WASHED WHEELS

 

According to the general procedure, all wheels of each and every vehicle leaving the Ground Zero must be washed to avoid possible contamination.

 

11-th September...You know, when it all happened, I was supposed to have a meeting right on the 82nd floor of the Northern Tower... I appeared downstairs at 0840 sharp, 20 minutes earlier. I entered the building and suddenly realized I had enough time to smoke my pipe. So I stepped out, put some tobacco in, and started puffing... Sometimes its enough to watch just one frame from a movie to recognize what it is all about; well, at least it happens to me all the time. I can literally watch a couple of frames and become sure that its about, say, some crazy aliens (Im not in the mood to watch them at all!). This one seemed to be some trick of James Bond (so-so, but lets surf a little more...); and that one is about... Wait a minute! I raised my eyes... Wow! Elvis just... entered that building! The tail, just a regular tail and therefore completely out of this picture, the tail of a Boeing with the emblem of American Airlines on it, gracefully and speedily came through the glass wall roughly around the 70th floor...

Reflexes, reflexes, reflexes. Do you remember Pavlovs dogs? Well, OK: thats what happened: I took a couple of steps and automatically walked out of the area. I was about a hundred yards away from the plaza when the first fireball reached the ground. It was like a dirty flaming avalanche covering all the people, and I recalled Pompeii and grinned: Id seen some-thing like that beforeyou know, Bosnia, and so on... Terrorists? Not a clue at first! I remember I expected something like that could happen ever since that crazy guy blew up that minivan over there, down on the parking level, under the Twins back in 1993... Winteryes, it was winter that time; but now the sky was bright and sunny, and the sounds of another plane, and a huge shadow over my head...

I was far enoughsay, something about half a mile away or may be even farther, and I was on the phone with my boss I must report at once if there are any changes in my schedule: we have some strict rules, you know; sometimes, I guess, they are not so bad...

 

- Sir, I dont think Im going to have a meeting today... Yes, Sir, as soon as I can... I was saying into my phone... And Oops! The second plane swam into the wall, as if the wall had red circled of a target sign painted on itthe target visible to the pilot only... Another fireball, and a poisoned rain, and so... I quickened my steps and soon enough reached the street, and called a taxi. Amazingly fast that yellow cab stopped. OK. Everybody has a story about that morning right? So, heres mine...

When did I get this idea to get involved with the Red Cross stuff? Well, almost immediately. It was around September 15 yeah, right the very first Saturday I was able to take a ride downtown and cross Brooklyn Bridgeon foot, actually, on foot... All the way down, I could feel the emptiness of the horizon with my back right there, in the middle of the dark gray column of smoke supporting Septembers blue sky... And the smellthe smell of burned human flesh, asbestos, papers, and ashes...

American Red Cross

I was in: I mean, enrolled in the Red Cross, the very same evening. Next morning, I drove a van for the Red Cross. Hows that? Well, quite simple: 0900 - report for duty on the Floyd Bennett Field, end of Brooklyn: old crooked hangar and all those old grounded and rusted airplanes, even Catalina, you know...

Rich collection, right? One can study the history of our perfect NAVY aviation... So, I wait for an assignment, which can be, say, drive a group of Kansas Baptists from the Head-quarters to K4 - Kitchen Four, the place I was assigned to, and then to the hotel... I always asked those folks: Why are you here? or What are you doing here? Some of them, whom I drove to the UN Plaza Hotel, simple retired ladies from Nebraska (round trip business class tickets paid by the Red Cross; hotel, expenses, and so on...), proudly answered that they were here to give counseling to victims (By the way, did we really have any? I mean, victims? Well, somebody poor, hungry, injured or burned... Do dead people need any counseling at all?!)

Another nice looking older lady from ArkansasI drove her from the JFK to New York Hilton at $450 a nightexpressed her admiration of all beautiful people of the Great City. She told me that her responsibility was to distribute food to strangers... You know, sometimes I felt I knew what it was all about: oh, no, nothingnot even slightest accusationjust kind of... a guess, right? So, after that shit happened, there are almost no tourists coming to ourwhat did you call it? Great City? Yeah, right: nobody came to our Great Goddamn city... So, guess what good hotel owners should do? What would you do were you in their shoes? All right. Thats what I would do: I would make a donation to a huge non-profit organization in exchange for an unwritten agreement: all volunteers arriving in the city must stay in my hotels, OK? Please remember: its only a guess, and I will never ever say it again, either publicly or under oath. I can only guess, speculate, and listen to rumors or conversations, or... Whatever...

