The following are journal entries from my visit to Manhattan in October of 2001. I went with a team of volunteers to set up a free clinic at a police precinct on the East Side. With not a lick of medical know how, I quickly forged my spot in the group as the data entry specialist.
The results of this free clinic would later be sent to the Mayo Clinic and would serve as the first recorded documentation of the debilitating health effects suffered by first responders.
These particular journal entries came in the early morning hours of October 10, 2001. I’m leaving it as I wrote it, word for word. It’s disjointed and fragmented, but I have to leave it that way. The way I felt that night.
October 10th, 2001 .
I walked the streets tonight. I couldn’t sleep. Too wired. Too exhausted. I tried reading to put me to sleep, but no way. Its two thirty in the morning and I had to get this down. Something. I won’t take pictures. And I’ll probably never write a word of this time, but I need to just write this down so that I can read it when I go home. Even though I’ll never forget it.
. . . The streets were so quiet, so eerie. Just like after a snowstorm.
. . . We visited the hole tonight. If the wind is coursing your way, you can smell it from miles away. They smell it in Queens still. My sisters smelled it on their way home from Maine , days after it happened. They were on the Tappan Zee Bridge when they smelled it.
. . . They set up a perimeter around Ground Zero. We were a mile out when our police van was stopped, ID check. Going in they check ID, going out they hose your vehicle down.
. . . I heard someone in the van whisper ‘This is going to be bad’. We sat there in silent agreement.
. . . The hole is referred to as Ground Zero. It’s hell. It smolders and there are still pockets of fire a month later. I prayed hard. The sodium lamps carved through the night and gave it the illusion of an apocalyptic noontime. The workers are always there recovering the lost. They can’t leave, they won’t leave. They have to see this through for the lost. They have a different calling now. They’re not saving lives, they’re granting last rites. They will work this heap to the end, until every last piece is gone. They work all day and night, most lose the masks and keep on working.
. . . That smell. An electrical fire compounded a thousand times over. The smell of fuel makes you nauseous. The smell of fire sticks to you. It’s on my clothes .The smell penetrates every pore. We spent twenty minutes down there and I can’t get the smell off my skin, out of my nose and hair. It permeates. I held my breath as if that would chase it away. It’s always there. And these guys work that pit every day. Losing the masks. Still working. It’s going to be bad for them down the road. It’s going to kill them.
. . . I turned away. I didn’t want to see anymore. This is the worst of mankind. Those men working the pile are fighting hard against that worst but I felt it was all so hopeless. How senseless, all of it. I just wanted to scream I was so angry. I felt like throwing up.
. . . I didn’t bring a camera. Thank God for that.
. . . We talked about what this means tonight at the pub. The retired pastor warned against believing this will change policies or mindsets. He’s lived through Korea , Vietnam , the Kennedy assassination, the gulf war, Oklahoma City , AIDS, scores of natural disasters. He’s had his hand in the mix plenty of times. And none of those times changed things. Not really. I wondered aloud at the political gains to be had from this, because they’re coming. We all agreed. Political capital. Jesus. But true.
. . . These last couple of days have been surreal. I must have heard that word a hundred times today. When people spoke of the day, when people spoke of the days since. Always surreal.
. . . Friendship wasn’t a temporary excursion. It was valid and palpable everywhere. It held more than convenience. It held truth. People wanting to hear stories. Strangers crying them to other strangers. Smiles. It’s going to go away. We’re all going to go back to our old ways before long. Everything, even this hellacious thing, has a shelf life.
. . . The shrines. They’re everywhere. Every kind of personal effect you could imagine. Candlelit sanctuaries, a graceful patience. Every single story wants it back. The hours before the planes changed everything. Letters.
. . . Love letters, poems, family pictures, little league trophies,
. . . The streets bleed with these shrines. Every city block is a monument. And this is where I remember what this city is all about. Not a big town, but small villages. Each one holding a different story. I think to myself that I didn’t grow up around the city, the city grew up around me.
. . . Why do our differences generate so much hatred until something like this happens?
. . . Nothing divides us inside these shrines. Not race, not color, not party, not sexual preference. Inside these shrines, we’re all the same. Human beings. Why do we have to be knocked on our asses before we stop using these differences as a weapon? Before we start appreciating the fact that we’re all stories and not cardboard. Before we understand the intrinsic value in our differences.
. . . I picked up a teddy bear and held it for a while. She was twenty nine. Her father had left it there along with a letter. All the letters left by loved ones read the same way. They’re still hoping against impossibility that the missing are simply lost somewhere. It’s “Have you seen this person?”, and phone numbers.
. . . I held that teddy bear so tight, as if in the holding I could will her back to life. Return her to her father. And in that moment, I knew her, I knew them. I loved complete strangers. They had opened a door into their world and I entered.
. . . I just stood there and held that teddy bear tight. Strangers passed and I didn’t care. They didn’t either. We all were involved in these unspoken understandings all over the city.
. . . I just stood there and held that teddy bear and cried some. But I don’t remember her name. I wish I remembered her name. That’s so weird.