Tuesday, September 12, 2006

374. St. Paul's

It's no longer 9/11, but I wanted to post--to have it here, to remind myself of the day, every once in awhile--parts of an email I sent to friends after volunteering one night, two months after the attacks, at St. Paul's Chapel. St. Paul's, just a few blocks from Ground Zero, was where the workers at "the pile" came for food and rest.

November 12, 2001

On Sunday night I volunteered at St. Paul's Chapel. It was slow; not many people were working at the site (or "the pile," another euphemism; no one called it "ground zero") because of Bush's visit earlier in the day, and all the union workers were off on Monday because of Veteran's Day. So the usual steady stream of police and firemen was just a trickle. But there was still plenty to do, and the twelve-hour shift went by quickly.

St. Paul's is small, dark, and beautiful. Not a scratch on the inside; every pane of stained glass and every bit of crystal in the chandeliers is intact. The walls and columns are painted pink and blue, which makes it feel cozy and comfortable. Every possible surface--the backs of pews, the walls, the windowsills, "George Washington's pew" (now a foot massage station by day), even the water bottles on ice at the back of the sanctuary--are covered with letters and drawings sent from all over the world. Sheet-sized banners hang from the balcony: "Oklahoma loves you!," signed by half of Oklahoma. A folded blanket lovingly topped with a teddy bear or piece of candy waits at the head of each pew. There are cots in the balcony and choir loft, but I didn't see anyone up there except we volunteers; the pews were like a sacred zone, a place for the rescue workers to be alone.

In truth, my initial enthusiasm about volunteering had waned as the date grew closer. The need that seemed immediate a few weeks ago no longer felt as urgent. My experience of this tragedy was like so many other New Yorkers': I was horrified and terrified beyond belief but knew no one, personally, who had died, and so was able to turn my fear and distraction to other issues: Afghanistan, anthrax. It hurt too much to look at the skyline, so I began to believe that by not thinking about it, I would feel better over time. At St. Paul's, however, I realized that we--and I--hadn't moved on. The pain has become routine, and so maybe a little less painful on a daily basis. But as long as men are working 18 hours a day digging out bodies, I can't really move on. Nor should I.

There were two other support operations nearby, explained Diane from St. John the Divine, but this one was different; it was in a holy place. People came here to eat, sleep, and be with others who understood what it was like. Those of us helping serve food were given a whirlwind tour by a volunteer who had been in the restaurant business for 20 years and now worked in advertising. He'd been at St. Paul's three or four nights a week since 9/13. He looked like he hadn't slept in days. He always wanted to come back whenever he went home, he said, like a drug. We were instructed to keep the Sterno cans under the chafing dishes lit at all times, or else the Health Dept. might shut down the whole operation. Someone had to drive to Bouley Bakery at 4AM to pick up breakfast, and we'd have to set it all up by 4:30. Dinner (from the Waldorf Astoria) was Cajun pasta, tortellini, lasagna, peas and carrots. Breakfast: eggs, oatmeal, waffles, sausage, bacon, hash, sweet potatoes. Another table contained massive amounts of candy; a third, rolls, bread, bagels; and a fourth, soda (including Red Bull, the thousand-proof caffeine drink of choice. A few cops came in at 3AM and asked for it: "I need some of that energy drink.")

You could tell if people wanted to talk by their faces and body language, the food service guy said. He'd held firefighters as they cried while describing what they'd just seen. He'd been to The Site at least 30 times himself. What was it like, we asked? "I can't tell you," he said, and that was that.

I took a nap at in the choir loft at about 2AM. I awoke to the sight of the altar below. I was momentarily disoriented, but heard the bustle of people and immediately felt safe.

Above all, I was struck by how thankful everyone was for our help. The firemen covered in dust, the policeman who looked more exhausted than anyone I've ever seen in my life, all said thank you and talked to us as we served. "How's it going?" "Cold out there." "How's the oatmeal?" (I'm just dishing out scrambled eggs for a night, I wanted to yell each time they thanked me, and you've been digging for bodies for eight weeks...and you're grateful to me?) They smiled and came back for seconds. They mostly heaped their plates with food and sat alone in the pews to eat. A few took out rosary beads. Some went behind the curtain up front to the massage therapist, who stayed busy all night long. Some put down their plates and sat head in hand for many, many minutes. Some stood while eating and talked to us, like the cop who was about to start a 15-hour shift. On the morning of 9/11, at about 7AM, his van broke down on the FDR Drive and he and a bunch of colleagues were stranded. A UPS truck pushed them to a gas station, where they argued with the woman in front who was taking up the mechanic's time. Finally, over an hour late, they headed to their destination: the World Trade Center. The attacks had just begun. The delay had saved their lives. He spent the next three nights digging in the rubble.

What was that like, someone asked?

"Very sad," he answered, and stopped talking, and walked off into a pew.

In a world that's now unreal, the night felt like a dream. The "permanent volunteers"-- clergy, food service workers--walked around all night long, checking supplies, keeping an eye on the rest of us. It's a well-oiled operation. I tried to imagine what it had been like a few weeks ago, when chaos reigned and they were serving food outside to twice as many people and making coffee runs to The Site. Now it seemed almost routine, a world within a world within a world where the stained glass never cracked and there was always a warm blanket waiting. It was an experience of the end of something larger--the tail of a comet, a small moment of kindness frozen at the conclusion of a time of infinite sadness.

No comments: