Thursday, September 08, 2011

Finding Ends (11/19/2001)

Fresh Kills, from the Wellcome Collection on Dirt,
2011 Exhibition, London
If I wasn't wrapped in this Tyvek spacesuit and struggling inside the breathing apparatus I'm sure I would be getting cold. The sun is brilliant but the November wind is rolling off the Jersey highlands and there's nothing at all to block it up here at the top of the pile except the remnants of the fire trucks.
We stand out here literally between sunrise and sunset. In the morning the slight glow out across the open Atlantic finds us dressing. An eternity later the last light fades behind the mountains of northern New Jersey and we wash ourselves off. We fill that stretch of time sifting through the untold tons of rubble and dust that were once the World Trade Center in this oddest of places, the special re-opening of the world's largest garbage dump. One hundred and eighty feet above the tidal marshes that centuries ago gave this place a Dutch name for clean waters, Fresh Kills, we work the crime scene of the worst single-day event in North American history.
I've been here a little more than a month now. Since they looked into my eyes and told me Ground Zero wasn't for me anymore. That was true. Twenty-three straight days in the smoking rubble and home only three times, but that wasn't rare. Most of us who could, stayed. What else would we do?
The search here is unlike the search there. There we could, at least in that first week, hold onto the vague thought that this was a rescue mission. Here, where nine thousand tons of, well everything, arrive daily, those illusions have never stood. Here where the stink of methane leaking from below mixes with the stench of human death and the salt air of the ocean. Here where we follow the gulls as they dive for the remnants of human life, then chase the birds with fireworks and gunshots so we can have first pick. Here where we keep our separate boxes for ID cards, and jewelry, and clothing, and shoes, and bone, and tissue. Here where crushed emergency vehicles mix with shattered office furniture, millions of office documents, and, in one day's discovery, a pile of tiny brass Trade Center figurines that probably came from that tourist spot just off PATH Square. Here where we hunt for evidence while desperately trying to give something back to everyone left behind.
This week I've found seven rings and four fingers, a laptop computer, two wallets-one more or less intact, part of a foot, a singed copy of Steppenwolf with a name and email address from nyu.edu written inside, the kind of badge-holder cops and firemen wear around their neck when off duty, six pairs of jeans from The Gap with price tags still attached, the top half of a human femur, someone's tax return, two earrings, a piece of white-painted aluminum I'll guess came from a plane, a phone message slip telling someone to "call home. 8:32 am, 9/11."
This week, as every week, people have come to the gates below us. Mothers, fathers, children, husbands, wives. There is nothing we can do for them here but they come. They come looking for answers we'll never be able to offer. They come hoping to salve unsalveable wounds. Or they come to say "thank you" and to say that they appreciate what we are doing. That is the hardest. It would be easier if they were angry.
I have worked for this department for more than twenty-one years. I have seen way too much. I have lived through way too much. Eight years ago when I worked the case of the first Trade Center bombing I realized my head was beyond full. I retreated into meaningless office work, became a researcher who happened to carry a gun. I started telling people simply, "I work for the city." I moved to the woods of outer Staten Island and pretended I was someone else. Then, on that incredibly clear day in September, drifting up Church Street, coffee in hand and late as usual, I stared up at my favorite buildings and watched a huge airliner plow into the north tower. When I pulled that shield, "Detective-Field Services Specialist, New York City Police Department, 1476" out from inside my shirt and ran across the street my carefully constructed dream world vanished. For 69 days I have been a cop again, in all the best ways, and, of course, all the worst.
It is important to know when to stop. That moment isn't now, but it is coming. I will keep driving here every day, and pulling on all this gear, and walking up to this, the world's tallest tomb since the great pyramids, and sifting the dust with gloved fingers, until we are all sure there is nothing left to find. When that is done, I will be too. I will take off the spacesuit. I will take off the badge. I will throw the gun into the harbor. I will go away to the smallest, calmest place where I can buy good coffee and sit in a good library and stare into open waters. And I will look again for peace.
(copyright 2003 by Ira David Socol)