My Brothers-in-Arms Are the Bouley Brigade

When the attacks came on Sunday, my friends were as unsettled as

anyone. They talked about whether our goals are truly

defined, about what in our culture is worth defending, about who will suffer

from our bombs. Myself, I was hardened. I had just visited the World Trade

Center, and saw that the term “ground zero” is a misnomer. It is a scorched

battlefield, and we’ve been at war for nearly a month.

Dave Anderson, a former Clinton aide who now does film in New

York, had set it up for me and him to volunteer at the kitchen serving the

recovery workers. We took a cab down to Bouley Bakery at 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 4.

The place was jammed with volunteers and the Bouley staff, and the amount of

food going in and out was staggering: boxes and boxes of cucumbers, buckets of

squash, aquarium-sized bins full of rice, 150-pound Styrofoam fish boxes piled

on the sidewalk.

Dave and I were set to work helping to make salmon. Though we

were producing a few hundred pounds of it, word was that David Bouley had

insisted that it be cooked to exacting standards. It wasn’t to be baked but

seared and fried, and pink inside. So we had to keep a dozen frying pans moving

through the dishwasher and back to the chef at the stove, meanwhile reducing

heavy cream for a mustard sauce, then packing it all in boxes for the trip to

ground zero.

It wasn’t high cuisine, but it wasn’t a mess hall either; it was

a great New York restaurant doing what it does best, but in disaster

circumstances. Something had been called on in Bouley’s elegant soul, and it

had responded as only it could. The chefs had not lost their attitude, but,

striding past the army-sized vats of sauce, they dipped two fingers in to taste

it, flicking them clean as they strode on. Or they cut into the hunks of seared

rare flank steak and passed pieces to fellow chefs, grimacing wordlessly at one

another, or warned the volunteers on pain of death not to go anywhere near

their knives. I asked one chef, Marty, when we would get to the frozen breaded

fish sticks. He shot me a deadly look.

I was with about a dozen other volunteers, chaotically filling in

here and there. Any writer my age grew up with the statement by Ernest

Hemingway that war is the best material and wondered if that was true, and

whether we would ever get it. In Bouley’s kitchen, I had my first taste of war.

The feeling of doing important work, side by side, and trying to suppress your

ego. The fluidity-that everyone was being called and that if you showed the

right energy and purpose you could excel, and your job might change, you would

get more responsibility in an instant. Thechaos-tworefrigerated trucks pulled

up and we were suddenly, senselessly loading boxes of cheap tomato sauce from

one to the other. The shortages-for hours there were not enough lids for the

trays, and I had to go next door, or harass the dishwashers. The waste.

Everything about normal life was turned on its head. Of course, I am talking

about life behind the lines. Still, it was monstrously exciting.

It was my hope from the start, as it was every volunteer’s, to be

called to go downtown to help serve the food at ground zero, and Dave, being a

connector, bugged Rick, the austere and woozy chef who had been putting in

36-hour shifts, to choose us, and Rick did. We rode down in a police van to an

abandoned cafeteria now made into the serving hall on Liberty Street, on the

south side of the site.

It is a commonplace that television does not prepare you for a

visit to ground zero. This is true. What is missing from television and the

newspapers is the scale of the destruction, the vastness and height and range

of what you understand was a battlefield. The towers were overwhelming when you

had to walk under them. In destruction they are even more awesome. They have

left a grand urban canyon, the walls of which are other great buildings, now

sheeted, very beautifully, with black or orange netting from top to bottom. The

façades of those buildings are bare where they were torn open by a falling

chunk of the tower. Their ripped faces look like the aftermath of a great rock

slide in a mountain scene.

The scale has the majesty, and silence, of war. The Christo-like

netting waves slightly in the breeze. You gaze wordlessly, stunned and

heartbroken.

What is not widely understood

is the tremendous dynamic forces unleashed by the terrorists. I kept asking,

What happened to a desk on the 80th floor? The answer I got, from workers and

supervisors, is that it was pulverized to nothing, and then burned. Because at

a certain temperature, aluminum burns.

An official who supervises engineers explained that each floor of

the towers had been reduced to roughly ten inches of rubble-including the

concrete slab, which would have been about that thick to start with. The

dynamics of this event were so extreme that the concrete was made into powder,

filling the sky like night. A salvage worker said that the biggest piece of

concrete he’d seen in three weeks was about 20 inches in diameter. “They

haven’t found airplane seats,” he said.

“It was like a nuclear blast, but without the radiation,” the

supervisor said.

I met him near the washing station at Liberty and Church. I’d

gone to one of the Porta Potties, then washed off. Another worker was showing

his book of photographs from Sept. 11, and several men gathered to look.

A recovery worker said that he had seen 36-inch-wide steel

I-beams sheared. A technician who works with engineers said that when they got

to the bottom of it, they might find a solid mass of melted and hardened steel

that would present daunting engineering issues in removal. Even in the open

air, workers’ boot soles melt and slide as they walk on steel beams.

The idea that you will find many bodies in this mess is absurd.

If a desk on the 80th floor has been essentially reduced to ash, then bodies

were vaporized. One man said that the largest component that they had found in

testing the air was human DNA. I have no idea whether this is true-another of

the beauties of war, the proliferation of informed rumor, and censorship-but

certainly the awareness one gains at ground zero is that here stands a large

crematorium. That terrible smell in the wind was not just burning computers,

but burning aluminum and burned human beings. I understood in a new way what I

had been inhaling for the last few weeks: Mohammed Atta.

