Like a lot of people, I thought the world might be ending on September 11th. I had just started a new job in Kansas City, and I watched the second tower fall on our conference room TV. They sent everyone home.
I drove down to the coffeehouse that was my home away from home, and as I sat under the oak on the sidewalk there, a guy next to me made a joke about whether those people in the planes would get their frequent flier miles. I was worried that he might yell at me, because he seemed a little unhinged, but I felt scared and naked enough without him stomping around, so I asked him politely to be quiet.
Although I obsessively refreshed the New York Times website that September, starving for news, I never watched the footage of people jumping off the buildings. It was too horrible, and felt exploitive. Years later, in the context of this lengthy documentary on New York I’ve been working my way through, I watched that footage. The story was told in the context of the city’s history, with lots of background about how and why the towers were built. It was part of the story of New York, and I trusted the director after all our hours together. So I went ahead and cried my way through it.
It took about nine months to dismantle and excavate the ruins of the twin towers. The people who cut that steel and drove those trucks are still walking around with the burden of memories. What they saw, smelled, and touched. It is the cleanup, the aftermath, the long, day by day, out of the spotlight, dangerous drudgery of facing death that haunts me. When the cameras had floated on to other stories, they were still cutting, digging.
They found no one alive. It became the third week, the fifth month, and they knew the death they would find, the look of it, and the smell of it, was changing in unholy ways, under the wreckage. How do they walk around with that in their heads? They still have it. They always will.
One of my favorite stories about St. John is that someone who hates him and has him in prison (a priest playing for another team) gives him a cup of poison to drink. Saint and badass that he is, John drinks up and doesn’t even break a sweat. Some people said he waved his hand over the cup, and the poison formed into a serpent, which John could lift out of the cup like a swizzle stick. I don’t like that version so much. I like when they say that there were other guys there, too, who were handed cups, and that after John drank his, he drank theirs, too.
I’m awed by those people who dug out and cleaned up, who ran in with their heavy equipment and grated their lungs with the dust. I don’t know how they drank that poison, but I hope they are well.
Aside: In an earlier post, I mentioned that I had gotten to the end of Ric Burns’ documentary on New York City. I thought I had. The last episode, dealing pretty exclusively with the September 11th incident and background on the World Trade Center, showed up at my door via Netflix and I realized I had misspoken. I believe they filmed the last segment, as a follow-up to the main project, in 2003.