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last updated: April 21, 2002
By Alex Marx


Opening Act

I’ve been tying to find words which will fill the void of the past few months, but I am too wrapped up in other worlds which wind around the creative process and withhold inspiration or desire.

So write about what you know, what you remember, what you promised. So here it is, my life as a volunteer for the Red Cross, or Nights at Ground Zero.

As you may recall, shortly after the disaster the world came out to try to help. Donations of everything from blood to money poured in. People signed endless lists to volunteer to do anything, even dig with their hands. Many just went down and did.

But it was clear that the effort, although quasi-organized even by the two nights Layla and I went down, was going to get more controlled and the traditional systems and organizations would kick in.

In the month following the attack

(and it was a long month, I think, there is much that happened, and much I want to write about. There are long gaps in my memory, as if I wish to erase it, but I don’t. I need to piece together what went on and put it into words. It was truly an intense time of our lives, and much of what happened in my city was truly amazing, but for now it is dimmed by dulled brain cells. It’s funny, as I sit and write this in Italy in mid-January, surrounded by people who only know of the events from the media. It doesn’t seem to exist, except in my head. When I talk about it there is embarrassment in their faces as if I were some old war-vet talking about life in the Ardennes in the winter of ’44. Was it such a transitory an event that continued feeling is unfamiliar to those who were, in a sense, removed from it all?)

an amazing rescue and recovery effort grew and took on a life of it’s own. I can only wonder at the organization and logistics that went on during those days. How much was accomplished so swiftly and without any public rancor that I wonder if any other city could have pulled it off. New York is not known for the ease of getting major or even minor projects accomplished. And yet knowing what was ahead, New York, in its inimitable way said, “fuck it, get it done…”

I started to get back into my life; such as it was, in the weeks following. I started returning to clients; we ate out at our local places, friends met, we tried the happy face routine. The topic of conversation, however, always turned to the events of those days. How could they not?

The weather remained glorious, little rain; bright, warm and sunny days. It was as if a special favor had been granted to those who worked around the clock on “the pile,” which became the preferred name over “Ground Zero.”

The ability to provide direct help appeared impossible. Sneaking down to help was impossible and in reality ridiculous, there was no way and no use. I think I felt, like so many others, helpless. There was, seemingly, nothing left for the citizen to do, other then give money. Several ad-hoc organizations sprung up to collect needed supplies for the workers, such as gloves, work boots, etc. but this, to me, seemed strange, as the effort at the pile seemed to be under control and organized.

Although the “events” were still close and close to our hearts, thoughts of aiding were, at best, discouraged. Daily media reports kept the statistics alive though the mayor’s press conferences became fewer and farther in-between and the focus began to shift to other news.

Like Anthrax.

Like the war.

So many times we had been told to stop trying to help, that we would be notified when something was needed, to go about our normal lives.

To spend money…

When I first started to scribble my adventures, it was, for me a flood of impressions, a way of expressing myself.

Words were my tears.

At the time, writing flowed easier and, mostly via email, the response was for the most part positive. It was overwhelming and frightening, I mean, this was my release, a quick catharsis, with no regard for structure, grammar or spelling. But somehow its chaos provided comfort to those who were away from the tragedy, who could only watch the media pabulum and the endless repeated images.

I was flattered, encouraged and scared. I felt a self-imposed pressure to keep reporting and to keep the quality of verbal imagery. I was also a bit embarrassed by all the attention and accolade.

Without realizing it, I was helping, albeit without physical effort. Strangers became friends and friends became closer. It was, in a small way, part of the great surge of humanity during those dark days.

But there were exceptions.

One person, one close and important person, one who I love, one who is part of my closest family took objection. Angry objection. She protested that I gave away too many details on how to get to ground zero, how smug and proud I seemed for “being more clever then everyone else” in my ability to “put it over” to get past the security. That I could have gotten both Layla and myself in deep trouble.

I was stung at first. It was not rationale, it was not what I expected and it was contrary to the majority of the responses. We fought a silent battle…

It seems almost silly now, but I was afraid to call their house. I would call my friends’ (her husband) cell-phone to avoid the possibility of a confrontation. It hurt, too. But it also gave me pause to think (as did another friends objection, but hers was for a different reason) about my actions, their motivations and their precipitation. Was it to help, was it morbid curiosity; was it bravado; was I wrong to do what I (we) did? It was perhaps all of the above, but for what ever the reason the direct end result was good. We helped a small group of people in a small way at a terrible and unimaginable time and we helped ourselves too.

The indirect result, my correspondence of the events to those unable to see, hear and smell the horror and overwhelming passion of the day was, too, worth the risk.

