by Alex R. Cohen
New York, USA
Cold. Wind. Floodlights. And always, however much it fades, the smell of death, sinking into your clothes, your lungs, your heart.
Merry Christmas, Ground Zero. The work did not stop. You might think wishing people there a merry Christmas a bit beside the point, but that’s what I did, all day.
There was a police officer who would have liked to be celebrating Christmas. He lives in Queens and works in the Bronx for the Housing Bureau; the Financial District is not his usual area. But he was told to go, and he went, and he soaked up the smell, and he forgot the date.
There was another officer, who knew the area. He grew up about the same time the World Trade Center did, and his father worked for a downtown bank. The Financial District was not his beat either, but he worked at Ground Zero many days, including as a volunteer, and he soaked up so much of the smell that his home began to smell of death. When you’re there all day, he explained, you find you cannot smell it anymore.
There were police officers who escorted families past security checkpoints for a few moments of graveside prayer.
There were construction workers who came off the job with a weariness almost like that of any other hard work, but the difference was one I could feel in greeting them.
There were Salvation Army people who drove into the site in carts laden with coffee, tea and hot chocolate, taking on the cold and bitterness of the pit to bring into it something warm and comforting.
And of course, there were firefighters, the brothers and sisters of more than 300 who went down fighting on September 11. Of those who faced a series of funerals, and of those who fought for the right to remain at Ground Zero, the right not to leave until all their brothers were with them. One of their departing cars appeared to carry civilians’ possessions.
A number of people I met at Ground Zero thanked me. They had reached such a point of detachment from the rest of the world that they found this Jewish-born atheist’s holiday greeting deeply meaningful. It was not difficult to become absorbed in Ground Zero — I came close in only one day, and I was outside, dealing only with the living.
The words weren’t meant to imply that anyone in particular should be either merry or Christian. They were to acknowledge the second wave of heroes at Ground Zero, the men and women who worked within the smell of death, within the everyday horror, and kept going back. With their help, the city held onto a spirit of life, in a season made bitter by more than winter winds.
Merry Christmas, Christmas or not.