Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The End of the World (Trade Center)

It's hard to believe I wrote this 12 years ago, that morning and the next day. Still vivid. I'm grateful that the CT editor 'let' me report, reflect and process:

Dispatches from out of the dust
By Jo Kadlecek
9/11/01 11:30 am
Our city is bleeding. My phone has not stopped ringing. The news reports are horrifying. This is my backyard and I have to go, to try to get my head around it, to listen and respond. My bicycle will be the surest way to get 60 blocks from here. I ride.

Scores of people are walking north, heading north. A mass migration of broken people head north looking for safety.

Has this happened before?

Along the Hudson River, I ride my bicycle past a golfer who practices his putting; runners jog by, sirens and fire engines rush by. Women in power suits and no shoes walk north past workers who gather around truck radios listening for the latest updates on the attacks. Mobs of teenage students also stroll north, chatting as if nothing has happened. 

As if life in New York City is always chaotic and terrifying. Every other person is trying to talk with someone on a cell phone, trying to meet up with friends or find a colleague. 
Everyone is looking for someone as the smoke lingers over this southern end of the most powerful city in the world, but certainly not the most invincible. Not now.

People with suitcases walk up out of their hotels that were in the shadow of the now-blazing towers. I hear a tourist comment on the weather: "It's a nice day today, isn't it?"

Commuters walk in the hot September sun, stranded, numb, eager to get home. Home will never be the same.
Reporters turn human and cry on air in the television I see inside a diner. Someone shouts that eight planes have now attacked the U.S. Terror invites dramatic terror.


I stop at 42nd and 10th, unable to ride any further south because so many people crowd the streets and the bike paths. Police are directing traffic. One woman in a van frantically tries to flash her credentials to a traffic cop so she can go through a red light. On the back window of her van is a bumper sticker that reads, "Who Cares?" Children in cars behind the van stare out the window with adult faces: heavy, bewildered, terrified.

I listen to the conversations of people trying to get to the ferry at the Hudson River in hopes they can get to New Jersey. Or wherever. "This is like Pearl Harbor. No, this is worse than Pearl Harbor," says one tall man in a black suit. A young Asian woman walks with her friend behind the tall man, oblivious to what I just heard. She tells her friend, "I like watching Frasier." I stare as the girl blends into the sea of battered faces, smoky streets, and vague conversations.

I get on my bike and I, too, head north. Jittery, moved, and suddenly intent on getting back to my apartment. Safety seems a tenuous gift.

* * *

9/12/01 11:30 am

I ride again down traffic-free streets on the Upper East Side to 310 East 67th Street—the New York Blood Center. Lines and lines of people waiting to donate, to do anything, spill around the corner. Most of us are given a ticket by other volunteers and told to come back. They're maxed out and don't have the capacity to take any more blood. One man in a shirt and tie challenges one of the volunteers: "I'm just trying to understand why you're doing it this way, why you're having us all line up. Why?" She smiles graciously.

We're all trying to understand. That's why we're here.

Most centers are "overburdened" because of the offers to help.. Over 300 people stood in this line alone since 8 a.m. I hear one light-hearted woman tell another: "I'm a volunteer too, just giving out cheese and crackers to you guys. You come and volunteer tomorrow at 8 a.m. and we'll both be doing something even though we don't know anything." A child in a stroller sits under a sign that says, "We need your Blood!" while her mom talks on a cell phone. As great as this tragedy has been, so great is the outpouring of people who want to help.

Television crews wander the streets in search of stories. They are not hard to find. Strangers comfort one another by listening and recounting the horrific events: Where were you when it happened? All your family okay? Need anything? They nod or cry or shake their heads and look at the ground.
I ride south through eerie silence.

On the corner of Hudson and Houston I hear an older woman say to no one in particular, "I'm just trying to take things in. I'm just trying to take things in." Police officers continue to steer people across the streets, to "Keep Moving, Folks, Keep Moving."
It seems good advice.

I glance down Hudson as far as I can and only see thick white smoke. Everywhere.
A Latina police woman asks to see the ID of bicyclists who just want to get home. They live "down there." She looks at them softly, "Oh my God, no, it's a mess. Chambers Street is a mess. It's all a mess. You'll have to go around to one of the rivers and see if they'll let you through that way. Hey, good luck." They nod a thankless head and ride west.
The dump trucks now are called in. A photographer shoots the dirty shoes of the Latina cop. She tries not to feel self conscious about the dust and grime that covers her feet. A black man walks by carrying an American flag high above his head and he stops to be the subject of another photographer's picture. He beams at the attention. In an endless blur, people walk into the center of the street and just stare downtown, hoping to see something. There is nothing to be seen. Only clouds. But they don't give up hope: "I heard the view is better along the Hudson River," a young man tells a federal agent who stands in his black vest and gun. He goes along with the illusion and nods.
A better view of smoke? Or terror's memory?

It is so quiet. So quiet.

Then for a minute—a New York minute—the sun breaks through at Varick and Houston Streets. As I look down, I can see City Hall and the other government buildings. They are still there, smoke around them, but there nonetheless. A van teeming with bagels, water bottles, tins of food and volunteers races down Varick, followed by packed vans with relief workers, volunteers. They are heading south.

On the corner of Thompson and Houston I stop my bike. I have to. There is a huge Catholic church here, with a statue of Jesus looking down at us and a sign the width of the cathedral above him that says, "Peace To The World." I read it over and over and over and over, wanting it to be true.

Slowly, I pedal east on Houston, beside rows of semi-trucks and trailers loaded with reinforcement beams and construction equipment. Piles of trash bags are everywhere as people still walk by and stare south. I look at a lamppost that has homemade flyers taped to it of photos and phone numbers. "If you've seen him, please call … "

Please. Call.

A roar turns my head and I see a dozen adult men skateboarding down the once busy street, some filming, others smiling. Enjoying the opportunity to 'play.' As I turn away, I notice a sign painted on the base of a street light: "REPENT." Oh Lord. If only we could.
Residents are walking north dragging suitcases behind them. Irony glares everywhere: at bus stops, an insurance agency advertises with neat posters that say, "Plan Your Life"—as if that were possible; homeless men sit relaxed against buildings with faces that seem confident and knowing, as if tragedy is old hat to them because tragedy is a way of life to them; a nursery has a sign on its building with a massive stork and the words, "To Be or Not To Be" painted in blue.

Oh Lord, the children that will not be.

I ride uptown in the middle of the street in the middle of the day in the middle of the week—you can not do that in New York City. I pass Union Square Park where speechless crowds have gathered simply for the comfort of other human beings. They draw peace signs in chalk in front of a statue of George Washington. Yes. Peace.

And every single church I pass has flyers taped on the doors: "Open for Prayer and Meditation." Once locked sanctuaries now invite once busy New Yorkers to come inside and pray. To reflect. To sit. But in front of one small church, its doors open to passers by, I wait at a red light and watch a convoy of seven army trucks in green and brown camouflage drive by. An older woman crosses the street and watches with shock. She shakes her head, throws up her hands and looks around for anyone to acknowledge her horror. She catches my eye and says, "It's a war zone."

I walk into the office of my church to wait for my husband who works here, and I read a calendar on a colleague's desk: "It's never too late." I want that to be true. I close my eyes, hoping, imagining, praying that will be true, opening them only as I hear the soft words, "Buenas dias, Amiga."

The cleaning lady smiles at me and then disappears to take out the trash.

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