Next Stop, Ground Zero

As surreal as its destination, a new bus tour takes Baltimoreans to New York for big dose of patriotism and a plateful of pork chops.

January 22, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Standing at the front of the charter bus, tour operator Melinda Marinoff makes a promise to 50 visiting Baltimoreans: By day's end, Osama bin Laden's motivation for targeting lower Manhattan would be revealed on the New York City Patriot Tour.

"There are strong reasons as to why we were struck," says Marinoff, an intense woman with the darting manner of a small bird.

New York's role in the American Revolution.

Its pre-eminence in the financial world.

World Trade Center architect Minoru Yamasaki's lofty goals for the twin towers.

"I'm wondering if Osama researched this before he decided to make us a target," says Marinoff, president of a tour company called New York Restaurant & Entertainment Center.

She hands the microphone to guide Lee Gelber, who promptly points to the lunch joint at Eighth and West 55th that inspired Jerry Seinfeld's soup Nazi routine. Gelber, jaunty in a Borsolino and ornate whiskers, also identifies the Brill Building where Leiber and Stoller penned "Charlie Brown," and the Hearst Corporation building where Good Housekeeping's cake recipes are tested. The tour bus heads past East 15th Street and McSorely's Old Ale House as Marinoff reminds him in sotto voce to stick to the script.

Gelber corrects his course, ingeniously linking city sights with the events of Sept. 11:

There's the large marble figure on the arch in Washington Square park created by the father of Alexander Calder; a sculpture of Calder's was demolished in the twin towers' collapse. And the workers protesting outside a midtown Marriott lost their jobs when the chain's World Trade Center hotel was destroyed in the terrorist attack.

Gelber ramps up the drama for the out-of-towners, lingering theatrically on final syllables as he refers to that awful day, all the while dealing with a shaky PA system.

The Golden Ring Travel Company's ground zero tour, lunch at the Sweet & Tart Chinese restaurant included, is a work in progress.

That's all it can be when the main attraction is itself a work in progress; one that today's passengers may or may not be able to see from a plywood viewing platform, depending on ticket availability.

As tour guides and tourists alike reach desperately for its meaning, everything about the bustling ground zero industry, a peculiar mix of calamity, curiosity and commerce, is in flux.

Any collective logic on how to respond to the tragedy pancaked with the twin towers: Every day, as the rubble disappears, more visitors flock to see what's not there.

Completed in December, the temporary platform instigated five-hour waits and pedestrian bottlenecks. Now, to control foot traffic, the Office of Emergency Management runs the hottest tourist attraction in town, issuing timed, free tickets for the viewing platform from a booth at South Street Seaport.

And even as the void where the twin towers once stood increasingly resembles a massive construction site and not a mass grave, additional platforms are being planned.

Free maps of lower Manhattan produced by a coalition of architects and planners have been distributed, showing the location of memorials and sightlines. Their intent is to reduce the site's carnival-esque qualities by adding architectural context. Meanwhile, Broadway vendors pitch ground zero souvenir hats, scarves and photos.

Visitors still leave trinkets and messages, such as "SpongeBob loves America," on nearby tribute walls.

While some victims' loved ones are irate at the intrusion and speak of gawkers and ghouls, others have allowed themselves to become part of the citywide spectacle by posing for life-size photographs on display at the Faces of Ground Zero exhibit in Grand Central Station.

When Marinoff introduced the Patriot Tour, Marty Strauss, consultant for the Golden Ring Travel Company, signed on. Touring the devastated area beyond ground zero would add substance to the excursion. "I don't know how anyone can get emotional over a hole in the ground," he says.

Marinoff, hospitality expert turned historian, explains her thesis: "Two hundred years ago, at the onset, New York City took the biggest blows for this country for our freedom." Since then, the city has been on an inevitable collision course with bin Laden, she says.

Marinoff, a longtime New Yorker, also wants to strike a blow for her city's soul. "We are the most standoffish, and the most arrogant and the most know-it-alls, but give us a disaster, and we bend at the knee. ... It's spiritual; I can't even explain it."

Marinoff adamantly calls her itinerary the Patriot Tour, but in local ads, Golden Ring Travel promotes "Ground Zero Tours." Strauss quickly got flak for the ads. One angry caller accused him of exploitation. Why is this any different than visiting the Holocaust Museum? he asked the caller.

And don't forget the bottom line, Strauss says: "If I exploit people, a lot of people want to be exploited. ... Everyone wants to know how to get to ground zero."

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