by Nicole Blackman

A friend and I sneak into Stuyvesant High School on Friday, three days after the collapse. I'm wearing my camouflage pants because they have so many pockets in them I won't need to carry a bag. The camo pants apparently get me past the security checkpoint, because they think I'm military. My friend is simply blonde. This is apparently enough for the Army. We're in.

Stuyvesant High School is on Chambers Street and it has been evacuated and turned into base command for food, supplies and services for the rescue workers and military at the site. The first floor is all equipment: respirators, flashlights, tools, medical equipment in boxes and piles. The balcony is where the masseuses and chiropractors work on the rescue workers like a human pit crew, trying to put these men and women back together again. The second floor is the clothing area, where the volunteers will eventually sort and organize the hundreds of thousands of donated items into an operation K-Mart would be proud of. The other side of the second floor is a canteen/food area, with piles of disorganized food items all over the floor. A small sleeping cot area and counseling area are next to the canteen. Sleeping areas are on three. Showers and grooming supplies on five. We decide to work in the canteen and I offer to organize the food items, and the supervisor on duty seems grateful for the help. She announces her shift is over after a few hours and says "someone will be along soon to supervise you." 72 hours later, I am still there and have inherited the mantle of canteen mama. The area now looks like D'Agostino's.

We have tables of food, which I sort into a kind of plentiful delicatessen. Vitamins, powerbars, cookies, chips, fruit, sandwiches, coffee, juice, water, gatorade, it is all replenished constantly. "I never want there to be one of anything left," I tell the other volunteers who come to assist in the area. "Because these guys won't take it, they won't take something someone else needs." Everyone is greeted as they come in and I start handing out vitamins to them in the morning. "I don't need them," they say. "I already took mine, no thanks." "You can't get in here without them," I tease. "C'mon, your mom would be so proud. Look, it's Centrum A-Z with Vitamin V!" "What's that?" they ask. "Viagra!" I laugh. "Oh, I don't need that," one firefighter chortles. "That's not what your wife said," I counter and he laughs with the rest of his crew. "Hey, give me one, yeah I'll take one..." A few days later, the guys all line up and ask for their vitamins on cue as they walk in. "No one's gotten sick on my shift yet and I don't want you to break my perfect record," I say.

"You still here?" they keep asking. "How long you been on duty?" At 72 hours I am officially the fucking Energizer Bunny and it's become a game. How long can I keep going without spontaneously combusting?

The firefighters who report for work those first few days work 18, sometimes 24 hour shifts. They won't leave the line, and it is only when their supervisors physically take the equipment out of their hands and order them to Stuyvesant to eat and rest, do they leave. They all want to be the ones who find their friends' bodies. As if they couldn't save them, but at least they can carry them out. When the men arrive at Stuyvesant, they often refuse to sleep, and we know that as much as they thank us for our help, many of them simply want us to go away so they can get back to work.

The mass is so large, the people so small, we look like ants below a tree. Two weeks later, they reduce the operation and say it is mostly up to machines, but even now, every time a body is found, the firefighters and iron workers remove their hats, make a circle around the body as last rites are given, and the body is removed and work resumes.

Have I told you about the firefighters? One night in a bar near the site, one says he is a grandfather tonight for the third time and we toast this sign of life in all this death. Quietly he tells me that something like 11 of the 13 men at his fire station were killed. He was in Virginia at the time, on vacation, and could only get back into town the day after, frustrated. Even though he doesn't say it, I know he has taken stock of his life and wondered why he, an older man, was spared, when so many young men were taken. The emotional and psychological damage from this tragedy will include the guilt of those who survived -- and don't believe they deserved it.

The thing you have to realize is that the effects of September 11th will not only take years to subside (FEMA says the Oklahoma bombing was a five year recovery; WTC will be fifteen years...) but that the rescue workers, families and others affected by it will experience shocking percentages of alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, depression and suicide, comparable only to Vietnam. When you think that most of us will experience the deaths of 30 friends and family members in our lives, it it stunning to realize that for my stepbrother, who works at Cantor Fitzgerald, he used up his lifetime quota in one day.

