Ashes to ashes

As the Devil's smoke slowly drifts out of New York, fear and rage and madness walk in.

Published October 4, 2001 7:29PM (EDT)

I have a friend who when he snorts too much cocaine reverts to a kind of acute paranoia bordering on psychosis. He gets to the point where he hides in corners of his room, with his shirt off, sweating with a wet towel wrapped tightly around his neck; his arms bunch up against his chest, as if he's cold or about to pray. He has the quiet mad belief that squirrels are going to bite the arteries in his neck, and when I see him like this I say, "There are no squirrels, dude, come on, calm down." "Yo -- yo -- yo," he says, very slowly like a chant, "squirrels -- squirrels?" and that's all he can say for some time: "Squirrels?"

Much of the city has become like my friend, though people don't like to show it. Because the city has been hit with information it cannot process, at least not yet, not for a long time, and surely not if this happens again, which is what everyone expects.

I called a therapist at the New York City Mental Health Association, a calm-voiced man of 42 named Dr. John Draper, who is the director of the association. I called him for two reasons: to find out the symptoms of those who are calling his hotlines for help, and to ask him for help myself.

"Well, first of all, what's going on with you, Christopher?"

No sleep, Doc, but a lot of pacing; hearing voices and chattering; silly songs that repeat until I have to hit my head to get them out, literally give myself a smack like a jukebox; petty details of tomorrow: where fax that, whom call -- enough stamps?; godawful insomnia turning my throat ragged, got the flu now, weak, yet still can't sleep, two, three hours a night, and there are bad dreams:

I'm walking through an abandoned hall of tall white palm trees under an atrium of glass, and there are shadows, and echoes and mumbling, voices I don't understand, and in one place, which was a bakery, there are fat yeasty dough-piles that were being kneaded just hours ago, that still have handprints; and other uncooked loaves lie on trays abandoned; the yeast grew in them, fattened them, and they drooped over the sides of the trays. Neutron bombs took the cooks away.

Or I'm sitting in a Japanese garden cleaning paratrooper boots, I wipe hard but the dried slurry of the ash of the towers won't come off, and in fact as I wipe harder the white residue turns heavy and bluish and soaks into my rag, soaking back into the boot, so as the boot dries the film of white ash seems to grow thicker. "It won't come off," I say, getting desperate, and then a voice, my father's, who comes into the garden where there are wind chimes; he wets a finger with spittle and wipes it across the leather of the steel toe, and where he streaks with his finger the ash goes away ... for a moment.

Or I'm walking down a long hall in apartment rooms where I can hear trucks hauling rubbish at night through the industrial streets, and there's a view over warehouse buildings where the towers once distantly stood: all plume now, glowing like blue dragon breath in the arc-lights of the Zone. I walk down the hall, open a door, there is someone in the bed, I go to her, she awakes, she shouts as I approach, looks right through me, "Nononono," she cries, "this isn't happening, this isn't happening," she beats at the covers, backs up in the bed into the corner and swats at my head. I say "Shhh" twice, slowly, and she rocks back and forth until she sleeps once more. She was never awake.

But this is happening. That was the Wintergarden at ground zero, the palms covered in ash, the galleries of abandoned cafes near the towers. That was real. That was my father's home in Brooklyn. This is my home where my girlfriend sleeps.

That's what's going on with me, Doc.

"Your reaction is very normal," Dr. Draper said. "We're seeing a lot of sleeping problems, people who are having nightmares. Many people can't stop visualizing what they saw that day. Have you talked with someone about what you saw?"

"Yes," I said.

"Have you talked about it in excruciating detail?"

No. I remember this from ground zero, though: The body discovered was not a man, it was not a thing, it was a man, it was meat: They turned it over, they examined it, they prodded it, they poked lights at it -- all I remember of that place, of the 40 hours I spent there was that it was dark, that there was no sunlight. Slab of meat, he flopped, he coughed dust, you saw it falling out of his nose, and he was already starting to rot. Like a curious child, I touched his bowels with gloved fingers as the dark rot fell on the ground as they picked him up. There are people now I'm talking to who've been digging on and off 14 hours a day for nearly three weeks. This is all real, and no one wants to believe it; the city, for all the crime and chaos attached to its name, was still much too innocent to believe it. Bear with us, people of Gaza, Tel Aviv, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Rwanda, Colombia -- we're just learning. As Dr. Draper told me, "We're really in uncharted territory here."

At the end of a very sunny day just a few days ago, my girlfriend came home green-faced, dizzy, sat in a chair. "I just," she said, and then didn't say anything. "I just ... saw a woman jump from a building. At 22nd and Fifth. They're still washing away her blood."

Dr. Draper said, "At this point, it's too early to say about suicides, whether the rate is going up, because we don't have complete statistics. In the first week, we received very few calls about mental health difficulties, because people were still in shock. Now we're getting 200 calls a day and we expect that number to go up. As we move further away from the event, people are trying to put it behind them but they find they simply cannot. The problems will only grow now as the reality settles in."

That's when it started, in the second week; the fear came over the city and hunkered and no one knew what to make of it, this new neighbor who seemed more manly than the rest of us: the kind of neighbor who'd take away wives and children and no one would say a word. I saw it arrive first in Bob, old friend, tall unshaven Greek expat, unemployed writer.

I had stopped by his apartment randomly on the bicycle to find his door wide open to the street in a dangerous neighborhood. I walked in, he stood on a tottering chair to set his cuckoo clock; he fell, picked the chair up over his head, waved it around -- running from room to room in his underwear turning up radios, drunk, "Can't take it anymore, Ketcham, I can't take looking at that plume, I'm leaving tomorrow by train." His eyes black-rimmed, communicating from the rat brain. And the plume still rising from the rubble and over the city, even a week and a half after, coursing south-southwest in the wind. My friend, thoroughly spooked, thought it came right over his house in Brooklyn. Bob said the plume was the souls of the men and women in the towers, "the Devil's Milky Way, Ketcham!" and that's how it looked, pale-milky and then yellow-brown and sometimes lit with sunlight.

He was right. Six thousand people and only a few hundred bodies recovered? That was a funeral pyre, a crematorium. The ash had men in it. That's human remains you can't get off your boots.

And there was Bob packing bags to rock 'n' roll and banging hands on a table, like bongos, in a frenzied end-of-the-world drunk. When the music stopped for 30 seconds, there were crows at 1 a.m. in the gardens behind his home. The crows said "eeyaaaarrkkh."

"You know what I watched today?" Bob is yelling, every word is panicked and his eyes are bugging; too much drink; he hasn't slept more than three hours in the last three days. Drinking vodka. "You know what I watched? 'Barney & Friends'! A whole hour. The big purple dinosaur, Ketcham! You know why? Because Barney wasn't telling me any lies, Ketcham! Barney wasn't lying to me, Ketcham!"

Man, I wanted to take him in my arms, and tell him to calm down, but I couldn't because I wasn't calm and I knew what he was talking about. Like the lie, the biggest of them all, that now we'd have to make war and kill lots and lots of people to secure peace -- Orwellian language.

"And the fucking CEOs of the airline companies with their zillion dollar salaries and bonuses and stock options," Bob is saying, "and in the hour of need for their people, the hour of need, they take a piss in a bathroom and on their cellphones order the layoff of a hundred thousand people. It's rot! And then they demand a welfare check of $15 billion? Pigs! Pigs!"

"Yeah, well, that's the American way. When's Barney on?"

"Sunday mornings," and Bob's still yelling, not top-of-the-lungs anymore, because his mouth is getting parched; he takes a long wild suck at a beer. His cuckoo clock started going.

"I'm leaving, first to Boston, then Montreal, then Greece. See my family."

"You're leaving? You're really leaving?"

"I'm fleeing. I can't take it, I can't sleep, I can't cry anymore, I'm at the end."

Newsflash: 71 percent of Americans depressed, according to a recent poll. The pollsters didn't interview any New Yorkers; they thought it inappropriate. I did a poll of my own.

Eighteen-year-old girl, freshman from New York University, who watched the towers fall: "Afterward, I just sat in bed and felt so utterly ... doomed. Then I understood, for just a few minutes, why people commit suicide."

My neighbor, a 34-year-old musician, who was numb in a dentist's chair getting a root canal, in a high office building in Brooklyn with a view of the towers. "Loog at dat pwaingh," he said to the dentist, who ignored him, "Yes, yes, we're going to finish up that root today." "No! Loog!" And they watched the plane slap into the side of the first tower and explode. "I had sex with three different women in three days that week. Jesus. I haven't done that since I was in my early 20s."

