Thursday, September 11, 2008
My Home Town
It was a beautiful September day 7 years ago, much like today – blue sky, puffy white clouds, the feel of crisp air on its way.
I was sitting in the office I shared with my brother when one of the girls who worked for him came charging up the stairs “A plane crashed into the World Trade Center, I heard it on the radio”. Her face was white and we just stared at each other. “I’m sure it was a small plane, nothing else could get that close” I assured her, her hands were shaking. We turned on the radio. Don Imus was on, he would become a good friend that day – he stayed calm, he told people reports weren’t verified, he begged them to stay calm too.
Two of the girls who worked for me came in. They had met up at the subway station and they said everyone had radios and TVs on all up and down the avenue. “Someone said it was an airliner” C told me, her hands were shaking too. “I can’t imagine that” I said. “How the hell could a commercial jet plane not notice the WTC”? Almost as if on cue Don said the reports of the plane being a commercial jet plane had been verified by someone on the ground. We all stared at each other for a few moments – they felt like forever, a feeling that would reoccur over and over.
“My aunt works in the towers” V said, she was crying now. I hugged her and picked up the phone just as every line on my phone bank and my brother’s phone bank began to ring. C’s Mom wanted to make sure she was there. V’s Mom said she was trying to find out which tower, which floor, stay calm.
My brother called to say he was heading to Owl’s Head Park in Bay Ridge. He lived right there and you could see all of lower Manhattan from the 69th Street Pier. I told him all his girls were in now and we were handling the phones and I was keeping them calm. We even laughed for a moment at how we called them “the girls” – they were each so young, for many this was their first job and baby bro and I had pretty much adopted them all.
I told everyone to write down the names and cell numbers of everyone they knew at the towers – we would stay calm and we would call every single person. They would all be OK.
What followed is all a bit mixed up in my head. More feelings than memories. I can feel my stomach turn over, I can feel it tighten. I can feel my throat close up. My eyes always just about to overflow. Late that night I would discover deep bruise marks on my thighs from pushing my fists into them to stay calm and focused. The palms of my hands were raw. Don Imus told me to stay calm.
Reports of a second plane. We’re under attack. Huge billowing clouds of black smoke. Sirens blaring. I tried to call my brother. All circuits busy. All circuits busy. He finally got through to me.
“Di – it fell, just went straight down. The clouds are coming at us”.
“What fell? Not the towers!! What the …”
“Di – the tower fell – I can’t watch this – I’m coming in. I’ll be right there. I love you”
“I love you too”
Late that night my brother would find letterhead from Cantor Fitzgerald in his backyard. Pieces large enough to read a sliver of a name, a suite number, their logo. Letterhead that had been on a desk and was now on the ground. Across the Narrows and into Brooklyn.
I called my son. He was asleep, just home from the night shift. I told him to put the TV on. “What the …” was all he said, I could hear Tom Brokaw’s voice in the background. “Ma – I was just there. They moved us to the towers mid shift, a conduit blew. We had to fix it before business started. I did OT Ma. I was going to stay longer. Oh Christ Ma, the guys were still there …”
We stayed on the phone together. Tom Brokaw and Don Imus in the background. My brother showed up – pale and shaking. The girls were holding up their lists. Pages of people. Cousins, friends, brothers, sisters, parents, boyfriends. M was hysterical in the other room. Her Dad, her brothers, her uncles and her boyfriend – all firefighters. All at the towers. In the tower that fell? No one knew.
“Ma! Ma! – I have to go. My beeper is going off, it’s the emergency call. Head office is trying to find us all, all of us who were there. I have to call in. I love you Ma”
“I love you too”
Neighbors came to the office. Someone brought a TV. We watched. We made calls. We updated our lists. Circuits are busy. Circuits are busy. Finding one person took forever. Everything took forever. The air smelled like fire. F-16s started to appear. They flew overhead. Both comforting and frightening. The Pentagon. Pennsylvania.
The guy who owned the deli on the corner came by. He and a few others were taking their SUVs as far into downtown Brooklyn as they could get. They were going to pick up the people walking over the bridge and drive them home. Strangers. Customers. People walking by loaded the cars with water bottles and towels. C walked over to the train station to see what was happening. No mass transportation. All trains had been taken to their last stop. Tracks were being searched. Dogs. Bombs. More to come?
