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Grim reminders at ground-zero hotel

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NEW YORK — When guests of the Marriott Financial Center hotel ask the front desk for a map of Lower Manhattan, they cannot help but notice the advertisements for places that have been obliterated: the Windows on the World restaurant, for example, and the mall that once thrived beneath the World Trade Center. ("We've got great shopping in the bag!")

Nor can they miss noticing that as they sip $12.50 glasses of wine in the hotel's Pacific Rim-styled restaurant that they are sitting on the restricted side of a blue police barricade, just outside the window.

Even the normally routine matter of getting directions presents a challenge. Guests who wish to drive to the hotel are instructed to find their way to the bottom of the island of Manhattan and turn north on West Street.

"Then there's a police checkpoint," a guest services representative explained on the telephone to a caller who had asked for directions. "Let the police officer know that you're a guest at the Marriott."

The Marriott Corp. took two hits on Sept. 11: Its hotel in the World Trade Center was destroyed, and this hotel, at 85 West St., was slightly damaged and used for several weeks by the American Red Cross. Two weeks ago, it became the first hotel to reopen in Lower Manhattan's restricted zone, holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony that lent the glaze of civic duty to a business decision.

Radio commercials with thundering choruses of "I'm back, back in the New York groove" are promoting bargain weekend rates, unspecified attractions and "scenic Hudson River views."

Left unmentioned, though, is the Olympian view of ground zero from some of the rooms: the grapplers biting into the rusted remains of the World Trade Center complex, the dump trucks grinding away, the construction workers lumbering upon gray-brown earth. The growing demand for rooms with that view is just one of the many awkward realities of trying to provide hospitality within the police-patrolled perimeters of a singular crime scene.

John Magnifico, the hotel's manager, said that staff members were striving to create a business-as-usual atmosphere. But he acknowledged that it was often difficult and perhaps even disrespectful to do so, particularly when many guests had come specifically to see a place both historic and raw, a place where the remains of some of the roughly 2,800 victims were still being recovered.

And so the hotel's employees are learning to incorporate the unsettling fact of ground zero into their daily routine; to try to accommodate those who want a view of the site, and those who expressly do not; to answer questions about their own experiences on Sept. 11 while remembering that it is not proper hotel etiquette to cry in the presence of guests.

"Most important is to ensure the level of service," Magnifico said. "As far as specifics concerning the site, we tell our staff to be sympathetic and understanding to any comments made by our customers."

When guests arrive, they must walk through a side entrance and into a lobby that is undergoing the final touches of renovation. Painters are putting a new coat of paint on the walls, and large, cream-colored sheets cover the entrance to what had been the Battery Park Tavern; the completion of its transformation into a cocktail lounge, called 85 West, is a few weeks away.

It is hard to imagine that just two months ago, the hotel's sleek lobby was crowded with dirt-streaked workers, exhausted from the rescue-and-recovery operations occurring only a few dozen yards to the north. With the hotel's blessing, the Red Cross had turned the first three floors into a respite center, where workers could get a massage, a meal, some sleep and even whispers of counseling.

Here, on Thanksgiving Day, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani doled out stuffing from behind a buffet table, while a nurse handed out Band-Aids for blisters and Tylenol for aching heads.

This week, the only reminder of those disconcerting days was in the hotel's trashed gift shop, where two men pointed out the telltale signs that their store had been looted in the first days after the terrorist attack. The plate-glass doors, now covered in paper, had been kicked in, locked wooden shelves pried open and jewelry display cases stripped bare. Left untouched were neatly piled stacks of newspapers, all containing dispatches from Sept. 10, a time that now seems distant and innocent.

The condition of the closed gift shop was a rare breach in the overall effort to evoke hospitality amid crisis.

At Roy's New York, the hotel's upscale restaurant, diners chatted over plates of mahi-mahi and red snapper as Seth Critchell, a manager, explained that many of the restaurant's regulars had returned. Regarding the unappetizing view — of police barricades, and ground zero's lights emanating through chain-link fences — he said, "You live with it."

There are the awkward moments, though, between tourists and locals. Nick, a bartender at Roy's, said that a regular who lost several business partners in the disaster was at the bar when a man — wearing a bandanna with the words "Ground Zero" on it — bellied up to the counter and started talking "like he was at Space Mountain." The bartender said that he politely but firmly asked the man to remove the bandanna.

These moments require some delicacy, since visitors to the area are making up for some of the lost business. Last year at this time, the average room rate was $279 a night, and about 360 of the hotel's 504 rooms were occupied. On Monday, about 265 of the 430 available rooms were occupied — the remaining 74 are being renovated — and the "reopening promotional" rate was $189 a night.

The hotel does not assist guests in getting tickets for the public viewing stand of ground zero, although staff members will politely give directions to the South Street Seaport, where those tickets can be obtained. But if a guest specifically asks for a room with a view of ground zero, the hotel will reserve one of the nearly 30 rooms that overlook the site, depending on availability.

"We've had people ask for a view to overlook the site, and people ask to be on the other side of the building," Magnifico said.

Two of the hotel's guests, Alan and Klara Post from Potomac, Md., had to call the front desk from a taxi to help their confused driver maneuver the police-check maze. But they were intent on paying their respects at ground zero, they said.

"People tell me there's nothing else to see down here, that everything's been taken away," Klara Post said. "But that's not the point. It's what's NOT there."

But another guest, John Sutton of Ocean Grove, N.J., said that he had booked a room at this Marriott solely to support the businesses of Lower Manhattan — and not to visit the disaster site. "I didn't come here to be ghoulish," he said. "It's hallowed ground, and it should be treated that way. I'm here to go on with life, to celebrate life."

In Room 2802 last Monday, the groans of ground zero could be heard through the night and into Tuesday morning: the beep-beep-beeps of trucks in reverse, the clanks of metal colliding, the low roar of heavy-equipment vehicles. And no matter what the time, the view between two nearby buildings — both draped in netting the color of a widow's veil — was essentially the same: grapplers prowling like dinosaurs on a prehistoric plain; carnationlike bursts of light from acetylene torches; huge dump trucks weighed down with debris; and men in the distance, distinguishable against the dark backdrop only by their white helmets and orange reflector vests.

And, as if to underscore for guests that this is not just another construction site, there can plainly be seen the sad graffiti left by investigators when they found evidence in the first days after two hijacked airplanes pierced the twin towers. The spray-painted phrase "plane parts" is scrawled above an arrow on the roof of a building below, and beside it, another phrase, "human parts."

"Actually, a lot of people cry," said Troy Farrow, a waiter who had just carried up Tuesday's breakfast to Room 2802. He said that he was 26, and that he had worked at the Marriott for nearly a decade. "I've seen it all," he said. "But this here?"

He looked out the window again, then seemed to struggle for a moment with maintaining the professional, upbeat reserve that must accompany his hotel uniform. "You've got to give the people the respect they deserve," the waiter said, nodding toward the window. "The people who died here."