(Me ten years ago, restoring power on the roof of the Trinity Building.)
Two Mornings After
The subway from Queens, unreliable at the best of times, crawled along at ten miles an hour. It grinded to a halt every few hundred yards. Some riders jerked their eyes back and forth. Others hung their heads, swaying with the movement of the tracks. One woman choked back sobs, wiping her eyes every few minutes with a mascara-stained tissue.
I worked at 23rd street, which is about a mile and a half north of “Ground Zero.” When the train from Queens entered Manhattan, a crackling loudspeaker informed me that my connecting train was out of service. I exited into the sunlight, passed a cordon of police and soldiers, and began my thirty-block trek downtown. Even from three miles away I could smell the burning. I tried to ignore the fact that what filled my nostrils included some 2600 people. I failed.
The city seemed deserted, empty. Anything south of West 4th Street had been blocked off with military checkpoints, so only a handful of cars were on the streets. Every few blocks, police and National Guardsmen carrying M16s stood ready, but for what I had no idea. To the south, towering above us all, a swirling pillar of smoke scorched the sky, a giant defacing the clouds with charcoal.
Along Lexington Avenue, bus shelter after bus shelter were wallpapered with photocopies and print outs. Black-ink faces smiled from white paper copies of wedding photos, family gatherings, and yearbook portraits. Each had a plea scrawled in block letters: “HAS ANYONE SEEN _____?” or, “PLEASE CALL IF YOU HAVE ANY INFORMATION!” In time, as the elements eroded these appeals, it became clear that no one would ever call, that these tattered papers would be the victims’ only tombstones. Watching these desperate prayers disintegrate day after day made me feel sick to my stomach and helpless. This, more than anything, is what I think of when anyone asks what I remember.
I reached the New York University Dental School on the East Side, which was under renovation. The kiosk I bought my paper from was draped with American flags. The elderly Middle-Eastern man inside half cowered at the sight of me, a large, pleading smile on his face. He wore a bright, tacky t-shirt with the Statue of Liberty on it. What was his exact nationality? I had no clue. His pleading, darting eyes prayed that I didn’t think it mattered. I bought the Daily News and offered him the best smile I could muster. He bared his teeth in an empty grin, his head bouncing like a bobblehead.
A long line of construction workers waited for me at the gate. As was now the norm throughout the city, everyone had to be checked in with photo IDs. One electrician who had worked there for six months was not allowed to enter, because he did not have his driver’s license with him. “Everyone must have their papers,” he growled as he left. “It’s like fucking Russia.”
On the tenth floor, my coworkers stood at the windows in silence. I joined them, lost in the monstrosity that blotted out the sky to the south, occasional bursts of red and orange flaring up from its base. “How long ‘till they get that out?” I wondered.
“Who knows?” a fellow electrician named Tom said. He took a drag on his Marlboro. “That jet fuel can gel like napalm. It’s all packed in down there in the rubble. Don’t forget that there was the subway, the PATH station, and a little underground mall down there too. They’re all burning. Pockets of air come up and feed the fire, and the fuel seeps further and further down.” The cigarette was just about down to the filter. He tossed it on the floor, crushed it under his heel, and lit another. “Did you watch Dubya’s speech?”
“Yeah,” I said, remembering the standing ovation he had gotten from both sides of the aisle. “Hilary looked royally pissed he was getting so much love.”
“Mmm,” he said. “Bush. Asshole. Just let it happen.”
“How could he have stopped it?” I asked. “You can’t exactly shoot planes down over New York City.”
“How old are you?” he asked.
“You’re young,” Tom said. “Never trust the government- especially Republicans. They’ll fuck you any way they can.”
“Ok,” Jeff the foreman interrupted, clapping his hands. It was 7:30, half an hour after we were supposed to start. “I know it’s hard, but we have to get something done.”
Someone turned on the radio. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” blasted from Q104.3, although it couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be called classic rock. Afterwards, Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” came on. Better, I thought. I strapped on my tool belt and tried to pretend it was a normal day.
“Listen to that song,” a carpenter said. “I love that song.”
“It’s a great version,” I said.
His face twisted. “We should just bomb them.”
“Who?” I asked.
“The whole Middle East,” he snapped, as if I was an idiot. “Just nuke them right off the map, that’ll teach them. It stopped World War Two, didn’t it?”
“You can’t do that anymore,” his co-worker piped up. “It’s not ‘politically correct.’”
“You know some kids are protesting us going into Afghanistan?” a fellow electrician named Barney joined in. He was a plump man in his mid-fifties. He lit a cigarette, sucking the smoke down like a man gasping for air. “It’s just like Vietnam again.”
“No, it’s like Desert Storm,” the carpenter corrected him. “Everyone has flags out along my block, all over their car radios, yellow ribbons around trees, the works. But in a year, everyone’s going to forget. Or they’ll just be sick of it. Right now, the Republicans are all saying ‘I told you so,’ and they’re having fun doing it. But in a year or two, the liberals will be back with a vengeance.”
“Yep,” I said. I reached into Barney’s pack and took out a cigarette. He held out his lighter to me and I took a long drag. It burned and tasted delicious. “People have short memories."
“You got that right,” Barney muttered.
How long would all this last, I wondered as I gathered up wire reels and arranged them on a pulling rack, this bizarre mixture of patriotism, anger, prayer, suspicion, love, fear, and camaraderie? How long could the government continue its tightrope act, claiming that America is in immediate danger, yet at the same time, implore us that it’s a safe place to “go out and shop?” How long were we going to pat ourselves on the back for our freedom and envious way of life, while at the same time presenting our papers at work while soldiers with automatic weapons patrolled the streets?
The first few lines of John Mellencamp’s “Ain’t that America” came on the radio, and someone cranked up the volume even louder. Across the floor, I could see Jeff raise an eyebrow at me: Was I was just going to stand around all day? I realized that however long it took for things to get back to normal, it would be a lot more than two days. I pushed my cart out onto the floor and went to work.