September 14, 2001. Today is my 34th birthday. My day started out as the prior three, I was tired, numb and emotionless. I made coffee and turned on the computer, the usual routine. A couple of supportive calls came in, but I didn’t pick up the phone. My email box was full of messages as it had been for the last three days. They were all messages of encouragement, despair, love or patriotism and each one’s subject matter was the same. Eventually I got dressed and went to my job up the street where I watched a special mass from Washington D.C. on television. When the mass was over there was a camera shot outside the front of the church where our current President, his father George, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton stood together shaking hands and for the first time this week I felt something — overwhelming pride. It caught me by surprise, having always had a love/hate relationship with politics and politicians, depending who was in office at any given time. I’ve always been respectful of the job and the people in the difficult role of leading our nation, but this was different. I saw them as human beings brave enough to take on the task of running the world’s most powerful and influential nation, and I was grateful.
After work I came home and just sat around watching endless rebroadcasts of the unfathomable. I also sat at my computer unable to deal with anything more strenuous than computer solitaire. I had cancelled on a friend who had been kind enough to invite me to dinner to make the day a little brighter and not let my birthday go by unnoticed. I was appreciative, but couldn’t summon up the energy. Around 6pm I finally reached the end of my boredom. I needed to go downtown again. I had been down a couple of times this week to attempt to donate blood and to volunteer a bit, and decided I needed once again to connect directly. My neighborhood on the Upper West Side was oddly unreflective of the event and I found it angered me.
I walked to 72nd Street and Central Park West, a walk I have done hundreds of times, and caught the downtown subway. The A-line was running one stop further south than it had the day before, to Canal Street. Once I exited the subway station, I looked around and wondered what to do. I decided that I would try to contact my brother Giovanni, who had been volunteering his time since Tuesday running a backhoe alongside the firefighters on Ground Zero, as the devastated site has come to be known. I started walking downtown. Ironically, it was the most beautiful night of the summer; cool crisp air blew gently as if Nature knew we couldn’t handle more than that at the moment. Everything around me was blanketed by the silhouette of twilight, my favorite time of day. Right outside the subway stop was gathered a small group of people sitting on the square lighting candles. I wanted to join them, but I didn’t. I felt shy and awkward about approaching them. I called my brother’s cell phone and to my surprise he answered. He was on the West Side Highway waiting for a service truck to come and repair the flat tire he got on the machine. He had been there most of the day and was upset they hadn’t yet come because it had taken him away from the rescue site. I proceeded to walk west on Canal Street to see how close I could get to him. By now, the sight of police officers and barricades had become familiar and actually comforting at this point. It’s amazing how quickly we can adjust to change. As I got closer to the highway I could see a very large crowd on the perimeter of the road cheering and clapping for the rescue workers as they drove to and from the site. I called my brother again and told him where I was. I had asked a NYPD officer if I could go through the line since my brother was one of the rescuers but he refused me access, I wasn’t surprised. My brother told me to walk back up Canal Street and he would come and find me.
I should point out that Giovanni is one of the very few civilian volunteers working on the site. On Tuesday, after we met in a futile attempt to donate blood (too many volunteers in comparison to the number of survivors) he decided to go downtown and do whatever it took to help. He had managed to talk his way onto a construction truck that was going into the site and in a sense “rescued” a firefighter who was desperately trying to maneuver a backhoe that he had no idea how to operate. Since Giovanni had experience with the machine, the fireman was grateful that he showed up. Since that time, Giovanni has been down at the site with only a few hours’ sleep, doing what he could to clear the streets and facilitate the work of the other rescuers. And so, with that said, I saw the backhoe with one flat tire lumber its way towards me. I shouted, “Giovanni!” and when he saw me I impulsively yelled, “You’re my hero!” to his broad-smiling face. I climbed up into the backhoe, finding the situation both bizarre and humorous, and we were off. But where to?
We wound our way through the desolate streets trying to find a way back to the West Side Highway where the repair truck was meant to meet my brother. We sat there for a while; different workers walked by and did a double take when they saw me sitting in the backhoe with my brother. Everyone had kind words or funny comments to make to Giovanni like, “Whattaya got, a freakin’ date?” We joked around with the workers and then fell silent when a flatbed truck rolled by holding a completely gnarled fire truck that had gone in to help and ended up being crushed flat when the buildings collapsed. Machines that normally look so powerful, proud and dependable were humbled and hurt and I felt something shift inside of me, I’m not yet sure what.
