Thursday, September 27, 2001

I'm what you call a high holiday Jew.

For those, not in the know, this means essentially, that I don't drag my tuchas to the synagogue or as we say, shul, any time of year except Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I feel that since I manage to find my higher power in just about everything from a bubble bath to a cheese omelet, as long as I make it to shul for the opening of the books (Rosh Hashanah) and the closing of the books (Yom Kippur) I'll be passed on to the next grade.

I admit this might be a throwback to how I got through high school.

But this year is different.

After having spent some of Rosh Hashanah on ground zero watching an army chaplain blow the shofar, I knew that Yom Kippur would be intense, to say the least. Yom Kippur has always been, for me, a time of mourning.

What I had forgotten was that The Javitts Center, the giant glass and steel structure that Congregation Beth Simchat Torah holds its Yom Kippur services in, was also something else: the command center for the disaster.

When M.E. and I showed up in our little shul outfits, we were confronted with a barrage of state troopers and police. Most of the side streets leading into the center were blocked off by police barricades, and helicopters buzzed over head.

It truly felt as though we were at war.

I walked up to the armed guard, and he demanded to know what I wanted here.

"I'm here to go to … the synagogue??" I asked meekly.

"Down there!" he pointed as if to say, "and get away from here NOW!"

So we walked to the other half of the center, feeling something far beyond strange.

As we entered, we passed a dozen state troopers standing guard and had to walk through a security check, where M.E.'s bag was inspected.

What could be more dangerous two weeks after the demise of The Towers? A room full of thousands of Jews praying. But to combine that with the fact that this room was nestled in the same building that housed the command center was what you might call a double whammy.

In past years, Yom Kippur services for this synagogue, founded as a haven for the gay and lesbian community, was always held upstairs against a wall of glass through which you could see the sun setting as services neared a close, or an opening.

But this year, we were ushered to a vast, curtained space on the main floor. I assumed it was to protect us from whatever flying thing might want to attack us through the glass, but when we walked in, I understood the real reason; there were far too many people.

These services always draw a crowd of about 3,000, but this looked closer to 4,000, maybe more.

Every imaginable kind of person seemed to be there: black men in yarmulkes, lesbian mothers with Asian babies, elderly husbands escorting their elderly wives, downtown boys in shaved heads and facial piercings, clearly devout Jews wearing tallis and their own embroidered yarmulkes … and us.

M.E. didn't read Hebrew (something about being Cuban, I should think), but she kept along with the English and seemed to be loving it.

"It's so beautiful!" She would whisper whenever the cantors led the choir in another song.

She was right.

It wasn't until the end of services when the rabbi's sermon came that the real magnitude of what we were all feeling hit me.

Rabbi Sharon (I never remember her last name, but trust me it sounds very Jewish) is my first female rabbi, and I truly do think she's fabulous. I must admit, however, I have been known to sneak out before her sermon, because, well, what can I say? I have the attention span of a 3-year-old.

But not this night.

She said, "When services began, I told you that this was our largest Yom Kippur attendance ever, at least 4,000 people, but since then, we have added chairs. There are now 6,000 people here tonight!"

She had the front row stand up to look out at us in the back, had the side rows stand up to look into the center, had us in the back row stand up to look toward the front, and only when the full magnitude of how many of us were standing in this place hit us, did she say exactly what were all thinking.

"This is something close to the amount of people missing in The World Trade Center."

I looked around at all of us. We were young. We were old. We were beautiful. We were ugly. We were fat. We were thin. We were black, white, Asian, Latin, women, men. We were 6,000 souls standing together as surely as 6,000-plus souls had died together.

Many of us started to cry. I was one of them.

She went on in her speech trying to find the words to help make sense of this unfathomable tragedy and told us that our broken hearts were part of who we are now.

Those words were the only thing I seemed to remember later on that night.

Our broken hearts are part of who we are now.

I have been broken. We all have.

I know that the person I used to be died when I watched the towers crumble from my roof.

Since then, I walk too fast, talk too fast, don't sleep, eat without chewing, run to the gym and then want to leave as soon as I get there. Answer the phone and then need to hang up after five minutes. I feel as though I've had 10 Cuban coffees every day since September 11th. At night, my heart pounds against my chest every time a car beeps or my neighbors pounce on the floorboards.

I have been, like many of us, searching for where to put myself, now that the me I have been is so utterly and completely changed.

We were broken and now must take the broken bits of who we were and what we saw and incorporate them into who we are and what we will be.

I'm not a religious woman, but I pray that who I become will be better than what I have been. I wish that for us all, because clearly what we have been was not good enough to stop this from happening.

Sunday, September 23, 2001

And now comes this thing they call "moving on."

But how?

How?

This weekend, I let myself be social with someone other than dust-covered volunteers.

