A First Responder’s Focus Is Still Blurry

Five years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, some things seem every bit as strange as they were in the hours and days after the Twin Towers collapsed.

Rudy Giuliani has emerged as the front-runner for the Republican Presidential nomination, despite having told first responders, many of whom have fallen ill, that it was safe to work at Ground Zero. After years of half-baked denials, Michael Bloomberg last week conceded that the government owes something to the first responders, although he didn’t specify what that something is or whether the city should pay for it. And on that same day, it came out that Cesar Borja—the policeman whom the Daily News elevated into a symbol of first responders struck down by sickness—is now reported not to have worked at the site until months after the attack.

Still, it’s easy to forget just how weird those first days were.

I ended up as a first responder, mostly owing to the then-universal feeling of not knowing how to occupy myself. Little documentation of my time there still exists. For paperwork, I have only an easily forged Salvation Army ID card. I may be in the background of a few photos; otherwise, there’s no proof that I know of what I did.

My memories are as partial as the paper trail: lugging a sack of bagels and leading blood donors from one hospital to another; passing a man holding a “U.S. Out of the Middle East Now” sign at Union Square; watching trucks arrive at the Salvation Army with mostly useless supplies, and with far too many volunteers inefficiently passing the boxes arm to arm, but no one wanting to leave; handing sandwiches and juice boxes to exhausted cops and stunned civilians waiting to identify effects or remains.

I carried things and did what I was told. I slept for the first time in a Burger King, and was eventually shaken awake and told that the building might collapse. Some of the female volunteers flirted with cops and firemen—perhaps the most useful thing any of us did. The best I managed was to bring in cartons of cigarettes to the workers. (It was hardly the day to ask any of the men to quit smoking.)

I called home and heard that my grandfather had died. I didn’t know what to make of the people in lawn chairs on the West Side Highway holding up “Thank You” signs to the passing emergency vehicles, or of the friend who brought a camera. I realized, first, that not many people would be coming out alive, and then, soon after, that no one would.

The Red Cross continued to run ads asking for blood donations, while their workers gravitated to reporters.

I slept one night at Brooks Brothers. I thought for a moment about stealing clothes, and watched as cops and some other volunteers did so.

I returned to Brooklyn, eventually, and heard music for what seemed like the first time in weeks. I remember a friend bragging to a girl about his time on “the pile,” and I remember watching the buildings fall time and again on NY1 News.

I went away to spend a few months in a Seattle S.R.O. that doubled as a halfway house, where I mostly played pinball and kept to myself. I took in Spike Lee’s sublime 25th Hour and Jonathan Safran Foer’s garish novel. I belatedly mourned my grandfather. My brother signed up for ROTC and, later, went to Iraq.

For all that, I couldn’t tell you how long I spent at Ground Zero, or what it was worth. I know it took some time to stop having violent fantasies about people who went out to restaurants and talked about meaningless things, even while I did the same.

I also know that my breathing hasn’t been the same since, that my heart pounds too hard and for too long after I exert myself, and that I really should quit smoking, if only to clarify what’s causing the problem.

Mostly, though, I remember something abstract—slipping into the smoke of metal, jet fuel, flesh and whatever else, into the fear of more planes or of a suicide bomber at the pile; into the sight of soldiers in our city. And then back out, so that I remember, like I suppose everyone does, in scraps and symbols. Having made the pilgrimage from experience to recollection, the thing is like everything else—at the mercy of the scraps and symbols that substitute for real memory.

With Borja debunked, as it were, the first responders rudely falling ill are now reduced to the inelegant role of publicly demanding the help and attention once accorded the widows of those murdered that day.

Meanwhile, Ground Zero remains just that—a hole in the ground—and the city holds its breath and mostly looks away.

Some people now ask, very reasonably, how long we can be expected to stare silently at a hole.

For myself, though, I’ve come to terms with not coming to terms, and I haven’t seen a doctor since.

Harry Siegel, a lifelong Brooklynite, is the managing editor of citiesonahill.com and the co-author of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life.