Manhattan Then And Now
The day I went into the city I switched from backpack to Em’s crescent bag. It was one of the things Emilee had left behind when she died. One of the things that I chose to keep and not give away. I thought I might use it, and I liked having things of hers around. It was a way of keeping her close. It has some stains on it from glue or paint from one of her many art projects that got too close to the bag.
I tried scrubbing off the white marks, but before scrubbing holes into the material, I told myself to stop. I think I dulled the spots enough to use the bag. Why am I using HER bag? My back pack was too big and inconvenient for today’s excursion. It would be inconvenient to get anything out of it while walking, or stopping to get something out to drink or snack. And, I like having something of hers with me. She is always with me, but having this bag, which I think she had with her that day, is comforting.
This bag has a long strap for over the head and across the shoulder, and has numerous compartments and pockets, and I decided it would work well for today. Water was easily accessible. I could walk hands free, with everything safe, and if I needed to move fast to catch a subway or hurry back to Grand Central Station later, it would not slow me down. When I travel into the city, I always like to think ahead of what I may want and what kind of bag in which to carry my essentials.
Today was a small umbrella as the drizzle was supposed to give way to downpours, a jacket for the same reason which I was wearing at the moment and starting to get warm, an extra pair of socks in case my socks got wet (I opted for my Crocs today instead of sneakers or rain mucks), a bottle of water, a whistle (hey, do not laugh yet), a tiny pocket knife with scissors and nail clippers on it, dental floss (oh, it is in my pocket today, too hard to get it out easily from the bag), lifesavers (also some in my pocket), my book, my phone charger, and usually something to nosh like an energy bar or health bar or crackers or almonds, but today I did not take anything to eat, which I knew I would regret at some point.
I usually also have either wet-naps or a bottle of hand sanitizer. And, antibiotic cream, cortisone cream, and band-aids. And my nitro pills, which I never use, and knock on wood may it stay that way.
She did not use it much since, but I am pretty sure Emilee had this bag with her on that day, seventeen years ago. I think her real reason for coming with me that day was that on some level, she felt something. It may have been under the consciousness radar, and it certainly was not tangible, but she intermittently had this sixth sense about things.
Sometimes it had to do with a feeling to go buy a lottery scratch off ticket, and sometimes it had to do with sensing something that was going on with me, especially if it had anything to do with anger. On that day, on some level, I think she felt some anxiety being separated, and wanted to keep an eye on me, and be close for safety.
She was outside of the building where I had my class. The building was an old converted synagogue on West Nineteenth just west of Seventh Ave. She was outside “checking the weather”, her euphemism for smoking a cigarette. She heard the approach of an unusually low and loud jet plane which cast a shadow as it passed overhead. It was such a perfectly cloudless morning, that the shadow cast by the jet was starkly noticeable for its contrast with the bright light.
Shortly after she came back inside, news of the first tower, the North Tower, being struck spread through the room. We continued with our practical exams for skeletal alignment and ease of movement in a Somatic education approach to movement. A short time later, news of the second tower, the South Tower, being hit as well. No accident any longer, now we knew it was deliberate, after a half hour of wondering.
The news of the first tower being hit left me queasy with the thought of how many had to have died. My throat started to ache, and my skin got tingly. The second strike punched me harder, shredding my gut with jagged shrapnel. Now I was bleeding inside, and my throat felt tight enough to burst. I finished my practical and we left and headed across town to the east side.
Emilee was barely holding herself together. I had to keep myself functioning. We needed to get across town. As the bus we got on slowly made its way, and as we passed each of the avenues, we could see people coming south to north, towards us. A rag tag army of gray faces mixed with the usual New York array of skin tones and nationalities. Here and there, speckled gray, speckled by soot and debris still on their faces and clothes, many with the frozen face of a Parkinson’s patient, holding back emotion. They looked like zombies mixed in with other somber faces, peppered in amongst the throngs of people moving, moving, moving away from the unthinkable and unimaginable.
