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?”
At least half the effort was conducted by self-appointed volunteer workers in hard hats pilfered from huge boxes near GZ. Lots of these men and women were wearing laminated IDs given out on the first night, but since those weren’t being dispensed any longer, people wore whatever identification they could find. Lawrence from the Bronx had his driver’s license and his Blockbuster membership card hanging around his neck.
Because there were so many volunteers, it was difficult to find actual work for them to do. Women carried trash bags as mobile garbage collection. People walked through the legions of resting workers, asking if anyone needed a ride home. Two of the sassier ladies set up chairs and offered to wipe firemen’s faces with moist towelettes. Two policewomen walked past, and one said, “Why don’t they just put up a sign that says, ‘Free blow jobs’?” To which a passing firefighter replied, “I’ll pay for mine. I’ve still got a shred of dignity.”
Among all the volunteers, the question always was the same: “How close did you get?” “I got down right on the mound,” George from TriBeCa said. “I would have been able to give out water to the searchers if I didn’t have to walk my dog,” claimed Brad from the Upper West Side. “I got to Warren Street. I got to Tower One. I got knocked over when Tower Two came down.”
Near dusk, I saw a Franciscan monk wandering Chambers Street. He wore a simple cloth robe, rope belt, leather sandals and the wild little beard reserved for religious extremists or figures in sixteenth-century paintings. Having taken a vow of abstinence, poverty and obedience, he’d given away all his worldly possessions back in California, including his Harley, and lived now on the donations of generous Christians. He used the word man a lot, presumably to speak across his sixteenth-century garb and relate.
“You know, man,” he said, “New York’s a weird place. There are almost 50,000 abortions here every year. And no one even mourns for those murders, man.” We both knew that 50,000 was the number of workers inside the WTC when it was operating at capacity. “Not that that has anything to do with it. But, in a funny way, being down here and talking to people about Christ makes me feel that I’m even more in God’s plan than ever.” Then he crossed himself and tore into a free Quarter-pounder With Cheese.
At three in the morning, the dump trucks are lined up the West Side Highway for twenty blocks. The men stand outside their vehicles and discuss their payloads. Joe says he thinks about the body parts that may lurk in the rubble. Phil thinks it’s weird how you leave this incredible scene and cross into Staten Island, where you drive past quiet houses with sleeping children and flickering TVs that look “so fucking normal.” Jackie jokes that it won’t be the first time dead bodies end up in Fresh Kills.
Meanwhile, the aid workers and volunteers are still here, unwilling, for some reason, to go home. They roam through the streets with trays of Cup-a-Soup, baskets of cheeseburgers, crates of bottled water. All day, they’ve been desperate for someone, anyone, to take something. And since they’ve all been banned from GZ, where men are actually at work, there’s no one to accept the comforts they offer. So they end up aiding other volunteers: “You look tired manning the underwear table – you want water?” Or, “You look hungry carrying that water around, can I offer you a hot Quarterpounder With Cheese?”
Suddenly, at around 4 A.M., the scene changes. The firemen are making one of their frequent marches from the mound, out of GZ, up West Street. Everyone rushes to offer them relief. But the men are intent on reaching the buses that will drive them back to their firehouses, and almost none stop. We all watch them pass – quiet, stony-faced men, long of gaze, displaying the profound masculinity that truck commercials spend millions trying to evoke. Before these men, before their loss, their manifest toil, their bewilderment and exhaustion, we realize there’s really nothing any of us can offer.