He's depressed at the thought of it; everyone I know is depressed, anxious, confused, waiting. "Everyone's waiting for the other shoe to drop," my sister tells me. She's heard rumors there'll be another attack on the 16th of October -- more lies. She says a woman who lost her husband in the towers, a woman who is a friend of a friend, went insane afterward.

"I've got this thing now in my leg," a Brooklyn barfly tells me. "This ... thing. It's like a ... lump. And when I lie down in bed, I feel like no matter which side of the bed I'm on, it's always the wrong side. It's this thing, this lump. And it's driving me crazy, 'cause I don't know what it is."

"In these early stages, it's called critical incident stress and symptoms are quite varied," explained Dr. Draper. "After a month has passed, on Oct. 11, we can officially classify it as post-traumatic stress disorder. There are physiological, cognitive and emotional symptoms. You've noticed that just about everyone is exhausted, feeling very tired? This is because the body is hormonally shifting down from a hyperalert state of adrenalized preparedness. That's what we saw in the first week: The body was ready for action, and in many cases people felt good, they felt high. Full of adrenalin. Ready for war, geared up for survival.

"Now we're seeing the crash from that hyperalert state, the comedown into numbness, a state of nonalertness, and this is when the real trouble starts, when the routine of daily life becomes harder and harder to accept because of this wailing inside your mind. Physiologically, people are having stomachaches, headaches, twitches, tics, muscle spasms -- ailments they never had before. Some people have memory impairments, to block what they saw, and word loss, because they absolutely cannot find words to describe what they saw.

"Emotionally, there are people who are scared to death. Others suffer from a free-floating anxiety that something worse is going to happen -- not an ideal atmosphere in which to heal. For some, there is hopelessness. Feelings of caring and joy, those things that make each day easier to live -- people are being cut off from that. There's a lot of irritability too, people quick to temper -- people's patience is now running counter to that sense of unity that defined the first week or two."

Bob and I nearly came to fisticuffs that night. It started simply enough. He said he was giving up his apartment to a stranger he'd met in a bar, some guy from out of town who needed a place, and that was that: They signed the lease by buying each other drinks.

Waitaminit, I told Bob, you're just giving the joint up to some random traveler, leaving all your possessions, not even taking a deposit -- Bob said he trusted the man, enough that he, Bob, would in fact be paying the rent in advance for however long he was out of the country, and his tenant would simply leave the checks for him on his kitchen table.

"Bob, you're fucking nuts, man," I told him. "You're gonna just trust some dude you got drunk with the other night?"

"Ketcham, I know this guy, I mean I don't know him, but I know him, I trust him --"

"All right, bro, it's just you can't trust people, especially not now --"

And then Bob flipped.

"And all this is evil? All this is evil?" he swept an arm across the room, presumably across the city, across the country. Then I understood why he was angry. Because in his caustic pessimism and fury at the world, Bob nonetheless really believed that people were essentially good, and the terror of the falling towers had nearly broken his faith. That's why he left his door wide open in a dangerous neighborhood, that's why he was giving his apartment up to a stranger. It was a last act of faith, a clinging to hope. So when I rebuked him, he cursed me, rushed at me purple-eyed, his hair dark with sweat, he balled his fists, he stood an inch from my face --

"Fuck you, Ketcham! Fuck you fuck you fuck you! You're telling me I'm going to be robbed if I leave my door open, you're telling me this man is going to rob me -- You think we're all evil? Go to hell, Ketcham."

"Listen --"

"Maybe you should get out of here."

When we finally shook hands after a long long silence, we decided to go to a bar and drink, we got on our bikes and rode, but somewhere along the way we lost each other. I doubled back, looking for him; I couldn't find him and he never showed up at the bar. He had said to me at the last minute, "I'll be back by New Year's. Promise." But we never had a proper parting, and I had a sick feeling that I'd never see him again.

And when I went home, I had this nightmare -- with the terror of nightmare, the stunned waking: It is of an auction in a room full of dust and blank-eyed people on broken chairs. "Human. Sunday," the auctioneer cries out, pointing to a man in a display case, a living man, lying on his side on a bed with his back to the audience. He is not sleeping; resting quietly. "Human. Sunday," cries the auctioneer. "Human. Sunday." No one is bidding. They should be bidding, especially now in these dark days, why aren't they bidding?

By Christopher Ketcham

Christopher Ketcham is a freelance writer living near Moab, Utah. You can find more of his work at

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