips with the death of his brother-in-law. Where Shane grenaded Lemansky. Where Captain Picard was taken hostage by Kardashians [sic]. Sure, the events of 9-11 were major, powerful, dramatic, shocking, and, one even might pun, landmark, but those are all adjectives used every night to promote network dramas.

So you see, from the oversaturated bubble of my living room, the events of 9-11 and their immediate aftermath were, for all intents and purposes, a spectacularly affecting miniseries or a particularly riveting sports tournament for me...arresting for a bit, but easy to tire of once dragged on too long. And I got bored with 9-11 quickly...long before the flags got ratty in the chain link fences of the highway overpasses, long before the scrap metal from Ground Zero had been melted into collectible coins and giant battleships, long before the benefit concerts where millionaires generously donated their voices were launched. I’d already moved on to other shows.

Now, I’m not saying that’s the right response. Just that it was mine. And that it’s a natural one. And that it might be okay for some people to feel that way as long as they are cushioned anonymously in a gigantic population. It’s one of the few silver linings of being a nobody.

But that’s where memorials come in handy...for jerks like me. After all, I was less than 13 miles away from the Pentagon at the time of its attack. And if my apathy is so embarrassingly large as to bear remarking upon by passing strangers, I can’t help but wonder about someone else personally untouched by the tragedy in far-flung locations like Sheboygan, Timbuktu, Albuquerque, Kalamazoo, Poughkeepsie, Schenectady, or any of the other funny-sounding cities that comedians use for punch lines. I realize those last two are actually in New York, but this might be the only opportunity I ever get for that joke.

Except, of course, that I’m dead wrong. People cared. Lots of people cared. From all across the country people cared. People cared who had no connection to the tragedy whatsoever except a loosely held nationalism. Heck, people from other nations cared. Other nations, in fact, with whom we’ve had awkward-to-the-level-of-ex-fiancée pasts with. Like Russia. That’ll make more sense here in a minute.

It doesn’t take too much digging on this site to unearth that fact that I dig monuments and I dig memorials. I haven’t yet gotten to the point that I think about fresh tragedy in terms of the memorials that it will spawn (although I’m close), but I have been keeping a half-lidded eye out for the major 9-11 memorials.

For while many towns across the U.S. have erected humble memorials to the event, it’s been quite the Gong Show when it comes to memorializing 9-11 in the most important places. Almost a decade after 9-11, New York is barely closer to fixing that gaping hole in its boroughs (although I was mildly interested in the temporary Tribute in Light display) and the so-far-unfinished memorial in Pennsylvania where Flight 93 crashed has fomented its share of controversy, from an apparently vaguely Islamic design to the eminent domain used to secure the site. The Pentagon, with its military efficiency, was the only site to cleanly erect a permanent, albeit uninspired, memorial. Outside of the crash site wall is a Spartan series of 184 benches aligned with the trajectory of the collision. My great aunt has a memorial bench in a random park.

However, one 9-11 memorial overcame my callousness, made me brave New York traffic armed only with a GPS unit and a disregard for the bumpers on my car, and impelled me to take a detour on an already interminable 20-hour road trip. And it was worth it. In fact, I wished the day had more obstacles to throw in that first sentence for added emphasis.

It’s called To the Struggle Against World Terrorism, although it’s more commonly referred to by the junior-high-poetry name Tear of Grief, and it doesn’t bear the Made in America label. That’s right, while we spent the past decade making American Idol a Number One rated show, the Russians took half that time and gave us a mesmerizing, towering, awe-inspiring piece of art to help solace our grieving country.

Created by artist Zurab Tsereteli and dedicated in 2006, the Tear of Grief is a 100-foot-tall bronze-coated steel tower rent almost in twain from almost-top to almost-bottom. It also might be a lesson in the contrast between works of personal inspiration and works by committee. In the resulting vertical eye-shaped crevice that is the center of this structure, a 40-foot-tall, four-ton shiny nickel tear is suspended. The tower is set on an 11-sided base that bears 3,000 names from both the 9-11 attacks and, for a bit of perspective, I guess, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Will someone with a journalism degree let me know whether I still need to describe an object in an article where I have included pictures?

I’m not sure what the etiquette is for one country offering another a gigantic piece of artwork, especially when that gift is as sensitive as a bereavement gift. Usually, if you don’t like a gift enough to place it on your mantle, you can just hide it in the back of a closet or on a shelf in the basement. You can’t do that on a national level, though. Wait, maybe you can.

We stuck the Tear of Grief in New Jersey.

That’s an easy punch line, but this striking memorial is actually set in a great location at the tip of the Bayonne Harbor Peninsula, formerly a military ocean terminal, in Bayonne, NJ. The Tear of Grief has a great view of New York Harbor, across which you can see the New York skyline, with the blank spot in the clouds where the Twin Towers stood, and the Statue of Liberty, herself a gift from another country.

Getting to the sculpture is easy, but does seem a little disconcerting at present. It’s at the watery end of Port Terminal Boulevard, which my GPS notates as not automobile-accessible (although it is), and you have to drive past gatehouses, warehouses, and a maze of chain-linked fences, with your only clue that you’re going somewhere that it’s okay for the public to go being a couple small signs here or there stating that the Harbor View 9-11 Memorial Park is this or that way.

Once you arrive, though, it’s very welcoming, with a parking lot and benches and other things that make you feel less trespassy. Even better, we arrived just before dusk, and the hazy blue and orange colors of the setting sun reflected profound hues off the bronze and silver colors of the monument. If you look closely, you can even see a crescent of moon in one of the included pictures. Spotlights surround the monument, but we didn’t stay to see what it looked like after dark due to the whole interminable road trip I already complained about. I assume it looks lighted up.

Judging from the few other people whose visits coincided with mine, the Tear of Grief seems to do what it’s supposed to, my deadened empathy notwithstanding. And while I didn’t personally register much sadness or reflection, it did make me awe at beauty for a few minutes. Hopefully that’s enough to make me human.

Also, just so you know, I wrote this entire article in a perpetual state of cringe. My apologies if that’s how you read it. But we all have our own tragedies. If 9-11 was one of yours, I’m sorry. At least you get a cool memorial.