October 5, 2001

Now, it has become personal

For some time I have been struggling to find the right words. I still am. My home for my entire life has been in Lower Manhattan. The neighborhood has shaped my identity. I grew up without next-door neighbors or other kids my age. I had access to subway lines and I always had to travel far to get anywhere because I was near nothing. The New York Stock Exchange holds little interest for a skeptical, intellectual, art-minded child/adolescent/man. I became a loner, a wanderer, and an eccentric, and I owe much of that to my neighborhood.

I used to say that I would skip over to Canada if America ever held a draft, but I would fight for the City of New York if New Jersey ever decided to invade. I may be a bad American, but I am a patriotic New Yorker. That spirit lead me to volunteer, and by an accident of chance, I found myself at ground zero, handing respirators to the firefighters heading to “the pit." Once upon a time we would have just said they were going down to the basement, or sub-level in New York real estate jargon. So I am a unique individual, although, mind you, not uniquely qualified. I lack any and all useful skills, the product of a good education. Rare are those in New York who live south of City Hall, and rarer still are the volunteers who crossed the red tape into the frozen crime scene. Stunning circumstances confirm that I remain an oddity.

As a volunteer I basically ran around and met an uncountable number of people. I memorized a multitude of first names. I offered to do whatever was needed. I got into trouble, and I genuinely helped. Most of all for myself, I stopped thinking about the tragedy and focused on the work. Ironically, the only time I didn't think about the World Trade Center was when I was there.

I thought I had been coping with the shock and pain admirably. I understood I was remarkably unscathed by the devastation. Myself, my family, my friends, my friends' families, my family's friends, all are safe. Measured against the enormity of events, I am a lucky one indeed. I discovered by means of a considerate question that, however, I am not fine. Telling another volunteer where I was from, she warmly asked how I was in the wake of events. I shrugged in a twenty-one-year-old way and said something to the effect of “that's life" or “them's the breaks." Clearly, I was not well. I do not have a guess as to when I will stop hurting. Maybe I always will.

My life took a significantly more than metaphorical fall with the collapse of the Twin Towers, which with the crashes at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania has been dubbed by the media “Attack on America," complete with a keen font. In the quiet of college life, I find myself grasping for direction. I do not feel comfortable enough to slouch into the same old habits. Sorry, but I seem to have buried the thesis far into this testimonial. You see, I have little interest in providing play-by-play details of CNN reruns. I was not there to rubberneck. And policy debates leave me withered and sore. I have a distinct distaste for political machinations at the moment. Neither am I interested in expressing an insider's account of events, although get me in the right mood and a few words may drop from my quivering lips. I come bringing the bounty of my simple, confused mind: questions. I wonder what to do in the wake of history's first attempt to define me.

I feel I should be a different person — a better person, of course. Undoubtedly, I am not the same person. I can now make casual jokes about mass murder that I could not before. For example, have you heard the one about the morgue attendant who can no longer stand the smell of Listerine? Perhaps another time. I have never cared so much about the Mets before. I mean, I have been a fan since I was five. I even once picked a Tim Teufel O-Pee-Cee trading card off the dirty ground on my way to the 1 line Rector Street station. But victory would never have been as sweet as a 2001 title for the Metropolitans. There is a special warmth found only when you make the trivial seem momentous.

So some of my old self has molted away. I am a little less apathetic and a little more vulnerable. But is that enough? That is somewhat like asking if I gave back enough to the men working at ground zero. I left feeling as if I should have somehow done more, been more energetic on my 30-hour shifts. Despite running about long past exhaustion, I left unsatisfied. I am not even sure I should be mentioning that I volunteered. Perhaps I should conceal my good deeds least they become corrupted by personal satisfaction. When one volunteer I met told me he wanted no credit or thanks, I responded that a simple tribute, say, a public posting of the names of the civilian assistants, could provide catharsis for many. I am trying to believe my own words. Firefighters and police officers would often thank the people who handed out the supplies, saying we were the hardest working people at the site. C'mon! Our 24-hour shifts were not spent in the smoky darkness underneath the rubble, surrounded by the stench of human decay. We volunteers, rushing about to administer to needs, embodied a kinder other world.

The response to the devastation of September 11 is an affirmation of the preciousness of life. This statement is not limited to the networks of supplies and support that arose to help the crews toiling through the aftermath. The destruction to a small part of a large city affected too many to consider the lives lost as meaningless. The significance of being, of simply existing, was shown to me in the vacant, askance looks of silent subway patrons and in the tales of final moments. Aid overflowed from around the country and around the world. The avalanche of stuff donated to the effort shocked many of those working at the location. One choked up policeman told me that he “finally saw the goodness in people."

I now look ahead and wonder if there is a way I can bring the police officer's revelation to a wider audience — perhaps incorporate it into my everyday routine. Andrew Delbanco, the Time magazine-endorsed “social critic" and swell guy (f that matters to anyone) has for some time spoken of a need to renew the vitality of respect and responsibility in our lives. In an eerie coincidence, he comments in a September 10 sound bite on how the leisure of America has left the youth and young adults of this country “disconnected" without a grand test or challenge. For me, expressions like civic duty and social responsibility have been filtered through comic book icons such that I cannot hear them without smirking over faint memories of childhood and cynical memories of yesterday.

Yet I feel that should change. (A tangent: have you noticed the prevalence of the word feel in this piece? Hippie weirdness.) The fact is that when my mind wanders in class, as it often does, I swell up with the need to cry. This fact demands of me to change. I do not know how many others are thinking like myself. Where are the soul searchers? How strong are their legs? Any change would require much patience and result in much failure. Growth possesses a Pavlovian component. When you crash to the ground, you must figure a way to stand up even taller. I have doubts that I possess the requisite strength. Perhaps the soul searchers have doubts as well.

Still, I return to the words spoken by Professor Delbanco on the 10th. “It is in times of extremity when people discover the most profound truths about themselves." I have learned a little. The hardest lesson to learn is how to learn more. Nonetheless, I ought to. I ought to set a memorial not in stone or steel but in myself. To paraphrase Spider-Man, with life comes great responsibility.

Visit Kevin Beimers and Amiee Lingman's site at http://www.roadtrip.beimers.com/groundzero.html for a better description of a volunteer's life at the World Trade Center wreckage.