Blank faces. Faces that would crack if emotion showed. Faces, faces that saw, faces that witnessed. Images unspeakable. Images of people, the sounds, the crashing, dull thuds, thuds, thuds that were people. People jumping. Blots in the sky, flying for a second or two, like a bird. A bird that pulled in its wings, plummeting, a skydiver who pulled in her limbs to freefall forever. Forever. Forever disappearing into the earth, into a hole. Forever. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, it changes forms. Dust to dust. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is certain, except change.
The house of cards, folding, top down, from top to bottom, obliterating itself moment to moment, level by level, floor by floor, obliterating itself from structure and form of steel and concrete and glass and architecture and bold beastly majestic proud brothers prominent in the sky, rising tall above the earth, folding into dust and smoke and ash and rubble and filthy air and twisted deformed steel plummeting to the earth, into the earth, forever into a hole, forever transformed from one shape of matter into something else. And the sky, the poor beautifully clear sky, billows of black and gray brush strokes shmearing the horizon, drifting and stretching South, the sky now an orphan, lonely and forlorn and achingly lost without its friendly brother beasts rising up to meet it no more.
We had to get off the bus and walk, we had gotten as far as the bus was going to get in this congestion.
“Emilee, let’s get off the bus, we don’t have too far to walk”, and I reached for her hand. Her hand was cool, almost cold, and clammy, and stiff. My words were just what she wanted to hear, and I could read panic in her eyes as I took her hand and we got off the bus. I think the physical contact helped to ground her. Bring her back from whatever PTSD nightmare this was kindling in her.
There was an eeriness in the air. And the sound of almost a rhythmic repeating of sirens. Thankfully the wind was blowing from North to South, toward Brooklyn, away from us, and not toward uptown, taking the toxic dust across the water, away, away from us and away from Manhattan.
Emilee was trying to stay connected, but much of her wanted to disconnect for her own protection and safety the way she was used to doing to deal with trauma. She was getting that bewildered and then distant look on her face. Although six feet tall, she was getting smaller. I knew we needed to hurry and get out of this overcrowded environment.
Shortly after getting off the bus, and walking only half a block, we almost ran into a woman on the street. This woman, suddenly was clutching at her throat, grasping her throat, eyes widening, pleading silently as she started to fall and I being so close I didn’t think but reached to catch her and help lower her to the ground. I thought Emilee was about to panic when she spoke, but instead she firmly said to me, “Do you have your bike whistle?” I realized I had it in my pack. She took it and started hysterically blowing and blowing and waving her arms and blowing loud and piercing refusing to stop until someone, someone who knew what to do arrived (lots of passing ambulances and EMT trucks), and together we positioned the woman’s head. Emilee had once told me she was good in an emergency, but a wreck afterwards.
With my liquid sanitizer we sterilized my knife. Using my knife the EMT that had stopped when he saw Emilee frantically blowing and waving, cut a slit in the woman’s neck just below her voice box and then we sanitized a straw I had in my bag and slid it into the slit in her neck and we heard it, we heard the sweet sound of the elixir of life being sucked in through the straw. And, ever so slowly, like a baby changes from blue to pink when its clogged airway is cleared, we watched her skin and her face gradually lose the frozen and stiff gray and blue face of death. Blue metamorphized to pink and life known as oxygen once again was breathed back into her tissues, for now. Her throat had closed from the soot and dust she had inhaled.
Emilee had rallied, but she was now shaking, as we proceeded to our destination. I looked at all the faces around us. I saw life in their faces. I saw eyes that ached, I saw lines of pain on foreheads, I saw a glistening of a tear inside some eyes. I breathed and felt the flow of breath rushing in and out.
I don’t know how we made the five or six or eight blocks to the NYU Child Study Center, but we did. We felt a little safer once inside. A lot safer. And we just about collapsed in the psychologist’s office.
Ever since that day, there are some things I make sure to have with me when I go to Manhattan. I need a badge or shirt that says “nerd and proud of it.” We saved a life that day. The whistle is always with me. I realize if something happened I might lose my fanny pack or bag, but I have it with me just the same. I used to wear it around my neck. Sometimes I still do.
