By Mark Gauert
When we checked into the Embassy Suites in lower Manhattan the evening of Sept. 7, 2001, the nice man at the front desk gave our boys bags of goodies to play with during their stay. Among the toys were two play cameras – loaded with real film – which our 7- and 10-year-olds from South Florida took with them on their first tour of the Big Apple.
We rode taxis, subways and buses with them all over Manhattan that three-day weekend. We walked under the blue whale at the Museum of Natural History. We saw The Lion King at the New Amsterdam. And we took the ferry out to Ellis Island, which included a turn around Liberty Island.
One of the boys snapped this image through the imperfect lens of his camera. It was his first look up at the Statue of Liberty, and, as you can see, he was probably a little unsteady up on the deck. He was probably a little awestruck, too – as we all are, the first time we see Miss Liberty up close.
We had the best time that weekend; it was a treat to show our boys a city we love. It is a beautiful souvenir.
The boys and I flew home on Sept. 10. Cecile stayed for business – and was in Midtown the morning of Sept. 11.
The Embassy Suites where the nice man had given our boys their cameras was smashed that day by falling debris, and would not reopen for months. Cecile was not there, fortunately; she’d checked out the night before and moved to another hotel in Midtown.
The next few days were an ordeal for her – as they were, of course, for all of us – first to make phone contact, then to find a place to stay and then to make it off the devastated island. She remembers the silence, so strange for the city. The mute streams of people, moving up streets from downtown.
Cecile’s former University of Miami journalism professor offered her refuge in her apartment, and she managed to find a subway running to Brooklyn. Two days later – a near miracle that week – she found a rental car at JFK. She drove south on I-95 – and, eventually, straight through Hurricane Gabrielle – before making it home to us almost 24 hours later.
She is the brave veteran of our family. Some people back in the city that week had been unkind to her, when they’d heard her Parisian accent. They’d said cruel things, about not wanting foreigners around.
She’s the survivor who became a citizen not long after 9/11, in solidarity with the rest of us. (Well that, and she really wanted to vote.)
Her homecoming was our homecoming. The best souvenir.
A while ago, I stumbled upon one of the cameras the boys had used on our weekend before the towers fell. Curious, I got the film developed – not expecting to see much. Along with shots of thumbs over the lens, extreme close-ups of sidewalk cracks and the back seats of taxis, I found this one.
It’s the way we’ll always see Liberty now, through awestruck eyes.
Photo: The Statue of Liberty, the Sunday before the towers fell, through a child’s camera.