I met Manhattan Man on a day late in August. I was in my office on campus, getting my syllabi ready for the new semester, when a young man walked into my office.
"Hey, I'm new on campus," he said. "And everyone keeps saying I have to meet you."
He was in his early thirties, a transfer student. He'd been in the military since he was seventeen years old, and was coming back to college with medical school as his goal. "I want to start healing people for a change."
We hit it off right away. He'd come hang out in my office between classes and tell me funny stories. His sense of humor was sarcastic but he was so self-deprecating that the things he said were hilariously funny rather than offensive. And his years of military service had given him some amazing experiences and insights that were both deeply profound and desperately sad.
As his accent indicated, he was from lower Manhattan, part of a big extended family. His base of operations, he always said, was the World Trade Center because so many of his friends and family worked there. "It's not really a building," he would explain, with the patience of an urban man talking to a rural woman, "It's more like a small city of its own."
In the fall of 2001, Manhattan Man was doing an independent study with me, writing up some of his life experiences. His terrific political analysis, coupled with the kinds of inside experiences he had during his military career, made his essays fascinating to read.
When he came to my office on the morning of September 12, we just stood and looked at each other. Outside my window, the scene was still kind of unreal: clumps of students hugging each other and crying. I had thought I was all cried out but I had just read an email from a longtime friend and colleague. Her only daughter, a young woman expecting her first child, worked on the 92nd floor of the World Trade Center. She was still missing.
Neither of us had slept at all. We were both exhausted, emotionally drained. Manhattan Man was so tense that I could tell he did not want to be hugged or touched. Then we both spoke at the same time, asking the same question, the question that now served as a ritual greeting on campus: "Is everyone in your family accounted for?"
My family was safe. Urban Sophisticate Sister was still uptown when the buildings came down. She got a phone call through to us pretty early in the day. A nephew had been trapped in a smoke-filled train underground near the World Trade Center, but had gotten out and managed to get a phone call through by late afternoon. My brother-in-law, a stock trader, was caught in the panic and flying debris when the buildings came down, but somehow survived the day although he didn't remember all of it. He had made it back to his apartment by late evening, injured but alive. Many of his friends were not that lucky.
Manhattan Man was still missing some cousins, some friends. "And I'm part of the Rescue Operation. I'm headed to Manhattan to pick through the rubble." he said, "That's what I came to tell you. I will be leaving in a few minutes. I'll be back next week."
We both tried to talk. He was shaking. He started pacing. "What if I find a body, and it's someone I know?" he asked.
It was difficult to say goodbye. "Write about this," I told him. I suppose it was just an automatic thing for me to say.
When he came back the next week, he gave me a sheaf of papers, a long journal entry written on looseleaf paper. He'd spent the weekend at Ground Zero, searching for survivors. They found no survivors. What they found instead were body parts, fragments of humans, which they bagged, one by one, working in silence. He made a list to give me an idea of what he saw now whenever he closed his eyes: a leg with a sock still on, part of a scalp with blonde hair, a wrist, a shoulder, a hand with a wedding ring.
When one of the rescue workers pulled a stuffed animal from the rubble, they all kind of gasped. That moment, he said, is when they remembered that there were children in the building.
Driving back here, he was exhausted and filthy. (He brought me back a piece of rubble to show me the smell. It was unlike anything I had ever smelled before.) Still in uniform, he stopped to get gasoline. He noticed someone in the car next to him looking at him curiously as he pumped the gas, and wondered if they were angry that he was moving so slowly, but he felt sort of like he was in some kind of weird nightmare where everything moved slowly. When he finally went in to pay for the gas, the guy behind the counter said, "You don't owe anything. That guy in the other car paid for you."
He'd managed, the whole time, as he was directing his crew and bagging body parts, not to cry. But now, on his way out of the city, exhausted and drained, that simple gesture from a stranger put him over the edge. He pulled into the next rest area, sat on a picnic table, put his head down, and cried. Then he got paper and pencil from the car, and wrote pages and pages, all the horrific things he had just witnessed.
I still have the pages he wrote. He's tried a couple times to read them, but cannot make it past the first few pages without crying. He always hands it back to me and says, "Here, you hang onto it."
So I hang onto his words. Sheets of looseleaf paper, tucked into a folder, hidden inside my filing cabinet. Tonight I will take them out and read them once again.