20th Anniversary Commemoration: 9/11

Memories of 9/11 come back to me in different ways and at different times–a phrase on TV, a photograph, a mention of something might trigger a memory from the day of (and days following) 9/11. Working at 57th and 7th at a radio station, I was one of the safest New Yorkers at the time, sequestered on the 9th floor and watching the activity of all of the people coming and going and sharing their first-hand accounts on air.  20 years ago, I worked overnights.  One of the perks (and pitfalls, if you really want to know) of the job was that I was the person who fielded phone calls from listeners each night. Most of the time, it was an amusing exercise; something to take me away from  what could otherwise turn  into monotony.

Vito from the Bronx called to sing nonsensical songs.  Vincent from Cypris Hills  liked to hear a voice in the middle of the night.  Danny the Irishman was a nut who kept trying to irritate me with prank calls, but but I got him to promise that he’ll one day clean my house while wearing a French Maid’s dress, so it wasn’t all one-sided irritation.

Simon called; a little old man who said his cousin wrote songs for Elvis and announcing in a “big radio voice” that I was about to be “simonized” as a way to say hello.

I had a drag queen who called and told me about the guys he had crushes on.  I had Security guards call and ask for special songs to keep them awake.  Police, firefighters and EMS people called in with requests and asked me how my day was.

Answering the phone was entertainment.  It was fun.  It kept me in touch with the people who were  listening to my shift.  The overtired, overworked, sleepless, bored or just plain insane.

Yes, it was entertainment.  But it was not always so.

There was a time, in the autumn of 2001, when answering the phone overnight brought me an entirely different kind of call.  Distraught men; openly weeping and crying men.  Men who hadn’t slept in days and felt as though they could never relax enough to sleep, ever again.

They’d call, and share with this nameless, faceless woman on the other end of the phone.  They’d weep and tell me things they could never bring home, that they felt they couldn’t share with their fellow workers, because they were all going through the same thing–having volunteered to do a job that nothing could ever have prepared them for; construction workers, people off the street, kind-hearted souls who volunteered, and trudged off into Hell.

They were the bucket brigade.  Their job was to literally take body parts out of Ground Zero in any way necessary; often time by literally placing it into a bucket and looking on to find more.

When they had the opportunity to rest, they broke down.  And they had no one to share it with, no one to reach out to.

Some of them called me.

One man, I will never forget. His call affected me in ways that I could never fully share; he was distraught and screaming, crying, telling me about how he found a victim.

And then when he was able, he had to tell someone. He had to unload, or go mad. He chose to call the radio station he was listening to. And that brought him to me.

We talked, for a very long time; I, as I ran a show called “Loveline;” he, from a cell phone while resting on a break. It took him a long time to calm down enough to breathe evenly; to talk without crying. I kept him on the phone, and soothed him by thanking him for his compassion and care; for being there for someone’s Mom or Dad or brother or sister; for taking the care to find those body parts, and mustering the courage to pick them up and bring them to where they had to go. I told him he was brave. I told him that we all loved him for doing it. I told him that he was a braver person than I, and that I will never forget what he did for everyone that night.

And in many ways, I never have.

Sitting in that lonely studio, I took phone calls from people every night. I got in touch with the people who listened to the station. Sometimes they were nutty, other times friendly.  Sometimes, they were so much more.

Some of these memories come back to me haunt me.  Some memories inspire me. And some memories take a long time to to process; they stay hidden and pop out when it’s time–memories of little details that are easy to gloss over or overlook, that come out when you can think of it again.

Such are memories of shattered spiderwebs and plastic babies.

On 9/12, at the corner of 57th & 7th–24 hours and about 3 miles removed from Ground Zero–I stood outside and gazed skyward down the street. It was “snowing” fine black ash; it fell in delicate tendrils, like ultra-fine hairs, from the sky above. It looked like pieces of a shattered spiderweb floating to the ground and when it landed on you, there was no wiping it away–if you wiped the ash off of your skin or clothing rather than being brushed off, it was crushed into your clothing or smeared on your skin, like a badge of horror at what you were witnessing, smelling and feeling: about three miles from me thousands of people are lying dead in a smoldering heap. I’m not brave enough to go any closer than this to help. All I can do is admire those who are braver than myself. Three miles from me, a former classmate lay dead. A father of one of my daughter’s classmates, lay dead. All I could do was watch ash that looked like broken spiderwebs fall from the sky in silent horror.

As the days progressed, more and more people came to visit the radio station to discuss what was going on just three miles from the studios. One man owned a restaurant in New Orleans. On the day of 9/11, he packed up his entire restaurant and all of his employees into a bus and a truck and drove straight up to Ground Zero, where he set up a food tent and stayed for months, providing free meals to everyone helping out at Ground Zero for absolutely free–all of the food and supplies and time were donated by him. He did this daily until after Christmas of that year, at great expense to himself.

I never found out his name.

He did more than provide food–he provided hope. He brought mardi gras beads that he tucked into the plates of food to give the men and women at Ground Zero, a reminder that happier times lay ahead. He made King Cake and said that it was good luck to find the plastic baby inside your slice; and he made sure that every single slice he served contained a plastic baby. At the time, it seemed surreal to see these little bits of happiness and carefree joy interspersed with so much agony and pain, yet his gentle smile and desire to give a little mardi gras spirit to those toiling at Ground Zero was an inspiration to everyone who met him. When he came to the studio, he brought a king cake and plates of authentic New Orleans gumbo as a “thank you” to the talk show hosts who were taking phone calls from rescue workers and basically sitting shiva with New York on-air. He and his workers sprinkled the studio with love, giving out king cake to anyone within reach. I still have my plastic baby. Looking at it makes me smile and remember a man who’s name is lost to me, but whose actions helped me silently realize that compassion, friendship, caring and love for our fellow man doesn’t die and it can’t be taken away. That is how I remember 9/11–with spiderwebs and plastic babies and a silent “thank you” to a man who did so much to help people in need of it.