9/11: The Wrong People Are Praised in Our Society

The first time I saw the smoke was from the 21st floor of the Conde Nast building in Times Square—a dot of black and gray, far down the island.

We evacuated our building because it was the tallest one in Times Square. I saw the collapse on the screens outside ABC News Broadcast Plaza: Peter Jennings said, Oh my god.
And that was that.

Walking home, I remember a teenage girl posing for a camera. She was smiling while behind her was panic. A man with a shower radio stood on the street as the news played. Around him was a crowd, listening.

I saw a suburban-style minivan stuffed with firefighters—it was so cramped, its sliding door was open and firefighters were hanging onto the side of it while that baby-blue minivan headed into the smoke and ash.

I remember the fire truck from Massapequa—for hours, it must have barreled its way through Long Island’s always-choked roads to Ground Zero.

Later, I saw a firefighter, exhausted, standing in front of the firehouse down the block from me. His face was covered in white ash and he was crying, his tears combining with the ash in rivulets. That station lost six men.

I remember the ironworkers who cleaned up the twisted, smoking mess for weeks afterward, only to get damaged lungs (My former live-in GF’s brother-in-law was in that stinking hellhole. He knows his life was stolen from him. His health never recovered).

That day doesn’t make me think of the highly paid, so-called knowledge workers like me. We were useless. I also don’t think of our leaders who wore suits and waved the American flag while standing on an emblematic — but safe and telegenic — part of the so-called Pile.
Normally we ignore the service personnel, but when that shit went down, those people headed into the fire while the rest of us got out.

We stood around and cried. We called our exes and long-lost friends and everyone we could think of and it really mattered who called and who didn’t. We mourned the ones who died. I ended up hugging a woman I barely knew in an office hallway because someone close to her had died. We all greeted each other, “Is everyone ok?”

There were flyers everywhere that headlined, MISSING. Beneath the MISSING headline, there was usually a photo, a name. Sometimes there was a prayer or a statement of love. That missing person went into the World Trade Center that morning and hadn’t been found. I recognized a woman on one of those MISSING flyers. I’d met her at a birthday party. She had been in the final rounds of becoming a doctor.

I saw many other people hugging and crying. In the subway. At work. On the sidewalks. I watched street cleaners wash down Wall Street in the most loving way possible the night before they opened the area to those who didn’t live downtown, the rest of America.
Cabbies weren’t rude. We were all acting our best like kids in school on the first day of class. We were trying to behave because we were useless: The people who mattered were the ones we had previously ignored: the firefighters, the ironworkers.

A few years ago while on a century ride, I was in a serious bike accident. An FDNY EMT showed up within minutes and held my head in place to keep me from damaging myself further. Others strapped me into the gurney and made jokes to keep me calm. I forget what the jokes were, but I remember compassion. They sopped up the blood as I bled over a bike path on Rockaway Beach (a kid cut me off, I swerved on the sand and fell on my face and wrist and shoulders. I got a concussion from hitting the sidewalk with my forehead, despite the helmet). At the major trauma center at Brookdale Hospital, the PA, the physician’s assistant, pulled the many, many grains of sand, bit by bit from my face and body. Another worked on my broken wrist.

To keep me calm, the PA told me she did something called West Coast Swing dancing. She told me this while picking out each grain of sand, one by one. She said, yes, her people don’t like the East Coast swing dancers. They don’t shoot each other, though; they just say impolite things. Because they’re nerds.

An hour later while I was still on the gurney, my face shredded and swollen, the PA sighed. An eight-month-old boy was being admitted, his face chewed by a Doberman that someone had allowed to roam the streets.

The scene was intense: the baby screamed. The parents screamed. The baby bled. I heard the distraught cop who helped bring in the baby ask someone if the baby was blinded for life.

They rolled me out of the room to give the baby and her family privacy. The nurse said, That poor baby. I asked her if she hated her job, but she said no, of course not: I get to help that baby.

The wrong people are praised in our society.

About Meakin Armstrong

Fiction writer, fiction editor, journalist, and copywriter.
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