Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Copper Plate That Spoke

I recently returned to New York City as previously before in June with the Wounded Warrior Project's Writer's Workshop for Caregivers. I couldn't wait til the plane touched down and get with my beautiful friends made of steel amongst the skyscrapers and lights. Although I am small town and being in such a city as New York is daunting and scary, the excitement of what I might find kept my nerves wound tight. I don't know what was wrong with me this past weekend, but due to my health, lack of decompression time, things that had been up, down and sideways; caused my mood to be a bit melancholy. I felt fragmented and really unsure how to put back my pieces.

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, 


  1. THANK YOU !!! you are so gifted, you can relate - you are their voice !!! and NO you are not crazy for talking to them,because they could be us. As i stood in line, watching him clean the plate, i thought he belonged there,like it was a job he loved to do... i never seen someone clean with such a profound attention to details. i stood and watched as he said NEVER FORGET - i sure never will, i know his story because you gave him HIS VOICE

  2. Dear Kat,
    Wow, that was an amazing story, tears were rolling down my face, my heart was opened to a new level to hear the words of two broken spirit people talk to each other pain, and lost of memories that no one had ever heard before. The healing that happened to both of you, to share forever. Breath taking wisdom from the heart. Thank you for sharing this excellent piece of history with well as how simple life can be when we listen...Peace Kat, Sincerely,
    Annette (Grandma Mac 2011)

  3. Hi!

    My friend, Cristin, was at the workshop with you last weekend and sent me a link to your post. It is wonderful! Thank you for giving this a heart and a voice. Beautiful.

  4. And you wonder why people say you get it. I think its cause you took the time. This story gave me the cold chills. I wonder if my PTSD will get me and would I end up on the streets? You probably did turn that light on him. You are an angel and an example for all of us to follow. God Bless

  5. You are a shining example of what we need more of in this world. thank you for you courage and bravery. My daughter was with you in NYC, and through her story I understand what you are going through. Thank you for speaking to this man, for letting him kiss your cheek - we entertain angels unaware...wouldnt those who scoff be ashamed if he were an angel...God only knows.

  6. CamelcoloredglassesNovember 10, 2011 at 6:02 AM

    Damn. This made me tear up. I think we don't stop to think about our brothers and sisters who served who are now on the streets. This really put a whole lot of things in perspective for me. This is a great story and one that should be shared with everyone in the world. Thank you USM for stopping and just listening to him. You probably made a huge difference in him and you know what? I think "they" did hear you. Gonna pass this on to others. I think we could all use an angel to remind us that other angels are right in front us.

  7. My friend was with you in NY. She said she saw this man and you talking to him. It was a gutsy move but I think you just gave that man a voice that no one else bothered to hear, in this blog. Her and I were talking that we would have been too scared to talk to him. Your heart and you as a person really stands out in all of this. This made me really think about myself and the things I have done wrongly to others. Thank you.

  8. Have you ever thought about writing a book? This story is absolutely amazing and mind boggling! You have a way of describing things that makes me think I was there with him. The count of homeless veterans is extremely high and people forget that. I am really proud to say you are a friend and even more proud that you are gutsy and listen. You wonder why people talk to you. It's simple. You have a kindred spirit that radiates through your voice and resonates throughout people. I really really appreciate this story more so, because somewhere out there on the streets my father lives. He never came back from Vietnam. So you understand. This made me think how we as society simply ignore and rush by people. You probably really turned that light on and from your other posts, I can see where you relate so much to your husband. You are right, it could be our family members and there is no difference. God Bless you for this story and for giving him a voice to be heard loudly. I hope one day that someone will come across this and publish for the world to see. You have a gift, use it. Thank you for this.

  9. Wow Kat, this is a beautiful story. I saw him there on Sunday as well and I watched him and listened, and I watched how franticly he scrubbed and polished, and I was appalled at the comments that were made. I am sorry that I did not to get to hear all that he said, but thank you for getting the rest of the story. You have many REMARKABLE gifts my friend, you are truly a BEAUTIFUL person, we should all aspire to be more like you.