I did my work, mopping floors. The cafeteria had no front wall,

just tarps, and the men coming in with washed boots kept kicking up the fiber

runner, so I went down Liberty Street to the firehouse-now a shell made into an

equipment depot-and borrowed a hammer and nails to tack the carpet to the floor

for who knows how long, a day maybe. A firefighter barked at me to bring the

hammer back soon.

It is hard to describe the joy in feeling that you’re helping,

that you’re engaged in such a worthy cause. Of course you saw the crisis

queens, demons of kindness who had managed to crawl their moody ass into this

broken space from west of Columbus. But mostly what you saw were the capable

and quiet, homely lean types. I watched one of them in action, a pale humble

man with narrow eyes and a hushed but commanding air, directing others in the

cafeteria with a few words, tireless, his name written on a piece of duct tape

on his T-shirt. His time had at last arrived. The 70’s, 80’s and 90’s would

have had nothing for this guy. War had called him forth from the woodwork.

I saw the same nobility in

many of the recovery workers. Lean ghosts who came into the cafeteria clanking

heavy iron tools from loops in torn coveralls, manly, unweary, tested, homely,

taking a granola bar and coffee and turning around. And again, how exciting to

see the new age and its heroes, men made of wire, grunts and resolution.

The intellectual battlefield is also being drawn today, and so

far it’s been ugly. You can be distracted by the noisemakers, the opposition of

Andrew Sullivan to Susan Sontag. This is a false battle. On one side, Susan

Sontag surely adopted the wrong tone-a flippant one-for her piece in The New Yorker , but worse is Sullivan

going after appeasers and saying that appeasers have “neutered” American policy

in the Arab world.

This talk is not a reflection of the American mood or discourse.

We are actually united; we believe ourselves to be at war; we overwhelmingly

support action. Yes, there is the Berkeley crowd, and they will always be

there. They were right during Vietnam, just as William Safire was wrong, but

now that is past. When Andrew Sullivan talks about the “decadent” people in the

city who oppose war, it is an aggressive and meaningless posture. To begin

with, they don’t oppose war-and then, too, where does a writer who lately

advertised for bareback sex with other HIV-infected gay men (an ad whose candor

about desire one respects, and which was exposed by doctrinaire gays, to Mr.

Sullivan’s embarrassment), where does this man get to put down others as

decadent and urban?

The real battle line now is between those who want to pave

several Arab countries and those who want to limit the theater and involve

Palestine in the peacemaking. When Ariel Sharon called the latter group

“appeasers,” he may have felt that Andrew Sullivan and the neocon crowd had

provided him cover in the United States, but his comments were swiftly

denounced and he apologized. Still, there exists a belief that all the Arab

world are Nazis. The world is messy and various. Even after we win this war, we

will have to live in a world with backward fundamentalists.

One fiction the hawks endorse is that the terrorists’ actions

have nothing to do with Israel. They hate the West, they hate modernity, they

hate our occupation of Saudi Arabia and they hate women’s rights. All these

things are true-yet as Osama bin Laden’s statement after the Sunday air strikes

made clear, Israel is an important factor in their worldview. And the issue is:

Do we push for a fair resolution of the Mideast conflict as part of this

national effort? The average American says yes, of course.

This is maybe the most interesting aspect of the post–Sept. 11

terrain, the consequences to the Israel lobby. Mideast policy is no longer a

special interest, affected chiefly by a handful of experts and lobbyists in

Washington. Mort Zuckerman of the Daily

News has actually lost power since Sept. 11. Israel is seen to have far

broader implications, and many Americans can now say that they have a stake in

the peace there (just as high-school massacres shifted the discourse on the

Second Amendment, reducing the influence of the gun lobby).

When the towers fell, I heard some Jews saying, “America is going

to blame us!” You haven’t heard that (just as we are still waiting for the

backlash against the Democratic party for nominating Joe Lieberman). You

haven’t heard condemnation of Israel, our ally. But Mideast policy has clearly

been opened up for discussion in a new way.

Crossing back into the civilized world from the police lines was

saddening. Here, abruptly, was a human scale, color and music, tourists’

T-shirts, women’s ankles jutting from cab doors, but it all appeared a hopeful

mask over a frightful truth.

I understood why the recovery workers in their boots start to

gasp and cry when they get away, why ironworkers call their friends at night

and tell them to come over and share a joint. The destruction has become their

reality, and then they emerge into high heels and businessmen on cell phones

and don’t know how to reconcile the realities. I wish that many others could

tour that broad canyon and understand. Afterward, civilization feels fragile,

precious and peculiar.

But most of all, it feels like ours-in all its indulgence and

freedom and nuttiness.

I remember scorning Bouley a few years ago. How trendy and

statusy and expensive it was. I never went there, though I passed it a lot, and

once looked inside and sneered. Now I stopped back in the kitchen to say

goodbye to the chefs and get my jacket, and back outside, studied the menu by

the front door, the entrees for $33 and $35. The chefs have not been able to

make them for weeks. They are, I know now, the most perfect creations in the

world.

My Brothers-in-Arms Are the Bouley Brigade