News & Politics » Essay

Crawling to the Wreckage

When the planes hit the towers, I knew I had to go.



Chicago and me, we've got a good thing going. It's a marriage of comfort and convenience, not of passion, and I am not faithful, but Chicago doesn't seem to care. Chicago is perfectly aware that whenever I come up with a little extra money or some airline has a sale, there I go, winging off into the wild blue to see my first and still true love among cities, with my heart pounding all through the plane's long descent as I gaze down on that island of steep regulated canyons gleaming below. What braindoggling beauty: the necklaces of lights atop the bridges, the gleam on the waters, the insouciant squares of the twin towertops poking up into the plane's armpit.

Even news junkies have started to chafe at the small first-person tone and superficial sameness of so many eyewitness accounts of what happened on September 11. There are, after all, 22 million stories in the naked metropolitan area, and who has the time and patience and energy to absorb them all? Me. I do, I could...I wish I could, and then when I'm done, add another. When I saw the towers collapse on TV that morning, tendons in my knees melted and my insides pancaked in on themselves. The rest of it--the Pentagon, the planes still in the air, the president's nervous military-base hopping, the White House evacuated--only dimly added to the din in my head, like a siren passing by a Slayer concert.

By the end of the week I realized I wasn't going to sleep until I had a trip booked. I'm a nervous flier under the best of circumstances, and I had too many horrible new images in my mental gallery to use the American Airlines vouchers stashed in my closet. I developed an aversion to Greyhound during the years I used it constantly, and I don't drive. Therefore: Amtrak. I know they're perfectly adept at crashing themselves without a box cutter in sight, but I find the train meditative and peaceful. I thought a 20-hour trip sans computer and TV would be helpful, and that a good long look at the Allegheny Mountains with the leaves just beginning to turn couldn't hurt.

Union Station had the Miss America pageant on TV. I wondered if Miss New York and Miss District of Columbia (or Miss Virginia, since that's where the Pentagon's actually located, but I was thinking symbolism would trump geography) would get sympathy votes. They both finished in the top five.

I didn't sleep much on the train. Afternoon came and brought with it New Jersey. I begged off a conversation with a chatty staffer as we pulled out of Newark. The whole train fell silent as the Manhattan skyline came into broad view. People on the wrong side of the cars came over to see. I saw the same look on a lot of faces: So it's true. It's really, really true.

A skinny, big-eyed blond teenager in the seat in front of me unfurled the American flag quilt she'd made--a kind of beautiful thing in satin and velvet. She asked me if I knew the city well. I said sort of. She asked if she could walk to Ground Zero from Penn Station. I said probably not and suggested some subway lines that went in that general direction, although I wasn't sure if they would be running normally. When last I saw her, she was trundling toward the A train with her heavy luggage and giant flag, which she hoped to get rescue workers to sign before she headed home to Connecticut.

Itook a cab to Cynthia and Nicole's place in Queens. I saw red, white, and blue on every vertical surface in midtown: flag bunting on hot dog carts, flag decals on taxis. Crossing the 59th Street Bridge, I craned my neck to look at the skyline again. I could never take my eyes off it before, and I don't expect that'll change--even with Everest and Annapurna missing, the Himalayas would still be breathtaking.

My friend Cynthia, an art historian who works for a textbook publishing company, was near the World Trade Center when the planes hit. She writes notes to herself before she goes to bed: "Yesterday was Monday. When you wake up it will be Tuesday. But not that Tuesday, a different Tuesday." Her partner, Nicole, a photographer who works at a college library, was depressed to begin with and now more than ever chain-smokes and watches TV news obsessively. There was still constant coverage on New York TV--desperate searches, firefighters' funerals, shrines in the parks, cranes lifting twisted metal, Rudy Giuliani's newly beloved face, FBI investigations. Time seemed frozen. It was as if nothing else had happened in the city or the world in the past two weeks.

Why am I here? I thought.

There are so many reasons that I get tangled up in them when trying to organize them into a list. Simplified, though, they all amount to the urge to do something. For all the postmodernists' and media moguls' oddly compatible claims, a TV 800 miles away is still a pretty lame substitute for real life, particularly when you're watching clouds of dust and smoke overtake crowds of fleeing people on streets you yourself walked less than a month ago. There was something about going through the motions of "real" life in Chicago that seemed much less real than the reality of the 24-hour news coverage; the street I live on seemed more like a movie set than that section of Church Street that for all intents and purposes has ceased to exist. Cynthia had seen bodies and wreckage raining. My college friend Raymond had suffered a sobbing breakdown watching the towers come down from the roof of his midtown office, sure that his partner who worked across the street from them must be dead. (He wasn't, and the two of them spent the rest of that week cuddling on the couch and popping tranquilizers.)

