Saturday, September 10, 2011

The World Trade Center and I

I have developed a very complicated relationship with my memories, what I should hold onto, and what I should try to forget. But I am learning that it's not your choice what you remember and what is burned into your brain. I have things that I talk easily about, and things I don't. And sometimes even I am shocked by what I choose to share and what I keep hidden just below the surface. Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of 9/11, and my feelings are surfacing now. I was too busy trying to bury all my emotions by staying as buy as possible, but now that I have had my enforced rest period, and started to heal-I can face my past. I feel strong. And perhaps that saying that what does not kill you makes you stronger is true. I myself have always maintained that none of us get out alive. I shouldn't think a joke that grim is funny, but I do. And this summer, I have been spending a lot of time with a very nice man down at the water near the WTC, as a matter of fact, my train goes into the WTC station, and for years, I rode the train through the wreckage to get into NYC from Jersey City on the WTC PATH. It was very eerie, to be gliding silently through an area where it looked like a bomb had destroyed an entire piece of NY. It was like a mini war zone in the middle of a bustling city. And it stayed like that for a very long time. To me, I just became numb. I stopped noticing,except for the cleanup efforts, which seemed like a lovely progression to wholeness. The area where I meet The Doctor is a fountain that resembles a red foiled balloon sculpture. I spent the entire summer going to this fountain without reading the inscription. And when I did? I realized it was a fountain dedicated to me. Or-rather-anyone who survived the Disaster. I read it, and got chills, and continued my conversation as if I hadn't noticed anything.....My father always wants to know what it was like-to be down there amidst the rubble. He wants to know what I did. To be honest? I always felt like....I  did nothing. Because the war zone was so big, and I was so-helpless. I remember that day-so clearly. It was the beginning of catering season, and for me, that meant crazy days and nights, being at the beck and call of Glorious Food, my company. The Season was taken very seriously, and you snapped to, and showed up when needed, or else. I was asleep after a long night, with Megan, my sister, asleep in her room. All of a sudden, I heard a rumble of noise, the rumble of many people. Meg's phone rang-her friend Liz was stranded in Chicago, and wanted to know what was going on. I looked outside my little garden apartment-and saw a sea of teary, shocked people. I heard some talk of the WTC,which you could see from my apartment, and ran, in my pajamas, to the place where you could see across the water. I saw the fire and the hole in the first building, and got to the place where I could see in time to see the plane hit the second tower. It seemed like slow motion. Screaming started.The woman next to me screamed and collapsed-her husband was in the second tower on the 109th floor. People consoled her. I watched as the towers began their collapse. Somehow, my friend ,Amanda Jones,who was in California, called, and I gave her a play by play of the collapse. She told me I was lying. I kept my mouth shut. She'd find out soon enough.I noticed a young man-very frightened who was speaking only French. I brought him water and invited him inside to wait. He was so frightened he forgot his English. Vincent was his name. He spent a couple hours calming down and telling Meg and I about France. Meg went outside to cry. She knew a lot of Windows on the World people. She came in with a glass that wasn't ours of water. Oddly enough, my first phone call wasn't to my parents, on 34th St.. It was to Glorious Food, where the booker asked me if I knew what happened to RR. I knew R. I was in love with R. We had been dating, very quietly. My heart literally stopped. She told me he was down at the WTC being our resident hero. I kept quiet, with my heart stopping, and managed to get through the conversation. I then checked in with all my catering jobs, at this point realizing that-this was more about making sure people were safe, than about call times. I finally called my parents, and told them I was fine. Which I was.. After these first few calls, all cell service basically stopped. I got one call through to R-I only said a couple words-"Are you Alive?" -yes, he said, yes. Was I ok? good. Then the signal cut out. There was only news on, bad news, reporters and journalists trying to cover something, knowing it was a breaking story, but  not what happened. I noticed on the news that the rescue effort in Jersey City looked awfully familiar-it was my workout route along the water. Meg got in the shower. I put on a bright pink hoodie. and practical sneakers-you see, if by any chance I did get down there to help, I needed to be identifiable easily. My hoodie was very bright and warm. I couldn't watch a rescue in my yard and not help. While Meg was in the shower-I left a note saying I was going to volunteer, and not to worry. I put it on my bed, so she wouldn't notice it at first. And then I walked to the waterfront. It was chaos-but I could see how to organize it. So many people wanting to many people in the way. I started pretending I was unloading a catering truck, and people listened. "Put this here, That goes over there." On and on-for several hours. A lady in a headset came up to me and asked how I knew to do this-I said-I cater, I organize large groups of people. She gave me a walkie. I was now a Red Cross Coordinater, and no one knew my name. I kept going. I knew I was going to end up over on  the city side. Finally-at about eleven, we started talking about The Other Side. We needed to start moving our operation to NYC. I had been doing the organizing of the supplies for hours. I knew where everything was. I told her I'd go over. She was hesitant. I said-please. Let me help. I know the area. The men on our side, they said-she can do it, she can handle it. So-I started to load stuff into a Coast Guard cutter to see how we could do things. I got off the boat. I was told to send things to Stuyvesant. R's school. I just told everyone where to put things as I heard it through my walkie. It was now night..And raining, and smoky,and sooty, and-a really scary place. Firefighters and cops everywhere, but for a place so big?  