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
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
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
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