Raymond, who's now director of something or other for a big tobacco company, had been serving food to rescue workers under the auspices of the Red Cross down at Ground Zero for the past few days, and since the corporation he works for had been donating truckloads of food from its subsidiary companies, he had an in. He told me to meet him at the volunteers' rendezvous point at the Chelsea Piers at seven the next morning, and I went to sleep with a kind of sick realization that I'd just gotten a spot on a very coveted guest list. Where in the world but New York do you have to know somebody to volunteer for the Red Cross?

Manhattan at dawn is beautiful no matter what, but I'm much more used to staying up for it than getting up for it. terror threat, screamed the headline of a paper I never got a chance to read. The West Side Highway was closed to traffic, so I walked from the point where the car-service driver gave up, getting directed from one pier to another until I came to the upstairs room in the upscale waterfront grog shop where I was to meet Raymond. We hugged and squealed and then sat down for our volunteer orientation. Confidentiality, they warned us. No photographs. Ground Zero is a crime scene now, tightly sealed off and patrolled, and any volunteer leaving the boat could be arrested. Don't ask the workers what they're doing out there--ask them how they're doing. They don't want to relive it.

We were issued stickers with our first names and our jobs--Raymond and I were "bussers." And then out in the dawn chill all 50-some of us went, toting boxes of Styrofoam plates and cases of Gatorade and pasta, loading them all onto a speedboat called the Chelsea Screamer. At last we piled in too, and the boat pulled away from the dock, puttering slowly down the Hudson.

It was a familiar view. When I lived in New York in 1988, I volunteered for the South Street Seaport Museum as a deckhand on the Pioneer, a 19th-century schooner refurbished and used for pleasure cruises and office parties and weddings; eight or so of us scrawny college kids would hoist the heavy sails, and we'd motor around the harbor for hours, up the East River, up the Hudson, across the Staten Island ferry's wake, and back and forth below Manhattan's tip, where even the lifelong New Yorkers among us were openly awed at the sheer mass and density of skyscrapers that appeared to be floating on the thinnest of wafers. The World Trade Center alone seemed to have enough weight to sink the island, or at least tip it to one side. Right by where we were passing now, I used to squint down the cobblestoned streets of the lower west side, looking for the Tribeca loft I stayed in. I squinted now, and it was still there, exactly the same.

Raymond took my hand. I kept squeezing his as we came round a bend and the first of the damage came into view. The biggest, most high-tech TV in the world couldn't have prepared me for this: the World Financial Center buildings with rubble piled high around their roofs, the step work on their sides sheared off like torn corrugated cardboard, girders protruding at horrible angles like broken limbs (a steelworker later told me they weren't native to the building they were sticking out from--they were from the north tower of the World Trade Center), the Winter Garden greenhouse shattered beneath a huge piece of charred metal. The Chelsea Screamer pulled up to a much larger harbor cruise boat, the Spirit of New York, which had been donated as a floating restaurant for the workers for the duration. From the back of the boat, the remains of the second tower were clearly visible, and very near, a horrid piece of bent metal lacework reached for the sky like a twisted claw. Beside it, a black skyscraper face had been gouged inward three or four rooms back, and behind that another building was burned out as if it had been bombed from within.

There was no point in pretending I'd come to work and not to gawk. I'd come to work and to gawk--or, as I preferred to think of it, to bear witness, to be another person who remembers the sight for the rest of her life, to testify to others about its awful actuality. All the new volunteers wanted to see. We were all pointing, picking out details, trying to decide which was the most heartbreaking, like a flock of ravens chattering over the choicest bits. We were mostly in our 20s and 30s and most of us had never seen the leavings of war firsthand before. The killer was that an awful lot of the cops and firefighters and medical workers and steelworkers and FBI agents and national guardsmen down there picking through the ash and debris hadn't either. They'd seen horrible things before, yes--but never so many at once and all in one place. Your mind tries to make them all into one big horrible thing, but the pattern-making part of the brain seeks out and fixates on details.

