Of Pain and place

Documenting devastation near and far-of the body, the mind, and the soul

I couldn't find my doctor friend but met a guy, Charlie, who was heaving boxes in an old-fashioned fire-brigade line, and crying. He said he'd been in the Holocaust in Germany and the sirens, fires, and people holding up cardboard signs with photos of lost loved ones and scrawled cell-phone numbers was too reminiscent of his ruined youth. "I'm reliving my life," he bawled. "Sirens, bombs, sirens! It doesn't stop ... Screaming ... We couldn't find anybody then, either ... You young people don't remember ... We moved from Germany to Israel -- more bombs and madness ... and now you've got it, too!"

There were 50 refrigerated trucks on Liberty and Broadway, waiting for the dead, and the teleprompters set up all around ground zero showed Ernie Anastos of Channel 2, imparting the news that 30,000 body bags were on the scene. (By Saturday, gratefully, there were 25,000 left unfilled.) Toward midnight clouds rolled in, and by Friday morning, thunderstorms had turned the dust into slick cement.


President Bush is the same size as Rudy Giuliani, the medieval hawk-face mayor of New York, but if anything, the mayor looked more presidential. Giuliani spoke in humbled terms of the sacrifices his firemen and cops were making (369 dead or missing); it was as if his own cancer diagnosis last year had knocked the cowboy out of him. This was not the case with Bush. He swaggered to the mike in his tan golf jacket, without a hardhat, as if making up for his Air Force One flights to Louisiana and Nebraska on attack day. He pointed importantly at various peaks and creaking crags in the shifting rubble around him, where yellow and blue helmets teetered on, searching in the background, oblivious to his speech, while TV focused tightly on the smallish crew paying attention. "I can hear you," Bush said gravely into his bullhorn. "The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

Despite the polls, those I talked to weren't so intent on revenge. Glen Ray, who'd been on the scene for three days, searching for survivors, finally pulled a fireman out: "I reached down a hole there, and felt a scratching on my hand." Paul DiMartini kept complaining that "they won't let me dig. They say they've got enough guys." Anthony Fischetti, who'd been working since Tuesday, said he hadn't found any whole bodies yet. "They're gonna haveta go to dentals and DNA," he murmured sorrowfully. "I saw a hand. I found part of a torso, but you weren't sure, you know? It was exactly the same color as the stone and shit. I just kept thinking: Who does this belong to? Somebody's father or brother before the bomb hit...."

TV rhetoric and the president's fiery declaration that Western civilization is in a state of war were beginning to take effect. The American and United Airlines planes that had hit the twin towers were now, officially, "bombs." The AA flight that cracked the Pentagon was a "missile." The United flight, U-turning on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border and crashing near Pittsburgh, was surely headed for Camp David, or the White House, or Air Force One. By Friday's Day of Remembering, real pain was being recycled into mediaspeak, as Dan Rather imitated Walter Cronkite, and Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Jim Baker, and George Bush, Sr., presumably advised the president in the mysteries of statesmanship.

By Saturday the rescue workers still weren't finding much, and people were writing their own epitaphs and hieroglyphs on the dirty fenders and windows of cars and rescue vehicles: On 31st Street on the West Side, near Ladder Company 24, which lost its whole first squad the first day, someone had scrawled Renab, you will be missed. Next to that it said: Father Mychal lives 4-ever. (Father Mike Judge of the Catholic church across the street was caught in the debris when the south tower collapsed.) Then it said: Stay strongand Fear no evil.

Curiously, as you moved south, back toward WTC, the graffiti grew more probative and lyrical, cave inscriptions for the 21st Century: At Fourteenth and Fifth someone had spray-painted Osama mon amour on a used-clothing store window; smeared in pink lipstick on the hood of a pearl-white Audi TT parked on Washington Square North near MacDougal was the message: God instructs the heart by pains and contradictions; a single word, one I'd first seen in the Eighties, adorned the regular "artists' graffito" space at West Broadway and Grand Street, Militarize; and at ground zero, taped Vietnam-style to the white hardhat of a shockingly beautiful young woman rescue worker who said she was a Ford model, was this: Nuke till you Puke.

On Saturday night the U.S. dead and missing count was 4972; the terrorist list hadn't yet begun.

--By John Lombardi


Fawad's Jihad
At 1:15 a.m. last Saturday, the fear unleashed from the kamikaze jetliners was still resonating in the windowless studio at WVUM-FM (90.5), the University of Miami's radio station. A lanky, dark-haired 22-year-old with long pointy sideburns stood nervously before the soundboard and prepared to speak into the microphone. He wore jeans and a long-sleeve shirt with the words "Cult Leader" embroidered above one pocket and "Bomb Squad" above the other. "This is DJ Mother Goose," he began. "Actually, uh, now I'm DJ Muslim in light of, uh, what's been going on up north. I'd like to begin tonight's program with the Islamic call to prayer." He swallowed audibly, put his index fingers to his temples, and then began a mournful melodic droning, in Arabic.

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