Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Enterprise - 45

You could be among the dead. There’d never be shame in that. You could be among the lucky ones, standing one moment at the copy machine, thinking about lunch or sex or how you have to drive all the way to Rhode Island to see your in-laws this weekend—WHAM!, you’re pulverized out of existence. Now you’re a beloved memory. You’re perfect. You’re a face in a Pulitzer Prize–winning series of memorials in the paper, a sainted name projected onto the walls and rafters of Madison Square Garden during a performance by U2.

You could be among the survivors. Not among we survivors, who’d watched the towers fall on television. But those who’d scrambled out of the ash and debris, ties flailing over their shoulders, personal effects abandoned, heels snapping off. Those who’d gone down 82 floors in the smoke and the darkness just before the floors had gone down, too. They’d been suddenly conscripted in a one-day war. We were the folks back home.

You could also be a rescuer. Official or not. Anyone could walk past the barriers at 14th Street and volunteer for service. You got a shovel. A facemask, maybe. You could dig through the rubble all day, come back and do it all over again the next. The point was to find someone alive. No one did. But as long as there you were digging, you were alright. Many who did proclaimed that they had no choice, that the disaster site exerted a stronger pull than their families or their jobs. Such duty was obviously hazardous, possibly suicidal. (The maw at Ground Zero was smoldering with bones and hair, with glass, paper, rubber, steel, plaster and asbestos; with nylon, vinyl and formaldehyde; with polypropylene, polystyrene and a thousand more of man’s creations; the disintegrated elements of city. The smell of death and poison, sickly-sweet and acrid, hung over the entire island for weeks.) Who did this kind of work? Not us. Not me. We weren’t among the dead or wounded, the survivors, nor the saviors.

There were a few things that people like us could do. We could give blood, everybody said. My sister and I dutifully presented ourselves at the nearest donation center. A line of likeminded souls stretched out the door and around the corner of 67th Street and Second. Inside, perplexed staff members scrambled to manage the influx. We were turned away. Plus: no one needed any blood.

Here we were, some coworkers and I, traipsing through Chelsea on a sunny weekday. Kevin towed a Radio Flyer filled with provisions we’d earnestly assembled and purchased at a Duane Reade. Boxes of PowerBars, a case of Gatorade, Bounty paper towels, Advil, Slim Jims, M&Ms and Visine. We were told they needed Visine most of all.