One of those days... The next day... One more day... Do you know what ERK stands for? Emergency Relief Kit. Tooth brush, tooth paste, a small towel, a toilet kit, etc...Well, all together about $7.50. 1,700 pieces of them I personally delivered to the point of distribution. Right to the corner of Battery Park City and West Street. Distribute all thisto the passing stock-brokers, traders, corporate lawyers, business analysts and consultants, because who else can afford those apartments, where even a $2,200 for a small one-bedroom seemed to be a bargain... Guess what? Did they need all that shit at once? I mean, couldnt all those people buy a toothbrush on their own?.. Cmon! At least I had my green pass and I delivered food and supplies to those who really did the job - I mean cleaned the debris and all... To all those underpaid union workers illegal aliens: Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadoriansall those workhorses who have to pay for super-size salaries of fat-cat union bosses; and just simple guys like you from Upstate, and all, all those who were there 24 hours seven days a week; and rates growing and growing, and grow-ing... Just because there are no boundaries, no limits to human greed; to the desire to make a living, make money... Whats my point? Exactly? Well, I dont buy it when Im told first that the cost of cleaning up all the debris must be under $50M, one day; and step by step, the cost finally rises and the skys the limit. What are the bets now? $35 billion, right? Perhaps when you are reading this, they raised the bets again... And comparing to this and to everything else, like all those early retirements heaven sent them this overtime, so they can get at least a decent retire-ment package! Isnt it a shame: police and firefighter veterans secretly blessing their goddamned overtime, just because this THIS city that never sleeps, cannot afford to pay them decent rates under normal circumstances?! I know, I know: nobody will admit it openly; and frankly, I dont care. I dont care at all. Its none of my business, not anymore. Ive lost a lot of people in my life; many of them were really close and precious to me; God keep anybody from such an experience... So, I know what it feels like to lose a partner, a friend, a buddy... God bless them allHell, I dont care!

So I had an interest of my own there: I collect artifacts. Always. Some piece of that, some stone from there, a shell, some glass, a piece of paper... Illegal? Right, sure... Who cares? At least those first weeks...

Its interesting what one can find down on the streets, over there...

An American Airlines Flight Attendants plastic insignia wings is the most valuable piece of my collection from those times. Mostly papers, of course notebooks, schedules, etc. Photos, messages, and so on, and so forth... Private diaries yes, private diaries, too...

 

That was a strange day, September 10th, Monday. Once upon a time I heard a saying that a man can be changed unconditionally, beyond the point of no return, first when he makes his first step on Earth, second when he makes love to the very first woman of his, third when he cradles his own baby, and the fourth time when he kills his first human being, with his hands, eye to eye... Beyond those four steps, you cannot experience anything new in the entire Universe... The day before... Once you know what is going to happen, you have an option to invade a reality, to reinvent it... And if you have nothing to wish for anymore? Do you remember that sign far from anything, in the very middle of nowhere, somewhere in rural Maine? Yes, right, that one, which you spotted when you got lost on your way to Canada. At the end of the road, next to the mailbox: THIS IS IT. Yes, this is it... And you realize suddenly that you are not going to make it, to fight, to live any further; to put it simply, you ceased to exist, suddenly became undistinguished from existence for you. Nothing matters too much to you anymore, and so you are free to go, and... make a bargain, a fair deal by offering that life of yours (useless and actually, hopelessly lost, anyway) in exchange for somebody elses; some-bodys who is going to die the very next day... My first attempt happened at 0930. I was entering the South Tower when I saw that guy. He looked very busy: young, energetic, typical suburban dad; around thirty. You probably meet this kind of beings every day, during your regular subway trip, or riding next to him on a Path train... James Barker. I invented the name to mark him you know, I simply cannot name the names; its simply a matter of a... good taste? Good will? Respect? OK, you call it respect if you dont have another word. So, here was one James Barker age 34, a charming fiancé, nice job senior market analyst; Cantor Fitzgerald - $130K a year plus 15% bonus right? Life is beautiful, you know... And you meet this guy, and he suddenly - instead of that important meeting with the client sits with you (you who the hell are you?!), and tells you all his story everything, even his adventures at Yale (that bloody New Englands pseudo-Greek statue in the lobby looked nice dressed in a jumpsuit!)... And you listen to him, and nod, and ask more questions... And finally yes, finally, you tell him:

- I know you are a normal and perfectly nice guy (giggle, smile)... Listen, try to imagine: tomorrow something very wrong is going to happen to you, to all friends of yours, and to your building, and to this city...

Dear Jim, you dont know me, but I am your one and only chance to survive: I can take your place here and now; take your wonderful life from you, become you completely, and youll take my place my mind, my body useless, lonely, and empty; nobody needs me or waits for me in the entire world; but youll get a chance to live your life again, to be alive, to be... you inside me, inside my... mask... You love to live, you are full of energy, you have a lot of people who think they need you, they think they love you; so, let them have you your soul, your mind, your humanity, your complete personality simply hidden inside my body... And Ill take your place, and... according to a very high probability, I will become... missing tomorrow, around your office... Take it seriously, please, please! I am not crazy or paranoid; Ive just got a chance to help one only one human being to avoid his fate...

He simply doesnt believe you and its normal; just because in his world, everything is normal, and just, and fair, and simple, and not complicated; and you dont need a miracle or magic to exist... And he cannot accept anything above his understanding or out of his Universe, or simply beyond his circle of knowledge, his MBA cum Laude from Yale, his country club... And he is gone from this Pizzeria, from your sight, from that concourse, from September 10, from... from life... And you are all alone with your knowledge, might, which, after all, is know-ledge as well again, as usual...

