This is not a post about writing, but about living and remembering. I don't know if this blog is an appropriate place for this piece, but I don't know that it isn't either. I just know that it happened. And that I wrote as a way of coping. And I know that, hard as it sometimes is, we should always remember. *****
Thursday, September 13th, 2001
By the time the rubble has cleared there will be more words written then there are pieces of white soot floating around lower Manhattan. “Ground Zero”…the World Trade Center has a new name that won’t appear on any map or any subway sign but it’s one that will forever be marked in our memories.
I wasn’t in the area. I was late to work. I stopped to get coffee and, in retrospect, remember a few people looking up and talking in a more agitated way than you usually hear on a Tuesday morning…but it’s New York and you learn not to pay too much attention here to people talking loudly. About 2 miles away from the WTC I answered my office phone to hear my dad telling me, from Michigan, that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. He was watching The Today Show as he does every morning and I could hear it in the background. I chided him because I was to fly the next morning on a small prop plane to a military base for an engineering conference (I’m a marketing writer for an engineering/architecture firm) and I was nervous. We chatted about my fairly new fear of flying and then I heard Katie Couric in the background and my dad saying, “Oh wait…there’s been a second one.”
In a blink, this terrible accident was no longer a mishap. President Bush said yesterday that we can’t call this a “terrible accident” that this was a deliberate act specifically planned to incite terror. I don’t often agree with him but this time I see his point.
I work on the 6th floor of a building at Union Square. I saw people rushing to the windows and I soon followed, telling my father I’d call him back, not knowing that I wouldn’t be able to get a line out of my office phone for another few weeks.
My boss pointed out that you could see the hole the plane had left in the second tower. My coworkers looked on in amazement. I tried to hold back the tears. I returned to my desk and turned on the radio – a taboo behavior in my department. This time, no one said anything. Somewhere on the floor I heard the words “mushroom cloud” and so I rushed to the window again to see the black cloud billowing from the gaping hole, followed by the sight of this beautiful landmark sinking into the ground, taking untold numbers with it.
Faced with the utter enormity of what I’d seen, all I could think about was watching the Irish band Lunasa play the final show of the “Tuesday Night Celtic Concert” series at the World Trade Center two weeks before. The band had stayed at the Millenium across the street, one of them bragging about how they’d gotten such a great deal on Priceline for the hotel. That had been a beautiful night marred only by a smattering of rain. But the sunset reflecting off the towers was a sight I wouldn’t forget. I regretted not having a camera that night. I regret it more now.
The rest of the day was one of almost unbearable pain. In the next 72 hours everyone I knew who had cause to be at the site that day was accounted for and was all right. But the City was in pain. The country. The world.
All I could think about was going home. It became my mission although I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got there. I made it to the George Washington Bridge to find that they were no longer allowing foot-traffic on the bridge. Shuttle buses had been organized but the line was hours long. Volunteers had already mobilized, handing out water to people wait to cross. In desperation I followed the example of others and hitchhiked about the bridge back to New Jersey although once I got there, all I could do was stare at the news in disbelief.
Saturday, September 15th, 2001
What you notice most in NYC right now is the silence. New York is never silent. People look you in the eyes. That doesn’t normally happen. I’ve spent a lot of time in Union Square. On Thursday someone had provided pieces of brown craft paper and magic markers so that people could write their thoughts. I stared and read. Their eloquence amazed me even in the ones where most words were misspelled. I was struck dumb. A writer, I couldn’t write. I was too worried about writing the correct thing. Finally I forced myself to take up a marker. I quoted U2, “We’re one but we’re not the same – we’ve got to carry each other” and Science Fiction writer Joe Strazynski, “Faith Manages.” I wrote a lot in between that I remember vaguely was about love and peace and neighbors and tolerance but I don’t know what. Just that once I started I couldn’t stop.
On Friday, under gray, rainy skies that echoed the tears in most of our hearts, the craft paper in Union Square had been replaced by candles and flowers. One family sidled up next to me and bent down to place a bouquet on the ground next to the others. It had a note to someone – a daughter, a sister, a wife who had yet to be found. At Washington Square Park notes are threaded through the chain–link fence; one asked information about a missing photographer. A woman next to me with a large camera saw it and dissolved. In the square to document this sacred time, she discovered that someone she knows is missing. Multiple people rushed to her aid. And this in a city where no one usually looks at each other.
We have been changed. Our lives have been changed. Friendships have been made, rekindled and have perished under tons of rubble.
