Thursday, September 11, 2008
(Me back in September 2001, working on the roof of the Trinity building, restoring power at ground zero.)
As with previous years, the following is a letter I wrote to my friends & family in the days after 9/11. The letter is here in it's entirety, "warts and all." The only change I'd like to make is that while at the time we were told the death toll was 6000, it's now known to be about 2700.
I'm sorry that I've been distant lately. I'm sure you can all understand, some even more than me.
I've been scared. I don't like to be, much less admit it, but I've been scared. I was lucky and in Queens, not in Manhattan last Tuesday. No, I wouldn't have been THERE (Though at 2 am I remember that I was working on the roof of a building a block away a month before this happened.) When the towers went down, I walked to the LIE overpass behind the apartment house and stared at the smoke that was in the place of the towers on the Manhattan skyline. Even though I'm one East River away from the close-ups on TV, it was stomach twisting. I called my foreman that night, and he told me how they watched it happen from the windows, 30 blocks away, how 20-50 year-old tough-guy construction workers were shaking, some crying, because they thought it was WW3 and the beginning of The End.
On Thursday, back in Manhattan, I had to walk from 42nd and Lex to 23rd and 1st, because the #6 line was down. (They were afraid of subway vibrations bringing down more buildings) It's not really as long a walk as it sounds, but I passed the recovery HQ on 1st ave- Past all the TV vans, and past a block's worth of pictures taped to plywood sheets. As time has past, these hopeful "have you seen" pictures have become memorials, and they're everywhere. I can't talk on the phone without staring into photographs with tearful notes of hope underneath, knowing they were put there by loved ones who will never ever see them again. I call my wife, and my voice becomes a dull monotone. She asks why and I'm at a loss on how to explain.
One of my friends at work is 40 years old, and he's a kind, good man. Today he suddenly started cursing himself, muttering what a failure he is. When I asked him what was wrong, he admitted it was because he started smoking again after giving them up cold turkey for 10 years. He told me he feels worthless, because suddenly he can't live without them again. I tell him it's an understandable need, but I can tell that my words don't help. I realize the frustration goes deeper than a pack of Marbalo 100s
Again, I'm on a job 30 blocks away from "ground zero", and I can see out the window that what was once a symbol of achievement is still a smoldering hole in the ground. I know it's only been a week, but I wonder when the skyline won't have a haze that has nothing to do with pollution. I walk down the street and I see people that are scared and jittery, no matter what their profession or race. I buy a paper from an elderly Arabic man, who wears a "God Bless America" shirt every day, and shrinks down in his kiosk- which is draped in American flags- like a frightened rabbit every time I, or any other customer approach. I give the little smile I have, but I don't think it does any good. I wonder if he's so afraid, why he stays here, and I realize he probably has no one and no where else to go.
Our shop is working on restoring power to one of those buildings- the same one I was on the roof of not too long ago (The Trinity building, 111 Broadway for those of you with a love for geography)- and being a lowly apprentice I helped the truck driver deliver material yesterday. My drivers license was scrutinized by armed police and National Guardsmen, like I'm trying to get onto a military base, and they make me wait in the cab while they and the driver search the truck. The won't let the truck get closer than a few blocks away and we wind up rolling 3' diameter wooden reels of sj cord down the street. The smell twisted my stomach, when I realized that what I was smelling was death- the death of a great achievement, of that smug "nothing can ever happen to us" attitude we Americans had without giving it a second thought, and, most disturbingly of over 6000 bodies.
And there's this feeling that grips me, this feeling that there's nothing I could ever do to protect myself, my wife or my son (I know that's a MCP attitude, but I'm sure Jen feels the same way about Joey and me.) And I wonder every night if tomorrow some new insanity will strike. I jump every time a car backfires. I run 2 miles a night (yes, frightening but true. This started a while before all this happened and I'm down to a not-quite-slim-yet 225lbs, thank you very much) and every time a plane flies overhead I flinch. I watched President's Bush's speech on TV tonight, and every time the picture flickered a little (I don't have cable, so 2 is really the only reliable channel- the others are coming and going- for those of you not in NYC, the WTC had all the broadcast antennas for the area except channel 2, leaving those of us cable-less with only CBS ) I thought "oh shit, what's happening now?" Every time I hear a siren, I wonder what's happened. The QM4 bus got held up at the Midtown tunnel yesterday (connecting Queens to Manhattan) because there was an accident. Of course, everyone seeing a bunch of flashing lights and emergency vehicles as we approach a tunnel, we instantly look around like caged animals, wondering if stage 2 had begun.
I feel guilty. Part of me tells myself that I have no right to feel so hurt or so angry- my family and my friends are all safe, and I'm alive and healthy. I'm a civilian now, I don't have to worry like so many others do. Who am I to feel so much? There are some without homes, without jobs, without their wives/sons/husbands/dads/daughters/brothers/sisters/fiancées... oh, you get the picture. I feel like I'm just whining.
I can't help being angry. We have the freedom of religion, but we jump out of our skins if someone says a prayer before a graduation ceremony or a football game. We have the freedom to own firearms, but we curse any law abiding citizen who owns one, while passing more and more lenient laws against criminals who use them. We showed the world that our presidency is a joke, that we don't care about our own history, our pride. We have a popular culture that demands more and more freedoms, but damns those who give/gave their lives and personal freedoms to protect the ones we have. I watched the speech, saw Democrats and Republicans give up their petty bickering that's been tearing the country to pieces, for the first time since WW2. It gives me a boost of hope, and I pray the sentiment lasts longer than this week, and reaches further than military resolve- into fixing our school system, into caring more about our OWN country's welfare, into bringing back production into this country so people can have jobs and learn trades to feed their families. I hope our politicians will stop trying to convince group A that everyone in groups B, C, and Q hates them, just to get their block of votes, then running around like idiots and asking "why?" when that hate turns to violence. I hope we learn to accept and love each other because we're Americans, despite our preference/denomination/color/sex. God, two weeks ago, that statement would have sounded so corny, wouldn't it?
We're at war, but we don't really know against who. There's no clear enemy, no one knows who will attack or when. Will it be us or them? Will it be "Us" or some nut like McVeigh, thinking we'll blame foreign terrorists instead of domestic? I realize I live on an island, and the only way to the rest of the world is by crossing another island (either Staten Island or Manhattan) Am I going to worry over every bridge and tunnel I cross for the rest of my life? And if it's "them," what form will it take? Watching 6000 people die as the WTC go down in flames is one thing. Watching millions in a city die from Anthrax in our water supply is another.
I'm sorry if I see this as just an NYC thing. It's hard to grasp that this is affecting the whole country.
It's an uncertain time, it's become an uncertain world. I just want you all to be certain that I love every one of you.
Those of you who've been forwarding bits of editorials, news items, letters, etc. Thank you, but it's you who's opinion I'm interested in. Let me know what you're thinking & feeling, if you'd like- you're more important.
Love each other, stay safe, and live your lives, for yourself and for each other.