I walk past the open plaza in the Park and see a huge crowd gathered in a circle. Standing on my tiptoes I see the crowd’s encircling two massive flower arrangements laying flat on the ground in the shape of the Twin Towers. It is a floral masterpiece, woven out of literally thousands of white flowers, all donated by the local flower shop owned by three brothers. Good men, those florists.
Hundreds of candles flicker in glasses placed around the fifty-foot wide circle, illuminating the faces of the missing, on photos which are laid everywhere between the flowers. Visitors place loose roses, carnations, and prayer cards down on this makeshift shrine to Hope, a shimmering beacon on this gritty sidewalk of lower New York. With arms encircled, people enclose the shrine with heads mostly bent, eyes mostly crying, some lips uttering prayers. Oh my broken city, oh these broken hearts.
I need to keep moving, outpace the grief or it will come and catch me under its weighted net, and pull me down for good. I walk the mile to the Volunteer Center to see if other out-of-towners need a place to stay, a meal, a shower? On the way, I pass two different firehouses, both transformed into shrines by the neighborhood people. Amidst the many-framed photos of the dead hanging against the bright red doors, a huge crush of flower arrangements leans against the front of the building, their bright colors insistent on consolation.
Some children have come by with pans of home-baked brownies, a grandmother-type holds a covered casserole, a older man stops to look and takes his hat off his head; he wipes a tear from his wrinkled cheek as he beholds the faces of all those invincible young men, even in death. A lone fireman comes out to receive the outpouring of generosity from his neighbors. His eyes are swollen, his gaze faraway as he forces a smile for the children. Inside this man, I see that sorrow has swallowed him up.
Dear God, when will you make yourself known to this man?
The Convention Center, just around the corner was overflowing with thousands of volunteers, eager to work, milling about, everyone looking for some way to be of help. But the dreadful feeling of uselessness is palpable when I thread my way through the crowd. Isn’t there something to be done, somewhere to go? No, not until the missing are found. Till then, everyone must find their own way to be of help, and cope.
Only the Ground Zero workers seem to be being given work down at the site. Working till they drop, they return here to be dispatched again, and they’re easy to recognize: men of every age and ethnicity, different in most ways save for the dirt that covers every inch of them, the visible fatigue they’re fighting to push away, and the look in their eyes: determination to prove death visited the wrong place two days ago. Every young man wants to go with them, to join them in their heroic work down at the site. But not everyone gets to go; a foreman makes the decisions.
A bunch of young guys cruise by slowly in a Jeep, wild-eyed and full of aggression.
“Nuke ’em all and let God sort it out” their T-shirts brazenly announce.
Whoops and hollers escape from their angry chests as their Jeep slows and one of the guys swoops down to slap a young woman volunteer on the back of her head. She is wearing a full Muslim head-covering and the traditional long, black dress.
Dear God, when will I be as brave as this 20-year old girl?
As the punks accelerate and peel out, she looks down, humiliated.
When will you show us how to live without hatred?
I find the Clipboard Lady and as soon as she sees me, she exclaims, “Oh good! There you are…I’ve got a big bunchof out-of-towners just back from the pit….JOHN!” and turns around to yell, “Ok, she’s here, John…follow her.”
John pulls a big van up and signals me to jump in. I do, then turn around to say hello to the men and see nine weary, dirt-streaked faces blinking back at me. We drive across town till and get out at my building. In the crowded elevator, the men tell me their names. When the elevator stops on my floor, the landing is full of shopping bags. I peek inside and see that they are filled with goodies: cans of shaving cream, deodorant, toothpaste, bottles of Listerine, packages of Hanes, and my favorite: a bottle of No-Doz, with a note taped to it: “Grateful for your hard work. God bless you.”
God, people everywhere are blessing total strangers. Thank you.
The men peel off their work clothes, encrusted with dirt and more DNA dust matted together. I put them in the washer while the men disappear into showers and then catch some necessary sleep before dinner is served. No sooner are they settled in, Carmen reappears like the saint I know she conceals inside her. Not wasting a minute on chit-chat, she whips on an apron and gets to work, chopping salad, whipping up a chocolate pudding and placing the lasagnas to bake in the oven.