Sunday, September 26th, 2001
The images that strike me the most are those from other countries. Moments of silence, American flags where there usually are none. Outpourings of grief and love from those with no obligation to give either. In England, the Queen sings the American National Anthem. Children in Russia light candles.
My phone does not stop ringing for days. My emails flow in a constant stream. I hear from almost every boy I’ve dated more than once. Emilie, one of my best friends, tells me that her father called her in Massachusetts from Spain to see how I’m doing. Another says that we are all learning who our true friends are and she is right.
I hear from my father a lot, other friends and I connect habitually through email. My roommate at “K”, now in Japan, writes me at odd hours; an American Expat, she is emotionally stranded there away from her home when it needs her the most and when she needs us. A Japanese newspaper contacts her for her “American” reaction. She talks about me.
I finally touch base with a friend I’ve been playing phone–tag with for months. It is our way to do this, leaving messages for each other, never quite connecting. This time I reach him and we talk for 3 hours. Two days later he calls me and we do it again. Two more days pass and it’s four hours. His heart is in New York and his Milwaukee friends just don’t quite understand.
I find that at times like this, old friends mean more than any. No pretense, no gloss. All of the hurt that is in my heart is worn on my sleeve and I don’t care.
In the midst of this I’m moving INTO the city. Though the logistics of this move from NJ had me stressed two weeks ago, I’m now calm. I have perspective. I pray as I haven’t in years for those who have lost loved ones and those who will in what will surely be a coming war. My friend in Milwaukee is an actor; he likes to think of himself of a hippie although a highly domesticated, artistic one. I am a pacifist who was terrified when Bush was elected. I’ve never supported a U.S. military action. Yet we both support, however fearfully, the coming darkness. Our participation in this war is not over oil or land or warped views of religion. It is necessary. We have been attacked. Our spirit has been attacked. The enemy cannot win.
I choke up now when I see signs reading “Sorry, no American flags left” in store windows. I ride the subway from my new apartment in Queens with a battalion of firefighters. They look tired but fairly jovial. They smell like smoke in the crowded car. I squeeze in against the door and one of them wonders if I have enough room. I want to say “I would get out and walk if I needed to, to make room for you” but I don’t. I just nod and smile.
Tuesday, September 18th, 2001
A week has passed. Planes are being deployed to the Gulf. There have been no survivors found in 7 days. Union Square, which has helped me through so many days, has become a type of morose street fair. Dealers sell T-shirts with images of the towers and “I survived” on it.
I am depressed. I should divert myself. Nothing seems to make sense though, besides the news and conversations with various friends. I spend my time unpacking, exploring my new neighborhood and enjoying the breezes that float over my neighbor’s garden and into my window. I’ve just begun to be able to listen to music but only a few specific CDs.
In this vein I head to an Irish pub where musician friends play. The pint glass on the bar, usually filled with matches, sports American flags on toothpicks. A few drinks into the evening, I have a startling memory – one night about 6 weeks ago, I sat, reading at the bar, in a terrible mood. A firefighter from the company around the corner tried to talk to me. I ignored him. Now I wonder if he is alive or dead. I feel guilty.
I manage to get lost in the music and the company and the night runs into the morning. I’m hours late for work, which is fine because I can’t work these days anyhow. But I know that I must – as so many are losing their jobs. When I stop into the synagogue I used to work for to finish some freelance work, I spot a flyer. The American Jewish Congress has asked the shul to provide volunteers on the 25th to serve food to the rescue workers. I sign up even though the flyer warns of the psychologically difficult venue, just off ground zero.
A few days later I go out again. Although the music is amazingly good, I can’t get my mind off of everything. Fiddle legend Eileen Ivers, originally of Riverdance, comes in and we talk. She and her husband are with another couple – the man worked in the World Trade Center. He snuck off to the gym that day, figuring he would just be late to work. Many of his coworkers were killed. There is no escape from the subject.
I have more periods now of being able to do others things and even enjoy them. This is supposed to be healthy progress. But I feel as though I’m betraying those who are still mourning. I am fortunate that I have so much unpacking to do. It is easy to see the progress but doesn’t take all that much thought and is fairly tiring.
Tuesday, September 25th, 2001
I have just spent 14 hours at ground zero on 6 hours of sleep spread over 3 days. I carry the stench of burning metal and who knows what else with me. I am tired and disoriented and have images imprinted on my brain that are so unreal I’m not sure if the right words have been invented to describe them. I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to volunteer through Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a synagogue I used to work for and whose publications I still edit as a freelancer. They were asked by the American Jewish Congress, who in-turn, had been contacted by the Seaman’s Church Institute to supply a team of workers.
