I wrote one hundred words about this earlier today but for once it wasn't enough. Until now I have been unable to talk about the 11th and the aftermath unless I'm face to face with someone who knows. I've talked about it with those I am intimate with too, of course, but I find it much easier to be mostly silent. Following the 11th, the discipline of writing no more and no less than one hundreds words each day was my comfort and my safety-net; the one voice I had that wasn't mute, the one place I could grapple with the unspeakable. Thousands of words later, I'm still there. Day by day and one hundred words at a time.
I went down to my former office this morning because I'd been told by a senior we were allowed to go in and retrieve personal belongings and files. I was pretty clear about what I'd be walking into--I've been going down there to see clients in near-by buildings ever since New York went back to work on September 18th. I'd made a pilgrimage late one evening in September with a friend. I knew what the air would be like, I knew what 'ground zero' would look like, having seen it from a few blocks away many times, and having seen countless photos of it. And I've seen the photos the insurance adjuster took of the inside and outside of my office building. I knew I would be closer to the wreckage than most people get-- 90 West street is less than a football field away from what was the south tower and if you look at an aerial photograph you see some 14 acres of rubble... and then, abruptly, my building on the southwest corner.
But it isn't what the site looked like, or what my building looked like, that I need to write about. It's the second city inside the parameters of the disaster area that I am thinking of. The disaster area is barricaded from the north at Chambers Street, along the east from Broadway down to Rector, and then back up to Chambers on the West Side Highway. Inside that parameter is a village. These little settlements can be found elsewhere in New York, too. There is one on the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge, where police and National Guard are on duty around the clock to monitor Manhattan-bound traffic, and there are settlements at the all of the other bridges and tunnel entrances, as well. The village I saw today is much smaller than it was a month ago. At one time it stretched up to Canal Street and beyond. It once included the Brooks Brothers Store at Liberty Plaza--a makeshift morgue. In the days right after the 11th I became used to seeing buses full of soldiers ferried up and down Nassau Street. But as more buildings have reopened the secure zone has gotten smaller.
I approached from the south, walking up the West Side Highway. At the first checkpoint I explained myself to a very friendly police officer, showed a business card, pay stub and ID and was told to come in--and to be careful. I asked the officer what the best route to my building was and he replied, "I'm not sure, to be honest, I'm from upstate, just helping out. But you'll be showing your ID at about 9 more checkpoints, and they'll help you."
And so they did, as I progressed from checkpoint to checkpoint. Along the way I saw office-building lobbies serving as impromptu cafeterias, break areas, and First Aid stations. I saw lines of portable toilets and rows of sinks standing beneath tarps. I saw the ground level of a parking garage full of police, fire department and military vehicles, the upper levels still containing unclaimed cars covered in ashes. I saw office chairs grouped around makeshift tables, and tired dirty workers resting in them. I saw volunteers distributing coffee and cold drinks. And yes, I saw some of the flirting we've all read about in the papers. Ground zero is a sort of weird NYC hotspot, the exclusive club only a few can get into, and the intensity of the place creates an emotional-charge that is palpable. And at each checkpoint I first explained myself, showed my ID, and then found myself in friendly conversation.
"Were you here when it happened?" I was gently asked several times. "No," I said, "I was coming in late that day."
And the response was always a hand on my arm, or a level look, or simply a step closer as the same murmured "I'm glad you were safe and away from it" was offered me.
At the last checkpoint, right outside my building, I was turned away because I didn't have a helmet. As I began to retreat, an officer offered to help me find one and led me across the highway to an OSHA tent. We crossed the median strip and I noted the uniform rows of dead blackened stubs, formerly shrubs and flowers, in the gray ashy soil. We threaded our way through parked fire trucks and flatbeds, climbed over a pile of blackened steel beams, walked around another tent (I glimpsed cots inside and workers napping) and reached the OSHA headquarters. Inside they were assembling helmets and sorting out respirators, masks and gloves. The officer told them I needed a helmet and they immediately fitted me with one.
The woman helping me asked, "Will you be here long?"
"Just today I hope," I said.
"Have you been back since the 11th?"
"Well, you come back here if you need anything at all. And take a mask with you, too. Do you want some water?"
"I'm okay," I said. "Thank you so much for helping me."
"Anytime," she said. "Come back if you want a place to rest when you're done. Or if you want to talk."
The officer elected to stay and chat a bit, so I made my way back to 90 West Street on my own.
"Hey, you lost him!" joked several police officers I'd already explained myself to. I smiled.
"Good luck," added another, "you be careful in there."
I got back to the building and another police officer escorted me in. He ceremoniously held the glass door, which was mainly intact on that side, open for me. Inside it was dark and unrecognizable. The doors at the north end of the lobby had been blown in, there were concrete chunks to step over, the ceiling was hanging down, the elevator doors were half-open, the walls blackened, and everywhere was that white ash. I remember seeing red marks on the walls, like great sweeping loops and scribbles of graffiti. I still can't imagine why they were there.
For the last time I explained myself to a guard. He started shaking his head. "No way are you going up there. This building is condemned until further notice."
"So what do I do?" I asked.
"You don't go anything," he replied. "This building isn't safe and nobody goes up."
And that was that. The police officer and I went back outside. He asked me if I needed to stop and stay awhile. I wanted to walk the 25 yards to the northwest corner of the building where I so often used to stand, having a smoke break, plotting the demise of my evil boss with my good friend Tim, as the towers loomed above us just across the street. But I didn't want to be in the way, I wanted to respect the kindness the inhabitants of that strange temporary town had shown to me, so I shook my head and thanked him.
I returned the helmet and then made my way back south. As I passed back through each checkpoint I was asked how it had gone. Every officer and guard commiserated with me when I told them what had happened. Wordless once again, I just kept saying "thank you," over and over.
I hope they know how grateful I am for the time they took to listen to me, to direct me, to help me find the equipment I needed when it seemed I'd have to turn back, to give their time and attention to such a small and unimportant task; I hope they know how touched I am that they granted me the chance to be there, that they understood, that they accepted me the moment I told them I used to work in a building directly on the edge of 'ground zero.'