Volunteers at the Gates of Hell
It about two o’clock in the afternoon on Thursday, September 13th, they put up a chain-link fence across Chambers Street at the West Side Highway, five blocks north of the World Trade Center. Just rolled it off a truck, and in a half-hour it was operating as the main entrance/exit to Ground Zero, manned by FBI guys checking to make sure you had some legit reason to be down there.
If you had a mind to do it, it wasn’t hard to get past the first set of roadblocks at Canal Street and down to Chambers. Even from a few blocks away, the pile of rubble was like a small mountain range, and much broader and taller than I’d expected. In some places it was a hundred feet high, still massively burning, smoke rising in astonishing volume, the backdrop of abandoned buildings shimmering in the heat even hundreds of feet up. Officials had just started kicking firemen from other cities out of GZ, an issue of liability. I talked for a while with a departing fireman while he smoked Pall Malls (almost every fireman I met smokes). I asked him what it looked like up close, and he said, “It’s a fucking dump. But the most incredible dump that’s ever been.”
Men in every conceivable uniform moved in and out of the gate to GZ. National Guardsmen in fatigues, NYPD in their blue, FDNY in their glittery bunker gear, ironworkers and sandhogs in reflective vests, Con Ed and Verizon guys in corporate jumpsuits, and FEMA, FBI, ATF and even, unaccountably, DEA officials in blue windbreakers with orange lettering. These were the people in charge now. Before, the city seemed to have been run by bankers and media professionals and fashion people and celebrities, but now Manhattan had been turned over to men in urban-warfare attire, with brawny forearms and high-and-tight haircuts. The official voice of the city used to speak in an affectless Northeastern tone, but now it spoke in the borough brogues – the accents of Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island.
All around the barricade, Chambers Street had become an aid station of epic proportion. A guy named Harold, fifty-five and from Brooklyn, who’d been able to sneak past the roadblocks by wearing a Red Cross shirt he’d bought at a thrift store, said, “If it weren’t for the smoldering buildings at the end of the street, it would look like a street fair.” A Voice-Stream truck offered free cell-phone calls. Two McDonald’s trailers were dispatching Quarter-pounders and Chicken McNuggets with the same military efficiency shown at the restaurants. There were oceans of bottled water deposited at every street corner and thousands of boxes of Oreos and Hot Pockets and Ritz Crackers and Power Bars. It makes you think the food industry – with its slow-spoilage rates, its developed sense of packaging, its no-prep genius, its Gatorade and its granola bars – was created for moments such as this.
Calls had gone out that firemen needed saline solution and toothbrushes, and so these were there in abundance, too. I saw maybe a hundred Italian toothbrushes that retail for ten dollars each, plus whole pharmacies’ worth of Tinactin and Right Guard and Dial deodorant soap and even travel bottles of Scope, so firemen could have fresh breath on the mound. Lining the approach to the gate, there was an embarrassment of new undergarments, towering piles of briefs and T-shirts.
Just off the main drag there were Indian-food stations, pasta bars, pretty young women in Prada sport pants giving out Dove Bars. A cop washed his shoes with a bottle of sparkling mineral water. A guy named Jerry was reaching into his garbage bag full of rap CDs. “Hey, fireman,” he said, “you like old school, I got old school.” A spa offered showers and saunas and steams and facials. This all made clear the particular resources New York has in abundance. If we end up bombing Afghanistan, you can bet that the relief-work command center in Kabul will not be staffed by four chiropractors yelling, “Officer! Officer! You want an adjustment?”
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