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."
And his customers get a great deal, Strauss says. Round-trip fare to New York, and plenty of "pork chop Peking-style," all for $45.
For Melvin and Dorothy Patterson of Woodlawn, the ground zero tour isn't like a trip to Atlantic City. They came today to grasp what happened Sept. 11. "You cannot imagine the devastation until you see it in person," Melvin Patterson says.
Over his pork chop Peking-style and fried rice, Parkville attorney Walter R. Hayes tries to explain why he took a day off to see ground zero. "I guess it's kind of a memorial, like going to Christmas Mass," says the 46-year-old. "It's like a tour of Lourdes, or a tour of Auschwitz. It's not a jaunt."
After lunch, Marinoff directs the bus driver to the viewing platform ticket booth. But first, there's a standoff with a mail carrier, who has blocked a narrow cobblestone lane and refuses to budge. He gathers his stuff, locks the truck and walks away.
"Hello!" Marinoff says to no one in particular. "We're back to normal again."
The Golden Ring bus driver backs up, and parks across from South Street Seaport, where Marinoff learns that timed tickets are available for 5 p.m. She figures that since it's Wednesday -- matinee day -- there are more people waiting in line for tickets to The Producers and other shows, making things lighter at the ground zero line.
The Baltimore visitors, who boarded the bus at 7:30 a.m. not knowing how the day would unfold, learn that they will first take the planned walking tour led by Gelber and then visit ground zero. "The best of both worlds," he says.
The visitors leave the bus for the ticket booth, where a man in an NYPD cap directs traffic: "Ground zero tickets, right around this way, folks. Step up please, folks." Another surreal moment that would make PT Barnum nod in approval.
Once tickets are secured, Gelber leads the group, many of them retired, on a two-hour tour of lower Manhattan landmarks. They barely see some places because time-consuming security checks eat into their allotted 10-minute stops.
Stops at the Federal Hall National Memorial, site of the first Freedom of Speech trial, and the Fraunces Tavern Museum on Pearl Street, where George Washington bid farewell to his officers, are designed to illustrate Marinoff's time line from the Colonial era to Sept. 11.
The band of Baltimoreans, some of whom expected to tour the city by bus, grows weary. So far, most have been happy to go with the flow, wherever it carried them, while others are a tad disgruntled because of the day's confusing agenda.
Finally, as twilight arrives, it's time to see ground zero. This is the moment Leanna and Wayde Stover of Joppatowne are waiting for. They would have been happy to stand in line for six hours. As it is, their timed ticket gets them on the platform, and Leanna Stover tears up as her husband takes her picture before the void. The couple was in China on Sept. 11, and they felt so far away and helpless. She is also fighting cancer. "This is something I needed to do," she says.
Like Leanna Stover, Frances Coburn, accompanied by her husband, George, can't fully articulate why they've come here today. "Maybe it's a need you feel inside."
Another woman mutters after viewing the site, "There's really nothing to see."
Back on the bus, Gelber can't help but identify a few other sights, including one of the few Manhattan grocery stores with a parking lot and the Second Avenue Deli, without referring to Sept. 11. The group is on its way home now.
Strauss says he plans to continue offering the ground zero tour. So far, his twice-weekly buses are leaving town nearly full.
As for Marinoff, the popularity of the Patriot Tour has marked a turning point in her career. "I don't think I could ever go back to doing the regular bubblegum tours again, even if it means I [have to tell you] I can't do the tour because you're a moron. I'm not going to do it. They won't get it."
As the bus hurtles through the dark on the New Jersey Turnpike, the Baltimoreans leave ground zero behind and watch the film Runaway Bride. It's nearly 11 p.m. when they arrive at their cars. It's been a long day, but well worth it, says Don Baker, still sporting his NYPD hat. A trip to New York, a tour and lunch for $45.
"You can't beat that," he says.