As promised, I rushed late Friday night down to the Catholic Charities on 7th Avenue to see if I could locate my Dunkin Doughnut coffee buddies only to find no one had seen Mike in a while. I wanted so badly to see him just one more time and perhaps explain to him that he made me really think about a lot of things. I think he was the closest talk with God I had ever had in my life. Maybe I needed to see his face, hear his voice one more time, and perhaps selfishly...I wanted to draw in the simple, quiet strength that radiated from him. Our hotel had changed, but the direction didn't bother me because early in the wee hours, I still had silent coffee talks with several homeless men who walked past me while pushing their grocery carts that held their lives. I admired their strength to keep walking, their never fail smiles they gave me, and wondered what I would put into my cart had I been in their shoes.
During this writer's guild workshop I attended, we were given the opportunity to visit the World Trade Tribute Center. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, walking through bits and pieces of sorrow, lost love, last breaths, and reminders of what used to be. Emotionally drained, physically sick and tired, and unsure of my mental stability in that time...I walked ahead of my group, around the corner of Ladder 10 to see a beautifully engraved, copper memorial plate that glowed with the evening sun. Amongst the melancholy, and my fighting the tears, there stood a middle aged man who was rambling and speaking out to the crowds of people as they rushed by in a hurry. I stopped to recognize the firemen emblazoned forever amongst the copper, hitting home the details of each face, name and remembering the memory of that horrible day of 9/11.
I stopped to get photos of this wall because I knew my husband would want pictures of this marker and no matter where I stood, this man would place himself in front of my camera's eye. I don't know what made me stop, and listen to his rapid, machine gun fire of words that he was filling the already loud air, but I listened. I watched. I made a mental note of his clothing, his choice of words, and more importantly...his actions. In between shouting out, "Know your history. Know the names. Know they aren't all there. Know your history my friends. Know it. I want you to know", he scrubbed at that copper plate with a small, wired bristle brush ferociously while polishing with a dirty rag held in the other hand. I listened as he kept scrubbing, hanging on to every word he said, and wondering if copper could be simply wiped away due to such intense attention.
While walking back and forth, he scrubbed. He scrubbed as if in his mind, there was something dirty he couldn't simply just polish with a rag. It suddenly dawned on me where I had seen this type of obsessive manic movements. I had seen it in the nightmares and sleep walking of my husband. It was different, but the same haunting movements could only come from someone who still sees the ghosts of war. He scrubbed that copper plate with the same intensity as my husband tried to get whatever off he had on him in his nightmare. My heart jumped a little as I recognized so much in him, that I have seen in other Veterans. The same haunted eyes, the hollowness, the far away look, and the urgency in his cries out for someone to listen to what he had to say. I had to say that this was a day I was ashamed of many. Many who rushed past him, the many who stood behind him and called him names. I was ashamed that tourists were taking pictures of him as if he was some sort of freak show and all the while, I wondered why it didn't seem to bother him. All those people assaulting him with their verbal stones that to anyone, would hurt to the quick...but he never missed a beat.
"They are there...they are there. Their names aren't on the wall. The wall. Not on the wall. Know your history, know it's not all there. It's gone, they're gone. We didn't get them home." he said over and over again.
I knew what he was saying because when 9/11 happened, I asked my mother "what happened to all the homeless people that were there?" She said in a soft, sorrowful voice "I don't know honey. I hope they got out. They are people too". Yes. Yes they are and I didn't forget. I remembered that conversation while he was scrubbing. I don't know why I did it, but I walked up to him as he faced the copper marker and was scouring with his worn down brush. He never looked at me, he just scrubbed as if that wire brush and copper plate held some type of secret penance for him. He never acknowledged that I was there. Just kept on scrubbing and muttering while he rubbed whatever sin he was trying to correct.
Time stood still. There were no loud noises echoing off the buildings, no sounds of traffic, and not even the loud rhythmic drumming coming from the sit in, Occupy Wall Street, which filled any gaps of silence the city of New York could have possibly had left. I made sure, due to uncertainty, to give him personal space because I didn't know him. I leaned over and placed a few bills in his bucket around his neck. I told him softly, "I didn't forget them Sir. I know there were many who died here that didn't make the wall. I know they are here and I didn't forget." As my words whispered in to his ear, he suddenly stopped. His wire brush hung midair on the copper he scrubbed and looking straight ahead at one of the firemen on the plate he said,
"Are you a Veteran?"
"No Sir, my husband is. Iraq, in 2006."
"Do you know what is important about the number seven?"
"Yes Sir, there were more than just the towers destroyed. There were seven others here".
