The way we thought we were

Two months ago, ground zero was the beginning of a new world. Now a volunteer looks back and finds we've returned to the old one.

Published November 20, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Almost all of the ground zero workers I talked to after the attack said our lives would be different from now on. Nobody really knew how, but they were sure it was true. As I write this more than two months later, I'm sitting in a library in a Boston suburb, on a day in which the only conversation I've had with a stranger was when a young guy from a group home showed me a picture of Helen Hunt and said, "She's cute." Our lives different? I'm wondering what I was thinking when I believed them.

Immediately following the attack, after a few days in lower Manhattan, it was easy to believe that everything had changed. A new country seemed to have opened up, one where people cared about each other and said hello and looked each other in the eye. We didn't know where the hell we were, but we knew we had come to this place together.

I'd driven from Boston to New York on Sept. 13 to see how I could help. I stayed on friends' couches in Manhattan, then rented a room for $100 a week in a Bedford-Stuyvesant slum. I started making plans to move to New York. I did not want to leave.

I joined a volunteer operation at a Mobil station on the corner of West and Canal streets. There were mountains of donated food and water, and after a woman slapped a name tag on my chest, I started handing out ice-cold bottles of Poland Spring water to cops and rescue workers through their car or truck windows. Sometimes a bus would stop and I would walk down the aisle as if I were giving out candy to a school bus full of screaming kids.

The volunteer next to me on the corner was a short guy with long black hair and the hardened face of a carnie. He showed me the dent in his shoulder that his old man had given him with a baseball bat when he was 8. "Yeah, my father was a pretty big guy," he said in a gravelly New York accent, "but now I got him in a jar in my closet. He ain't so big now."

His day job was planting flowers in highway median strips, so we called him the Highwayman. "Get your Gatorade here! American-made," he would call to passing drivers, hanging back while the more ardent ambushed them with everything from work boots to eye drops.

One day, a woman biked out of ground zero playing an accordion. She played a couple of slow numbers for us while the Highwayman danced. She explained that she usually played only in clubs, but that she was out here for the rescue workers. She said she had to keep her distance from the cops and workers, because most of them thought she was a hippie freak. But then she'd play "Danny Boy" or "Amazing Grace," and they'd break into tears.

Working the median-strip side of the road was Magdy, an Egyptian engineer who was vacationing in New York when the buildings got hit. He was zealous: He'd sprint 50 yards toward approaching cars, thrusting drinks at the drivers. The day before, he'd been thrown out of the site for not having had an I.D., a requirement none of us non-Arabs were asked to meet. Today he was back at it, hopping in front of cars and forcing Gatorade into the windows, apologizing for dripping cold water on drivers' laps.

Bob, a retired construction worker from Florida who had recently split his eye in half with the tip of his ski, soon assumed a leadership role. He was used to giving orders at the construction business he owned in New Hampshire, but he was finding the current batch of troops tougher to organize. "They're all volunteers, so they'll just leave if they get pissed off," he said.

"Look at this guy here," Bob said, pointing to Magdy, who was moving drinks from one cooler to another. "He's out of control." I laughed, because Magdy was out of control, but then I realized that my laugh had given Bob ammo for a little racial profiling.

"What's that guy's name again?" he went on, sliding the American flag bandanna off his head to wipe the sweat off his face, then putting it back on.

"Magdy," I said.

"Hey, don't do that, Magdy. And I don't want you to stand in the middle of the street, Magdy. And stop throwing drinks in their cars like that, Magdy."

Magdy said he was used to it, that since he'd been at the site, he'd gotten a "fuck off," some "go back home" and a lot of glares.

Alone with Magdy for a stretch on the median strip, I waited for him to take a break from his dashing around so that I could talk to him. Finally, I just barked out a question while he spread ice over the drinks in a cooler: "Do you think there's enough evidence that bin Laden did it?"