At our relative distance, we were spared the most horrible details, though we smelled them on the workers' clothes sometimes when they waited in the long lines for food, and were granted some of the more heartwarming ones--for example, the way even the most exhausted firefighters never passed up an opportunity to flirt. On day two, a coworker I'll call Sarah, a charismatic New Yorker playing cafeteria lunch lady in plastic gloves and hair net over a steaming buffet of variegated gruel, was smitten and vocal about it. "They're all beautiful," she said. "It's shinin' right out of 'em, all of 'em." And later, only about a third joking: "I'm sick of self-centered artist types from the Village. These are real men. I'm gonna stay down here till I find me a husband." Later on, back at the bar at the Chelsea Piers, we left her happy in the company of a cute steelworker from Chicago who'd just mentioned that he had nowhere to stay in New York but on a boat.

Raymond and I clung to each other like stickleburrs, ducking out periodically for cigarette breaks on the back upper deck of the Spirit of New York, which accorded the clearest view of the still-smoking ruins. He would stare at it, gesturing at it from time to time, and reaffirming his fierce devotion to his hometown. "Remember that transfer to Chicago I was talking about a couple weeks ago? No fuckin' way now. About three days after it happened I told my boss to forget about it, I'm not going anywhere. I was so scared that Rex wouldn't want to stay. I was like, 'Please God don't let him try to make me move to Texas.' He doesn't wanna budge either, though."

During one of these conversations, Raymond's cell phone rang. It was Rex, who had ventured back to his office for the first time, in the company of some coworkers. "The smell's too bad," he said. "I can't stay down here." Raymond and I, sitting in a cozy man-made cove off the Hudson with the wind blowing eastward, weren't getting too much of it, but what we got was enough. That Smell, like in the Lynyrd Skynyrd song: like burning tires, airborne dust, aggressive mildew, exploded concrete, smoked metal, and the tiniest hint of corpse. It hung over the southern tip of Manhattan like a guardian demon. It wasn't just a smell, it was solid--you couldn't go south of Canal without feeling it in your throat and your eyes as well as your nose. Maybe you couldn't see the carnage, but you could breathe it, and all your hackles would rise in the most primitive response: Something is just plain wrong. Fight or flee.

Hardly anyone blinked when the new Miss America showed up on the boat on Tuesday, wearing a USO outfit and leading the "troops" in shaky patriotic choruses. Raymond got a kiss on the cheek for his trouble. As the Chelsea Screamer pulled away, firefighters flashed us the victory sign. I didn't interpret it as a peace sign for a millisecond. I felt more than a little like some sort of postironic Rosie the Riveter of the buffet tables, keeping the home Sternos burning. New York is not London, and this was not the Blitz--but I've never quite heard the old should-I-stay-or-should-I-go game that New Yorkers play framed in such clear terms of civic pride and duty. The only appropriate response to "I'm finally gonna get out, after this" is "Good-bye (good riddance)--can I have your apartment?" After all, if you already live in the greatest city in the world, ruins or no ruins, where could you possibly go that doesn't constitute a tail-between-legs retreat?

Prior to the catastrophe most New Yorkers refer to simply as "it" or "you know," the most lethal single disaster that had occurred in New York was in June 1904, when an excursion boat en route to a picnic, the General Slocum, caught fire on the East River, killing more than a thousand people, mostly from the German immigrant community. The German neighborhood emptied out pretty quickly after that, and who would have looked down on anyone who didn't want to live among the reminders then? The difference may be that it, you know, the 11th, was no accident, and deliberate acts of mass murder require defiance to help maintain sanity. You might've seen the sick joke that was making the rounds on the Internet, the "proposed design for the new World Trade Center," which has four low towers, two on each side, flanking a single tall one, thus resembling the New York state bird? Everyone I knew in New York thought it was funny; I'm just surprised I haven't seen it on a T-shirt yet.

I thought I was doing fine that first day, pouring endless cups of coffee and mixing in half my own weight in milk and sugar. I joked about having numerous different sizes of cups and lids, none of which seemed to match. I barked at others to refill the pots, and I refilled them myself. I wiped down tables and left little packets of Oreos on them. I hadn't been on my feet for ten hours straight in a long time and I hurt, but took some grim pride in it. I flirted, I smiled, I put on the best service-worker face I've ever managed. I tried to be compassionate and think I mostly succeeded--but I figured these stiff-muscled, rain-spattered heroic types in their gas masks and rubber coats didn't want amateur grief counseling. They wanted coffee, lots of it, hot and fresh and fast. I had lots of it myself and kept the adrenaline up. I wondered about my emotional state--why was I so OK? Why hadn't I broken down sobbing when I first glimpsed the site? Was it healthy to feel simultaneously horrified and fascinated?

I didn't have to worry about that for long. The other feelings came later, when I walked to the subway from the West Village pub where I'd met Raymond and Rex after work. On my way I stopped to survey the memorials at Washington Square Park and Union Square. They were faded by rain and components had already been gathered by the Smithsonian, but people kept adding to them. Flowers and flyers and flags and poems and candles accumulated against the chain-link fence around the Washington Square arch like drifted snow. My eyes started burning. I'm not sure if it was the man with the baby that got to me, or the older guy looking for his brother, or the clipping from the New York Times about the immigrant who worked as a maintenance man on the roof of the World Trade Center and told his family how much he loved his job because of the view. Maybe it was the Walt Whitman quote: "I dream'd in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth. I dream'd that was the new city of Friends. Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love, it led the rest. It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city, and in all their looks and words."

A man next to me started crying. I had my arm out to stroke his shoulder before I knew what I was doing. "Thanks," he muttered. "You never know what's going to set you off." I didn't ask what it was that set him off--it seemed private, and did it really matter in such a sea of possibilities?

By the time I reached Union Square I was aching, sleep deprived, dazed, and emotionally skinless. There was a chicken-wire sculpture of the twin towers with index cards and pens for people to write messages and deposit them inside. There was another replica of the twin towers with messages of sympathy from Tibet and Australia. There were the ubiquitous flyers about the missing--men and women of all ages, shapes, sizes, colors, and classes, restaurant workers next to stockbrokers, young brides next to grandfathers, Irish cops next to Indian techies. The concrete at the south end of the park was repaved in candle wax; there were shrines everywhere. I followed another woman's example and got down on my knees with all my matches, relighting every candle that still had a wick, only to watch them go out almost as quickly. I stayed there, crawling on the wax and wilted flowers, for I don't know how long. Then I sat down on a low wall and quietly lost it.

A man came up to me and asked if I wanted to talk. He was big and black and bald and had a strong deep voice: "I'm a deacon, you know." I didn't really want to talk. I wanted to cry, and he was such a huge guy with a soft black jacket very suitable for burying a face in, so I did just that while he hugged me. After a while, I squeezed his hand and he passed on while making some blessing gesture. Then a woman with an airline ID around her neck descended and started to tell her story. She was a flight attendant, she said, who'd felt called by God to come to New York and pray with people. Did I want her to pray with me? Now, I've been a practicing Wiccan for 14 years and I usually avoid gregarious born-agains like the plague of locusts. But I said yes. And I just let it out, though I don't remember too much of what I said between her thank you Jesuses.

At the time I thought, What's all this thank-you business? It made more sense to me later. Never mind "thank who?"--gratitude is worth having for its own sake, doesn't matter where you put it. Thanks, I decided, for the opportunity to be there, to be where at least a full-bore grieving process is possible, and where the opportunity to be genuinely helpful might present itself.

Chicago and New York, big brawling brothers, stare at each other across a distance they've managed to render negligible--a third of a continent, two hours by plane. Nervousness about travel aside, passages back and forth between seem more significant now--not just those of the Chicago steelworkers who turned out to help sift through the wreckage, or the Chicago cops who directed traffic in midtown, but also the musicians from one place who played in the other, the financial workers who traveled to express condolences. Now more than ever I feel one foot in one place and one foot in the other without feeling torn--though I had a moment of severe doubt when the hazmat squad got called out to investigate a burrito leak in Logan Square.

I look at the Sears Tower now and feel glad it's still there--but I know deep down it was the less compelling target. Chicago so far has been spared the horror New York faced, and also been spared the opportunity to demonstrate the robustness of its love. I suspect a lot of those who traveled shortly after felt at least partly driven by that. It wasn't much on paper: I just held some friends' hands and poured a lot of coffee. In Chicago, it's just coffee, with cream and sugar and a pinch of normality and a spoon of survivor's guilt. But that coffee on the boat was flavored with gritty burnt dust and hot tears, stirred with a twist of warped metal, drunk hot and strong and sometimes in grand style, held up with a toast from the 19th-century poet of the hour: "O superb! O Manhattan, my own, my peerless! O strongest you in the hour of danger, in crisis! O truer than steel!"

Many times during that week I nearly succumbed to the pull of the flag vendors. Instead, after all these years, I finally got myself one of those I ยช NY T-shirts. That's my flag.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark DeBernardi.

Add a comment