Eventually, Giovanni and I figured that no one was coming to fix the truck, as it was already 8:30 pm, so my brother decided to start driving around to try to find some other means of getting the truck repaired. We drove further downtown, through abandoned streets covered in ash. There were cars whose owners had fled and hadn’t yet, if ever, returned to. We drove by the beautiful Trinity Church. It stood there, proud and loving, its gorgeous architecture seeping through the soot that had so thickly covered it. Each time we came upon a digging crew that might help with the flat tire, I had to make myself scarce. My brother didn’t want to answer any questions about my identity because he so wanted to take me into Ground Zero so I could share the experience he’d been having. I would lurk away and attempt to make a couple of phone calls to try to describe to someone what I was in the midst of and how it looks so different on television. At one point I was alone near the corner of Broadway and Duane Street, a corner that had recently become familiar to me as I had just finished serving a month-long stint as a Grand Juror in the Criminal Courts Building on Centre Street. I didn’t know it then, but I had a great opportunity to become familiar with a part of my city that I never really knew, before it turned into an unrecognizable war zone. It was achingly quiet; there wasn’t a soul around. Suddenly, the church’s bell sounded out the current time, ten o’clock. I could hear the very end of each individual ring. I found it both haunting and comforting, an indication of a wiser force, not necessarily a god, but a state of being speaking to our sadness that we were okay … we were okay.
My brother whistled and I ran over to him. He was told of a crew on Worth Street that could help us out. I climbed in the backhoe, sat on my allotted 1/16th of an already small seat, and put my air mask on. The quality of the air had improved slightly since Tuesday, but after a short while still caused my throat to become dry and scratchy; my coughs were deep and dehydrated. Giovanni showed me the socks and sandwiches that he had received from volunteers helping the effort. He handed me one of the many bottles of water he had stashed to the side. Upon arriving at Worth Street, I again got out of the backhoe and happened to stand in the exact spot where during that month of jury duty service I had seen two homeless men set up three tables’ worth of books they had found and were now selling. They had been there every day, rain or shine. I briefly wondered if they’d ever be back. At that moment I turned and saw a wobbling bulldog making his way towards me, panting and wagging his stubby little tail. His owner said he lived a couple of blocks away and had felt, physically anyway, no repercussions of the attack. The dog lapped my face and when I started scratching his chest, he plopped his fat behind down and sat in a very satisfied, dignified manner, enjoying the attention.
Giovanni whistled again and I, in my now Pavlovian reflex, went running over to him. Success! They couldn’t fix the tire but knew of another backhoe my brother could take. As we drove to it, Giovanni couldn’t help cracking up at his ingenuity in dealing with all this. I, on the other hand, couldn’t help wondering if Giovanni was going to be arrested. That’s my problem however, I’m Miss “Can’t Break the Rules Because It’s Wrong, That’s Why!” but I decided to keep that all to myself because I know how much it frustrates my brother. He’s probably the most fearless individual I have ever known. And so, fulfilling my duties as his accomplice (punishable by law) I gathered all the supplies we had in the first machine and carried them into the new one.
We were off! But to where?
There were a number of police barricades that were impossible to get through unless one was an official of the site. The backhoe had become my brother’s badge that he proudly wore. I kept mumbling to my brother, “What if they ask who I am? What will I say?” About two feet from the barricade, as the National Guard approached us (The National Guard!) Giovanni finally responded to me, “Hmm, good point. I haven’t figured that out yet.” “WHAT?! WELL, MAYBE NOW WOULD BE A GOOD TIME TO START!” was my internal response. Out loud I said something like, “nervous cough.” The Guardsman dressed in his fatigues asked us which way we were intending to go, checked our ID’s (mine too, which I can’t believe didn’t prompt questions) and led us through. We were then stopped at another barricade, then another, then another. After a certain spot the stoppings had more to do with maintaining traffic flow as there were hundreds and hundreds of trucks of all different sizes in the area, all with flashing red and yellow lights on top that were a constant reminder of the urgency of the work. I could and simultaneously couldn’t believe the number of people involved. Firefighters and police from many different cities, EMT, Con Edison, Verizon, the National Guard, the Salvation Army, FEMA, the Red Cross and on and on. It reminded me that life, as we live it, is pretty damn delicate.