He stood up from the cooler and looked south, surveying the ruins of downtown New York. "No, this isn't the work of bin Laden," he said. "It's much too well-planned. It's probably an American, another Timothy McVeigh." He seemed to have no idea how volatile those words could be in that place at that time, that free speech, then and there, had limits. I changed the conversation before anyone could hear him.

Bob's competition for leadership of the Mobil station volunteers was Stephen, a former construction worker who had been born with two large fingers on each hand. Now he had three, thanks to a surgeon's knife, and he used them for auto work. His hands, he said, "help me reach into parts of the car's engine that other people can't." They also had a way of compressing the point of impact in a punch to the face, he said. "This one guy told me after we fought, 'It felt like a broom handle.'"

After the attack, Stephen had ridden in a Greyhound for three days to get to New York. Approaching ground zero, I'd been turned away at so many military and police checkpoints that I had stopped trying. But Stephen had not. All day, he ran around in a hard hat and plastic kneepads, even though he was handing out drinks like the rest of us. He'd devised a plan to get in, he said: A friend of a friend was coming by in a truck to pick him up any minute.

Stephen seemed to have caught wind of that slippery word "hero" and wanted a piece of it. At the Mobil station he met a man whose son Hector was lost in the rubble, so Stephen scrawled "I'm digging for Hector" on his hard hat, though in fact he wasn't digging at all. When I asked him what his kids thought of his coming here, he ran behind a brick wall and came back with tears in his eyes, saying, "I want them to be proud." He added that he was also "digging" for his parents, who each died suddenly years ago, leaving him feeling helpless.

We all had our reasons for gazing longingly toward ground zero during breaks in the traffic. There were people who had driven to New York just to scoop up a handful of dust to show their future grandchildren. Some came to somehow reify the strange force that had shaken their lives to the core. A volunteer construction worker told me, "This is history, and I want to be a part of it." But those who made it in to ground zero just stood there in awe. Nobody was looking for body parts.

Hearing about body parts, however, was something else. The flesh smeared on the copy machine, the guy still sitting at a desk, burned, with no head. Some who had seen things didn't want to talk. Some did. Almost everyone wanted to listen.

"There's one image I can't get out of my head," a truck driver told me and two female volunteers as we handed out drinks. It was 2 a.m. I glanced over at my co-volunteers to see if they didn't want to hear what was coming. They were rapt.

"I moved a piece of rubble out of the way," he said, "and saw two little girls, hugging each other. Their flesh had burned them together." He shook his head. "I cry every time I think about it." He wasn't crying. "I'm out of tears now, I guess." He was a Vietnam vet, and I wondered if this wasn't an old war story, recycled for the benefit of these two young ladies. But that didn't hit me till later. When the man you're talking to hustles to put on his mask because he's sick of smelling rotting flesh, you're in no mood to be skeptical.

Like a lot of people, the trucker was feeding on optimism. "I know there are survivors in there," he said. "There are all kinds of pockets in there, and plenty of food from all the restaurants. You could survive months in there."

The trucker was sitting on the concrete wall of a median strip, and a cop standing on the wall disagreed. "I hate to say it, but there's no way anybody's alive in there," he said. The trucker and the cop stared off in different directions, one moving his head up and down, one side to side.

I knew from the carnival atmosphere taking hold along Canal Street that I wasn't the only one mesmerized by the site. In Chinatown people had slapped together T-shirts saying, "Attack on America: I survive the attack," and "I can't believe I got out alive!" Hawkers were peddling binoculars at the best viewpoint, from which you could make out only a section of a building leaning out over the street about three-quarters of a mile away. A Chinese woman in a trance rapped, "One dollar one dollar one dollar one dollar" for Trade Center pens.

It was around 3 a.m. when I made it to ground zero. I was pushing a shopping cart filled with iced drinks along with a 21-year-old volunteer named Heather.

