(Chapter Five, "The Saddest Place in the World", from Schuyler's Monster: A Father's Journey with His Wordless Daughter, by Robert Rummel-Hudson. St. Martin's Press, 2008)
In October 2000, we received a visit from a friend I had made online through my journal, a writer from Ireland named Caoimhe. (That's pronounced "KWEE-vah", by the way. Well, of course! How else would you say it?) She was visiting the States to attend a conference for online writers, along with Dana and myself and a number of my favorite writers and friends. While she was in New Haven, she wanted to visit New York City and see another friend of ours, a popular online writer and personality named Nina, who was unable to attend the conference. I piled into the car with Julie, Caoimhe, and little ten-month-old Schuyler and drove down to meet Nina at the grandest, coolest, most New York location we could think of, one which would require no directions other than what we were told by our eyes and which would be certain to impress everyone.
We found ourselves alone in the plaza. Nina hadn't shown yet, and Julie had taken Caoimhe inside on a quest for coffee. Schuyler and I played around the fountain under the giant spherical sculpture and chased birds around with her stroller, to the annoyance of cool Manhattanites and faux-cool tourists around us. We had a hot dog and played and danced, and it was on this evening that I heard for the very first time the braying, hysterical laugh that Schuyler still hasn't lost. I've heard that laugh a thousand times, but on that night, between the towers as we played and ran and lived antlike in their looming magnificence, we heard it for the first time. That's one of two things I remember vividly about that night.
While we waited for Julie, I pushed Schuyler's stroller up to the long, graceful columns of the North Tower until the bumper touched the wall. I reached down and removed her tiny gloves so she could reach out and touch the surface with her bare hands. She stared up at the long, sleek metal pillars as they fanned out into long vertical lines that blurred together long before reaching their end at the top. The tower seemed to sway gently beside its twin in the sky, an optical illusion created by the clouds moving overhead. We then ran across the plaza, scattering pigeons as we went, until we arrived breathless at the South Tower. As I bent to catch my breath, Schuyler leaned forward to touch the cool, smooth surface, her eyes again straining overhead.
That is the other moment of that day I'll remember. Schuyler's hands, impossibly small and delicate, touching the towers, so improbably big and forever.
Julie was working at a bookstore in Waterbury, Connecticut, when the first plane hit. She was scheduled to lead a tour group of elementary school kids through the store, and by the time their bus rolled up, she was waiting for them, pulling the teachers aside quietly to inform them that something horrible was going on in the city, but no one seemed to know exactly what it was just yet. The tour was given and the kids departed, and for the rest of the day, Julie and her co-workers caught scraps of news from customers and from a radio in the back receiving area of the store. It wasn't until she and her friends walked to Chili's after work that they finally saw the images for the first time. They drank beers and shook their heads as they viewed the explosions and the collapsing floors and the clouds of rolling dust, over and over again, with no context and out of sequence. Julie sat silently, watching a carnival of unimaginable imagery playing out on a soundless television in the noisy bar of an unremarkable chain restaurant, a banal American Everyplace intruded upon by Apocalypse.
That morning, I was sitting in a AAA office in New Haven, renewing my car insurance, when one of the agents announced to the office that his wife had just called him and told him a small airplane had just flown into the side of one of the World Trade Center towers. As my agent put together my policy, the others joked about what kind of dumbass pilot doesn't notice the twin towers in front of him. A few minutes later, the same agent announced that his wife heard on television that it wasn't a small plane after all, but an airliner. Shortly after, his cell phone chirped again. By now we were listening to him for more news, and so we all heard him say loudly, "Holy fuck."
United Flight 175 had crashed into the second tower.
By the time I had arrived at my office on the mental ward, mayhem had landed with both feet. I turned the key and stepped onto a ward buzzing with activity. Yale-New Haven Hospital was close enough to New York to see a large number of the thousands of injured people expected to head our way after the New York hospitals were inundated. Beds were being wheeled into empty rooms. Voluntary patients were being discharged, standing at the nurses' station with their belongings in hand, waiting to be sent out into a world that was suddenly scaring the shit out of each and every one of them. And us.
I went to my office and tried to get to the CNN Web site, but nothing was working. The servers were swamped. The only thing I could get to was a discussion board I sometimes frequented, so I reloaded it over and over, watching as people posted what they knew, and what they didn't know. It was a crazy stream of panic, a swirling mix of unbelievable rumor and inconceivable fact. One plane, two planes, maybe more. An explosion at the Pentagon caused by perhaps a helicopter, a crash on a Washington, D.C. freeway, a fire at the White House, an explosion at the Supreme Court building. NBC Nightly News reporting a car bomb outside the State Department. Some group called the Democratic Front of Palestinian Liberation had claimed responsibility. All air traffic was shut down. A third explosion at the World Trade Center, causing the top of one of the towers to collapse down to the thirtieth floor. No, the whole tower. Gone. One person wrote from overseas, "The republic is falling."