It seemed empty. And I remember being at the front of the cutter with one or two other volunteers- I stood at the bow, and marveled. The whole area was lit. And to me?, it seemed like a well lit disaster movie. It was horrifying and exhilirating at the same time. I was excited. I was going to help. I got off the cutter and looked around. I couldn't figure out why I couldn't get my bearings. Then I realized-the Towers really were gone. And they were my North Star, the way I found my way around downtown. I was with a group of traveling nurses-I was there to show them around and orient them and set up triages. We knew talking in the cutter that we would be treating rescue workers, not people in the buildings. We didn't focus on that. I remember only one in detail-a funny, beautiful brunette. It's one of the things that bothers me. I remember what the people down there looked  like, but no names. I only know these nurses were from Vegas and traveled to disaster sites-all on their own. I ended up seeing where the suppplies which had poured in had started to be stored-basically I remember socks.Thousands of socks. It had started raining. My feet were wet, something I didn't consider a big deal. All of a sudden, a firefighter told me I needed new socks, and he picked me up and carried me to the bombed out restaurant/hotel I couldn't even recognize, although it was familiar. It was where the socks were. I was beyond mortified. I mean-I was supposed to be helping the firemen! They needed me! And then I looked at him, and let him rescue me. He needed to help someone, he needed a living body to say thank you. He knelt down and changed my socks for me. I didn't cry. I said thank you. I was sitting next to another firefighter,even younger than me. He told me he had been trapped and didn't know he'd ever get out. I touched his arm, and said-"You called your mother right? Maybe your girlfriend?". Just-what can you say? I realized there was not anything I could DO. But I stayed. With the nurses, I set up a triage. I remember an embarrassed firefighter finding me, and showing me the supplies we might need,"for the ladies." including tampons. And bandaids. Tampons were needed. Bandaids....I felt like a bandaid would accomplish nothing. I was already horrified by my earlier thoughts that I could be of any use. I gave the brunette nurse a tour. We added to our supplies for our triage. I wasn't wearing a mask,and could feel the splinters and smoke in my lungs,it was an odd prickly feeling. We didn't have respirators, but we certainly had policeman and fireman in line for us to tend. The nurses quickly showed me how to wash eyes, and do basic things. I talked to the policemen as I washed. They wanted to talk. I felt that maybe I was helping just a little, by talking. Over the next few days-men would come looking for the blonde girl in the yellow hoodie. I was good about names then. I was a Red Cross coordinater, but if you look at any Salvation Army paperwork, a handwritten sheet, there's my name and signature. Because if I died-I wanted my name on something so my family would know where I'd been. We had no cells, no phones. No sleep. The first time I had to go into the pit to help-to communicate-a nice man took my hand, and led me to the part of a balcony so I could look down and see with someone before I could go down.  We stared in silence. I didn't cry. finally, I said, ok, I'm ready. And I went down into the rubble. The smell was a horrifying mix of death and chemical smoke. I threw up when I realized what it was, then I kept going. I just did what was needed. I had never even seen a body. The thing that bothered me the most  were the single shoes. What happened to the other shoes? Because it was thousands of single shoes.....In the bombed out hotel with no face, there was a restaurant. And all the responders knew about it because of wandering around. It was taken over and turned into a place to rest, sleep, and eat. I remember on the third day, there was a young, burly construction worker in tears. He was so tired from looking from his missing cousin, a firefighter....I took him to the restaurant, and made him a bed, just like he was a kid, and stayed until he was asleep. At a table watching me over his paper cup of coffee, was a DEA guy. He looked shattered. I sat down, and we talked. He was so funny...told me all about the life. Told me he hated restaurants cause they were too fancy. Made me laugh so hard with some of his grimmest stories about other cases, not the WTC. Then he told me what he found in the rubble. And started sobbing. He was worried he was going to give me nightmares. I was thinking-you will not be responsible for that, because I will already have my own. I touched his hand. Behind me, the construction worker woke up and bounced around like a puppy....he felt like he could go find his cousin now, and he knew where I was. I hugged him, and got him coffee. I never saw him again. And these are just a few hours.... I left when I started crying and couldn't stop. The guys didn't need to be there being upset by my tears. It was very late at night, and no one was around,except one patrolman. I went to hand in my hard hat.There just weren't enough supplies.Socks,yes.Respirators,no. He looked at me, saluted, and told me to keep my hat. Give it to my grandkids,tell them Grandma did good. It was-a very big moment in that silence after that. I looked at him,and said good bye. I walked over to the cutters,asked for a ride home. I have never felt so much guilt leaving somewhere. I have that hard hat, still dusty, with a smudgy "Jessa" smeared across it. It lives in my closet. As if I could forget.


  1. This is incredible Jessa. The play by play makes it revive in the memory..very intense for you.

  2. Always remember you are one of the heroes of that time. You’re stronger than you know.