One morning a clean, smiling, seemingly rested man walks into the canteen like an apparition, wearing crisp chef's whites to bring his restaurant's food donation. "Oh my god," I say, "You're Jean-Georges Vongnerichten. My mother and I are huge foodies and you're our favorite chef. I can't believe you're here, thank you!" I realize then that my apron is badly stained, I haven't slept, I am quite sure I don't look good or smell too good at this point, and I am babbling to one of the world's greatest chefs. "And you are Nicole," he reads my name off my apron. "No, thank you" he smiles as he shakes my hand, totally charming. As he leaves, I realize my mother will never believe this. Jesus Christ walked into the canteen and I didn't get a fucking picture with him.

Getting frustrated with people outside of the site. Think this is normal, but the volunteers all discuss being annoyed with people who are walking around other parts of town, oblivious, carrying on as if nothing has happened. I know we shouldn't feel this way, because going out for brunch with your wife and kid is what you SHOULD be doing right now, what a Sunday is all about in this town, but the frustration and desire to grab someone and shake them and say "Don't you get it??" is debilitating. Then I remember my mother telling me of friends in wartime and wall-era Berlin who drank and partied all night, boozing like madmen because the bars were open round the clock. "They danced and sang all night long because they didn't know when they were going to die. They wanted to live til the very end." I repeat this to other volunteers and it tempers our unfocused frustration into something sweeter and more patient. Baby steps.

A friend says he is jealous because I "got in where everyone else wanted to go, you got to do what we all wanted so desperately to do." I tell him it was just determination, being freelance, and not having a significant other/family/pet to worry about at my place. Friends who say I do too much for them or give them too many presents have no idea how this has changed me. An ex told me he was uncomfortable when I would cook for him, give him a gift, invite him somewhere. Said it made him feel guilty when I did things for him, that there was no way for him to reciprocate and so he couldn't continue seeing me. It was just too uncomfortable for him to receive all that attention and care. Now there are thousands of people I cannot do enough for.

One firefighter who comes to the canteen is shell-shocked and when I smile and offer him something, murmurs "you have such small hands." I am surprised, and then I realize it is his way of telling me a story. "You know what I did today?" he asks. "I picked up hands all day. I even picked up a pair of hands that were tied together at the wrist with nothing else attached." The story stuns me,and then I realize, it must have been the hands of one of the hostages on one of the planes. Another firefighter another night says "You know what I did today?" and tells me he picked up faces. Not heads, not skulls, just faces. A third comments one night that he worked the harness all day and was strapped into a belt harness attached to a cable on a crane. It would pick him up, move him over the volcano-like opening on the pile and lower him until he found a body or body part which he would clutch in his arms and signal to be brought back out. All day. For 18 hours. Could he have some coffee please?

A reporter and photographer from People magazine manage to smuggle their way onto the site and interview and shoot me one afternoon while I'm working at Stuyvesant. The story runs in the next issue, a collection of profiles of people volunteering, rescuing, mourning all over the country. When the photo runs, you can see me, puffy-eyed, exhausted, with phone numbers written all over my hands. My only regret is that they didn't profile everyone who worked on the Stuyvesant team, because it's not one person, the real story is how a bunch of New Yorkers simply made a network of supplies, communication, vehicles and volunteers to fill a massive gap. When FEMA inspects our site two weeks later, we are told they have never seen a volunteer operation like this. My father calls me later and says how proud he is, and asks if I'd like him to send a laminated copy of the story to him. No, I say. I don't want to hang that up.

A volunteer friend and I are amazed that our skin isn't breaking out from all the stress, and pollution in the air. As we prepare to return to the site on the few nights I go home, I question everything I put in my bag, everything I wear, as if the things I took for granted are now a hazard or a burden. A watch? Useful, necessary. Rings? Ridiculous, unnecessary. Eye drops? Relevant. Lip gloss? Irrelevant. Hair elastic? Relevant. Hair brush? Irrelevant. I have cut off my fingernails, can't be bothered to wear makeup, have lost ten pounds without thinking. It is as if we are casting off what we no longer need, as if in some way we are becoming our purest selves.

Two weeks after, all of the volunteers have hard hats which we pass around with Sharpie markers to firefighters, cops, and each other, to sign like strange yearbooks. We all get them home and the messages have wiped off, like they were never there. Like these messages cannot be recorded except in the heart.

