Accidental Tourist at Ground Zero
11-16 September 2001
11 September: I am in New York. I flew in Monday night
and was scheduled to be on the new "Iyanla" talk
show on Tuesday (produced by Barbara Walters) to talk about
RLS, the neurological disorder I have. I was scheduled to
fly back on Tuesday afternoon after the taping, definitely
a quick trip. The producers only called me on Thursday
afternoon, so this was very last minute. "Iyanla"
is syndicated, CBS, NBC, and ABC. I was at the CBS studio
when the attacks happened. The show taping was canceled,
of course. I don't know when I'll get back home.
I feel like I am in another country at times. I'm here
by myself. It's about 5 a.m. and I've been up since 2 a.m.
It's hard to sleep when you know that just a few blocks
away thousands of people are buried under rubble.
The day of the terrorists attack, there were not enough
hotel rooms to hold all of us. In fact, all hotels were
bloated with stranded people. I thought I could come to my
in-laws' "room"--near Washington Square on Fifth
Avenue. The limousine--which in itself was Fellini-esque,
driving around in Beirut--chauffeur drove me as far as
he could down Fifth Avenue (in the direction of the studio).
He had no other choice but to leave me curbside on 56th Street
and Fifth Avenue. I had luggage, was in high heels, and yes,
a girdle. I was dressed for the taping. So began the hike
towards hell, carrying luggage for over 50 blocks. By 30th
Street I had booted the shoes and was barefoot, by 25th
I had purchased $6.99 slippers at a Duane Reade pharmacy.
My biggest concern was that upon arrival, 1 Fifth Avenue
would be evacuated or worse, incinerated. Walking towards
the blooming orange and black smoke, it looked like
everything below 10th Street would be gone. Finally,
I was blessed; the apartment was untouched by terrorism.
12 September: The city is quiet save the ambulances,
army tanks, and occasional helicopters overhead. Missing is
the familiar thunk-poom pa poom poom-thug-of the street-wise
thug. An eerie patience hangs near downtown Manhattan.
And there is no beat at all except perhaps in the back
of our throats. Missing are the vogue, the petty, the macabre.
Today we are stone cold sober. People wander up and down
the middle of the empty streets, Fifth Avenue, Park Avenue,
Broadway; what a joke, holding pictures of their loves
like amputees with a phantom limb. What, are we all just
fragments of the other? Each other's missing parts?
I'm a thigh, you're a stomach.
A man in the lobby of 1 Fifth is covered with a fine
white-gray powder. He looks holy, like the monks who spend
their lives worshipping Death. After mixing the silver ash
of the cremated with water from the Ganges River, he would
paste it all over his body and face. Ghostly and skeletal
he chants and fasts. He only eats what comes to him; he eats
the bowels of the dying and drinks from their skulls. So,
this man, this Wall Street, what? Shimmering in silver ash,
told me he returned to his building and picked through
Ground Zero--told me he waded through a section of the
building still partially up because he heard some small
voices that were waning. He said that in that part of the
building he knew there was a day care center. He had to
leave quickly because the building was starting to crumble
again. Everything and anything that comes out of my mouth at
this point in the conversation sounds absurdly inappropriate.
Along the streets, church doors open like Mother's arms, and
we stumble in and out of them. They welcome any of us with
the warmth of candles, cold water to drink, and the chance
to get on our knees. I've ended up at about three different
services so far and I really can't say nor does it matter
what denomination. All I know is that on my knees is the
only position that feels appropriate at this time.
The only way to describe the look in all of our eyes is
the white collar on Wall Street, the boom boxers, the chic
and the streetwise--like the twin towers--we have all been
leveled. We look at each other with the same eyes, the
fear and loss. We forgot to be proud. We are all looking
Walking home from a chapel on Wednesday, I notice an
etching in coal on the sidewalk near where I am staying:
"VIGIL IN PARK @ DUSK."
I just returned from the vigil. The light from candles
spreads light to others and a fire blooms in the blurred
water of the fountain. Children light candles gleeful to
play in fire and water, yet soft in their voices, sensing
the solemnity gathering like a storm. I smell musk,
frankincense, ylang ylang, and bergamot. Is it 2001?
Hibiscus, calla lilies, and bleeding roses tucked in the
gate; behind which our first president's stone form seems
to even breathe. Tears, awkward mourning, prayer, some song
here and there ... "all we are saaaaying ... is give
peace a chance" ..." (one voice); ... and the
orange-black smoke still hurls, blooms, and spews like
a bad B movie, behind Washington Square. It takes a while
to crank up the juice, before the blood runs in our veins
again, but it happens.
That's the miracle.
Hundreds, maybe a thousand of us, cranking up the juice,
cranking against the thick current of apathy, invoking
the spirit of the crushed, the stunned, the incinerated ...
Dante's hell at Ground Zero. I am convinced 5,000 lay
shattered and scattered. I call them "The Waiting."
I wonder if someone might be there, show them to their seats,
an usher of sorts holding a light, guides you so far before
letting go of your arm in the dark. Mass hysteria of the
Sitting on the concrete, can't remember the last time I sat
around fire singing "kum ba ya, my lord"; no joking.
A real campfire. "He's got the whole world in his hands
... he's got you and me brothers in his hands ... he's got
the fire fighters in his hand ... he's got New York City
in his hand ... he's got U.S.A. in his hand ..."; and
even as far as "he's got the Iranian people in his
hands, he's got the Iranian people in his hands ... he's
got Israelis' nation in his hands ..." ... another
helicopter ... whak, whak, whak, whak, whak, whak ...
who's coming, who's going?
"If I had a hammer, I'd hammer in the mo--or ... ning ...
I'd hammer in the evening--all over this land--I'd hammer
out danger..."; "My country 'tis of thee, sweet
land of liberty, for thee I sing ..."
And when the juice is really, really, boiling and the flags
are held the highest, and we're drawing the blood up from
the center of the earth this time, we find ourselves really
singing, "start spreading the news. ... I'm leaving
today ... (nervous giggles) ... king of the hill, top of
the heap" (what are the words, again??) ... (Oh yea ...)
"MY ... LITTLE ... TOWN ... BLUUUUUUES ... are ...
LONGIN' to ... STRAY!!!!!!!!! I WANT to be a PART OF IT ...
NEW YORK, NEW YORK ... (and!) ... if-- I-- can-- MAKE--
it-- THERE! ..."
13 September: I'm about 13 blocks from what used to be
the World Trade Center. On the streets today I am breathing
in little particles in the air. We wear bandanas, painters'
masks, or cut-out stockings around our mouth and nose. Flies
in the air startle me. I imagine what I may be breathing in
and I think of the man in "The Green Mile" sucking
the pain out, and the little bugs of evil hurling out of
his wide mouth. ... Could it be possible that we are
eating and breathing the cremated thousands? Thousands
of little holy flying hosts landing on our eyes and tongues.
"This is my body, take this and eat it ..."
And yes, I believe, we are One ... one for all, all for one.
14 September: I mostly want to be home and hold my
family in my arms. Everything here is very unreal. "... And
on the third day He rose again, according to the scriptures ..."
15 September: Panic sets in and I am on the phone
for hours at a time. I am able to snatch a last-minute
cancellation on the #19 Crescent train to New Orleans
leaving Saturday and arriving Sunday evening.
16 September: So, I'm home. I did get a plane
reservation to leave out of Hartford on Saturday evening also,
but I opted for the long way, the rhythmic way. The train
gently rocks, sings like a mamma, turns and leans close
to the ground.
O watch our land unfold before me.