I was chosen for jury duty on September 10. The rest of the prospective jurors were allowed to leave and resume their lives and for some of them, I guess, their jobs in the nearby World Trade Center. Having to submit to the inevitability of jury duty, I left the courthouse and gave myself a lemons-into-lemonade thought. I looked up at the Twin Towers and decided that since these were the halcyon days of September in New York, I’d try Windows on the World for lunch or maybe breakfast. I’d never been there. After all, my life for the next few weeks as a juror in the NY Supreme Court was to start the next day, at 10:30 AM on Centre Street and I’d want to get out for a little fresh air.
I was awoken the next morning by what sounded like a broom handle battering ram hitting against the door of my top floor East Village railroad apartment. It was nothing, but it was very disturbing. I was there alone, so I was a bit vigilant. All my loved ones were out of the city. I showered and got ready to walk the mile to the New York City Supreme Courthouse which sat in the shadow of the Twin Towers. I was to be there at 10:30 that AM and was running a bit late when it all began. Looking out of my window onto the street as the towers burned was the incongruous scene of young mothers pushing their strollers with coffee cups and brand new freshmen NYU students rushing to their still unfamiliar campus. Insouciance on a New York City scale. The towers burned. The people jumping… seen easily even if a mile away. The towers fell. The fall was felt under my feet , a subtle rumble of 3.6 on the Richter scale.
My mother had been on the phone with me during the deluge. “Well dear, don’t you think you really ought to go to the courthouse anyway. Don’t you think you’ll get into trouble for not showing up?” (Had I been there on time I would have been in the chaos and debris). I figured it was her way of denying her daughter’s life was in danger.
When the initial layers of adrenaline washed over me about a thousand times, when I realized I was alive, after I watched the news from the only station I could receive (CBS), and when I realized the manhole covers weren’t going to blow up in some final infrastructure middle finger aftershock, I sat mute and didn’t dare go outside for fear of the air. Although the sky was clear around me, I didn’t know whether the wind would shift. My head was calm but perhaps on account of succumbing to the mania of apartment fever, I started having bizarre desires: I wanted a facial in the baddest way. I’ve never had a facial. I wanted to take a bubble bath. But as I sat in my apartment after having re-potted my jasmine-scented bonsai and playing the same piano piece over and over again, faster and faster, I wanted a bubble bath and a facial. Then, more practically, I thought I’d go to the local Duane Reade for an antidote for anthrax and potassium iodide for nuclear radiation poisoning. For certainly those things were to come. And Duane Reade would be closed soon and there would be a run on all the Armageddon supplies. The St. Ives apricot scrub would be sold out. Cause after an apocalypse, who doesn’t want a chain store facial scrub to feel detoxified?
I was affiliated with the now defunct St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan’s West Village. The WTC was in its catchment area and I did my internship and residency training there. I was an intern during the first attack on the towers and the place got all the action. I worked the ER then. This time my gut told me to get out of New York ASAP. But here, my mother appealed to my professional purpose. “But, they’ll NEED you!” She echoed what I already knew I was going to do anyway. But not today. Today I AM ALIVE. I’ll go tomorrow, after I slept. Plus there were highly trained emergency personnel at the ready and a whole slew of actual housestaff. I slept the deepest sleep I can remember. I didn’t know it then, but by so doing I ensured my mental health for the weeks and months to come.
I volunteered “for duty” early the next morning at St Vincent’s. I put on my white coat and joined my white coated physician brethern all huddled. Barely looking at me and without as much as a full sentence they issued a bark: “New School! The Families!”. I left for the New School, a campus in the vicinity, now set up to address the families who had already started congregating there in throngs. They stretched around the entire block. I was assigned a work station by a benevolently smiling gentleman of the cloth and was given reams of stapled updates and rosters of area hospitals and make shift morgues from Staten Island to Jersey City to Columbia to Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. I was also supposed to do crisis intervention with the families. But no one was really in crisis. It was ultra-calm. There was a real sense by all that most made it out. It was just a question of unraveling the worst rush hour congestion in the city’s history. Everyone must be in the process of being attended to somewhere! It was only a chaotic skein of yarn of an order of magnitude of chaotic chaos. It’s funny how we all turned into urban Pollyannas with furrowed brows. Fortunately I had slept. I was unusually clear-minded as I became part doctor, part hostess, part soldier, part victim.