After a late night shift, with only three of us volunteers working the building, one of the guys volunteering at the site rubs my shoulders as I struggle to get through a 24 hour shift. When another volunteer arrives to relieve me, he says "Why don't you and I go down in a Gator and drive to ground zero and look at the water for a while. Might be nice." I stare at him, wondering if he even realizes how romantic that sounds. I wonder if next time perhaps he will ask me up to his apartment "take a look at his etchings." Exhaustion and close contact have made me question this weird little flicker. Is this "a thing?" or am I just too tired to see this for the simple kind gesture that it is? Wary of making a fool of myself, I hang back, resist the teenage girl in me that is squirming. He insists we go outside to clear our heads a bit after working indoors for this long, and the logic of going to a disaster site filled with smoke and asbestos to 'clear our heads' somehow makes perfect sense in our skewed logic.

We take a Gator (sort of a military go-kart), down to ground zero and really see it in the early morning light. MPs on the corner sit and smoke cigarettes, and the rubble looks like England after a bombing in WW2. Spray painted in neon orange on the walls are MORGUE ----> and <----TRIAGE directing people where to go in the first days. Though the rubble is still smoldering, no one is wearing respirators. The front of the Millennium hotel is simply smeared away, like makeup wiped off a woman's face, and the beds hang out the window, sheets billowing in the dust. Venetian blinds from the WTC offices snarled in the trees a block away. Dead bird killed in the blast hangs in the branches. Sanitation worker taking a truck full of debris away from the site finds a torso in the shipment as it unloads later.

I want to take pictures, to record this fragile, tender sadness but it feels sacrilegious, as if seeing it through a viewfinder will reduce the emotional intensity as I try to capture it to show someone else later. "This is what it was like, look." But I can't do it, so I ride through, overwhelmed even after weeks of this, and close my eyes methodically, taking mental pictures.

At the water, with nearly no one else around, we look at Lady Liberty in the lovely fog of morning, and it is so beautiful, we nearly forget what is right behind us. We talk about families, look at the waves and for the first time in weeks, drink in real silence, as if this is a zen oasis we didn't realize we thirsted for. Suddenly it is a holy place. As he talks, I am keenly aware of how close he is to me, how his body shifts when he laughs or tells a story. Strange to feel the male/female dynamic in this place, where race/sex/class barely exists. My heart is chanting "please hold my hand, please hold my hand." He doesn't. He was just being kind. I swallow and put these feelings away. I'm here to do a job. It's not about me.

The next night, I stayed up all night, kissing him for hours and it felt like praying.

Two young teenage volunteers from the Church of Scientology are working with me one night on an overnight shift and I can tell they're bored, and would rather be where the action is. Two rookie police officers turn up for coffee and flirt with them. I watch, bemused, until one cop pulls his trump card and says "You know, I can get you down to ground zero..." with his eyebrow cocked, as if this is the magic pickup line. One girl squeals, grabs her sweatshirt and calls out "Hey Nicole, I'm going to ground zero, I'll be back in a little while!" "Sit down," I hiss at her. "You think it's a tourist site? Wanna drive around and gawk at the dead, at the damage? You want to tell your friends you were right there where it all happened? You want to go and see Disasterland and get the t-shirt? No one should go down there who doesn't have to. I don't want to go back down there. You're here to do a job and you're not going anywhere." The power of my rage is surprising to me. "And you," I mutter at the young cops who are now bright red, "Hope you enjoy the coffee before you go back to the party." They leave, apologizing; the girls sit down. Startled, I question myself, what the fuck just happened? Who am I to editorialize?

Circulation is shot from standing up so long. Can't feel my toes for the last two weeks. Masseuse works on them, it helps, but is now back to frostbite effect. If that is the only permanent damage, I think I've gotten off easy.

One late night, the volunteers all sit around, discussing our day jobs. I realize I have been working with these people for a week now and I don't know what most of them do. After a while, we are competing for the title of "I Have The Stupidest Day Job." One is a makeup artist, another a stylist, another an interior decorator, model, actress ... eventually, I raise my hand and say. "Competition over. I have the stupidest job." "What do you do, Nicole?" someone asks. "I do voice-overs for commercials. I lie for a living." Apparently I win, uncontested.

The area I work in has no windows so there is no way of telling the passage of time. At 3:00 I marvel that the lunch shift has been so quiet and I go outside for a five minute break, when I see black sky and realize it is 3 AM. This is what it must be like working in a casino, I think. Hard to remember what day it is on the site. Sometimes it is The Day We Got The Radio In The Canteen. Sometimes it is The Day We Ran Out Of Coffee. Sometimes it is The Day I Flipped Out On The Street and Had To Be Driven Home By the NYPD. After a while it is simply Before and After.

