Dented eyeglasses. Crosses of hope cut from scraps of steel. One computer keyboard, crushed and melted. An ordinary clock, hands frozen at 10:02.
Gary Marlon Suson doesn’t need to see the new movie “World Trade Center” to be reminded of the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. He is surrounded by evidence of the disaster whenever he gets to work.
It has been almost one year since this photographer turned his studio into the Ground Zero Museum Workshop, an easy-to-miss box of a space in Lower Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Hit a buzzer to gain access. Go to the second floor. The sign is small, and so is the museum. Exhibit space includes the bathroom, covered with letters from children.
I did not lose a loved one because of 9/11, yet this space feels like hallowed territory. It is easy to come unglued. There is a short but poignant film. There are remnants of the ruins. There are photos, many photos on walls – enough to sadden the heart all over again, and turn the eyes misty.
The modesty of these 1,100 square feet does not diminish the punch that is packed here.
Gary was the only photographer authorized by the Uniformed Firefighters Association, the firefighters’ union, to have unrestricted access to Ground Zero and the recovery effort. He was given three rules: Don’t photograph human remains. Share with recovery charities the proceeds from photo sales. Don’t release the pictures until recovery work ends (the photo debut was in May 2002, in the New York Times).
Pricey boutiques and eateries slowly are filling his block of Manhattan, but the outside of his museum lacks gentrification, for now. Gary likens it to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, which is in a house where the Jewish girl hid during World War II.
“That house helped me put a face on the Holocaust,” he explains. “It is small, but it serves its purpose. You don’t need an enormous space to explain what happened” there or here.
Displays at the Ground Zero Museum Workshop are “discarded refuse,” not identifiable personal belongings, but it nevertheless “humanizes the event very fast,” Gary says. This is a “workshop” because visitors may touch some of the artifacts.
Families affected by 9/11, like the Toyko couple whose son was last seen on the 94th floor of the World Trade Center, come here. So do the rescue workers, and the tourists. They come to heal, to remember, to understand.
Before 9/11, Gary was an off Broadway actor, playwright and fashion photographer who worked with the William Morris Agency. Only four days before the World Trade Center collapsed, he discarded crutches, used because of knee surgery.
One by one, he or a New York City firefighter will explain the photos that hang on the museum’s walls. “A lot of the things that made me cry are in these images,” Gary says. “I tried to shoot in a respectful, sensitive way.”
His walk into abandoned subway tunnels was like “exploring the Titanic – that’s the only way I can describe it.” He points to an opened Bible page from Genesis that he found, when he was “about ready to pack it in” because the work was overwhelming him.
Even the recovery dogs got depressed because “they could pick up a scent but not find anyone – so they would just go back to their kennel and not come out.”
“I respect the firemen more than they’ll ever know,” Gary says. “A lot of the things I saw at Ground Zero took my breath away.”
The feeling appears mutual, as he was sworn in as an honorary FDNY battalion chief in 2004.
“I don’t know if I am ready to see this film,” Gary says, of the release of “World Trade Center.” “It probably won’t be of a healing nature for me. I spent a lot of time at Ground Zero, so it’s very personal for me” but “any 9/11 film that helps people to remember the fallen, I think is a good thing.”
Museum tours are daily but by appointment. For more: www.groundzeromuseumworkshop.com, 212-209-3370. An advance ticket purchase is required. Admission is $16; six charities benefit from the proceeds. Additional donations are accepted.
“Requiem: Images of Ground Zero,” a book of Gary’s post-9/11 photography, is in its second printing. It can be purchased on the museum’s website or at St. Paul’s Chapel, an Episcopal church at 209 Broadway, next to the World Trade Center site, about 2.5 miles south of the museum.
The chapel and the fenced twin towers hole have become tourist attractions without trying. Timelines of 9/11 events hang on the chain links. Walls of the nearest subway stop are full of the artwork of children who lost relatives. A block away, off the atrium of the World Financial Center, are explanations and designs for memorials proposed to replace the fallen skyscrapers.
An aside: Gary Marlon Suson is in Wisconsin this month, getting dental work from Richard Vander Heyden, Green Bay. The holistic practitioner, Gary says, is able to help people like him who are sensitive to standard dental materials and anesthesia.
A compromised immune system is one of the health complications that Gary says he and many other Ground Zero workers developed because of post-9/11 work.