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[whitespace] A City Walks Out

Through the ashes, a survivor tells his story

By Mike Daisey

I AM WRITING this from downtown New York. In a perverse reversal, I have no way to contact anyone except through my high-speed wireless Internet connection. Phones are out, and electricity in the area is intermittent.

The media will ultimately tell the story better than I, but I can tell you that there is massive loss of life. The sky is black with ash, the people have been panicking and fleeing in unadulterated terror. I have never seen anything like it. It is very difficult for me to breathe, even with my mouth covered--the ash blows down the streets and burns the eyes. It feels like the world has ended. When the screaming started and the crowds began to run after the second plane struck, it was a horror film running in overdrive, jumping frames, and cutting in and out.

Time got lost--I don't know how long this went on. I have a cut on my leg. I ended up in a Wendy's where a huge number of us took refuge. I don't know where the workers were--I helped get water for people.

I am starting to see emergency workers, and the streets are clearing somewhat--at least the first waves of panic are passing. I've seen bodies draped in white sheets--it took me a time to realize those were bodies, not injured people; they must be out of room or not be able to get them to the morgues or the hospitals.

I'm headed for the Brooklyn Bridge to walk out of the city. I'm going to stop at any hospital I find to give blood before leaving. If anyone reading this can, please donate blood--I heard from a medic that the hospitals are already running out.

Everywhere there is ash, abandoned bags in the street, people looking lost. I managed to get a cell line out to my friend, Jean-Michele, who's in Seattle, and she helped me navigate with online maps as I plotted my exit strategy.

Bizarrely, I caught a taxi crosstown. I was standing at a corner, I'm not even certain where, and a taxi was sitting there. A very pushy woman, whom I will always be thankful for, barged her way into the cab. In a moment, without thinking, I climbed in too. The driver, a Pakistani guy who had an improbable smile, immediately took off.

The ash blocks out the sun downtown--it's like driving in an impossible midnight, and even more impossible that I'm in a cab, with this woman who won't stop trying her cell phone and another man, my age, who looks like he's been crying. Maybe he just has ash in his eyes. I know I do--I feel like I will never see properly again, though that's probably just trauma. I don't even know where the driver is going. The crying man got someone on his cell phone, starts explaining what he's seeing out the window. It's like having a narrator traveling with us--I only notice the things that he is describing as he describes them.

God bless that taxi driver--we never paid him. He let us all off, and I think he got out as well, near the Brooklyn Bridge. There are cops everywhere, people are herding themselves quite calmly, mutely, onto the bridge. We all walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, which is unbelievably beautiful, the wires and stone of the bridge surrounding us and the bright sun ahead, passing out of darkness.

No one is talking to each other, but there is a sense of warmth. Everyone has their cell phones out, fishing for a clear signal. Those who catch them talk hurriedly to families, friends, people in other cities, children in their homes. It is comforting to hear their voices, telling how they are okay, shhh, it's okay, I'm okay. As we walk out into the sunlight, I am so happy to be in this company, the company of people who are all right, those who walked out.

I had gone into the city today to turn in some of my book, I had stayed up all night writing and I was so worried--is it ready, have I done my work? Those questions seem small today--not unimportant, but smaller, in a new proportion. I kept thinking of how much I have left to do in my life, so many things that are undone, people I haven't spoken to in years. It's overwhelming to feel everyone around me thinking the same thing, the restless thoughts trickling over this bridge as we come back to Brooklyn.

From the Promenade I stand with hundreds of others, listening to radios, watching the plumes of smoke and the empty holes in the skyline. People stand there for a long time, talk to one another in hushed tones. Someone hands out a flier for a vigil this evening, which I will go to after I give blood.

What can be said? Just this: we will emphasize the horror and the evil, and that is all true. It is not the entire story. I saw an old man with breathing problems and two black kids in baggy pants and ghetto gear rubbing his back, talking to him. No one was rioting or looting. People helped each other in small and tremendous ways all day long: a family was giving away sandwiches at the Promenade. Everyone I talked to agreed to go give blood.

If a draft had been held to train people to be firefighters there would have been fights to see who got to volunteer.

No matter how wide and intricate this act of evil may be it pales in comparison to the quiet dignity and strength of regular people. I have never been more proud of my country.


Mike Daisey is the author of the play, 21 Dog Years: Doing Time at Amazon.com. He lives in Brooklyn. For more information, see www.mikedaisey.com

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From the September 13-19, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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