The day after the attack, there are reports of old men coming to the site forming a bucket brigade. They work on their own for a while before anyone notices them and asks them who they are. They're the construction guys, electricians, iron workers who built the towers. "We built these girls," one says. "Please let us help take them down." No one has the heart to tell them to stop. When I hear the story, I can't stop crying.

Listening to the survivors and families talk, you can hear them figuring out alternate endings to the disaster, as if it is a math problem. One woman had a minor car accident on the FDR that morning, and she cursed her car for making her late to work, not realizing until later that it saved her life. Michael Lomanaco, the chef at Windows on the World lived because he was getting new eyeglasses at Lenscrafters on the street level at World Trade Center that morning, the rest of his staff, at the top of the tower, was killed. Others say that their husbands and wives weren't supposed to be there that day. Most just continue to run the numbers obsessively like furious math: another three floors down and he might have made it. A train delay that morning and she'd be alive. Another day's vacation and he lives. Run the numbers again to figure out the error in the equation.

Another night, a volunteer is working the canteen alone and an air force sergeant calls her to say he has a much-needed delivery of ice for her. She cracks up as she tells me the story later. She is a fashion editor at Vanity Fair (which he has never heard of) and when he proudly tells her that he has an entire palette of ice for her, she says "I don't care what color it is, blue, pink, green, we need ice, just give me whatever you have!" I laugh til I cry at how fashion and the military, worlds apart, have collided.

A week after, we hear word that much of the rubble and steel has been removed from one part of the pile and we are warned that there will be a motherlode of bodies found tonight, tomorrow. We steel ourselves for the expected emotional devastation, but it never comes. Everyone is wound up, expecting to find the bodies of those they have stood vigil for, wanting to carry out the bodies of their friends, but it won't be tonight. We wait, prepared, for the emotional fallout, but the evening passes with nothing found, feeling even worse. The tension keeps getting wound up, but there is no release, never results.

That day, we meet with someone from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and an official confides that when the body parts are all collected, that they may very well simply send a collection of unidentified bones to each of the families, telling them "these are the remains of your husband, your father, your sister," knowing that they aren't. "They'll need something to bury. They'll need closure," they say, as if that makes up for a terrible lie. And who knows? Maybe it does.

We are told that FEMA learned a lot from the Oklahoma disaster. "We learned that we have to be careful of the food we serve to the rescue workers. In their mental state, some foods represent disturbing things to them. Pizza looks like burned skin, spaghetti like intestines. We can't serve those things." I listen to him as I try to remember everything we have served the rescuers so far. Meatloaf looks like -- what? Barbecued ribs remind them of -- ? Scrambled eggs are -- ?

Three weeks to the day, I am tentatively thankful that I did not personally know anyone killed in the attack. That if the only damage I've incurred is nerve damage to my toes from standing up for so many days in a row, then I have gotten out unscathed. That afternoon, I check my email and receive a message from my stepbrother that my stepsister's husband, Robby Noonan, who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, was killed. All at once, it comes toppling down on me like the towers. The exhaustion, the grief, the shock. I lie in bed for hours, unable to sleep, unable to move my legs. I have not gotten away unscathed. There is always damage.

That night the volunteers meet for a dinner party to regroup, and check in on each other, and I tell these friends I don't think I'm in any shape to attend, but they say I should go. That if anyone can comfort me and understand, they can. I pour myself into a cab and go downtown, lying down in the back seat I tell the driver, just tell me when we get there. I climb the stairs slowly, holding onto the railing for dear life. I am not there five minutes when I have to excuse myself to run downstairs to the street to cry for an hour. My new crush comes to sit with me and comforts me, saying "Wow, this is a new side of you. It's ok, this is when the mother hen needs to be mothered. You took care of everyone else, let us take care of you." And I apologize for being such a mess, for being so weak. He chides me and holds my hand, puts his arm around me. Grateful as I am, I am still uncomfortable at being on this side of the situation. I am not used to this. I am not good at this. How dare I drain the resources of comfort when there are others who need it far more? How selfish this feels. How selfish.