I had dinner with Tray.

She was wonderful, talkative and clearly worried about me.

After dinner, and glasses of wine in a local place that played old Motown and 70's dance music, Tray said she needed to find a swing.

It's an odd thing about this lady, who spends most of her life, being terminally adult.

Tray has always been in charge; from the large company she runs a sizable part of, to somehow managing this high pressure job while tending to her precocious, adorable 4-year-old daughter.

Tray is what you a call a self-imposed Super Woman.

So what does she do to refuel?

She swings.

I've been best friends with her for 20 years now, but only discovered her little swing secret in the last year. I learned about it when we were searching for a place good enough to feed us, along Brooklyn's new restaurant row, Smith Street.

"First I have to swing!" announced Tray, and I had a moment of confused horror, thinking she was either about to join a spouse-swapping group, or drag me to big band dance hall.

But no, it was just a playground. She laughed at my bewildered expression as we waited for one of the real kids to give up their joy ride to the grown-up lady with the wild black hair.

And then Tray climbed on her rubber strap and took off. She swung high, so high I got frightened watching from the safety of the ground.

To tell you the truth, I've never been much of a swinger. I suffer from a life-long problem with motion sickness.

I once even got seasick on a sea-saw.

What can I say? I'm a bad ass mama, but when it comes to swings, I'm a total wuss.

But I watched her then, and understood, like I understood this weekend, when we saw each other for the first time since the world ended on September 11th, that once her feet kicked off and she left the ground, Tray was truly flying.

"I looooooooooove swings!" she said that night in Brooklyn, and she was a wonder, her dress flying up in the slapping wind she was creating, her hair jetting Medusa-like around her head, in some state of half-afro half-curl. She was beautiful.

The playground in Tompkins Square Park was locked when we went on our swing search.

"I guess the police figure they'll sell the slides for crack," I said, joking. "Don't worry, Tralena, I'm sure there's a see-saw treatment center that will take you off your swing addiction."

But there wasn't, of course, and I fed her into a Yellow Cab, sad to see the disappointment on her suddenly girlish face.

She had spent the week dealing with the duties of keeping her life together and that of her family, while her place of work was embedded in smoke, so close to ground zero that she had to produce two forms of ID to get to work.

"I'm going to find a playground in Brooklyn," she said, seemingly unaware of the fact that it was close to midnight.

I have no doubt that she found one.

I thought of her swinging high into the air as I closed my eyes in the early morning and the image of her flying was so sweet, it rocked me to sleep.

Thursday, September 20, 2001

And then there was Rosh Hashanah

On my fourth and last day at ground zero, I opt to skip Rosh Hashanah services and get out to the site early, but I am delivered to a gloomy crew.

The Board of Health has shut down our grills and any food production. We are only allowed to dole out, pre-cooked burgers and sandwiches.

We are given something over a thousand peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to dole out. They're a flattened, flimsy excuse for nourishment. The rescue workers were about as interested in PB&J as we were.

"No more burgers," says a dejected cop, who goes on to show me his hands, raw and beaten. He says he has been digging out nothing but death all day.

"I've been in there with my bare hands, but it's just shit, body parts and dirt."

This day is different than the others have been. There is sense of gloom in the air that is thicker than the dust. Gone is the rush of adrenaline and hope.

Roger, the man who has seemed most like a leader of the delivery crew, chews his cigar in frustration. He wears a hard hat covered in graffiti with an American flag taped to its side.

"They just want us to pack up and get out of here!" he says.

I step into the church in search of serving utensils and find a dozen rescue workers scattered on the pews, most of them with tears in their eyes.

After serving the few non-peanut butter sandwiches that we had, mostly turkey, I decide to take my last walk through the hot zone.

I deliver a bag of a hundred PB&J sandwiches to the guards at the pile. We are no longer allowed in to deliver them ourselves.

I find Brian, one of the guys who works for my catering company, sorting through boxes of underwear and t-shirts. He is organizing things to be sent elsewhere, perhaps to the Salvation Army.

He, too, is filled with gloom.

But then, as we are commiserating on how this is the strangest place to spend Rosh Hashanah, an amazing thing happens.

An army soldier with a long, white beard piles up some Styrofoam crates one on top of the other and places a plastic holder used to transport bread on top as a make-shift table. He covers the plastic with a blue velvet cloth on which is embroidered the star of David.

Then he lays down a prayer book for "The Day of Awe" (the High Holy Days) and a shofar.

A group of Jewish soldiers gather around him as he begins to recite the prayers. Brian, myself and some Jewish volunteers who hear the prayers quickly join in.

Then, there in front of the worst vision of death and ruin any of us may ever see, he blows the shofar.

The sweet-sour mournful sound of the ram's horn pierces the dust and the gloom and resonates far off into the distance.

