Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A DAY FAR FROM NORMAL by Peter Nolan Smith

That September morning a jet roared above the East Village. I opened my eyes. Lots of planes and helicopters flew over Manhattan. None this low or fast or loud. Thirty seconds later the windows shook with a muffled thud more a boom than a crash. It wasn’t too far away from East 10th Street either.

The screaming children in the alley day-care center buried any clues as to its origin and I dressed for breakfast at the Veselka diner.

The telephone rang in the living room.

It could only be my Thai ex-girlfriend wanting money.

Mem didn’t deserve a single baht after leaving me for a young Italian tourist,

The angry statement roiling in my head was better left unspoken. I dressed in seconds and left the apartment without answering the phone.

It was a beautiful morning. The pear trees on East 10th Street were lush. Playing at the basketball courts in Tompkins Square Park was medicine for the pain in my heart. Being broke was unimportant. Manny, my boss had offered my old job at the diamond exchange. Everything would work out for the best.
My downstairs neighbor, Jim, ran up and sputtered, “A plane crashed into the Trade Tower!”

“You’re kidding!”

In World War II a bomber had slammed into the Empire State Building during a storm. Today’s sky was so blue that New York could have been atop the highest peak of heaven.

“No, you can see the smoke from First Avenue!” Jim pointed to corner. People stood in the middle of 1st Avenue staring downtown. My neighbor looked upward. I’m going to the roof.”

“I’ll meet you there.”

We rushed up the stairs two at a time.

I grabbed my camera and binoculars from my apartment before climbing another four flights to the roof. The fire door was open and several neighbors gaped south with good reason. Flames gushed from the shattered northern skyscraper and an apocalyptic plume of smoke trailed east over Wall Street.

TV helicopters fluttered around the stricken building.

All over Lower Manhattan sirens whined from fire engines, police cars, and EMS vans. This didn't make any sense.

The previous week I had attended to a concert at the foot of the Trade Towers. The two steel sheaths defied gravity without any threat from man, beast, or act of god. Now a two-hundred foot wide gash scarred the north tower.

“I can’t believe this.”

“They said it was an accident,” Jim had his ear to the radio.

A balding neighbor interjected without taking his eyes off the flames, “I live on the top floor and watched the plane fly right into the tower like this was a suicide mission.”

“Someone trying to finish it off,” Jim referred to the 1993 World Trade bombing. “But it’s still standing.”

“Yes, it is.” I wished that I hadn't said that. It was bad luck.

While the tower had withstood this attack, there was no mistaking that the loss of life would be catastrophic, after I brought the binoculars to my eyes.

Millions of papers floated in the wind and debris rained to the ground, then a strange object shot from a window shrouded with smoke.

It was a man in a suit.

More people followed his plunge from other floors.

The last was on fire.

Their fatal choice stunned me and I couldn’t watch anymore.

“There are people jumping!”

“Why don’t those helicopters rescue them?” A girl from the fourth floor was crying into the sleeve of her pajamas.

“Because there’s too much smoke on the roof.”

Jim pointed to a growing dot on the horizon.

“There’s another plane!”

“I can’t believe someone would actually fly closer to give the passengers a better look.” The bald-headed neighbor shook his head, only the pilot wasn’t conducting a sightseeing tour. The plane struck the South Tower and an enormous fireball exploded through the building to geyser like a volcano from the north face.

Jim dropped his radio.

“Oh, my God!”

Seconds late the DJ confirmed a second airliner had hit the Trade Towers.

Jim shook his head.

“This only happens in movies.”

No James Bond or Bruce Willis had stopped the planes. I searched the sky for an F-16. Nothing.

The city was defenseless.

“This isn’t a movie.”

We had been warned about New York’s vulnerability to terrorist attack. None of us had ever anticipated such an extreme. My mind crunched numbers.

50,000 people worked in the WTC. Anyone on the top floors was trapped by the fire. Friends worked in those buildings. I borrowed a cell phone and tried to contact Andrew. He lived a street away from the WTC. There was no dial tone.

Someone screamed and I joined them, as the South Tower collapsed in a fury of dust and smoke.

Within an hour the North Tower crumbled to the ground. The tragedy vanquished any worries about rent or my Thai girlfriend. This country was at war, but the victims of this first attack needed our help and I declared to Jim, “I’m going to Beth Israel to give blood.”

“Wait for me. I’ll write my wife a note and come with you.”

By the time we arrived at the hospital, the police had cordoned off the street. Doctors and nurses were assembling triage stations and orderlies wheeled patients from the hospital to accommodate the incoming injured.

People were slowly shaking off the shock.

Not forever, because everyone froze fearfully, as a jet’s high-pitched scream filled the air. It was an F-16. Too late to prevent what had occurred, but prepared to insure the day didn’t get any worse.

“Can we help?” I asked a guard. He was at a loss to do more than protecting this location. I asked directions for the blood bank and pointed to a building on 17th Street.

More than twenty people filled the third-floor office. None of our fellow donors had seen the second plane hit and were appalled by Jim’s account, which he ended by saying, “No one on those floors could have lived through that.”

“What kind of animals do this?” A Polish woman dabbed her tears with a Kleenex.

The list of suspects was small and everyone agreed that no American pilot could have been forced to commit such a heinous deed.

No one mentioned the Federal Building in Oklahoma.

Today was about today.

A harried aide handed out medical history questionnaires. I checked off being free of AIDS, Hepatitis B, drug abuse, anemia, but marked “Yes.” to having lived outside the USA. My last two years had been spent in Thailand.

The process of giving blood isn’t fast and the hospital staff asked for patience. Not everyone was listening and a white-haired man in his fifties fumed, “I don’t understand why they can’t give us the needles and bags, so we can take our own blood.”

With his clean clothes, cleanly shaven face, and polished shoes, he could passed for a normal citizens, if you ignored the bottle of vodka sticking out of the plastic bag at his feet.

“When can I give some blood?” His eyes sparkled with dementia. “Give me a razor blade and I’ll pour it in a bowl.”

“Excuse me.” A female doctor read his file. “Bob, you mind us taking your blood pressure?”

“Just as long as you don’t suck out all my blood, I’m good for anything.” Bob glared around the room. “The president of Nicaragua forced everyone in the country give blood and he sold it to the good old USA. Vampire, that’s what he was!”

“Bob, that’s old history.” The doctor was used to humoring the mad of Manhattan.

“You think I’m crazy, but I saw it with my own eyes.”

“You haven’t written a last name here.” The doctor brandished the form.

“They took it away, when I was a POW in Afghanistan.”

A young Asian nurse took his blood pressure.

“I lost my family today. To people like you.”

“I’m sorry, Bob, but you have low blood pressure,” the doctor stated blandly, as if her word was god.

“Meaning?” Bob wasn’t buying her divine pronouncement.

“Meaning you can’t give blood.”

“You don’t want my blood, because I’m an American, not like the rest of you.”

The faces in the waiting room were white, black, brown, and yellow. The accents originated from a score of countries. Their need to help trumped their birth in a foreign country and I said, “This has been a bad day and you’re frightening people with your talk.”

“Who elected you team captain?”

Jim punched my arm.

“Let it go, he’ll be gone soon enough.”

He was wrong.

Bob was warming up his act.

“And who’s to blame for this? The mayor, fucking Ghouliani, because he made New York too safe for terrorists. You can’t tell me that they wouldn’t have come here, if people were getting shot by crackheads. Those terrorists would have taken out someplace easy like Disneyworld.”

“Bob, I need to see someone else.” A doctor motioned for him to leave the waiting room.

“I’m not going anywhere.” Bob folded his arms in defiance of this command.

I had heard enough.

“Bob, there’s a lot of people wanting to give blood. Some of them can and some of them can’t. Right now you’re making a problem for everyone.”

Bob rose from his chair. He was three inches taller than me and poked at my chest.

I knocked away his hand.

“Don’t touch me, Frisky.” Bob glowered down a crooked nose with hairline menace.

I forgot where I was, why I was here, and what had happened, until the doctor separated us. “Not here.”

“Sorry,” I apologized and Bob went to the door. “You’re right. Not here, but I’ll be seeing you around, Frisky.”

The other donors sighed with relief. My heart choked with adrenaline. I didn’t want to fight. Not with him. Not today. The doctor wasn’t so sure. She read my chart.

“What country were you living in?”


“Thailand is one of the countries from which we don’t accept blood.”

“I suspected as much.” AIDS was rampant in Southeast Asia. Almost as bad as New York.

“What else can I do?”

She recommended volunteering at the Emergency Ward and motioned for another donor.

Jim was being drained of blood. He hadn’t left the country in years. “Where you going?”

“Someplace I can lend a hand.” I grabbed a donut. They were for donors, however I had skipped breakfast.

Outside hundreds of expectant donors jostled in a block-long queue. At the emergency entrance the doctors and nurses searched the avenue for the ambulances. No arrivals was not a good sign.

Downtown was where help was needed and I returned home to dress in heavy work clothes and boots. I had worked construction in my youth. This city needed every hand on deck. I tried calling my friend, Andrew, again. The line was dead.

I prayed he had escaped injury and rode my bike through the Lower East Side.

The subways were closed to guard against any further attacks.

Tens of thousands of New Yorkers walked north on the car-less avenues. Very few of them spoke and those that were usually stopped upon turning their heads to the ghostly column masking the end of Manhattan.