 

Strange things like that diary, for example, one may find in the middle of Ground Zero... So, I sit on unnaturally hot cement blocks on the runway of this forgotten Floyd Bennett Field and read the pages I found yesterday pages from that dusty and scorched notepad... Next page, next meeting... 1145; Window-on-the-World Restaurant not very expensive... So lunchtime, September 10 another ... hmm... object.

 

- You know, I always wondered: why all those forensic shrinks so stubbornly insist that Holden Caulfield you remember, of course The Catcher in the Rye; good old J. D. Salinger, right? So that boy... Dont you think they are just stupid to think he is an example of a pervasive mind of a serial killer? Perhaps they are simply afraid of all that is unusual and strange human beings; a different, distant or distinctive mind by definition, more complex, deep, and sophist-icated than... than yours? So how can you make a judgment what is true, even unusual, and so may be accepted, even without being understood (dont you know the pay phone paradox? In short: 90% of all mankind dont know shit about how it works I mean, technically but you and almost 99% of mankind use payphones at least once in their lifetime?) And what is pure and poor fiction? Fairy tales? Dreams? Nightmares? Imagination?

- Its all a little bit too complicated for me, you know...

...Nice clear voice; most of all you take into consideration is the voice of the woman you are talking to. Its really important to you, not her knees, butt or breasts, but her eyes, her smile... She had that look you are always waiting for and hope to meet... Everywhere, from Greenland to New Zealand, your old saying... Jenny McCurly a redhead, 27 years old, stock analyst NYU, apartment in Battery Park City walking distance from office on the 67th floor of the South Tower... Irish, Roman Catholic... Golden retriever, a two-month-old puppy, waiting for you, girl, every evening... He will die about a week after you, on September 18... Because youll never come home that day, that black September 11... Because you are not going to do it, Jenny... tomorrow... And you talk to her, you explain to her your proposition, you try to convince her, and you see her eyes: she looks at you with pity and compassion... You can see what she thinks loud and clear... And you stop. You smile miserably and helplessly... You cannot help her; you could if she could only understand and believe you... And become crazy? Who other than a crazy, completely crazy person can believe in such a story? Right here, in the middle of that complex appeared from the XXII century, simple and beautiful, and magic the very heart of this city, the living heart of the contemporary Universe, which belongs not to you, but to this charming, sensitive and smart creature, condemned... condemned to death. Tomorrow.

 

The radio chrrps, and I know they need me again... I have to pick up a group from Wiscon-sin, drive them from the JFK to the headquarters, leave them there and later deliver them to the K4; and finally to the hotel... Hmm... Sounds simple? OK, try to do it: try this in the middle of the rush hour, in this great and equally goddamned city... Try and lets watch your time... I did all legs, including pickup, in less than an hour and a half... They took their pictures with me then, with my van as the background. I am still curious in whose private collection those pictures ended up; and most of all why I never got any of them? The same day I drove down Belt Park-way a former CIA officer and, recently, a Red Cross volunteer from Boston, you got his number when he started to talk with you in a very familiar way, and after a couple of minutes and a few phrases that sounded as some encrypted password, he got your number as well, and grinned back the same way a smile of steppen wolf forget Hesse...

 

Your last attempt. 1830, plaza between the Twins. Outdoor café. You are sipping your coffee; God knows how you hate it! This city has no idea how decent coffee should taste... That city, deeply in the war zone, their olive-skinned men sipped real coffee! you know what I mean. Beirut, Lebanon, 1982, do you remember? Strange thing: you remember only that coffee; how young you were there...

So here we are... The last one... 40 years old, VP for IT big company, you know... Three daughters: 15, 7, and 2 years old. Three hundred pounds of warm and kind human flesh, nice suit and fancy tie... Christopher Roods from Old Greenwich, CT. Golden boy, brilliant brain... He sits across the table from you and visibly tries to understand why he is still talking to you instead of driving home. His wife already called him, and he told her already that he had an unexpected meeting, and will be a little bit late...

You are talking about almost everything from his work to your life and your proposition... He has a swift and sharp imagination and almost believes you, but he asks for some kind of guarantee... You know: what if you make the exchange and nothing will happen? And he will be trapped in your body forever? Well, you cannot guarantee anything; the whole deal is about faith, trust get it? And he smiles and stands up, and leaves you... Alone. Again.

 

What? Of course I found that diary over there, in the middle of Ground Zero. Right there where I left it that evening of September 10 under a certain piece of pavement, not far away from the table where I talked to Christopher Roods. Mr. Roods, who jumped from the broken window of his cozy office, from the 102nd floor of the South Tower... Ms. McCurly, buried under all those tons and tons of concrete, steel, and broken glass... Mr. Barker... burned alive between the 44th and 45th floors... And I... I am driving my van with Red Cross signs again. Through the roadblock where my wheels are washed each time by strange-looking figures...

 

 

Alex Valentine

 

 

 


    ASatan