I feel something warm and wet wash over me and wonder if this is what it means to feel soulful.

The women being to cry, and we all kiss each other. "La Shanah Tovah!" we say, holding each other. We are all total strangers. We will probably never see each other again, but we kiss and hug like family.

"Thank you so much!" I say to the man as I notice that he is wearing a tallis made of camoflage.

"Aaaah! It's nothing," he says laughing and taking my hand in his. "This is the army. I do this all the time."

Wednesday, September 19, 2001

Cooking in the hot zone …

The cars that sat idling in the traffic jam stretching on The Bowery watched me walk past. I must have looked like quite the sight, this woman with tangled, blonde hair covered in grease, a face smeared with charcoal, carrying a bright-yellow hard hat and a ventilation mask.

But the reactions were strange. Some people looked at me with a knowing smile, but some could not make eye contact with me. The few locals who had managed to forget about the disaster for a day and were having fun, drinking cosmopolitans in trendy little eateries or just joking around with friends, froze as I walked past them. They had actually allowed themselves to forget about it all for an afternoon, and the sight of someone obviously connected with the rescue seemed to make them feel ashamed.

I wanted to say, "It's all right. You're allowed to let in some joy this week." But I kept on walking. I was feeling ashamed, too, because I knew they all thought I was one of the brave men and women who were down there digging and looking for bodies, but in fact I was just cooking for those heroes.

Oh, I'm sorry.

Allow me to introduce myself. I am the ground zero hamburger mama.

I have worn many hats in my life: painter, writer, bartender, chef, caterer, bitch-from-hell … you name it, but this particular title is the one I wouldn't mind seeing on my tombstone, although, of course, I'm hoping that won't happen for some time.

It all started with a phone call. I'd been walking up and down the West Side Highway, trying to volunteer, but no one would take me. Then finally, a young woman whose wedding I was supposed to cater, called to tell me it was canceled because her party space looked like a scene from M*A*S*H.

They had turned the Seaman's Church Institute from a maritime museum/chapel/party location into a home for hundreds of rescue crews. There was no electricity, no plumbing and no running water, and they were trying to feed, clothe and give counsel to anyone who could get to them.

I wasn't sure what to expect, so I showed up ready, in camouflage pants and my baddest girl boots. If anything happened, I wanted to at least look like I could handle it.

Billy and Dominic were there, unloading trucks filled with supplies. Billy and Dom are the security guards at the institute, sweet guys whom I've gotten to be pals with over the many years I've been catering events there. Dominic looked like he just stepped out of a Bruce Willis movie. His head was wrapped in a flag; he probably hadn't shaved in days. They were both wide-eyed and pale.

"We were trapped in the tunnel when it happened," Billy said. "I had to walk out and leave Dominic. He told me just go, go."

A close friend who was the best man at Dom's wedding is among the missing. "There's no way! He was on the 76th floor!" Dom said, "I can't think about it. … Just keep moving! I've been here since Day One, haven't been home in a week."

It didn't take much to get me on board. "She's a chef," was all Dom had to say to the man in charge.

I was given a volunteer pass, a hard hat and a ventilator mask and put on a pick-up truck en route to ground zero.

"She's going to St. Paul's!" someone said.

"Where's St. Paul's?" I asked the driver.

"Next door to the Millennium Hotel, but don't worry they say it's stable."

We were led through police barricades and armed guards until the truck finally dropped us off at the church.

It felt like I was dropped off in Beirut.

What I saw was an old brown church, with a row of port-a-johns parked to the right and a long stretch of eight-foot tables to the left. The tables were covered with everything from hot dogs to thermoses filled with coffee and boxes of doughnuts, eye solution, Band-Aids, hundreds of apples and thousand of bottles of Gatorade on ice. Dozens of firefighters, cops and construction workers were in line to eat, and a small group of young woman were doing their best to keep up with the hot dog requests on two small back yard barbecue grills.

In an instant, I was no longer a volunteer, no longer at ground zero, no longer anything but a caterer with a job to do. I added coals to the dying fires, threw on a few more packs of hot dogs and looked for anything that could be remotely called a pair of tongs.

It was only after things fell into some kind of order that I took a moment to survey my surroundings. This historic church dating back to 1762 had been the place George Washington prayed. Here it stood, defying the impossible. There was something remarkable about its brownstone walls covered in dust. All this destruction, and yet the church stood, dirty but unharmed.

Each step leading into the chapel held a different goody box; socks, flannel shirts, work gloves, second-hand hard-hats. Inside on some of the wooden pews teary-eyed policemen sat collecting their thoughts; in the back rows were napping soldiers.

My grills were set up in front of the church's cemetery. Two-hundred-year-old tombstones, so ancient their inscriptions had long since been washed away, poked out from an avalanche of burnt, charred papers. These were the day-to-day works papers of the World Trade Center. I looked at one, a bit of banking business of some kind, a cover letter from a fax. These were the bits of this and that being worked on by people who may now be dead.