Cops were launching jokes everywhere, sometimes for Heather's benefit, other times just to distract each other. "If I'm not laughing I'm crying," one said. About a block away from the site, we came across a phalanx of police, standing about six strong between "Do Not Cross" barricades, sealing off that last block. But I thought that between the shopping cart of drinks and Heather we had enough charms to get through.

"Let's go," I said to her. "Are you serious?" she whispered back, following. In the military state that was southern Manhattan, our trespass felt like it might carry a severe penalty. But we didn't need Heather's smile to get us past the blockades. I approached two female cops and asked, "Can we go through?" They stepped aside and said, "Sure."

Stunned, we marched forward, lifting the front end of the drink cart over various hoses and rough spots. But after 50 yards or so, there was no more road, so we abandoned the cart and we grabbed some drinks with one hand and held Handi-Wipes to our faces with the other. I imagined the horrible smell to be burning plastics: computers, carpets, construction materials. In my mind, I could hear Stephen at the Mobil station saying, "They told me that if you breathe that air in without a mask for five minutes, you can suffer from acute respiratory trauma. If you breathe it for ten, don't even bother putting a mask on -- you've already done permanent damage to your lungs."

In that last block, the workers almost lunged for our drinks. These were the guys who were thirsty, not the ones driving north a mile away. Heather stopped to talk to some workers, and I walked up to the base of the heap, where a line of workers stared at a crane trying to make its way up the pile. The guy next to me was videotaping the scene. The crane ground up a few yards, then slipped back, again and again. Occasionally it jarred rubble loose and caused a small avalanche, making us lurch at the crashing sound. In front of us, a huge, two-story chunk of building was lodged into the side of another building.

A guy in an FBI jacket came up to me and told me I should really get a gas mask. I knew I should leave, for the sake of my lungs, but it was hard to move.

Back in the fresh air a few blocks away, we found a guy giving out chicken from a grill he'd driven up from North Carolina. Heather and I ate our chicken and talked a little about love, then found some more cops to give drinks to.

One man stopped his car and waved no to the drinks. He looked at me and said, "I just wanted to say, 'Thank you.'" Later, a cop told us we were the "unsung heroes." Another cop talked for five minutes about how moved he was that all of us were giving so much of our time. "It's sad," he said, "that something like this has to happen to bring us together."

And that's how community spreads. People go from thinking they're just serving their own interests -- in my case, curiosity; in the cop's, overtime pay -- to convincing each other that they're helping out. Then it becomes real. You start to see that you're not just handing out drinks. There are people who have seen things they never wanted to see, and your handing them a drink makes them feel that there's a reason they're doing their job, that they're holding up their end of the social bargain. Maybe because it's so unfamiliar to my ears, but I won't forget the sound of that man's "thank you" from his car window.

After a couple of weeks in New York, I drove back to Boston. It's from here that I had watched the events of Sept. 11 unfold, at a Ruby Tuesday's downtown at around noon. I remember seeing a black woman in the booth behind me watching a TV, shaking her head with tears on her cheeks. A gaggle of yuppies on their lunch break sat at the bar roaring with laughter so loud you couldn't hear what Peter Jennings was rambling about. Some people were sad. Others appeared unaffected.

Now that I'm back, life's almost the same again. I still don't know my neighbors' names. I consider returning to New York. Maybe it'll take an apartment in Tribeca and regular mingling with the workers for me to feel those new feelings on a daily basis. You can't change a culture overnight. The evening of my ground zero excursion, after all, just a few subway stops away, I had been chased back to my Bedford-Stuyvesant room by two thugs who didn't seem particularly concerned with brotherly love.

Maybe even in New York, the new feeling won't last. Most people already seem to have slipped back into their barricaded lives, drifting along in mute numbness. In other places, the basic rhythms of daily life never really changed at all.

By Brendan Cooney

Brendan Cooney writes about the lives of truckers for Truckers News magazine. He's been published in National Journal, Columbia Journalism Review and USA Today.

MORE FROM Brendan Cooney

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

New York City Terrorism