Cortisone and antibiotic cream for cuts or an allergic skin reaction to abrasion or an insect bite. Band-aids for blisters from walking too much in crocs. Dental floss has many uses, but these days I use it for my teeth which seem to collect any and everything in between the too big spaces between them any time I eat anything. The small knife with scissors and clippers and a small nail file, because cords and strings in the wrong places can be deadly, or just plain annoying. And, a broken nail can make me crazy. And sometimes, a knife can save a life.
We left the safety and calm of the NYU Child Study Center reluctantly. We walked a couple of blocks to a café.
As we are walking, I look at the people around me. I think I recognize something of the people in my life in their faces. I think I see pieces of my life in their faces. Maybe it is life itself I see in their faces, something that connects me to them, and connects all of us. Is it suffering, a history of pain and sorrow, a common brokenness, or triumphs, joy, compassion?
We sat and had coffee and tea. There was a steady stream of ambulances going by at regular intervals. I don’t remember how, maybe at the therapist’s office, but somehow, we talked to my brother who was downtown but not all the way downtown. He said he was going to walk from wherever he was to his apartment at 94th and Park Avenue. That was about four or five miles. All public transportation was shut down for the time being. We planned to meet him there between five and six p.m.
Emilee and I stiffly got up and left the café after three hours. She was still pale. I took her hand. It felt cold and slightly clammy like it did earlier. We drove uptown without too much difficulty, without more than a few words here and there. I felt intermittent palpitations.
Once up in my brother’s apartment we got to watch what we had only imagined up to that point, as the clip of the building collapse was repeated over and over and over. I don’t think I was able to close my mouth, and I couldn’t seem to get my shoulders to drop away from my ears. When I closed my eyes, I kept seeing the same image.
The drive out to Long Island was surreal as was everything else. There were practically no other cars on the road. Driving over the Triborough bridge was disturbingly quiet with the emptiness I had always wished for but had never imagined experiencing.
And, with the city behind us to the West, there was an incongruous blank space on the southern Manhattan skyline where the two huge Towers stood twelve hours before and now there was a continuous plume of smoldering, billowing smoke drifting South. I saw it in my mirrors and wondered if it was some bizarre, twisted, sinister magic trick.
That was seventeen years ago.
Directions. I like asking in New York City. Eight blocks more west and then turn south. And, then about six blocks going south and I will see it in front of me. Hard to miss it as one nice young man stated. I check with a couple more people as I go which helps keep me from feeling lost and alone.
I am out of shape, and I am realizing how my heart is talking to me inside my chest, saying this is more than I am used to doing. I am wearing her teardrop bag over my shoulder and it’s getting heavier, and I am getting warmer and warmer as I’m walking.
My heart says, “You are walking a New York pace which is a little quick and you better keep me hydrated or else I am going to start playing some of those syncopated rhythms you like to listen to.”
I take out my water bottle and drink.
“I will keep you hydrated,” I say softly to myself but realize I said it quietly out loud, and chuckle out loud as well.
Manhattan…, I am just another “out there” character and I am loving just being me. I AM a part of it. I was born in Brooklyn I say to myself with another quiet smile. My dad and my brother worked here. My Aunt worked here. My cousin worked electrical in the U.N. building. I have tentacles here. People I know, and people my brother knew, were lost here.
As I get closer, I start feeling that tightening in my throat. But I hold back. I feel my face getting wet. God, I didn’t even get there yet and I am a mess, but it is okay. Throngs around me and no one notices, I am just another body in the crowd with everyone walking their determined NEW YORK WALK and no one studying my face.
I have plenty of tissues with me. There is an instantaneous unimpeded connecting channel from deep down, and out through my eyes for the flow and they less frequently get trapped in my gut or my throat since she died.
The wave passes through me, and I just tap the tissue supply in my pocket to make sure it is still there and let the tears fall and just wipe with my hand and the warm air does the rest. Save the tissues for when my nose starts dripping.
I love walking. The breathing, inhale for two steps and exhale for two steps, the repetition, like a meditation and sometimes it keeps me from thinking too much. I notice I am walking uphill now, as if I were earning my way to get HERE.