"Have you been given the drill yet?" the young woman stuffing the hot dogs into buns asked me.

"No?!"

"If you hear the alarm, you've got to run around and out of the gate. Then run as fast as you can, that way toward the seaport."

"Okay…" I said, trying to push my heart out of my throat.

This was my first day cooking at ground zero.

But that was a lifetime ago.

On my second day grilling for the troops, I was taken on a cold drink run to the place they called "the hole." I went with one of the guys, pushing a wheelbarrow filled with ice and Gatorade. The hole is, of course, the collapsed area of what was the WTC. This is also called "the pile." I wondered if "the hole" meant, well, the hole, and the pile meant the parts jetting up, but I never had the guts to ask anyone.

We were let in by soldiers guarding this area and permitted to come to the tent set up only about 100 or so feet from the WTC. It was then that I made the mistake of looking up.

It felt as though I were jettisoned into a scene from a multimillion-dollar Spielberg flick.

There smoldering in front of me was a giant wreck of a sculpture. Smoke and steam streamed out of it as firefighters on their air-breaks sat seemingly unfazed just a few feet away. It was massive. Nothing I'd seen on the news had prepared me for this.

There were sharp burnt bits of metal sticking up 50 feet, 100 feet; have no idea how high. I had to crane my neck to find the top of it. These shards of bent, broken metal just shot up like some giant, cruel death trap. In the background was nothing but total destruction.

I felt my heart beating out of my chest and breathed hard in my mask.

"I'll take one of those!" a silver-haired firefighter said, and I handed him a Gatorade. "Where you from?!"

"I live here," I said.

He took off his helmet and ran his fingers along his scalp. "I'm sorry what they did to your city. We just flew in from California to help out."

"Thank you!" I said feeling dizzy from the sight I was still catching in my peripheral vision.

I think he patted me on the shoulder, but I'm not sure.

The tent of full of firefighters cheered when we poured ice into their cooler of warm sodas and energy drinks. We handed out the cold Gatorades all around.

"I haven't had something cold to drink since 6 a.m.," said one of the guys. It was sometime after noon.

Seaman's delivered two hunks of steel they'd welded into grills. They were four-foot-long pits filled with charcoal that sent up smoke and fire so intense you had to throw down a burger and then jump back. They'd made the legs too tall, so Hector, the tallest griller among us, had to stand on milk crates to flip the burgers. I kept up on the backyard grills.

Every time I threw a burger down, the fat would send fire and smoke shooting up into my face. After two full days of this, I felt like one of the guys. My head ached from inhaling too much of the smoke and I took to popping Tylenols on the hour.

When shifts would change, 50 rescue workers at a time might show up hungry for burgers. The hot dogs were only what they'd settle for when we ran out of burgers, which we did all the time. Someone said we fed a thousand people on my second day. I don't know if that's true, but it felt like it.

"You guys are the best," said a carpenter from Queens.

"No. You're the hero," I said.

"Nah. We're all in this together. It's you guys feeding us and the people who run up with eye wash the second you rub your eyes, and the people cheering you on as you drive in. That's the reason I can do what I do, because you all do what you do."

"Thank-you!" I replied feeling like I was blushing.

"Do you know how many times I've heard that since I've been out here. I can't even count them." He walked away shaking his head.

There was an air about the area they call ground zero that was not filled with overt sadness so much as an intense burst of something like love. Everyone was going the extra mile. No one looked as though they had slept.

There was Steve the out-of-work actor, who had been there for a week throwing foil-wrapped hot dogs directly into the hole. The men would catch them as they worked.

"More! More! I need at least a hundred hot dogs," he shouted at us. He was wired and pushy, but none of us took it to heart.

There was Scott, who had taken his place supervising the many drug store and clothing donations. He'd been sleeping on a blanket on the floor of the church for a week.

"Are you with the church?" I asked him.

"Naah. I just found my way out here."

There was the pastor from some other church who came to deliver ice and stayed for a week. His job was simple. He ran to Costco six times a day and bought all the burgers and dogs he could carry, then drove them out to the hot zone. I did not ask if he was spending his own money.

There was Meredith, who works with Steve. She is tiny, blonde and adorable and looks like a high school cheerleader. She knew the men perked up when they saw her, and she made sure they saw her all the time.

Everyone here is a hero.

But where else could we be, any of us? There is a bond that all of us here feel, from the clergy to the relief people to the construction workers volunteering for days on end. None of us fit in anywhere else. None of us can mix with the real world.

In the days after I watched the towers collapse, I walked around Manhattan feeling like a lost, out-of-place freak. I was just making the motions, but could not force myself to do anything normal. Eating breakfast in a restaurant or having a glass of wine with friends felt like an atrocity.