I am assigned to work in and near St. Paul’s Chapel. This is the church where George Washington prayed and the pew he used is roped off. It sustained no damage although if you walk around the perimeter of its 300-year–old cemetery you can pick up pieces of papers that were blown out of the offices in the towers. The church has become not only the depository for many of the donations that have come in but also the one peaceful place that the rescue workers can go. Candles are lit and flowers line every available space. Cots are set up along one wall. Many of the workers simply sleep in the pews. This is the place where people let their guard down. It is where you see the policemen and firefighters cry and pray. It is the most solemn place I’ve ever been in and is strangely peaceful.
It is amazing that right outside the door are scenes of mass destruction. Yet at the same time, there are moments of incredible beauty. One rescue worker brings me a drawing, done by children from a parish somewhere, of the tent I am working in that supplies all necessary things to the workers (It’s rather like running the only store in a small town). This is the scene down there – for 14 hours we search for sweatshirts, chocolate, coffee, hand cream to supply to these people who are doing the hard work. Sometimes we find these things and sometimes we don’t. We are held hostage to the donations that come in. But it doesn’t matter. If we are out of sweatshirts, they layer on what we have; they make due with lukewarm coffee and the wrong size shoes. But always they thank us. THEY thank US. I try to explain to them that we are doing so little in comparison as to be almost unnoticeable but, amazingly, these people who have toiled 17–hour days for almost two weeks now don’t see it that way. I am thanked for being “a life saver”, a police officer with more brass than I can translate into a title, tells me that we, those who are volunteering to keep them supplied, are the “unsung heroes” of the operation. Ultimately, this is one of the two things that brings me to tears; this outpouring of gratitude and beauty from people who are obliged to show neither. Given what they’ve been through we are expecting to make allowances but none are needed. Awe is generated instead. And this scene has played out daily for two weeks.
The night I volunteer is the first cold night of the fall. We get in a load of new, donated sweatshirts at 2am but distribute them within a half-hour. The police are frustrated because anything they wear has to be blue. Another group can only wear green. It’s funny how we fall back on rules and regulations to make us feel secure. I have an extra-large pink sweatshirt in the box. These burly men eye it covetously but refuse to take it. For hours, I try to give it away to shivering rescuers but always hear the same story – they don’t want to be made the butt of their coworker’s jokes. Finally, a fireman takes it. “I’m broad–shouldered” he tells me. “Just let them take their chances making fun of me!” Outside the church, people are jovial. We spend a surprising amount of time laughing but there is always a voice behind it that says, “laugh with me so that we don’t fall apart.”
At one point, another volunteer appears with a small amount of goods that people have donated for the canine patrols. I go with her into the site to see if we can find out where they’re working. My post at the Tent is set up alongside the Millennium Hotel. All night I see the remains of the building that contained Borders bookstore which now equals approximately 6 floors of charred metal. I’ve walked over that far but have not proceeded yet through the additional set of barricades into the rest of the site. Now, on a mission, my coworker and I are lead by a young soldier in fatigues from one commander to another, looking for the workers with dogs. By the time our search ends, we have walked this entire side of the site, ending up in a burned out Burger King. Spray–painted on the staircase is “Evidence” with a green arrow pointed up towards the second floor. The FBI and police are using the site as a holding area for pieces of planes and anything else that might be used to build a case. We don’t find dogs but leave the parcel among the small selection of goods that have been set up on the main floor. On our walk back to the Tent, I finally take a good look around.
“Indescribable” is a word you hear often. I will probably never use it again after this since never again will it be so appropriate. The best I come up with, on the spot, knowing that I’ll be expected to describe this scene later is: it’s as if a great artist has been asked to render their worst nightmare. It looks like hell. It looks too bad to be real, like some horrific movie set.
It looks like the buildings are melting. Charred and black, this site, so much larger than the three leveled buildings, looks like a giant torch was taken to it. Huge pieces of steel hang off the buildings the way wax does when it drips off the side of a candle. Windows are blown out; facades are ripped off, the air is beige with soot. The buildings still smoke. Apparently, the machinery, brought in to remove the debris, is allowing oxygen into pockets of smoldering material. As I’m on the night shift, this is all lit by huge floodlights adding to the feeling of being someone’s fictional version of Armageddon. At ground level, it’s all stacked rubble. You only try not to think about the 6,000 lives that ended somewhere in there.
