Tuesday, September 25, 2001.
I'm in a bagel shop last night, late, heading to a bar, when I catch the eye of the man next to me at the counter. He's dressed head to toe in American flag merchandise-hat, shirt, bandanna hanging out of his pocket-and around his neck he wears a complex series of badges, pagers, and ID cards.
"How are you?" I say.
"How long you got?" is his reply. "You got a couple days?"
"Yeah, really," I say. I nod compassionately. I've talked to a lot of strangers this week. I turn back to the counter.
"I been down at the site," he says, "since Tuesday."
The counter is less interesting now. Now, I'm really looking at him. "Oh, god," I say. "How-um-wow. You must be exhausted."
"I been working eighteen, twenty hour days," he says, rubbing his arms that I now see are a little black, a little swollen. "This is my first day off."
"Did you sleep down there?" I ask.
"Yeah, an hour here, an hour there," he says, adjusting the ID card around his neck, that I now notice says Office of Emergency Management. "I been running a command post, and today I just sat and pointed, 'You go there, you go there.' I just couldn't move anymore, today."
I am speechless in the way I get when there are too many questions, or when rather than talking I just want to crawl inside someone's brain and curl up to understand. I ask him how it's going, he says slow. I ask him what, if anything, people talk about down there, he says it's quiet. They did bring in musicians to play, he says, to try and keep up morale.
"You been down there?" he asks me.
"No. I mean, no," I stammer. "I don't want to. I don't want to get in the way. I had a friend who went down to work last Friday"-and I tell him the story of my friend the volunteer fireman who was rendered speechless by a day on the site, a story that seems awfully insignificant in the light of this man's close-to-two-weeks-straight of work until I tell myself that's stupid and go on-"I can't believe people are going down and taking pictures. It doesn't seem right." I scan his face, which I now notice is pockmarked and drooping.
"They're confiscating cameras now," he says. "People should just stay away." I nod again.
All I can do is nod as he tells me that they found seventeen bodies yesterday, because they finally unearthed a staircase. That he's seen things that would make a seven-foot gorilla black out, do I know what he means? That the cadaver-sniffing dogs are doing their best, do I know what he means, cadaver? I nod. That when you find a body, all you can do is step over it and keep going. But he's been all over the country doing this kind of thing-setting up command posts-he was in Oklahoma City, he thought he'd seen it all in thirty years of working for the O.E.M, and he thinks-no, he knows-that there are still pockets of air down there, in the basement, and there could be people alive. The ultrasound scanners might be picking up life. There are restaurants down there, you know, he says. I nod.
"What's your name?" I ask.
"Eddie," he says.
His partner, sitting silently at a table behind us, bites into his bagel. His shirt reads New York Housing Authority, and his badge is flipped in towards his chest.
Eddie clasps my hand, and then reaches into his pocket (which I now see is overflowing with work gloves and plastic bags) and pulls out a shrink-wrapped packet that looks a bit like what comes with my Chinese food delivery except it's not filled with duck sauce or a fortune cookie; as I turn it over in my hand, the vaguely yellowed bag crackling, I see within instant coffee, a teabag, a wetnap, gum, a tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce.
"It's called a Survivor Pack," Eddie says. "They hand 'em out in combat, and everyone's getting 'em down at the site." He presses it into my hands. "It can be your memento."
I nod, feverishly. "What's the Tabasco sauce for?"
"Cleans out germs," Eddie says.
"Thank you," I say.
"Thank you," he says back.
Later, walking home, I pass by Union Square Park. So much time and love and respect and pain have been deposited here in the form of candles and flowers and posters, extending into the sky in the form of flags and banners and chalked messages on the George Washington statue in the center of the plaza.
But now, it's raining, and the piles have wilted into the gray stone. Someone has taken the time to place cardboard boxes and umbrellas over the candles to keep the rain out, but the candles have instead lit the boxes and umbrellas on fire and a small bonfire is blazing at the foot of the statue. As I walk up the stairs, five or six policeman and a couple of people with cameras are standing, staring at the blaze, no one moving to do much of anything to put it out or contain it. A tattooed skate punk kid walks gingerly around the circle, blowing out the remaining candles before they can do any more damage. We watch the fire in silence, except for the clicking of shutters. Someone bums a cigarette, we struggle to get it lit in the wind and rain.
Two police officers come up out of the subway carrying fire extinguishers, walk to the middle of the memorial, and put out the fire. It only takes a few blasts from the extinguishers, with a few extra blasts for good measure. The smoke carries up into the sky, bright white in the neon of Union Square.
The tiny crowd disperses. As I walk down into the subway, a fire truck pulls up on 14th Street, and I see a man wave it off. The sirens disappear, the red lights stop turning, and the truck drives away. I try not to look at the gray ash covering the flowers.
Since this was written, over a week ago, Union Square Park has been cleaned, scraped free of wax, scrubbed free of graffiti. A few candles and memorials have returned, but nothing close to the carnival atmosphere of the immediate aftermath. Here and there, fliers are popping up protesting the cleaning, accusing the city of forcing a fascist "return to normalcy". The truth is, that fire begot fire. We came full circle. It was time to move on.