Most of the people I met felt the same. Some had given up going home at night because the thought of dealing with anyone outside those gates was just too impossible. I wondered how any of us would be able to blend back in again when this was over.

On my third day at the site, things changed. There had been no official statement, but you could feel internally that this had gone from being a rescue mission to being a clean-up mission. Even the pace of the rescue workers changed.

I was told that the dogs sent out to sniff for survivors had gotten so depressed from only finding bodies, that the crews had to take turns hiding so the shepherds and labs could find them. Once they sniffed out the hiding man, they would be given hearty praise and hugs all round. It was only in this way that they could keep the dogs from going into a state of total despondency.

I went with a relief run to the hole and handed out packets or trail mix to the crews. They loved the chance to eat something healthy and grabbed handfuls of the packets from me. It was then that I noticed the dumpster on which was painted, "Airplane parts, FBI." The sight of the dumpster was a jolt back to the reality of what this all really is, a giant graveyard.

The men have a look on their faces that clearly reads, "It's over."

This day, the Board of Health sent inspectors to make sure we were wearing plastic gloves. They asked us to wrap the apples in foil and cover the grills. They felt the dust was a health hazard.

"We're pretty sanitary over here," I said. "Are you worried we might be creating a health problem?"

"More like we're worried about your health," the inspector said.

One of the girls told me they think the bodies might be creating a bio-hazard in the air.

We were told that they would shut us down soon.

"These guys are going to be down here for two months," the inspector said. "We want to come up with a long term way to deal with this, working with the local restaurants that have been closed."

I understand what this meant. This was no longer a rescue mission, though no one official had said this. This was a long-term clean up process and they wanted the workers to start dealing with local businesses, paying for their food.

Too many businesses in the area were going bankrupt.

We were told that we could not use the huge steel grills, as they have no covers so we added a third backyard barbecue and I ran back and forth turning hot dogs and replacing the cover on the three grills.

A truckload of replacement volunteers arrives to give us all a break, but no one wants to go.

"I think tomorrow might be the last day they let us do this," Scott says, instructing the new crew on how to sort clothes and supplies, "but I'll be here for as long as they'll let me stay."

Tuesday, September 18, 2001

What I love about New Yorkers:

The lady who just had to have something to do; she could not volunteer because she had two small children in tow, and besides they weren't taking any more volunteers. So she found a place on the West Side Highway, where most of the rescue vehicles drove by.

This was the same place where 50 or so other New Yorkers, myself included, (finally, 20 years after high school, I became a cheerleader) held up signs and flags or just gave the thumbs up to the vehicles as they drove by. "Thank you!" we all yelled. "God bless you!" Some of us with no use for words just screamed, "Wooooooooo!"

But this lady had a mission. She'd realized that for some unknown reason, many of the vehicles seemed to think they had to slow down, or even stop as they approached the intersection at Christopher Street, and it was her duty to let them know they could just keep on truckin'.

"Keep going! You don't have to stop!" she yelled at them as she rolled her arm in a come-forward way, like she'd probably seen traffic cops do a thousand times.

"They think they have to stop, but they don't!" she screamed at us. We smiled and nodded, as we had the last 12 times she told us this.

"Mom! I want to go home," her older son said.

"Not now! Sit in the shade if you're hot! Mommy's busy!" Her son obeyed and plopped himself in the few feet of shade provided by the garbage container. His "You Are All Heroes" sign sat folded on his lap.

She was a fairly obnoxious woman, I'd have to say, with a hint of an accent that most likely originated in Brooklyn or Long Island. She had a stout peasant-like frame all the more embellished by the fact that she'd chosen to wear overalls, unusual for a 40-plus, silver-haired woman. I had this urge to give her a pitch-fork and call it a day, but she didn't care what anyone thought of her. She carried an expression on her face that clearly read, "I feel more important than most." I imagined that I might have given her a dirty look or told her to shut up a week ago, but this day was different.

She had evidently walked up and down the West Side Highway looking for something to call her own. They were giving out bottles of water a few blocks downtown, but no, too many young pretty women already doing that. They were making sandwiches near 16th Street, but her kids would only slow things down.

Then she found it, this tiny flaw, a patch of highway that made hundreds of army trucks and sanitation workers think they had to hit the brakes, when in fact there was no cross traffic and with the exception of the cheerleading squad, very few pedestrians to contend with. This was it; this would become her niche.

"Come onnnnnn!!!!! Keep movinnnnnnnn'!" she screeched, her voice growing hoarse and rough, as every bit of the accent she'd probably spent years covering up came out.

"Maybe they'll get there faster now!" she said to me as if to answer the amused amazement in my eyes.