  10. I think angels appear when we need them the most, but not when we expect anything to happen. How do we know that he really doesn't see his friends standing there? I was there with you. You took the time to talk with me when the other ladies ignored me. You made me feel good and open up a little. I remember what you said "Just jump right on in there". I say not only a book, but maybe the next Dr. Phil. I watched others and they didn't even say hello but you took the time to recognize I was on my own and sat down to dinner with me. You listened to me. For that I am grateful. It was a great trip but I was afraid I had made a mistake because it was high school all over again. You told me your story and how to stand up for yourself and I listened. You weren't telling me what to do. You didn't give me any advice, you just listened. You didn't judge me. I felt a ton of bricks lifted off me and now, I can say I met the mysterious Uncle Sam's Mistress. I can give myself a talk and say what would she do? What made you stand out was your motto of what happens between us, stays between us. You are a soul that can be trusted. I felt like I could sit down and tell you it all. Just wanted to say thank you for taking the time out and for being my friend. I saw you there and thought to myself, well this could go either way. That man's face just softened with you standing there and I remember thinking yeah buddy, mine did too. You are a remarkable person and so glad to call you a friend. Thank you again.

  11. HI Maam, its Freeman again. I signed up by email and well, this story really hit home. I can relate because you sat down in between me and battle and said "Well, I do believe this is the first time I have ever been sandwiched between two good looking soldiers and MPs to boot. I may never want to leave this plane" I still have to smile over your enthusiasm. You turned the light on because the light in you is contagious. We talked forever it seemed and you know what, I think you do see and hear them. You knew just how to make my guilt a little less heavier. You had battle laughing and he hasn't done that in a while since you know what. You did this man right maam. You should be really proud of this post. Its a beautiful piece of work and one that makes me want to see New york. You are a good person. Makes me want to go back and fight that much harder. Peace to you. Freeman

  12. Wow this made me think about some things I have said in my past. Thank you. This is a good wake up call.

  13. Well, I came on here and your music player starts to play If God Was One Of Us. Coincidence, probably. Just weird being the post it is how it chose to play it as I was on here. I work with the homeless, and many of them do suffer horribly from mental illnesses. Sometimes though you do see a light come on so I could relate. Sometimes a person who understands and knows helps relieve them of their ghosts. I am terribly bad about sometimes not listening. For that, I am ashamed. Thank you for reminding me why I went into this field.

  14. Dearest Mistress. You never failed to tell the world how it truly is. When I first started reading, I was like wow this isn't about PTSD or TBI she is just writing. Then I read the whole thing and it is about PTSD. It is about all of us seeing the ghosts whether they be war ones or civilian. I am sure you will write about the World Trade Center and I am looking forward to it. I am going to NY next year with my school's orchestra. I may just make a special trip there and see if that copper plate has something to kick me in the butt. I read the other comments and I do believe this speaks loudly of what type of person you are and what we should all be. Thank you for a beautiful story.

  15. Thank you this. I think this opened a lot of eyes. Only a person who has first hand experiences with those ghosts could have recognized what that man was dealing with. Thank you for standing up for all of us.

  16. I am a Veteran, Gulf War and OIF. I have to say I have been guilty of saying some things about the homeless people I have encountered. This made me ashamed of myself. I didn't think that could be me. If it weren't for my wife, maybe that could be me. Thank you for speaking up and for the great posts here. I learned a lot about my wife first hand from you. Semper Fi

  17. Your ability to receive emotion without becoming overwhelmed or turning away and the lyrical beauty of your writing are awe-inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing them.

  18. Thank you all so much. I didn't do anything more than just take five minutes. He was definitely a remarkable person. For Freeman, hey I have to say anytime I am stuck in between two good lookin' soldiers, who would want to leave? :) I think it was an important lesson to learn and one he desperately wanted to be told. I don't know if he really saw those people, but who knows? You had to see the look on his face when he stared across the way and nodded. It gave me the goosebumps. I stopped to look myself and wondered are they there too? He was so sincere when he said "they hear you too". I hope they did. This man hit so close to home for me. I saw so much in him that I see in my husband and I didn't understand why so many others didn't see it. "Crazy" is a term we so readily throw out there...the same we do with our Veterans. Debbie, I am not that strong. I went back to my hotel and cried for him and for all of them. It was a very emotionally draining weekend, but a part of me was happy I was there. Maybe I was there for a reason and the look of relief on his face was worth the tears. @Anonymous, thank you. You just got to seriously, jump in there. You have just as much to offer as any of them. I know how you felt. Don't say what would USM do, say what YOU would do if you could. I think underneath that shy and quiet package is dynamite! A friend of ours who went with us posted a comment that I felt fit us to a T. "Speak the truth even if your voice shakes." Remember that one. Thank you all for the beautiful comments. I am really proud of this post. As always I remain~ USM

  19. Hey you know even the strongest cry too. Nothing to be ashamed about. Makes you human.


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