Blockades had been erected on Canal Street to prevent pedestrians from proceeding closer to the disaster site. Every few minutes they were opened for incoming fire trucks and ambulances, however a stunned onlooker stated, “Nobody escaped alive. Supposedly they’re taking the bodies over to Jersey. More than two thousand already.”

“People got out,” a man in a business suit heavily covered with soot contradicted him. “I was on the eight-second floor in the south tower. As soon as the first plane hit, we ran down the stairs.”

“Where were you, when the second plane hit?” a young bicyclist with dreadlocks asked and people gathered around the survivor.

“Something like the twentieth floor. I heard this explosion and then felt the entire building shake. Stuff began to hit the ground. Glass and big pieces of concrete, then bodies. One of them almost got me. It was bad.”

He choked and the bicyclist comforted him. There would be a lot of that today. I asked the nearest policeman. “Where are they accepting volunteers?”

“Volunteers?” The young Latino officer was dazed by the morning’s events. This was his precinct. “Go over to West Street. Supposedly they’re taking people there.”

After another futile call to Andrew, I pedaled my bike toward the Hudson, grateful that that smoke wasn’t blowing north. There was no telling what was in that ominous cloud.

On West Street several hundred people were lining up to help. Mostly construction workers with heavy tools, but a good number were men and women from ordinary walks of life desperate to aid the rescue effort.

“Write your names on your clothing.” A volunteer shouted from the sidewalk.

“What for?” asked a young man in jeans.

“So they have someplace to send your body in case you die.” A bearded ironworker magic-markered a name and phone number on his jeans.

“Die?” The young man squinted like he hadn’t heard right.

“Over two-hundred firefighters are supposed to have died.”

“A lot of cops too,” a beer-bellied welder raised his eyes to the sky.

“And they’re people who practice rescues, so someone like yourself has gotta be real careful, because ‘down there’ isn’t any place for someone not knowin’ what they’re doin’,” the ironworker commented for the benefit of the civilians.

No one walked away. We were New Yorkers. The people in those buildings had been too. No one could change that. We had tolerated years of crime, bad subways, noise, dirt, rats, cockroaches, the disparity between the poor and the rich, and a thousand other petty annoyances, because the million other reasons to live in the city outweighed the bad. They would after today too, only an hour went by, then two.

Not a single ambulance headed uptown and the ironworker shook his head. “I’m not feelin’ good about this.”

“What?” a welder re-arranged the equipment at his feet.

“I think anyone who had a chance to be out is out.”

“That’s negative.” The welder spat on the sidewalk.

“Not negative. If there were people livin’, then they would have us in there right now tearin’ the place apart, but____you saw the thing come down. Ain’t no way anyone lived through that. Maybe one or two, but not a couple of hundred.”

“So you saying you want to leave?” The obliteration of the two beacons hurt everyone and little could stop the hurt.

“No, I wanna say a prayer.” The ironworker lowered his head.

Everyone joined him, despite our desperately hoping for the exact opposite. He was telling the truth.

I waited another hour, listening to heated accusations about who was to blame and how we as a nation should punish the perpetrators of this infamy. Some called for the immediate bombing of Iraq, while others condoned a-bombing Lebanon and Libya. I kept my accusations to myself. No one wanted to hear about a conspiracy.

I borrowed a phone. Andrew was at a friend’s apartment in Little Italy. Safe, but like many people in possession of a tale he would have preferred to have seen from someplace not so close to ground zero.

The other volunteers were glad my friend was okay and the ironworker said, “Go, man, now’s the time to be with friends and family.”

I felt like the deserter in THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE. The sight of Andrew, Alice, and my other friends at Billy O’s penthouse assuaged my dishonor. I hadn’t served in Viet-Nam either other than to protest the war.

It wasn’t the same and neither was today.

“It h-h-h-had been a near-thing,” Andrew stuttered on the balcony. “I mean my apartment is across the street. I heard an explosion and saw this paper floating in the air and I thought there was a parade, then the second plane crashed and I r-r-ran for my life.”

“You’re lucky to be here.” Billy opened another bottle of wine and his eight-year old daughter demanded of her mother, “Do I have to go to school tomorrow?

“I don’t think so.”

Gee-Gee clapped her hands and danced out of the room.

Hers was the first laughter of the day and Andrew lit a cigarette.

“G-g-glad someone’s happy.”

We drank wine and told stories.

Billy had dined at Windows of the World with his parents, Andrew had drunk at the Greatest Bar in the World with his wife, and I had driven a motorcycle around the desolate landfill, which would become Battery Park City.

The sun set on the fumes rising from the ruins and even groping Billy’s wife on the balcony couldn’t stop my tears.

I was drunk.

$40,000 of credit remained on my credit cards. Thailand was only a day’s flight away. Mem would be happy to see me. Maybe whatever happened next wouldn’t hurt so much on the other side of the world.