Maybe they will! Or maybe all her effort just like all of our flags and signs and clapping till our hands were raw, did absolutely nothing except to perk up the spirits of the many rescue crews driving into the dusty unknown.

A sanitation truck picked up speed at her beckoning and the driver nodded at her as he drove by.

"You be careful out there!!!" she yelled at him as he drove past.

I stood there watching her, my arms too tired from waving to raise my flag, I was spent after two hours of hooting and clapping in the sun, but she'd gotten there well before me and showed no signs of fatigue. She was charged as if by some internal power pack, and her energy was contagious.

For this one fleeting moment in a week of death and smoke, I found myself filled with warmth at the sight of her.

For this one fleeting moment, I just adored her.

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

And then …

Early in the AM at least early for me, while I was spell checking my rant about how much I need noise and hate quiet, a rant that ended with how friggin' peaceful I felt ... I heard an explosion but did not even flinch ...

I hear explosions all the time from the projects, figured it was just the usual big firecracker in a garbage can thing

Then a client called and said, "I wanted to talk to you about business, but they just crashed an airplane into the World Trade Center." ...?? So I hung up, turned on the news, freaked out and ran up on the roof. ...

There from the roof deck of my Lower East Side building I saw the unbelievable -- the twin towers on fire, gaping holes on the tops of each. It took a moment for me to remove myself from all those Armageddon movies. This was real. In a rush that went from my heart to my stomach, I felt the fear of all those trapped in the towers. It wasn't even 9:30 a.m., but I spun around to see a sizable chunk of my neighbors climb up onto their roofs and fire escapes, their jaws hung as low as mine was.

I ran downstairs for my camera, feeling like a louse, but I just had to, and grabbed Mike from next door and the baby sitter from 5A. I needed someone else to see this and tell me I was not dreaming.

"Holy shit!" Mike screamed. I snapped some pictures, but the camera felt poisoned, so I tossed it on the picnic table and just stared.

We all just stared.

I tried to comprehend how many floors were smoldering.

"It's not so bad. … They'll get them out," someone said, or was it me?

Then it happened -- just as I was thinking, "How much more will this burn before they find a way to put it out?" there was a flash of silver, bits of silver catching the sunlight, just trickling down … and the first tower, just seemed to implode. It came crashing down into itself, right before our eyes. And there were screams from every window and every roof top, and one of them was mine. And I started to cry

This silver deck of cards had just collapsed right in front of us.

It was so absurd, it could not even register.

"No, no, no, no, no!" I heard myself say.

"Oh my God! Oh my God!" came the yells from roof tops stretching to the base of Manhattan.

Armin from 2A came upstairs and just stared blankly. Then we turned our sights on the second tower. The fear from all those people trapped in the top of the other tower and the ones trying to make their way down 30, 40, 80 flights of stairs was so tangible, you could feel it floating in the air amid the vast billowy black and gray smoke that came up like a nuclear mushroom cloud.

We watched, and our cell phones did not work, and our home phones did not work, and our loved ones were trying to call us. We watched.

My neighbor Ray the lawyer came rushing up. He had just escaped from the financial district only a couple blocks away. "I just climbed out of the subway, and a wall of people pushed me back!" he yelled panting and sweaty.

Mike snapped pictures with his zoom lens, shaking his head, trying to make jokes that did not work. The baby sitter bounced the baby on his lap and pointed to the black sky saying, "Man, you are going to tell your grandchildren that you saw this!" to the bewildered baby. A frozen chill began to creep up my arms and legs.

"You've got goose bumps all over you, man!" Mike said..

I ran downstairs to get coffee for myself and the baby sitter cause I felt dizzy and weak and just as I touched my door the screaming started again, ran back upstairs just as the second tower is crashing down, the unbelievable has happened twice. … And the screams are everywhere, everywhere, and the smoke is so thick that all of downtown Manhattan is obliterated as it blows endlessly towards Brooklyn. I watched the end of the second tower disappear into a mass of black and silver.

And we can all feel the death of thousands

They died right in front of us
I could not see their faces, but I could see their faces
I still see their faces
I stroke the part of the sky where they were with my fingers

There is no peace
There is nothing but smoke

We are frozen there on the roof for a thousand moments

I have the sensation that everything I have ever known is being rewritten in my head, and there's nothing I can do to stop it.

And then the aftermath
The panic

What will happen now?
Is this our Pearl Harbor?

Ray's secretary gets through to him, and I ask her to call my brother. Kathleen comes home and we run to the grocery store for supplies. At times like this, they say to buy water.

The grocery store is filled to the walls with terrified people buying nonperishables.

I load up on anything, I don't even know what I bought.
Some sugary juice, cheap cat food, water, something frozen
Cheese
Canned pineapple of some kind, or maybe it was corn, yes, corn

The police are all around when I emerge
The off-duty officers called in
All of downtown is blocked off.

