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,"
"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.
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
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
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."
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.