“Carmen,” I start to say, bowled over by her contribution, but I cannot finish my words.
“Aww, come here”, she says and puts her caring arms around me. I start to cry and she says, “Ay mama, it’s a hard time….”
Carmen doesn’t cry, she’s too focused on the real reason she’s here: putting together a huge meal for the men who are here.
The two young brothers from yesterday ring the doorbell, bleary and spent. Bryce returned, too, with some six-packs. We all sit at the dinner table and I take the hands of the men sitting around me. In turns, they do the same to the men next to them, though at first it’s awkward.
“Thank you for these good men…” but once again I cannot finish.
Bryce breaks the moment of awkward silence by getting the beer. Larry says, “No thanks, man. I’m not celebrating till it’s over, till we find those poor people underneath that rubble.” One by one, each man nods in agreement. It’s almost more than I can bear to see them turn down what they’ve been socialized their whole lives to equate with downtime. But for these men, there is no downtime. Not yet.
No one talks while they shovel lasagna into their hungry bellies. Finally, I ask the big guy next to me where he’s from.
“I’m Mike from Chicago….I run a mortgage business,” Mike tells us, trying hard to be ebullient.
One of the guys asked him how he got here since the airports are closed, and Mike tells us as soon as he saw what was happening on the 11th, he got in his car and drove five hours to Michigan, then caught a ride all the way to New Jersey where he caught a bus into NYC. Without sleeping, he went straight to “the pit” to work a full shift.
The older man seated next to him speaks up. “I’m Larry, I’m here from Louisiana. I started driving just as soon as I saw the TV. I didn’t stop except for a one-hour catnap on the side of l-95.”
What was going on here? When Clipboard Lady said, “out of town” I thought she meant Brooklyn, New Jersey, maybe upstate NY. But Louisiana? Chicago? Indiana?
Around the table it went, with the men self-consciously introducing themselves and then quickly switching gears to talk about their concern about all the missing people. I made sure the TV wasn’t on when the men were in the house, as the news focused on the worst facts: over 3000 people missing and feared dead, a plane went down in PA killing all aboard, another one hit the Pentagon killing over 150 there. The men at this table knew more than anyone the grimness the world was looking in on, the possibility as unthinkable as it seemed, that all those people, all those people, were actually gone.
Dear God, give these good men the physical and mental strength to persevere, to see this thing through.
When Carmen re-emerged from the kitchen with her chocolate pudding, the men groaned with delight.
“You really are an angel, you know that?” one of the men said to her, and slowly, they all broke into applause for her. She blushed, shyly looking away.
“No, it’s you guys who get credit for your hard work.”
Embarrassed at the praise, they tucked into their pudding and kept talking about their tasks at Ground Zero. Each man also took turns telling what was quickly becoming apparent: that the news didn’t capture even a fraction of the horrors of downtown. The stench, the burning smoke that got past even their respirators and goggles, the burning soles of their boots, the dog-tiredness and their sagging spirits as the hours passed and no cache of living humans was found.
Larry was a psychiatrist, as it turned out and his professional nose ferreted out that Mike had gotten very quiet.
“How you doing, Mike?”
Mike blew out a huge exhale and I could see he was fighting hard not to break down.
“Eh…uh…I’ve been downtown working the—”
His voice breaks. All the men silently lean across the long table and with their gnarled hands, they hold onto Mike’s big, trembling arms.
“Let it out, man”, one of the steelworkers tells him and the other men nod in agreement.
Mike goes down like a bowling pin. Everyone gets up from the table and surrounds this 6’2” hulk of a man, placing their hands on his shoulders, his arms, the top of his head as he weeps.
A minute later, relief visible on his mournful face, he says, “I’m sorry, I just….”
They motion him to stop, to tell his story.
“I hand the body parts to the man next to me, into the makeshift morgue….” and his voice broke again, only this time he wasn’t alone. Mike went on to describe the arms, fingers, bits of feet, pieces of flesh that didn’t resemble anything human anymore.
One tent held the artifacts that were found: wallets, combs, shoes, driver’s licenses, an earring.
Everything was being tested to match any DNA found there, with body parts. Mike’s job was the body part tent, otherwise known as the morgue.
