Personal Archaeology 25: Pictures You Never Took of Things That Are No Longer There

It’s September 11, which means that my social media feeds have more than one commemorative status. They’re not as abundant this year as they were last year, which marked 20 years since the attacks, so I didn’t find myself facing as many eagles, flags, and “Never Forget” posts as usual. That’s made scrolling a little easier this morning and I’ve been able to spend time sincerely reflecting rather than straining my eyes from rolling them so much.

The lobby of the South Tower of the World Trade Center in 1988. Photograph from Wikipedia.

[A quick aside before I continue: I realize how this makes me sound like a cynical asshole. If you want to hear me go in depth with it, go listen to the final part of my “9/11 in Popular Culture” podcast miniseries from last year.]

One thing that’s caught my attention this year is in the “New York City Before 1990” Facebook group to which I belong. True to form, many people have been posting personal pictures of the World Trade Center in some form or another. Some are childhood photos with the towers in the background, others are skyline pictures taken from Brooklyn or Jersey City, and some are even pictures of the towers under construction. The photographs are the type of pictures that you’d expect anyone to have on hand that have gained some more importance because of what happened long after they were taken.

That being said, I don’t have any pictures of the Twin Towers.

From the time I was a kid in the fourth or fifth grade to the end of high school, I visited Lower Manhattan a number of times both on field trips or with my parents, mainly to the South Street Seaport back when it had a shopping mall on the pier (it’s where I saw the life-sized Aliens and Predator statues that The Sharper Image sold). I’m sure that my mom might have a couple of photographs that she took when we went to the Statue of Liberty in the fifth grade, though, although I have no idea where they would be considering how many times stuff has been moved in their house to make place for other stuff.

Anyway, on one of these trips, I went inside the Twin Towers for the first and only time in my life. Specifically, we were in the South Tower because we took the elevator all the way to the observation deck. I’m honestly not sure what trip this was, although I think that it was in 1988-1989 with SEED, the gifted and talented program in my elementary school. It was certainly after I had watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off multiple times because I did the “lean your head against the glass and look down” thing that they did in the (then) Sears Tower. And what I remember from the trip is sparse: the enormity of the South Tower lobby, the crowded elevator, looking at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church from above, how easy it was to walk around the observation floor, and the signs that told you what part of the area you were looking at.

Otherwise, my time up there seemed to go by quickly. It probably actually did because any field trip into New York City always seemed to be a rush job with teachers and chaperones having one eye on the clock while you tried to take in the sights. I get it, too. That train wasn’t going to wait or eastbound traffic was a bear after a certain point in the afternoon. But beyond remembering the Ferris Bueller trick, I never got much of a lasting impression from the inside of the Towers. In fact, if I have one last impression of the buildings, it’s the view from the ferry on a field trip to The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It’s one of the best views of that part of the city because you have an unfettered approach; furthermore, the weather that day was beautiful.

You’d think that I would have actually taken a picture, especially considering how many pictures I took from the summer after junior year to the end of college (all of which are in four photo albums in our home office). However, while I owned a camera, I didn’t bring it along with me (or didn’t think to take/keep the photographs), so all I have is the image in my head of the Twin Towers against a clear blue sky as we cruised away from Ellis Island toward Battery Park.

I’d like to think that this is the case for a lot of my generation. These days, we’ve got cameras in our pockets and based on the amount of sharing my friends do on Facebook and Instagram, aren’t shy about showing off where we are at any given moment of the day. But thirty years ago, you could spend the day somewhere and be completely within your own experience because the only way to share it would be to bring a camera with film on it that you then would take to a Fotomat or something. Of course, some people were lucky enough to have small video cameras (my parents had one of those that took a full tape), but most of us had point-and-shoot automatics that made things look further away than they were or washed everything out (and sometimes printed the date on the side). If, like I said, we remembered to bring them.

As I look through everyone’s photographs on Facebook, I don’t regret not taking pictures on either of those days–for starters, I didn’t even own a camera when I was 11–and I find myself fascinated by the authenticity of what I’m seeing. These aren’t poster shots or commemorative plates or anything like that; they’re simply ways people are relating how the Twin Towers had a presence. And while I can’t share my particular views from those days, I’m grateful for being there and for what I remember.

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