I didn’t inform my friends of these plans and bicycled slowly up the Bowery. People were walking in the eerie silence created by the traffic ban. Some were talking and some were even laughing. I pedaled harder to return home and inform my family in Boston that I was all right.

A block past CBGBs a white-haired man sat on the curb.

He held an empty vodka bottle and sang GOD BLESS AMERICA. He was off-key.

It was Bob from the blood bank.

I should have ignored him, but was mad at the cruel genius who had destroyed the future and even madder knowing that I would never personally wreak revenge, but Bob, well, Bob was right at hand and I rolled up to the curb.

“Remember me?”

“Yeah, long time no see, Frisky.” He jumped to his feet more skillfully than could be expected from a man who had drunk an entire bottle of vodka, though he slurred with a gummy tongue, “I was wondering when you would show up.”

He dismissed any further talk with a roundhouse right.

I ducked the wild blow and Bob followed the flow of his punch to the pavement. His head clonked on the curb.

I hopped off my bike.

His eyes were swimming in the sockets, then his eyelids fluttered like butterflies and he asked, “Where am I?”

“On the Bowery.” I pretended I wasn’t with him, as several co-eds passed, however today was not a day for pick-up lines and I stopped holding in my stomach to upright Bob.

He pressed his hand to his forehead and blood seeped through his fingers to drip onto the asphalt.

“The Bowery, how the hell did I get here? Shit, I remember.”

He didn’t speak for a second and looked downtown. The deadly flume of smoke glowed in the night.

“Hey, I’m sorry about today. Sorry about everything. I’m a fuck-up, but I was someone once. Shit, a soldier. For this country. No bullshit, Frisky. I really was, then something went wrong in my head after I got shot in Afghanistan. I shouldn’t have been there with the Hazarah, but I was.” He lifted his hair to reveal a wicked scar.

“See, I wasn’t lying, but now all I am is an ornery drunk. What’s the sense? Where’s the pay-off?”

These were questions Bob asked too often and I probably did too. “It was a real bad day today.”

“Maybe it would be better, if there wasn’t a tomorrow. Like if I could let a car hit me.” He struggled to stand and I stopped him. “Bob, there aren’t any cars here and I don’t think you’re in any condition to walk to 14th Street to get hit by one.”

“Then kill me and do the world a favor. Hell, no one would notice in all the confusion.”

“I’m not killing anyone.”

“Then I’ll go over to the bridge and jump into the river.” Most people who talk too much about suicide aren’t serious. Bob wasn’t kidding and I couldn’t leave him alone. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“Well, what the sense? You tell me.” His index finger aimed at the glowing specter over Lower Manhattan. “What’s the sense?”

“I’ll tell a story about why you have to go on living.”

“I hope it isn’t a long story.” His attention span was rationed in half-minutes.

“Less than a minute.”

“Okay.” He raised the empty vodka bottle like he expected it to have been miraculously filled, and then rolled it into the gutter. “I’m all ears.”

“A long time ago I was traveling in Mexico. This shitty bus stops in a nowhere town. I ate a potato taco. Nothing happened until back in Texas, where I got sick. Almost like I was dying. I lay in bed hallucinating and had a dream about being chased by zombies. They trapped me in this cottage and scratched at the screen door with dirty fingers. I was scared and even more so when one of them asked, “What’s the secret of human life?”

“And what did you tell them?” Bob checked his cut. It had stopped bleeding.

“I didn’t know what to tell them, until a voice said, “If you tell us the secret of human life, we’ll let you live for another minute.” At that moment I knew the secret, but woke before I told them.”

“Thank god, you saved mankind from the dream zombies!”

“I guess I did.”

“So can you tell me the secret of human life?”

“The secret was that no matter how bad things were or what awaited me at the end of that minute, I still wanted to live.”

“I don’t have a place to stay. No one to take care of me. Nothing, so even if I had known the secret, I would have told the zombies to start eating.”

Despite being the world’s leading failurologist, I believed in my eventual triumph. “You really think it’s hopeless.”

“If you gave me enough money for a room, maybe I could forget the despair long enough to get me some hope.” Telling my story had excluded any refusal. I handed him a twenty. Jim made a face. “Where can I stay for twenty bucks in this city?”

“I think you know.” I steadied him on his feet.

“I guess I do.” He patted my shoulder. “You’re not such a bad guy, Frisky.”

He weaved off toward an SRO hotel like a sailor on land after a long sea voyage and I rode my bike to East 10th Street. While I hadn’t saved any victims of the crash, having helped someone in need felt good.

Maybe not enough to forget the horror, but I wasn’t going to run away from New York.

Not today.

Not any day.

It was my home.

Maybe not forever, but I knew its streets, its bars, its people.

Today had not been a day far from normal and tomorrow was another day and if those words could work for Scarlet O’Hara, then they certainly would for New York.

This city was tough.

Every day of the year.

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