But we are downtown.

You can feel the tension
Crime yet to be born
The city filled with people who will not work today, pacing, what to do now, where to go.
"Everyone I see is drunk or high," the laundry lady says. ..
There is the sense that nothing makes sense today.

There is a strange dead burnt smell that I can taste in the back of my throat

The fighter jets buzz by
The helicopters climb through the murdered skyline

No one will vote in the primaries

Kathleen goes to Beth Israel to donate blood
Carolyn to Bellevue

I can not give blood, but I wonder what, what, what can I do

I check the air, and worry about the smoke and my cats
And see the tower collapsing, over and over and over again in my head

Carol and Tommy are bankers; they work downtown.

M.E. finally gets through on the phone. She was about to walk the 84 blocks to my apartment. She missed her flight to Washington. Thank God, I tell her. Thank god

"I love you!" I say and ask her to find out if they are ok, Carol and Tommy.
I think they work on Wall Street but I'm not sure.
Tracey calls. Calls can now get in but not out, I have her call my father to tell him I'm ok. She invites me to take the cats and come to Brooklyn but I opt for staying home with the windows shut and the A/C on to filter the air. I would have to walk to Brooklyn across the bridge and home with the cats seems a better bet for now. I've always been afraid of heights.

"Tell my father I'm alive," I beg her.

I am alive.

This day now sits before me like a pathetic afterthought.

There is nothing to do but ponder and watch the tower crumbling, crumbling, crumbling in my head.

Later on, after the news has shown me the videos of what is already taped to my eyes forever, I go back up on the roof to monitor the smoke. Is it blowing my way? Do I need to evacuate? It has mellowed, turned more gray.

Then all of sudden it is black again. Black and billowy and thick, but lower, not like the towers. It covers the buildings like a thick blanket, then spreads out piercing the gray, this new terrible thing, a floating dark ocean.

"Did you see it?" the baby's mother screams rushing up on the roof. "We just heard it on the news! The smaller building, No. 7, just came down!"

"I saw it," I say knowing I have not seen anything today since the first tower crumbled before me.

The city has become a game of dominoes.

I look at the Empire State Building and wonder, who will be next?

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

There aren't many things that scare me: lousy haircuts, rayon underwear, those Styrofoam surfboards that obnoxious little kids squeak until the noise makes my brain explode and I scream, "Leave me alone, you bloodsucking gherkins!" and, of course, absolute silence.

Silence.

A lot of folks would sell their left kishka (that basically means any internal organ below the belly button) to get out of town and find a nice quiet place to chill out. Aaaaaah yes! It all sounds so lovely; charming old bed and breakfasts in the country, lovely cottages on the sea and of course, that perfect mountain cabin for skiing, hunting and illicit affairs with postal workers.

Yes. I love, love, love it all. Love, that is, until the lights go out and I'm left nestled inside a black wall of silence that feels like a thousand fat bankers sitting on me.

Interesting visual, I know, and yes, I do promise to bring that up in my next session.

So I do what any downtown girl would do, I turn on the A/C regardless of how cold it is, put on some tunes, crack the window to let in a little night noise and whisper over and over and over again to myself, "All work and no play makes Jill a very dull girl."

I remember the first and last time I rented a house in the country. It seemed so perfectly picturesque; the running creak that babbled its way down a natural waterfall into a shady pond filled with fallen leaves, the tall trees circling the house like a protective mother.

But once the sun slid down its chimney and the last glass of wine was sipped, everything changed. Mosquitoes from hell sent us screaming into the house covered in war wounds. The old creaky stairs that had felt so quaint hours ago became a death trap waiting to break our ankles. And as for those protective trees ... well, they were still motherly, but the mother in question was Joan Crawford on a very, very, very bad day. The Mommy Dearest forest formed a dark circle that locked us in, yet seemed to keep nothing of the mysterious wooded night out.

Then the quiet started. Well not quiet so much as the sound of total nothing through which the screeching bugs, and howling demons of the void could voice their death cries.

"Screeeeee!! (We're coming to get you!)"

"Waaaaaoooooo Haaaaooooooo! (Your ass is mine)!"

I spent the night huddled up in bed with my significant other (hmmm, this
would be ex-lover No. 14. No, no, ex-lover No. 12. We skip 13 like an elevator floor, and the previous No. 12 was deleted due to being far too embarrassing for me to remember, so ex-lover 14 became ex-lover 12. Try to keep up.) who was, of course, sound asleep. I kept one hand on the flashlight and the other on the telephone.

Why the flashlight? Hey! If something's coming to get me, I'm damn well gonna see its face!!

As for the phone, well ... as in all my impending-demise fantasies, I always have time to make a few guilt calls just before death takes me.