We maneuvered our way through a dark labyrinth of streets that belied the fact that this was downtown Manhattan. We slowly drove down one street, I don’t remember which, but each cross street led to the “pile.” I could see debris and flashing lights at every end. At the forth one, I looked down and all I could do was whisper, “My God.” My brother gently pressed on the brakes. This time, the blackened side street framed a seven-story shard of one of the towers that was lopsidedly stuck into the earth, like a marker in a flowerbed. Behind it were billowing clouds of gray smoke illuminated by powerful floodlights that were set up for the nighttime rescue. The top of it was jagged and twisted and as much as I tried, I couldn’t wrap my brain around what I was seeing. We sat in silence for quite a while and then resumed our drive. The sight impressed me of course, surely it had to have had an effect, but I couldn’t feel anything, I still can’t. I’ve heard it said that the psyche protects the physical body in moments of extreme duress by disconnecting rationale from reaction. Maybe that explains it.
And then, we finally arrived.
Slowly and carefully, Giovanni found a clearing to park the backhoe about 30 feet from the vast, expansive area that had served to embrace the collapse. People were everywhere; tired, dirty, with faces of disbelief. They solemnly waded through the wreckage. The pristine, immaculate area that once was, was replaced by tons and tons and tons of debris. Seeing the pile on television made me think it was about eight stories high and now I knew that was a gross underestimation. My mind’s eye tried desperately to reconnect all the puzzle pieces that were strewn about the ground to recall what it had been like before, but the task was too great. I could only stare and try to digest what it was that I was looking at. I looked at all the faces around me and felt everyone was experiencing the same reaction, and they had all been there for days where I was newly arrived. Giovanni and I got out of the backhoe and waded through the thick mud that was created by the morning’s thunderstorms. Part of me felt quite guilty for being there since there was nothing I could do to help. I felt like a rubbernecker on a highway fascinated by an accident; a peeping Tom caught up in the sensationalism of the moment. At the same time though, I knew what Giovanni was talking about, it was something I had to see. This City has meant everything to me my whole life and it was now changed forever, and I needed to see the stark-naked proof. I kept my head low and stayed very quiet throughout; I was in a real church now. This one spot simultaneously held examples of the two extremes of human nature. One was the fear, anger and pain that brought all these people here and the other was how these same people were resolute to care for and heal and love the victims, the city and each other. It was something else.
Smoke continued to rise in one great mass off the top of the pile and also off of individual smaller areas. I kept thinking this was the set of a disaster film, never before realizing the accuracy of how they are depicted in the movies. There were also a number of American flags that had been placed around the area that were weather beaten and perhaps bruised, but still offered inspiration and hope. And of course, the dogs. I could attempt to describe my thoughts and feelings about those sacred, selfless animals but it wouldn’t begin to do my emotions justice. Giovanni told me to follow him into a building. I couldn’t identify this small building right next to the site. All the windows were blown out and the inside was unrecognizable, as inches of soot inhabited its every crevice. The ground floor had been turned into a makeshift sleeping area for the rescuers. Cots and blankets were all over the abandoned building where just a few days ago people filed through with briefcases and high heels on their way to perform the duties of their jobs and lives. We walked up a long, frozen escalator to the second level. Little clusters of firefighters were here and there, resting between their shifts of duty, or relieving themselves against the walls and pillars. We walked down a long, dark hallway where on the dust covered walls men and women had written, “R.I.P. Lieutenant x” and “Local 842 Ready and Willing” and “God Bless America” and even “Let’s fry the Arabs.” It was a temporary mausoleum whose walls were packed with tributes and acknowledgements of the people who lost their lives and could possibly at that moment be taking their final breaths. We made our way towards a set of former windows where six firefighters stood and stared out. It was a “perfect” view of the catastrophe, one flight above ground, right smack in front of the entire horrible mass. We all stood in silence as we watched cranes, dump trucks, excavators, and forklifts going about their business. There was one gigantic excavator directly in front of us whose shape and movements reminded me of a dinosaur. Its arched head moved gracefully and carefully as it opened its jaws and locked around massive amounts of granite, steel and God knows what else, to move it to another pile. Looking around, it seemed to be exactly the setting for a prehistoric beast to be rummaging around for something to eat, trying to survive in a place that held few survivors; a forgotten city, an acropolis of the past covered in volcanic ash.