As each family and non-family member came before me, the tragedy went to the particulars. “Yes” a mother said about her son, both immigrants from South America, “he worked at Windows on the World as a prep cook, he wanted to go to law school. He called me twice. ‘They’re telling me I should stay up here, mama,’ he said the first time, then ‘I’m going down the stairs….mama, I don’t think I’m going to make it’”. He didn’t. Later he was featured in a TV news magazine show as a promising immigrant who worked to put himself through law school.
As grand as the devastation was, so equally grand were the specificities of people’s lives I began to learn about.
“She wasn’t supposed to have gone into work today, but her boss wanted to go play golf and he wanted her to cover for him “, a man said about his mother, a secretary to a financial firm CEO. She survived. Some people were desperate in their descriptions. “Have you found her? She has really big boobs. I mean really big boobs”, a sister said of her missing, never found sibling. In they came, more stories, more updates, more instructions. As soon as the forlorn loved ones left my station, I could see them get back on the end of the line to wait the two or three hours it took for them to come back to me, eager for any news. I quickly realized what my colleagues were also realizing. We were being told by the trauma teams and ER that no one was being found. Most everyone who was to be found was already found. We became paper shufflers, leafing through dead data simply to distract. A couple of blocks away all the ER staff, intensivists, nurses and other house staff stood outside the hospital in a phalanx of reception. No one was to be received.
One man I will never forget. He typified the complexion of the victims. Young, bright and upwardly mobile. He told me how he adored his little sister. She had just gotten out of college and had landed a plum position at the ill-fated Cantor-Fitzgerald (everyone perished there except for its head who decided to take his children personally to their first day of school). He showed me the picture of his sister, Brooke, saying “Look how beautiful she is, look how alive”. Every time he’d approach my station, he’d politely ask me if he could use my outlet to recharge his phone. He did this seven times. That meant I was there for over fourteen hours. Sitting. Not budging. A sessile constant in these people’s upheaved lives. The benevolent gentleman of the cloth forced me to eat and drink. I took a few bites of sandwich he brought. I ate with the appetite of the grief-stricken. I offered my food to others who took it but likewise didn’t take to it. Mothers came in with their children looking for their children’s grandfather. Co-workers who made it out, fiancees, divorcees, lovers, friends, children. It is truly hard to describe the spine- chilling bonhomie of these moments. We were truly united. A greater mass love I never experienced before.
I kept a log of the number of people I was “looking for”. Around 120. I took down the numbers of the people looking for said 120 people, I told them I would contact them if I found anything. I wrote down thumbnail sketches like “really, really big boobs”. I’m now left with that log. The day ended and I walked the abandoned streets of the cordoned off area below 14th street. I walked in the middle of Fifth avenue alone for stretches at a time with no vehicles or people.
I tried working in my lower east side clinic the following day, but by then the air had shifted bringing the pungent electric stench to my neighborhood. I advised my patients to stay indoors because I knew that Whitman and the EPA declaring the air quality as safe was BS. The air became heavy and foggy with toxins and you could hear passersby talking gibberish to themselves. The following day I eventually breached the envelop of containment with my face mask, to enter what was the usual bustling of New York above 14th street. I left for a week.
When I came back, I purchased the accompanying photograph a local photojournalist had taken while he was just below the towers. He only suffered a broken limb. It took me over a month to muster a walk to Ground Zero. It was still smoldering in the October dusk.
It’s funny how one can retrospectively connect the dots of synchronicity.
One was a child’s painting I had picked up a few years before because I liked its composition. It was of lower Manhattan’s skyline. But the Statue of Liberty was looking away from the city, her face looking away from the plane that was flying above the city toward the towers, while at her feet, at the confluence of the East and Hudson Rivers, there floated a sailboat called “Trouble”.
The other, occurring some years before that: A set of faux postage stamps I bought on the East Village’s Avenue A from the artist who made them. They were just like real postage stamps. In fact, I used one successfully to mail a letter. On the postage stamps were both Twin Towers ablaze with the caption: Wish You Were Here.