"You understand. You know. You know your history. You know. They just left them there lady. There wasn't a place for their names. They mattered, they were my friends. They were there. I was there. I saw it fall and I screamed for them. I screamed and screamed. I was told to get out of the way. It was the same in Vietnam. No bodies, no tags, just leave 'em. There is nothing there now." as he pointed to the barriers blocking off the WTC Memorial. "There is a beautiful building but when I look the spirits are there. I see them. I see them and they tell me their names are not on the wall. Seven. Why can no one remember that there were seven? The Church. Gone. Church that held God is gone. It's just gone."
Such desperation and urgency for me to listen rang in my ears, and in the background I heard "that is one crazy mother-fucker." and "what the hell is she talking to him for?" Anger surged through my body like an electrical volt but I stood my ground and I never let my eyes stray away from his. I heard nothing and no one. I saw the same emptiness of a man that once was and just wanted his words to be heard. I looked at him, grabbed his hand and said, " I understand. I see and hear them too".
Tears welled up and he said, "your husband ok?"
"No Sir, he isn't. He just gets worse as the days go by. He sees the same ghosts, I think, as you."
He looked at me so clearly as if suddenly someone suddenly turned the light on and said, "All those people little lady. All those people. No one mattered unless they had a home, or money. Why could they not place a marker for them? That's all they want. I want people to know the truth. I want them to understand their history and learn from it. They call me crazy, I hear 'em. I guess I am crazy but they ain't got to see them every day. I come and scrub because I remembered. They stand there and remind me over and over again that they are all lost. I scrub and scrub. 2,976 is not the right number. No, no its not. Not all the names. 2...9...7...6 no it wasn't all. They stopped counting. I scrub away it all."
"I understand, Sir. My husband still scrubs too." I whispered with understanding. God, did I get it.
He said softly, "Thank you. Thank you for listening to my words. I just wanted them to hear me."
"I hear you, Sir. Tell them, I hear them too. I didn't forget."
He leaned over and said "May I shake your hand and kiss your cheek?"
I looked at him for a second and said "I would be honored to have you give me such a gift".
His hand was large, strong and warm. His kiss was scruffy that engraved a place on my cheek gently and soft. So much so, that his kiss still lingers five days later. There was no need to say goodbye, no need to formally shut the conversation down, it was with mutual understanding that the light was gone and he looked at me and nodded. He then said "Little lady? They hear you too."
I walked back to meet my group and as I looked over my shoulder, I saw him pack up his things as quick as he scrubbed that wall previously. For a split second, he stopped and looked over at the large, blue barriers and nodded in silence as if he was agreeing with someone that just wasn't there. My heart was so sad, heavy with guilt that all those people just passed him up. Someone told me I must be crazy to talk to "these people". Another told me that I shouldn't have let him touch me as if our childhood "cooties" he did indeed have, were contagious. Maybe I am crazy. Maybe I shouldn't have waltzed right up to him. However, I think the most profound wisdom you can receive as a human being, comes from the most unlikely of places and people. He didn't ask for anything more than just someone to listen to him. To simply acknowledge that yes, all the names of those who were lost that terrible day in our placement of history were not on the wall, was all he wanted.
For those who don't know, there were seven in addition to the two twin towers that were destroyed or badly damaged. These were 7 World Trade Center, 6 World Trade Center, 5 World Trade Center, 4 World Trade Center, the Marriott World Trade Center (3 WTC), and the World Financial Center complex and St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. Seven was the number he so desperately asked me if I knew the meaning behind. "Seven" he said, "held the lives of many and homes to many who aren't on the wall".
His voice and his face, etched a permanent place in the vast caverns of my mind. I wondered what his story was? Who his friends were? What past did this remarkable man have? My heart ached because just as I reminded someone else who said I was nuts, that could be our husbands. Our brothers. Our sisters. Our mothers. There were only a few differences between him and our families. Our soldiers and Veterans have us. It could have been my husband, or your husband. Would we have turned a blind eye and deaf ear to them the same way? No one stopped to look carefully at him as his Army background did indeed give him away to someone who knows.
I left New York but I don't think this moo-cow town girl will ever have New York leave me. In the loud city with the busy rush of people passing by in a blur, there are some who sit, calling out to those who won't listen. There are still those who linger behind silently in people's minds, begging to be put to rest. I think sometimes you just have to stop long enough to hear the truth. If you ever want to hear a story, stop at NYFD Ladder 10 and see how that copper plate, does indeed speak. Question is....will you really hear it's voice?
All of them Remembered,