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Accidental Tourist at Ground Zero

11-16 September 2001

by Mimi Gauthier LeBien

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 for Home.

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 spirit kind.

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.


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