I feel the blister on my left heel. I am approaching the new buildings. There is a long bench, and I sit down and dress my blister with ointment and a band-aid. Much better.
I look at the new buildings, take in the architecture and the reflections of the surroundings and the sky in the surface of the building. It makes me pause at the top of my breath till my brain says, “breathe.”
I talk to someone sitting near me.
“Hi. Where you from?”
“Oregon,” he says. We briefly talk about assisted death. Light talk.
I approach the north tower site first.
I want silence, I want a solemn crowd. I want respect for the dead, but I find a mixture. Children running around, behaving and misbehaving, some parents attentive and some taking an oblivion break. A mix…like life.
I see the panels. I walk towards them to feel and touch. Cool metal in this warm air. I feel smooth metal, contrasted with the spaces, the names carved through, the etchings of the names cut through completely so light can travel from both directions. Air, sun and sky from above and the lights from below.
Messages and flowers pop up from the etched names, and people gather, wander, with various expressions. To one middle aged woman I offer some tissues in a silent but deeply felt understanding gesture and she accepts without words other than a subtle shake of her head. I blink, lower my shoulders and relax my tightening throat.
I decide I can have my solemnity within and can cast my own mood around myself no matter what anyone else is doing. I want to touch every single panel of metal etched with names. Each name is carved and cut through the panels so that the lights underneath shine through, which is becoming more dramatic as dusk closes in.
I bath my hand in the water running under the panels. I anoint each panel of names as I walk around the panels on each side of the square, a little over two hundred feet on each side, honoring the flowers and notes that had been placed in the etched names.
Dip and touch, dip and touch, again and again, all around the north tower memorial, and all around the south tower memorial, each about an acre in its footprint. The water is cool and feels liquid and alive, …holy…sacred. Touched with memories, so many broken hearts, and I don’t know if it is blood or water, and it feels like both life and death at the same time.
I look at the deep hole in front of me, and the water cascading down on all four sides of this expansive opening, two hundred feet long on each side. The tall, tall sides, create a beautiful, rippled and sculptured curtain of water that is falling but also looks like a solid curtain with tiny pleats of glimmering reflections, four walls of water, that then smoothly flow and angle down the sloped (about 130 degrees) sections and then across a short horizontal flat section where it slows and then makes it to the hole after which it drops down ninety degrees, flowing down again into the square hole, of which you cannot see the bottom, and so down, down, down, it goes into a hole of darkness which you can only see into partially no matter where you stand. On any side you see the same picture. I feel pulled down from where I am standing, to the center of the hole, this dark abyss that I cannot see the bottom of, where so many had fallen and perished in the rubble, in the ruins, in a deep hole never to emerge.
But, their spirit did emerge. It is in the buildings around me, it is in the hearts of those who are here now and those who will come, it is in the names carved in metal, so no one forgets. Ever. It’s in the swamp white oaks (four hundred) gathered around this site, and the Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana), the “survivor tree”, which though badly damaged, was still alive after the attacks and was nursed back to health.
I said to the tree that survived, “I honor your will to life, your strength, dignity, courage and perseverance, and I thank you for teaching us about these things and for being patient with us to learn compassion and empathy.”
I touch all the names not just for myself, but for all those not able to come here because they are too ill, too far away, too full of cancer, too old and infirm, too young to understand, and for those who have died and could not make it here. For Emilee, especially for Emilee, because we had a special shared experience that day. A day like no other. She is here with me. I know she, too, would want to honor those that perished that day.
When I am done and standing there, I notice a young woman with the most unusually large and incredibly blue eyes I think I had ever seen, and being in the unfiltered mode I say, “Wow, I absolutely love your eyes”, and she says “Thanks.”
She says, “I am from Norway. I am here with my sister and my mom, and we are truly enjoying our stay.” I said, “I feel pulled into the sculpture,” and she said, “I feel the same way.” We share a moment that is somehow significant.
I suddenly feel an ache deep inside, amongst all these people. One moment I feel a thread connecting me to each and every one, and another I feel this terrible ache in my centermost core, pulled down with the water into an abyss of darkness, and at the same time feel renewed and alive. I remind myself to breathe. I finally need my tissues.