"Hi. It's Rossi. Remember me? Yes, well you made my life pretty miserable in the sixth grade. Just because my feet were a size 9 was no reason to call me Big Foot! Just wanted to drop you a quick call to say I'm dying. Don't feel too bad about how you ruined my childhood, because I've heard I get a chance to come back and haunt you. So I guess I should say ... see ya real soon! Anyway, I'm just rattling ... so I'll let you go."

Hehehehehhehe.

Aaaahh well. I'm not dying today, and there's a lovely thunderstorm banging around outside. I can hear children screeching as they run from the rain, taxi drivers cursing, bolts of lighting vibrating against the buildings like a sledgehammer and the panoramic stereo sound of a dozen car alarms going off at the same time.

Yawn! I think I'll just take a li'l nap.

So peaceful! Sooo very peaceful.

Wednesday, September 05, 2001

Things have a way of happening to me on unscheduled days ... like the time I was meandering around the East Village in search of this thing called breakfast. It was two in the afternoon, rather early for my morning feed, and a six-foot iguana came flying out or nowhere and landed on the stretch of Avenue B in front of me. The creature had evidentially managed to push its way through a child's guard (they're for children not dinosaurs your freaks) and plummeted onto the sidewalk like some sad Spielberg joke.

There it was, hissing and licking and crawling about while a crowd of the usual local mishmash (three Puerto Rican kids, two pink-haired teen-agers, four yuppies trying to look downtown-hip and failing miserably, one artist with dog, one lesbian with no visible back pack, but several facial piercings and two gay men who didn't -- GASP -- work out) looked on in an amazement that would grow into mild boredom in just a few New York minutes.

Oh we are such a fickle bunch here in NYC, but it's the edge, edge, edge that we love ... isn't it?

Ultimately, the iguana was just fine. It was roped rodeo-style and left to scare off the customers of an import music store till Mommy and Daddy came home.

I had breakfast at about 3:30 and chalked it up to another one of the many oddities that are thrown at me on, as I mentioned, unscheduled days. Don't know why the eggs looked green.

Unscheduled days for moi, FYI, are pretty often.

So this weekend, on my unscheduled Labor Day, I decided to meander over to see "Planet of the Apes" since none of my very scheduled pals had gotten around to seeing it with me and I was still mortified about the fact that I finally saw "Crouching Tiger Hidden ... what was it ... Muffin" on Pay-Per-View.

Somewhere along 12th Street, or was it 13th or 11th ... who's counting? ... I saw a crowd of college chicks, attacking a table of magazines like it was a post-Christmas sample sale. There towering above them all was one very crummy looking geezer who kept screaming, "Take them all! They're freeeee! I need the room! I need the damn roooooooooom!"

Free is a very sexy word don't you think?? Come to think of it, in New York, so is room.

So I joined the crowd and very delicately elbowed and kicked my way in until I had managed to grab 14 Saturday Evening Posts from 1962!! Wooo. So what's a little blood under my fingernails for some free vintage mags, anyway?

They were great! There was the one written about Vietnam from the "Come over and join a war cause they, really, really need us perspective." The cool car commercials (slurp 1962 Corvettes ... yum) and my personal fave, "The new and amazing resilient tile made out of ASBESTOS"

Re-do your kitchen today!!

Of course I became completely obsessed and almost missed "Apes" while reading with great interest the interview with Rosalind Russell. ... Yes I know you have no idea who the hell she is. Listen!! I'm not old enough to know about her either damn it!! Unless you count that brief fixation with "Auntie Mame" movies, but she's fabulous trust me and had evidentially been in like 45 films and still found time to garden, mix a perfect martini and make her hubby happy. … Now there's a woman!


Speaking of women's lib ... I love that in the ape flick...Helena Bonham Carter is supposed to be like 10 times stronger than a human or former Calvin Klein model, but she still needs Marky Mark to save her like the lil hairy damsel in distress she is.

She's a giant ape for crying out loud! She doesn't need a man!! She needs electrolysis!

Did love the interspecies kiss between Marky Mark and Chimpy Chimp, but did anyone other than then myself notice how incredibly lousy that ending was … oops won't ruin it for y'all but trust me the Saturday Evening Posts were far more invigorating.

I really don't like walking out of movie theatres feeling like I read the wrong subtitles, especially when there weren't any.

Personally I loved the old "Planet of the Apes" flicks and yes, now I surely am dating myself, (and why not I'm fabulous on a date). Was a huge Heston fan, too, until he caught that nasty little gun habit ... story of my life.

Well, time to go. I hear my Saturday Evening Posts calling me.

Here, Rossi, come drool over this early '60s stereo system with matching coffee table and love-seat.

Don't forget to polish up your shiny new asbestos floor!!


And there you have it ...
One small rant for moi
One giant "What the ...." for y'all