I see the sun rise in Manhatten for the first time in the two days I’ve been here. The sky is bright, sun cutting my into my stinging eyes. I keep forgetting where I am coming from, why my whole being is exhausted and it’s only a few hours after dawn. I think, Is it bedtime yet? And what’s for dinner? And then I remember again, that it is only 9am.
I have to keep reminding myself, I was there.
I had the privilege this fall break to spend 12 hours of one night of my life volunteering at Ground Zero. Bob, a friend of my parents from seminary, is the pastor of a church on West 86th Street. His wife Andrea is a former Obie. They offered their sofa to me for a few days over fall break so I could wander the city and go to art museums. A few weeks ago, Andrea had emailed me to let me know things going on in their schedule the week of my break, including a group of volunteers through Bob’s church going to serve food at the World Trade Center site to rescue workers.
I said I’d be there. I didn’t stop to think about it, because I hadn’t stopped to think about any of it much since September 11th. I went because I wanted to wake up and realize this whole political mess is happening. It is real, and I was just there.
We go downtown at 8pm with bags of food, chips and candy bars and fruit. I have only been to New York City once before, so when we get off the subway in a deserted ally called Fulton Street, I have no idea where we are. I look up to get my bearings– maybe from the stars?– but I can’t see even the tops of the buildings. A glowing white fog is rolling up the street above us, covering the sky and the outlines of buildings. It looks like the fog that crept up the train tracks in Elyria two nights ago before I left. But I realize it’s not fog, it’s smoke.
The night shift volunteer coordinator meets us at CVS, gives us a speech about patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor. She says, “Don’t go west of Broadway,” and makes us repeat it. I assume west of Broadway is the restricted area. Then she leads us down the street, through a guarded police barricade and then another onto the porch of St. Paul’s church, where we will be working all night. She takes us inside, sits us in the back of the dimly-lit sanctuary plastered with posters and thank-you cards from all over the country. She tells us, “This is a quiet space. The rescue workers come here to sleep, or to pray, or just to sit, or to get food.” I look around. People are wrapped up in blankets on the pews. Some are praying. In the back, a massage therapist, two chiropractors, and a podiatrist are digging into tired backs and feet. The walls are stacked with boxes of food and toiletries. We are given the phone number and address of a meeting place in case we have to evacuate, and the volunteer coordinator tells us, “I don’t care if you actually go there, but at least call, so we know you’re alive.”
I am put to work serving food on the porch of the church. Tonight there is jambalaya, cooked on propane stoves by some guys who drove up from New Orleans to feed whoever of the some 20,000 workers might come through. They cooked all day so we could serve it all night.
The air on the porch is bitter. I can see the smoke curling around the edges of the church. Things that sit still too long become coated in a fine white ash. Burning concrete, glass and steel, office papers, latex paint, asbestos. “And human bodies,” someone else says to me, when I mention the smell.
I am breathing in human ashes. No matter how small the proportion. I am part of this now, ghosts sucked in and out of my unmasked mouth and nostrils. I wish I could stop breathing. I know we should be wearing masks, but our smiles and clear communication with people is more important. I finger my asthma inhaler in my pocket.
Standing behind the jambalaya, smells of hot grease and sausage rising and masking the smell every time I lift the aluminum covers to serve someone, I forget about the smoke.
I ask questions. Bob and his neighbor Rick are serving in the line next to me. “How big is the– was the World Trade Center?” I know I am naive. I haven’t been reading the papers, haven’t been watching the news because mass media infuriates me. I have listened to NPR, but even they have selective reporting.
Rick gives me an answer in city blocks, but I shake my head. I am not a New Yorker, I don’t think in city blocks.
“Almost a mile by a mile,” Rick tells me. “A little over three quarters.”
I think of a mile. I say, “That’s the size of Oberlin. The campus.” Imagine Wilder Bowl, North and South campus to J-house, Tappan Square and the art museum, full of rubble twice the height of Peters.
“And how many weeks will it take for them to finish cleaning it up?” I ask.
“Weeks?” Rick says. “Weeks? Try years. Or, 70 to 80 weeks, at least.”
A few minutes pass. I am trying to comprehend, and I can’t.
“Is there a place you can go see it?” I ask. “The rubble?”
“If you look down the side streets,” Bob says, “You can see some of it. Take a walk down Broadway.” To look west, where we have been instructed not to go.
For the first half hour, the NYPD and NYFD logos, the army-fatigued men, all the uniforms make me nervous. You know, if you see a cop, you wonder what you’ve done wrong. I keep checking myself, looking around for something out of place or speeding. But they keep coming, mostly men, some women, and I cannot keep it up. Construction workers, plumbers, electricians, medics, police and fire departments from other cities and states. They eye the jambalaya skeptically, and I give them my most charming smile and assure them the cajun food is real good and not too spicy. I notice my southern accent coming out, just a little, contrasting their thick New York accents. They take the food and coffee or coke and sit down on the porch, usually for just 15 minutes but some for hours. Like they can’t bear to move.
I was there.
For a moment I know why I came. Serving these people is the one of the best things I have ever done in my life. I am privileged to stand up all night on a church porch lit with fake daylight giving out food and whatever these people need to keep going.
The American flags and words “You’re our heros” that have been accosting me from the walls take on a new meaning. These people I am serving and giving my smile and energy to are heros. They are setting aside their lives and physical limitations for 12, 24, 36 hour shifts to salvage the wreckage of thousands of other people’s lives.
This is real.
I have to put myself aside, forget that uniforms stand for something I cannot agree with, that this whole thing happened, in part, because of symbols I don’t believe in. Forget America, forget borders and politics and policies. These are people, real people eating, sleeping, praying, exhausted from the tragedy that really happened.
I was there.