I didn't read that last part until later. I had left my office and walked down to the patient area for a moment to take it all in. As I stood there, a low moan rose from the patients and staff gathered around a television. I rushed over in time to see the south tower folding into the roiling cloud of dust. When the north tower collapsed twenty minutes later, the sight was greeted with silence. We were already adjusting to a world in which such things happened.
The nurse standing beside me shook her head. "We're not going to have any patients from this," she said. "Not a goddamned one." By the end of the day, the voluntary patients would begin returning and the extra beds would go back into storage.
When I picked up Schuyler at her day care, she was surprised by the long, suffocating hug I gave her. When we got home, we all watched television in silence. She was quickly bored by the solemn talking heads and played quietly in her room.
Julie and I stayed up late that night, listening to Peter Jennings on an ABC News radio feed. I couldn't stop thinking about all the people who didn't come home to their families, the ones who weren't lying awake in bed right now. Citizens of the world and children of God, they were out there in that horrific place. They didn't hug their kids that night. They lay in rubble or in the remnants of an airplane fuselage. No one knew how many. No one knew much of anything, we were bereft of information but floating in our fear and our anger.
"I'm scared," Julie finally said with a crack in her voice. "How the hell does something like this happen here?" Then again, more quietly, "I'm so scared."
Julie finally fell into an uneasy sleep. I got up and crept into Schuyler's room to kiss her slumbering head good night. I paused for a moment and then scooped her up and brought her back to bed with me.
I kept telling myself, "That's it, I don't want to hear any more about this," only to turn on the radio and listen to the endless analysis that had been playing nonstop for a week after the attack. We couldn't turn away. Our need to understand what had happened outweighed our desire for our hearts to stop breaking and rebreaking every time we heard more stories. We watched the news on television almost full-time now. Unavoidably, Schuyler watched the images as well, but without understanding. She saw an exploding airplane and was simply dazzled by the fireball, reacting with her curious half smile and a reaching hand. She touched the screen as it lit up, and I resisted the urge to pull her hand away as if there were a poisonous snake before her. I figured she had time enough to be afraid later. She had the rest of her life to live in this broken world.
On our way home from running errands, I found myself asking, "Do you want to go see it?"
"Yeah, I do," said Julie quietly. "I need to see this." Without a further word, I turned onto the Merritt Parkway and headed to New York. It had been ten days since the attack.
Entering the city was easy, much easier than I thought it would be. It wasn't until we were traveling down the Westside Highway that we started to notice a change. Passing the aircraft carrier Intrepid museum, we saw throngs of people congregating along three long walls running down the sidewalk. Paper covered the walls; there were hundreds of missing persons posters, for blocks. Julie didn't start to cry until we saw them. Police were everywhere, along with emergency and military vehicles. Fat military helicopters patrolled the skies.
The farther we headed south, the harder it became to ignore the hole in the sky.
When we reached Canal Street and could go no farther by car, we parked on a side street, pausing to change Schuyler's diaper. As we were sitting there, a pair of fire trucks raced up and stopped right beside us. Giant flags hung from their ladders. Firemen stepped out in their full gear, and suddenly we felt as if we were in the presence of celebrities. These guys were the biggest heroes in America, but to us they just looked exhausted and sour. We asked if they needed us to move our car.
"Nah, you're fine," one of them replied in flat tones. They were there for regular firefighting duties, but it was hard to imagine they weren't thinking about it.
About "it." It. One word to encompass the entire event and the whole place, this saddest place in all the world. Thinking about It, looking at It, smelling It. This It was the biggest It in the world.
We walked, pushing Schuyler ahead of us in her stroller. I didn't know the city well enough to know exactly where the towers had stood, but you could get a fairly good idea from the looks people on the street were giving in furtive glances to the sky. They were still looking for them, a week later.
As we got closer and the wind shifted, we were hit by the thing I had feared the most. It's impossible to describe that smell. Hours later, back in New Haven, I sat up late trying to describe the scene on my blog, and I realized with a start that I could still smell it on my clothes and in my hair.
On the streets of Manhattan, there was no escaping it. We turned down a corner and suddenly it was all around us; one moment it was faint, the next it was the whole world, a world of nothing but that smell. It was a burnt smell, warm like an animal, and sickly sweet. It was the smell of the most awful things in the world. It filled me with panic, and my first glimmer of understanding.
In the midst of it all, Schuyler was oblivious. She was happy to be outside, to watch the people and the lights and the near constant flow of emergency vehicles going past, the only ones on the streets this close to the site. Schuyler was fascinated by the stillness that had suddenly replaced New York chaos, and she saw the sky ahead of us. The way to the site was obvious. There was a great light streaming up from someplace nearby, up into the hole in the sky. Light, and smoke.