We sat in silence when Mike was done, and all I could think was how God had put this oak of a man who’s a mortgage broker in Illinois, in charge of blown apart and charred body parts.
Dear God, I really hope you know what you’re doing—please take good care of Mike from Chicago.
Everyone sacked out for a few more hours and before daylight, they were all gone again, back down to the pit. A few more men arrived, but slept for only an hour, saying it was getting critical that they find survivors now, or all hope would be lost.
But by the end of day four, hope was fading. When the men were gone, the TV showed a world in solidarity with New York—an international outpouring of prayers, all-night vigils, donations pouring in, musicians writing songs, a round-the-clock music telethon featuring the biggest names in music, these kind acts poured in from everywhere, and these were the stories I fed the Ground Zero workers at the dinner table. This was what they could run on when their own strength evaded them.
The next few days were much like the first but with ever-fading hopes that the victims were still alive underneath the mountains of burning rubble. Even the German Shepherds that were called in to sniff out bodies were only pulling out body parts. Still, the men toiled away on almost no sleep, their tenacity to prove a different ending spurring them on.
On night four, Mike limped in well after the others, almost missing dinner. I opened the front door and he put his arms out for a long hug. Holding him, I could hear him sniffling on my shoulder. I brought him a chair and we gently got his boots pulled off, exposing new, raw blisters glistening in the hallway light. I soaked his feet as he allowed himself more tears, telling us about the cruel horrors he was witnessing.
Restore their spirits, they’re really running low.
We all ate dessert together that night, but a thick melancholy settled over us, a sickening fear that all was lost. I couldn’t help but look around the table at the desolate faces of these exhausted, heroic men, and wonder about how a man experiences defeat. How does he feel it, especially when his efforts to beat great odds were so heroically carried out?
“We’ve failed, the people probably died underneath there, waiting for us,” said Larry.
“You failed at nothing, nothing. You brought to our city your fearlessness and your strength. Who the hell do you think the news is out filming every single day and night, if not you guys, huh? And why do you think they’re doing it? It’s for the world, Larry. The whole world to show that this is what courage looks like.”
Larry cried, and Mike took my hand. I knew nothing anymore, but if I did know one thing, one thing at all tonight, it was that heroism is it’s own reward, not predicated on any victory at all.
On day five, the next day, an official announcement was made by the mayor, rescue efforts largely ended; a pall fell over the city, maybe the entire human family. The workers who had come from everywhere were finished now, to be replaced by union men who would continue the digging out process. Slowly the workers from all over gathered their shovels and pick-axes and made their way back home across the many states they’d travelled from days ago.
At my place we had a final meal together, and then, slowly, the caravan of strangers I had grown to love, departed one by one. Tears flowed freely, and hugs went on for minutes. Only Mike stayed behind, and we stayed up talking until daylight broke outside. I told him about Jarod and his carrying office workers out from under their desks, about the almost birth of a baby in the midst of chaos. I told him about the neighbors taking care of their firemen, and he smiled. Laying on the bed, I noticed a tear roll out of the corner of his eye.
And the next two days I showed him around a city he served but was too deeply immersed in helping, to see: the musicians singing their grief in Washington Square Park, Trinity Church festooned with prayer ribbons from all over the world, strung up for four blocks all around it, Union Square Park with the flowers on the ground and the thousands of posters of the dead. The firehouses with their makeshift altars. And everywhere the candles, little flickering lights in a city that an entire world held vigil for.
Dear God, bless these heroes who came here, these angels who gave of themselves even as our hearts were broken open, these men who helped keep the world’s hopes aloft when there was none.
As I said before, I cannot say what a good man is. I can say that many men did many good deeds during the ten years ago nightmare—honoring both New York City and me by answering the hero’s calling with such selflessness. I am ever so grateful.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing, some people have entertained angels unawares”
This is dedicated to Mike Kolody and TO ALL THE HEROIC MEN AND WOMEN who dropped everything and came here to help. We will never, ever forget your goodness and your heroism.
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photo: USACEpublicaffairs / flickr
photo: Paullyoung / flickr
photo 3: clairity / flickr