I was in Toronto for my summer family visit, awake early for my first ever mammogram. Outside was a perfect day: cloudless sky, slight breeze, and no humidity. The procedure was curious and oddly amusing as I was hoisted onto my toes by a machine vise-gripping my breast tissue. Welcome to the world of middle age, I thought. I was still wearing wraparound glasses from the Lasik surgery I’d had two days prior. It wasn’t even 9am when my mother and I returned home. I called my writing partner to see if we could meet earlier. “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center” he said when he picked up the phone. ”Turn on the television.”
Despite protests from my mom, I drove home the following night. She couldn’t comprehend why I would leave the safety of Canada. My relationship to New York City has always been too profound to put into words. In 1977 after a long night of driving, the trees parted on the Palisades Parkway revealing the George Washington Bridge. Manhattan came into view and my life changed forever. I knew I had to get home.
I waited behind long lines of trucks at the Rainbow Bridge border crossing, the only car going into New York at 9pm. On the other side of the line, hundreds were fleeing for Canada.
It was around 4am when I got back to the city. The FDR had lanes set up for emergency vehicles. Other than fire trucks and ambulances, I was the only car on the road. My exit, 15th street, was closed because of the power plant. Security had tightened.
The East Village appeared untouched. I found a parking spot on Avenue B next to the park. When I stepped out of the car, I was hit by a smell unlike anything I’d ever encountered. It went beyond chemical and my body was repulsed by it. What had been shock and disbelief quickly turned to darkness in my soul.
I threw my bags in the house and jumped on my bicycle to head downtown. Every post was covered with paper flyers for the lost and the missing. As more signs appeared in store windows, what had been a news broadcast became real for me. Small clusters of people gathered in front of fire stations acknowledging the alters of candles, flowers and photographs. Exhausted firemen, eyes still vacant with disbelief, nodded to the cheering bystanders as their trucks returned once again to ground zero.
At Canal and 6th Avenue I was turned away because of restricted access. I stood with the others whose voyage had met a similar fate and that’s when I noticed it – everyone’s eyes were hollow.
The next day I wandered streets aimlessly. People walked past carrying shopping bags from designer stores, sat in cafes, entered movie theaters. I wondered how they did it – carried on with life. Everything felt meaningless to me. I scrutinized my own life and all I could see was self-indulgence. I’d spent the past year reworking the Oedipus myth for a screenplay. It had consumed me. In the scope of the current events, my project seemed trite. Was art even relevant? If not, I was fucked because writing was the only thing I aspired to do.
This line of thinking cast me further inside myself and I started slipping into an existential void that would have normally frightened me but I was numb. Everything around me became pointless. Friends would want to get together, to act as if their lives hadn’t been impacted by the tragedy. I didn’t want to play.
On the third day I rode my bike across the Brooklyn Bridge and signed up as a Red Cross volunteer. My only qualifications were that I was a recovering addict and had survived many traumatic events. I said my life had been full and if it was to end that minute I wouldn’t feel like I ‘d been cheated. What I didn’t mention were my years in strip clubs making men laugh and forget their misery. I knew this was something I could handle.
I reported for duty at 1030pm and was taken to a room where I was told that there would be therapists waiting to de-brief me when I returned. “These men have suffered a great loss and have been working around the clock. Do not speak to them unless they speak to you, and do not ask them anything about their work or about any personal loss.”
I boarded the van with the other volunteers. We passed through a half dozen security checkpoints along roads that were unrecognizable. As we approached Ground Zero, entire city streets were eclipsed by debris rising seven stories high. Finally, we entered the FBI security check and were lead into a building next to the river.
Once we made FBI clearance, a National Guard lead us along a tarp enclosed path to a respite which had been set up in a high school. I was stationed in the supply room. “Hi guys, come on in.” I smiled and waved to anyone who would peek into the room. I joked and made frivolous small talk with everyone who entered, and handed out donated items. Soon the room was packed. These men needed a break from the heaviness in their heart and I knew all it would take was a smiling face and a playful attitude.
When I returned to the Red Cross, I skipped the debriefing and biked home. My own heart had lost its heaviness.
A few nights into it, guys would stop by just to say hello, not in need of any supplies. By now, even secret service agents dropped by the respite while making the rounds. One night I came across a fireman who seemed more withdrawn than the others. I asked where he worked. When he said the Bronx, I made a joke about how the crack fires must keep them busy. He stared at me expressionless. This line always got laughs from fireman in the bars but this time I felt I’d overreached. When he asked if he knew me, I thought, “There goes my Red Cross gig.”
Later that night, he came back and asked why I’d said the thing about crack fires. I explained that I was a recovering addict and, to me, it was a no-brainer that there would be a lot of fires in abandon buildings in a heavy drug area. A look of relief swept over his face. “I’m new in the program and when you said that it freaked me out. I thought you knew I smoked crack.” He had 90 days clean, had lost a lot of friends in the department, had been functioning on little sleep, and of course, had not been going to meetings.
They held numerous religious services at Ground Zero but no Twelve-Step programs were represented. Before my shift was over, I left a letter for the person in charge. When I returned the next night, there was an AA room upstairs. The blackboard was covered with the signatures and home groups of at least a hundred firemen. I sat at a desk and wept.
I’d originally come to Ground Zero because I’d felt lost. That night, I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Within days, I believed again in the value of art. Once again being of service had put me back together.