At the dinner, one volunteer tells of seeing frustrated people lashing out at each other in midtown. One businessman nearly smashes his briefcase on the head of a woman walking too slowly in front of him. Another man in a car screams at a man and his young daughter walking against the light at a crosswalk. The fury at being made to wait a few seconds is too much for the driver, and he throws his cellphone at the pair, which smashes on the street, narrowly missing the little girl's head.

That night, a volunteer comes up and asks shyly "are you a famous poet or something? I told my friend I was working with you and she flipped out. She loves you and asked for an autograph." The volunteers at the table look at me strangely and I feel like a fraud. "I don't like to mix worlds," I stammer to him, and tell him to talk to me later. I sign a cocktail napkin for his friend later, writing the message: "Be good to each other." I hope it helps.

At the drugstore, the photo clerk says they are developing photos for the rescuers' families free. "It's something we can do," he shrugs. I know that in the days, weeks, and months to come, these families will pick up photos and there will be smiling pictures of people they loved, now gone. And I don't know how they will manage to walk home.

A month after, I am having dinner with a friend, the one I leaned on more than anyone throughout all this, the one I told stories to that I dared not tell my parents because they wouldn't let me continue working at the site. He says I must feel good about what I did there, that I contributed, that I made a difference. I stun him by saying that I deep down all I feel is that I did not do enough. All I remember are mistakes, times when my body stopped functioning and I cursed it like a weak machine, and that in the end I look at the time there and see no results. "It's like being a chambermaid at a hotel," I tell him. "You make all the beds and the next day you have to go make them all again. There are no results, nothing to point at and say 'we did this.' No evidence, no creation, no mark that we were ever there." "You HAVE to realize that you did something," he argues, begging me to see the glass as half-full. But I can't. I couldn't save anyone. I didn't do enough. I could never do enough.

That night I tell him of a volunteer who got her boyfriend in to help at the site one night and my friend pounds the table with his fist. "Dammit, how did he get in and I couldn't?" I try to explain to him the security problems, the passes constantly changing, that we couldn't even get our trained people in, but it's to no avail. He was in Vegas when his city collapsed, and feels as if he's missed the event of the year, and is forced to hear about it forever from someone else who was there. "It was quite a time," he hears from everyone as they tell him incredible stories. "Sorry, you missed it." His frustration hangs over him like a shadow. He will always feel apart from The Experience.

There are a few people from the site that seem to have made some kind of connection, a few instances of "hooking up." Any port in a storm, or something real? Maybe the simple need to care for someone and be cared for. Or maybe we are exhausted from having to explain "How It Is" to everyone who wasn't there, and it is a great relief to be with someone who simply speaks the language.

I try to call my mother every day, even just for a minute to say "I can't talk now, we're working so hard, I'm so tired, I can't even cry yet. I just wanted you to know I'm hanging in there and I'll explain soon." I still haven't. When I see her next I will sit her down and tell her of the hands, the smell, the way we hold on to each other a bit longer than we need to, the way we don't dream anymore, we just black out. Two weeks after I tell her, "Mom, I met someone working at the site. He has the softest skin I've ever felt, I don't think he's human. We worked together for a while before something clicked and then it seemed like I'd always known him. I'm so comfortable with him, I can't explain it. He's like magic in a bottle." She tells me he's God's gift, my reward for working so hard at the site. Two weeks later I don't know how to tell her that he seems to have disappeared, that my emotional state has crashed and that I one night I came home crying, shaking for no reason. God's gift? More like God's trick. As if God has said "I can crush your big buildings. I can break your big heart."

Two things I will always remember: whenever we handed something to a firefighter, or cop, they would say thank you and we would all say "no, thank YOU." Neither of us able to say "you're welcome," neither of us feeling we were worthy of the other. And when any of us would say goodbye, we'd hug each other and say "be safe," when what we really meant was: "Please ... come back to me."

Nicole Blackman is a NYC spoken word artist whose book Blood Sugar was published in spring 2000 from Incommunicado Press, and will be reissued in spring 2002 from Akashic Books. She has been featured on collaboration recordings with Recoil, The Golden Palominos, Bill Laswell, KMFDM, Scanner, Space Needle and others. Her work has been featured in anthologies including Aloud: Voices From The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Verses That Hurt, Poetry Nation, and others. For more information, go to www.nicoleblackman.com.