What first breaks through the overwhelming sense of incomprehension that settles over me are the looks on the faces of the workers as they try to go about the task that they’ve been assigned to. Some are angry and frustrated to be standing around guarding the street now that more machinery has been brought in and human labor isn’t so much in need. Others, the younger ones typically, just look straight ahead, barely blinking. The other thing that strikes me is the sudden realization of where I am. This is the same space that held the Lunasa concert just a few weeks ago when the Irish band performed the closing show of the “Celtic Tuesdays” series. The largest pile of rubble is in between the two buildings, just about where the stage was.
My shift ends late because we’re waiting for backup and because I can’t seem to leave although St. Paul’s priest, a warm man with soft blue eyes tells me that I must go home and sleep. I turn in my access badge and head around the corner where a friend and business associate has his printing company. Miraculously, no one there was hurt and the business is open. We talk for a while, he comments on the smell that hangs on me. Eventually, he too tells me to go home and rest. From the looks in the subway, I realize that my friend is not to only one to notice that I am carrying the stench of the place with me. I only hope that I carry the beauty of it alongside as well.
In the end, I know that at the very least, I carry the images and the voices and the hearts that I’ve encountered today. And what runs through my head are not so much the memories of watching these two great towers crumble into dust or the grieving faces of those who have lost loved ones, but a song. The previous night I was fortunate enough to hear “An American Tune” by Paul Simon, an American songwriter, filtered through Dervish, a band from Sligo, Ireland performed just 8 blocks from the site.
“…And I don't know a soul who's not been battered I don't have a friend who feels at ease. I don't know a dream that's not been shattered or driven to its knees. But it's all right, it's all right, for we've lived so well so long. Still, when I think of the road we're traveling on, I wonder what went wrong, I can't help but wonder what went wrong.
And I dreamed I was dying. I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly and looking back down at me smiled reassuringly, and I dreamed I was flying. And high above my eyes could clearly see the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea, and I dreamed I was flying.
And we come on the ship they call the Mayflower, we come on the ship that sailed the moon. We come in the age’s most uncertain hour and sing an American tune oh, but it's all right, it's all right, you can't be forever blessed. Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day and I'm trying to get some rest, that's all I'm trying is to get some rest.”
Tuesday, October 9th, 2001
We all try to get back to normal. We try not to talk about it so much. But it’s there. Every time the wind changes directions and the smell hits or every time you talk to someone you haven’t talked to in a while.
On Friday I call a co–worker from Pennsylvania. He tells me about the work my company is doing on the White House – a job begun months before this incident – and about how our employees are given bio–warfare suits “just in case.” He wonders out loud if his family will be taken care of should anything happen to him. He talks. His words come in a flood. He was in Montreal when it happened. He and the other Americans in the meeting were shuttled quickly out of the conference room. They took vans back across the border.
Today, three weeks since all of this began, I am simultaneously working on a compilation piece for the synagogue of volunteer’s stories and a piece for Irish Music Magazine on Dervish’s show 8 blocks from the site and the other effects on the NYC music scene. In an effort to “escape” for just a few minutes, I walk outside my apartment. Bells are tolling. Passing the Roman Catholic Church, I saw police in dress blue with a bagpipe group standing by. It was a memorial service. I can’t imagine that the rest of the country is bombarded with these reminders so constantly.
Tuesday, October 16th, 2001
It has been over a month and I know that I need to somehow resolve this essay and my feelings. But it is hard to wrap it up while we’re at war. I write my friend in Japan who says that she doesn’t see the point in bombing the mud–huts that pass for training facilities in Afghanistan. I tell her that I understand but I am still moved to read that the missiles being dropped had been marked “For NYPD and NYFD”. I wonder if I can no longer call myself a pacifist or if the sheer act of having your homeland attacked, of seeing planes of travelers turned into bombs, of having conversations with friends and coworkers about biological weapons, is justification for supporting war just this once.
I am, right now, I suppose, a patriot. I am proud of my country and proud of my city. Lest anyone be confused, I’m also proud of my Egyptian coworkers who deal with undeserved suspicion every day now. But as I prepare to take another “K” friend down to the site, to remind him and myself that this act cannot be forgotten and about the perspective we’ve gained here- that life is fragile and short and that safety is merely a chimera - I find myself gripping the flag that I’ve pinned to my bag and hoping that, when this is over, there will still be something to fly the stars and stripes over. And that, perhaps, we might even remember what we’ve learned about heroism and solidarity and how fragile these ideas are that we’ve taken for granted.