- Jim Dwyer of the New York Times has been writing a simply spectacular occasional series on the objects that have taken meaning in survivors’ lives since Sept. 11. I’ve recommended the pieces before and will again.
The latest: A yellow stroller and the mother and children with it. Previous objects: A pair of handcuffs used to dig the last two survivors out of the debris… A paramedic’s uniform… A photograph in the rubble… And best of all, the dramatic tale of a squeegee that was the key to life.
Each of these is a story that brings Sept. 11 down to its most human level: an object that ties a few people together through the struggle and pain and heroism of that day.
I say this has been the best of the Times’ coverage. It is great feature writing, Pulitzer stuff (except the Pulitzer people like showier things, things that run on too long for mortal people to read, big for the sheer sake of bigness). Dwyer’s pieces are big because they are so small.
Every time I read one of Dwyer’s stories, I also think of the objects from my Sept. 11.
In my garage, I have a bag inside a bag and inside that is the briefcase I carried that day and — foolishly — bent to pick up more than once as the 50-mile-per-hour cloud of debris enveloped me, as I tripped and almost fell, as I heard crashes and screams in the dark around me, as I feared I could die. What the hell was I doing picking up my damned briefcase? I don’t know. Obviously, I had some primal attachment to my stuff: the laptop, of course; my addresses; my papers. And so, having fought to keep it, I’ve saved it. When I cleaned up that day, I threw out my shirt and pants and even my socks and underwear, they were so encrusted with dust; I shook my jacket out on my driveway and collected hunks of concrete that filled my pockets. But I kept that briefcase. It is completely covered and filled with dust and unknown fibers; it reminds me of the cloud; it carries the cloud. I’ve looked at it only once, when I showed it to my parents, who needed to know what that day was like. The briefcase spoke for me. Then I put it back in the bags, on the shelf.
I kept a pen, too, that was in my shirt pocket. The concrete dust was so thick and so forceful that it filled my pocket and filled the pen from underneath such that I cannot open it.
I kept my glasses, brand new glasses, the titanium kind you’re not supposed to be able to bend or mangle. They survived that day. A testimonial to titanium.
I lost my cell phone. That struck most people I know because I do love my gadgets. My son knows I lost it; that was what he told his little sister; that is how he connected to the event. My coworkers laughed; here was my excuse to get a newer and neater phone, they said. They were right.
I think I keep this weblog as an object of Sept. 11, as well; I hold onto it so I don’t get too far away. The impulse is the same.
And finally, there is a receipt for paper towels. When I escaped the cloud, the most precious thing to have was a paper towel and a little water. After breathing and swallowing too much of the remains of the World Trade Center, I finally had the presence of mind to breath through my handkerchief until I lost it. When I found refuge in an office building, I tried to wash off what I could. But I kept breathing the dust; it filled my eyes and lungs and mouth. What I wanted most as I escaped north, a refugee from terror, was a paper towel and a little water to breath through, to clean with. At the East River, I came across a supermarket being turned into a command center. They gave out water; I kept that Poland Spring bottle all day. But I had no towels. I went inside and found, bless be, a roll of paper towels. A cop stopped me and asked me to tell him what it was like back at the World Trade Center. He was worried about his brothers. I told him. Then I went to pay.
I got in line at a checkout. And, of course, the lady behind the counter growled — in the last New York moment I remember — “I’m closed!”
I dragged down the line, defeated, looking like a reject from hell. I didn’t have it in me to be a New Yorker: There was nothing left with which to throw a self-righteous psycho fit. I just wanted the right to open up those towels. I said nothing.
But then pity poured out. A manager spotted me and called me back. The checkout lady had quick second thoughts and called me back. They apologized all they could and said that, of course, they would take me in line. The checkout lady asked how I was; I said I was just fine, absolutely fine. She said she was going to go home and try to find a relative who was there too. I pray he was fine.
I walked out, triumphant with my water and towels, cleaning my eyes and face. A cop stopped me again and asked whether he could have some for his partner, to get the concrete out of her eyes. I rolled it out for them and some others and poured water for them. I kept those paper towels all day as I walked up from the World Trade Center to Times Square.
I just found the receipt from that purchase.