A few hours later, Bob takes off his gloves and says he’ll take me on a coffee run. (“Caffeine is our best friend here at ground zero,” the volunteer coordinator said. “No one is denied coffee, even if they can’t come inside the fence.”) We grab a pot, cups and sugar and milk to take down Broadway to the police stationed as guards. We walk along the inner barricade, coated like the church with posters and banners. I peer down the side streets at smoke and the bright lights of forced day for round-the-clock work. The buildings close enough to see are burnt out, windows gone and sides charred black. The streets are gone, too, full of holes, chunks of asphalt misplaced or crumbled away. I see a fire hose jet of water aimed at a smoldering pile.
I think maybe I am back at Universal Studios on the Earthquake! ride, and in a few minutes the crumbled buildings and torn up streets will be mechanically pulled back into place, good as new.
We walk down several blocks, pouring coffee for the policemen, and then we are at the end. Our coffee is almost gone anyway, so we turn back, smiling and chatting with the police. Bob slows at the fence so he can read the signs and cards plastered there. There are flowers, too, and other memorabilia. One continuous shrine encircling the site. I ask Bob if the big gap in sky scrapers was the World Trade Center. I don’t know what it looked like before. He says yes.
We take the empty coffee pot back to the church, and I tell myself, I am here.
For 8 hours I serve jambalaya. Bob comes back from a break and tells us he was taken west of Broadway. He just asked a policeman, and they took him in on a Gator, a little motorized vehicle. Rick takes off his gloves and hat and tells me to come with him. We walk down the street and hang around two policemen until Rick gets a chance to explain what we want. The policemen says, “Yeah, sure, just give us a minute.” Another policeman standing there says we should take in coffee, if we want to get further without questions. Even though another policemen tells us that isn’t necessary, we go back to get a pot. We climb in the back bed of the Gator with another volunteer, Amy. I put on a hospital mask, but no one else does, and we pass through the fence.
We drive through the rubble on decimated streets, past a black building with hundreds of vacant eyes. The back side of it facing the WTC is melted away. A Borders sign is the only thing left from before.
I am horrified. My eyes wide and my legs paralyzed, all I can do is silently stare and grip the cardboard box with sugar and milk and stir-sticks. My companions do the serving. Amy praises and thanks every person we run into, tells them that hot breakfast is being served starting at 4am. She shouts “God bless you,” as we drive away.
I could be anywhere in the world. I am not in New York, not even in America. I am in Afghanistan, I am in Kashmir, in Palestine and Israel, in Korea, Vietnam, Germany and London. For a second I presume I know what it is like to be in a war. I am in a war zone, breathing in the ashes of victims all over the world.
I know what I am looking at at one point is the WTC pile. But it can’t be. It is cranes and dump trucks and only a hole in a sky of buildings.
Our coffee is out so we leave. The policemen race the Gator over the streets and I am afraid I will fall out. Watching the scene recede behind us, I am terrified maybe we won’t get out, and then we are on the other side of the fence, climbing out of the Gator. I take off my mask. Go back to the church and think I am going to take my place in the serving line. Bob looks at me and says, “Pretty incredible, huh?” I say yeah, already forgetting.
I was there.
I stand by the food. My replacement isn’t leaving. Maybe it is a set-up– I’m not supposed to be there yet. I just saw the wreckage of a war and I think I will just keep on without stopping? I am exhausted, drained. My lungs are hurting.
I was there.
I cannot forget but already I am.
I go inside the church. To the dim lights and candles. I sit and breathe, try to keep from having to do my inhaler.
Who can reduce 5000 people and a square mile a hundred stories high to a nightmare moonscape of rubble? I am thankful I have already forgiven the people who caused this terror. After September 11th, in my shock, it was one of the only things I could do besides study. I am glad that their bodies and misguided minds are at rest because otherwise I would hate them. I feel my body clenched with grief, replacing the terror of my few minutes inside ground zero. Where does this kind of rage go? How do we make it dissipate without more harm?
I close my eyes and prayer pours forth in whispers from my soul. For a moment my mind is clear. I know everything to thank for and everything to ask for. And then I begin to cry, to sob quietly into the silent sanctuary.
This is real.
I was there.
I am here.
My nose is running, and my breath still hurts. I stand up and go to find the bathroom, blow my nose and wash my face. I do my inhaler, hold my breath and then let it out slowly. I am ready to go back out. I look at my watch. 4am. 4 hours to go.
When I open the doors outside, the smell of the smoke hits my nostrils. I gag. How have I been out in this all night?
No one asks me where I’ve been. I take over in the serving line, put on my smile and try to push of the rest of the jambalaya on people before breakfast arrives.
I was there. I am here.
We change over the food. For several hours I serve bacon and sausage and eggs. Some still want the jambalaya. For some it is dinner time, not breakfast. We are all a little off. I drink some coffee myself, something I never do. We are all getting early-morning silly. Punchy, someone says, and we wipe tears from our eyes. We have mundane conversations, forgetting what is behind the church. Smoke is masked again by apple crisp and french toast.
“It’s light,” the guy working next to me says.
I look up at the sky and feel cheated. The morning after. Daylight comes and all the fear and emotion from the night before seems unfounded. I love watching the sunrise but the buildings block the ascent of the sun. It is morning too quickly, and day has replaced the night.
I am going back uptown to Bob and Andrea’s apartment, hopefully to sleep a few hours before I leave town. I’m not ready to go. I want to stay, to sleep all day and return to ground zero tonight, every night and then move on to wherever I am needed to serve.
I am opened. What is important is not theoretical concepts, research, sitting in a remote sterile office writing policies and debating. What is important is basic human interactions, smiling at someone to help them smile back, giving people our energy when they need it, and helping everyone to stay alive.
I was there.
I am here.
We are here.