There were others on foot, mostly local residents, as far as I could tell. They walked slowly, aimlessly, like phantoms in a place already swirling with too many ghosts.
When we left New Haven, we hadn't discussed the wisdom of bringing Schuyler to this place. I know that must seem pretty irresponsible now. Aside from anything else, the air we were breathing couldn't have been good for any of us. At the time, however, all I knew was that we were a family, an American family, and while the world would go and get complicated soon enough, right then it was simply the place we needed to be, the place that a short year before had become a cherished memory and was now smashed to ruin. I didn't know if any of us belonged there, but if we did, we all did.
It wasn't until we started to meet with crowds of people that I began to get a better understanding of why Schuyler needed to be there. People stopped to admire her, a great many of them, and she dutifully and with great cheer delivered her standard "cute baby who never cries or shits or does a thing in the world wrong" routine. She had no words, of course; she was almost two years old, but small for her age. No one seemed to expect her to speak, certainly not in this place where words were too small.
The next set of police lines marked the edge of where we were allowed to go on foot. Beyond these, only residents and rescue workers were allowed. Periodically, one of the cops moved a barricade long enough for a big truck to roll through, its flatbed trailer piled with sadly recognizable twisted metal. Schuyler and I had touched that metal the year before, although the base of the towers where we'd laid our hands against the cold surface wouldn't see the light of day for weeks or even months.
It was here that Julie hesitated, perhaps sensing the horrible It that lay just out of view. She was more quiet than I'd ever seen her. As I stood waiting for her, I felt a tug on my jeans. I looked down to see Schuyler smiling up at me. I bent down to her level.
"How are you doing, monkey?" I asked her. She reached out to hug me, which she'd been doing a great deal lately. The gesture carried all the meaning in the world to me, although probably no more to her than "Thanks for bringing me here instead of another boring night at home."
A policeman walked up to us as I held Schuyler. His face looked drawn.
"It breaks your heart, don't it?" he said. "I've got two kids at home, and..." He stopped abruptly in the midst of miming a hug, unable to continue. He looked back down the street at the lights and the smoke and shook his head. I told him about Schuyler's previous visit to the World Trade Center and how she touched the towers. As I spoke, another truck rolled by, carrying the huge, twisted steel beams. Some of them were actually flattened in spots. They looked like rubber bands.
"It must break your heart every time you see that," I said to him. "Every time," he replied quietly. We told him how proud we were of him and his fellow officers, but his thanks was muted; he was somewhere else in his heart, somewhere a few blocks away.
Beyond the trucks shone the lights. Bright lights, and cranes, and slowly boiling smoke tumbling lazily from what lay beyond. We'd reached the corner of Greenwich and Duane, and the crowd of people was bigger. Before I could see past them, I saw them taking photographs, and I saw their ashen faces. I looked down the street, and for a moment, my eyes weren't grasping what they were seeing.
"Oh. Oh. Oh." I said it over and over again, unable to stop or say anything else. I was looking at two piles, the farther one slightly higher than the other. They were impossibly big, rivaling the buildings around them. I'd seen photos of how they looked during the day, but at night they were simply hulking black forms, horrible for what you couldn't see. It seemed impossible that such a thing could ever be removed, that the bodies and the smell and the smoke, this mountain of steel and glass and blood could ever be swept clean. It seemed as unmovable and permanent as the towers had seemed the year before.
Men in hard hats walked away from the scene, their grimy faces unreadable.
A female police office walked up to us, bending down to look at Schuyler, who was thrilled to have someone new to flirt with, having become clearly annoyed with her weepy parents who were sucking the joy out of this adventure.
"Well, hello there!" said the officer. "Look at that smile! You are just like sunshine to me right now!" She reached out and touched Schuyler, who responded with her wheezy, goony laugh, the one we'd first heard here a year before. The officer smiled, but tears were forming in her eyes, big ones. She didn't even wipe them away, she just played with Schuyler and let them fall. When she said goodbye and Schuyler reached out to hug her, the officer closed her eyes and gave herself over to the embrace.
I was suddenly glad we'd brought her with us. There wasn't a thing in the world I could do to make this any better, but Schuyler could. She was sunshine.
We left after that, walking away from the city's smoking wound. I turned a few times to look at it again. Julie did not.
"America when will you be angelic?" wrote Allen Ginsberg. I think about the people who died all those years ago, those faces on desperate, hand-lettered posters and ethereal voices crackling over cell phones. I think about all those souls, all those young lovers and sad lonely people, the greedy and the generous, the pragmatists and dreamers and gentle mothers and rowdy fathers. They were just like me, and probably like you, too. They weren't angelic. None of us is.
Even as I write that, however, I know it's not true. I do know an angel. I watched her bless doomed towers with tiny hands and grant absolution to police officers whose hearts were breaking. Schuyler's an angel and also a bit of a devil, a fragile flower who speaks in a howl. She remains, now as she was then, the reason I give a damn.