I took all the girls home. Through Bensonhurst and into Boro Park where the ambulance corps were loading up to go into Manhattan. Loud speakers were telling people to close their windows, wear masks. The air is dangerous. I had my window wide open and I breathed deeply. Dangerous? What the hell did dangerous mean anymore.
Late that night I went back to the office. We couldn’t remember if we had turned things off, locked doors. My brother was in charge of phone lists at his house. We still had so many people to find. As I drove down my street I had to pull over for armed vehicles. The army was traveling through my neighborhood. On their way to the Belt Parkway. The first of what would be days and days of rumbling trucks. Trucks taking supplies. Trucks moving armed soldiers. Trucks carrying remains to Staten Island.
The ground rumbled from trucks. The sky shook from F-16s. The smoke. The smell. Endless.
Each time someone was found we all called each other. Each time someone wasn’t found we all went to their house. We fed mothers, fathers, children. We went to the firehouse and brought them food. They shouldn’t have to cook when they were digging for their brothers. I lost count of how many people I hugged. How many hands I clasped. How many times my brother and I would lock eyes across a room of screaming, grieving people.
I went to the church I had gone to as a kid. I went to the Mary statue I had always loved. We always went there to light candles. It was a tradition. For Mom when breast cancer won. For my sister when she gave up on her life. Now for kids we went to school with. For M’s Dad, uncles, brothers. To say thank you – they were found. For M’s boyfriend – who was gone, at the bottom of the tower when it fell like a deck of cards. I can see his face – he had blue twinkling eyes and curly blond hair. I would call him Adonis and he would laugh. He had a melodic laugh. M said she fell in love with his laugh first. His Mom found an engagement ring in his room. M wears it on a chain, next to her heart.
My son worked at Ground Zero from September 12 until the following spring when they closed the site. 12 hours. 16 hours. 7 days a week. A firefighter gave him a piece of a burnt flag from one of the trucks. He put it in a frame. He called me every night. #7 was collapsing. The fires were still burning. Rudy is an asshole. Firefighters are the bravest people on earth. Jimmy can’t find his Dad. Sal can’t find his brother. Soldiers try to smile at the workers. The church is always open. Strangers pack food and socks and shirts. They stand for hours at police barricades waiting for someone to take their offering in. In where it feels like time has stopped. “I feel like I’m in a movie” my son tells me. He drives the utility truck down West Street. He feels awkward with all his official badges on. People stand on the concrete islands that separate the lanes of traffic. They stand there all day and all night. They hold up signs that say Thank You. They offer up water bottles into the open windows of trucks and cars and flatbeds. They shake the hands of firefighters and police officers and construction workers. They hug and nod and look into the eyes of people they will now forever be connected to.
My son has a meltdown on one of these trips down West Street. Days and days of watching and knowing and caring for the firefighters has caught up to him. Jimmy’s Dad is gone. Sal’s brother is gone. He doesn’t feel like the hero people keep telling him he is. “I’m just a guy” he yells. “I’m just a phone guy. I’m just doing what everyone else is doing”. Strangers tell him it’s OK. They get it. They are all in this together.
I wasn’t going to write about 9/11. The day is so exploited. I think of it often. Each time I drive over the Verrazano Bridge I look to where there is a hole in the skyline. My throat closes for a moment. My eyes burn.
I called M this morning as I do so often and always on this day. I told her I loved her. I spoke to her Mom. They were getting ready to go to the firehouse to watch the services. Strangers will bring flowers and food. They will stop and silently look at the photos on the plaque. One will be a photo of a beautiful young man with twinkling blue eyes and curls of blonde hair peeking out from under his fire hat. So handsome in his uniform his Mom muttered over and over and over at his funeral. Hundreds of people came to his funeral. Many of them call her today. Many of them stop and leave flowers and food on her porch. They plant tiny American flags in her garden.
I wasn’t going to write about 9/11. But then someone said small towns are the backbone of this country. They mocked the elite cosmopolitan ways of my home town. They talked about the heartland and said it was miles and miles from here.
ALL of America is a small town. ALL Americans are neighbors. ALL of America is a land with heart.
Look toward those who would unite us. Look toward those who value us.