I do not exaggerate these images. In fact, my explanations don’t even come close to the view with the naked eye. Words are too weak and ineffectual to describe the power of these images. Words are intellectual, and what I saw can’t even begin to be understood or explained in a reasonable way. Even when, for some reason, I recited the Lord’s Prayer to myself as I stood there, perhaps a reflex of my childhood finding it impossible to do anything else, I found I kept forgetting the words.
Silently, Giovanni and I made our way once again to the backhoe. I wanted to leave now because there was important work going on and I didn’t want to get in the way. Plus, I had seen enough and my lack of emotional reaction was starting to scare me a bit. Being an extremely emotional person, I couldn’t understand why upon seeing what I saw I had no reaction. Not that it was an ambiguous or flippant reaction mind you, this “non-reaction” was however charged with intensity and darkness and weight and there it sat in the middle of my chest. I didn’t get angry, I didn’t laugh, I didn’t react at all yet something was happening of course. This peculiar reaction that for now I’ll just define as shock is still with me as I write this. I think maybe in a strange way since I didn’t, directly anyway, lose anyone in this event I subconsciously donated my tears and angst to someone that needed it more for their use as a conduit for their grief and healing. I don’t know, just a thought that came to me.
It was then that I saw one of the most surreal images of the night. Again, passing those same side streets through which remnants of the buildings shone, I saw four Franciscan Monks crossing the street in silhouette. Monks! Living in New York I know nothing should surprise me, but it was truly weird. I squinted to attempt to confirm what it was that I was seeing. I saw the brown robes tied with cream-colored cords. They were carrying bibles and one man actually had an American flag hanging from his waist. Two things happened to me. One was that sight became fodder for the surrealism and impossibility of what had occurred, and then very much to my surprise I actually felt confusion about always having supported the notion of complete separation of church and state. I questioned now how important not religion per se, but Faith was in the governing of our nation. Up to this point, I had never before lived through an example of its importance and necessity in moments of overwhelming national and patriotic grief.
We drove uptown on the West Side Highway. Every so often an eruption of cheers and whistles was heard as we put-putted our way past people that had set up fort on the highway with flowers, candles and signs reading, “We Love You!” and “Thank You!” These people had come out to the highway in small individual groups to be cheerleaders for the workers as they passed. This wasn’t one large assembled group, but private citizens hanging out in little clumps of support for the stretch of forty blocks or more on the highway. It was a touching sight, and I was so proud of my brother in that moment, so grateful that people like him and like the people with the signs exist, who see no other option but to help, regardless of the personal cost. A beautiful example and I so deeply hoped in that moment that spirit would never end. I thought that spirit is exactly what we are supposed to live by, yet on a daily basis get distracted from so easily due to personal needs and wants and pressures. I am as guilty of this as anyone that I know. I can’t yet decide if it is simply the fear of the ground slipping out from under us if we are fully selfless, or if it’s simply the human condition, the highest hurdle that we have to overcome as humans to achieve the state of God, heaven on Earth, Nirvana. Part of the reason that these terrible things have unfolded is to give us an opportunity to stop and take pause and reassess. It’s ironic, but not really, that it happened in the fastest paced city in the world. I feel sorry that we ignore the small hints, the whispers that we get from the universe every day to help us help each other and ourselves; some of us listen, most of us do not. It’s safe to say that we are now deafened by the intensity of the shouts and will hopefully take heed. I know for sure that every soul wants to, I just hope that every human being will. I hope the victims of 9/11 have not died in vain. Actually, I don’t think of them as victims per se, rather as souls who sacrificed themselves to help we remaining appreciate life and each other better, and I thank them. I pray that as the smoke clears, we will all learn how to breathe again.