I realized that we all grieve and express our deepest feelings in different ways. Some internalized, some externalized, some curled up into a tight scream inside, some forged forward, feigning normality, some, too, died within themselves…

With all, though, you could see it in their eyes, their faces, their demeanor. Walking the streets, people would make eye contact, unheard of in NY, the subways were devoid of idle conversation. Traffic was diminished both in quantity and in the amount of extraneous anger vented using the horn.

We all had to express it in our own way, and to deal with the sensitivity of others at the same time.

In the end, she and I would never see eye-to-eye, but would have to meet somewhere in the middle and survive.

At some point early in October, found the Red Cross and a chance to help. She became a volunteer cook at one of the kitchens set up at various locations to provide food for the workers, the displaced and the needy. It was a natural for her, for her love for her family and friends is often expressed in the kitchen. For an Italian, and even more, in her case, a Sicilian, food is the currency of love.

And self succor.

And of forgiveness.

Although still circling each other, though probably more in my paranoia then her anger, she let me know, through her husband, that the Red Cross (or more properly, in this case, the American Red Cross or ARC which is how I will refer to them, it, from here on in) was looking for volunteers, they needed all the help they could get.

At some point the wall crumbled and I spoke to her. Perhaps the ability and opportunity to help healed some of the distance between. In helping others, she may have helped herself and empowered her to empathize and, maybe, even embrace my previous efforts.

She said that they needed lots of volunteers especially drivers and couriers. Registration was in the Brooklyn chapter of the ARC and one merely had to go and sign up.

I was a bit surprised, after all our earlier efforts to officially aid, and despite all the promises of “don’t call us, we’ll call you” it seems that, indeed, they were seeking volunteers. I dallied a bit, not able or not willing to follow through. I can’t place the reasoning now.

Ahh, it comes back now. I called them at a number that she gave me. I spoke to someone who explained that I needed to come out to the Brooklyn Chapter of the ARC, as that was where all volunteer registration was happening. I needed to get there before 6 pm and I remember coming from a client, as always, later then I expected

Finally in mid October, maybe the 15th, I hopped a subway to High Street in Brooklyn Heights.

I got off at the back end of the train and had to walk forward to the front of the station. I remember this because at the back there was a policeman guarding the entrance to the subway tunnel here where it emerges from the tunnel under the river. He sat there and made sure no one wandered into the deep darkness and caused yet more destruction. I felt a bit better with him there.

After several flights of stairs and a long escalator ride, I was deposited by the ARC headquarters. Several trucks, some looking like large ambulances, were being loaded with food and supplies. Large red containers were stacked by the trucks, and around the parking area in front.

It was a warm, sunny and clear afternoon. Blue sky, a few clouds.

Days to savor and remember.


Like that day.

That morning.

The warmth has allowed the security guards to set up shop outside the building foyer. I need to prove my existence with a picture ID (I’ve never understood why this is a real security measure, false official IDs are easy to obtain) and to have my backpack searched. All this was done with cheer and in official pleasantness.

Inside, I once more show my ID to another guard and make my presence known to a small group of people at a large table covered with papers, writing implements, clips, staplers and a computer.

I wait patiently until a pleasant woman asks if she can help me. I offer my services as a volunteer. Once again I am asked to proffer ID and I offer my drivers license. I notice a sign taped to the wall behind her that indicates valid ID types and also mentions that presently only residents of the Tri-State area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut) are being allowed to volunteer. I am handed a small stack of paperwork to fill out as is the lady standing next to me. The holder of my ID mentions that she is going to make a copy and return it to me after I fill out the paperwork.

I am pleased as punch that I brought my own pen, although there were plenty to be had at the table. The paperwork was standard stuff: name, address, phone numbers, some medical information, etc. Both pages were similar though on one, you were cautioned not to fill in certain areas. FOR ARC USE ONLY. This to me always signals the start of a bureaucratic process from which extraction is always tedious and fraught with frustration and finally, exhausted acquiescence. It would turn out to be an unfortunate and accurate premonition.

I finish both pages in my best, yet still slightly illegible scrawl, and return to the first desk. Some confusion reigns but my ID is recovered and the copy is stapled to the other pages that are reviewed and a section is checked off and initialed. Initialing is always the next step of the bureaucratic process and I notice that there are a lot of places to check and initial…

I also notice that there are baskets of candy and a cooler of soda standing at the ready. I partake in a small repast of a small gooey chocolate but resist the free soda.

My next step is to wait in a small line to see the nurse who will give my emotional state a once-over. Required to make sure I am not too disturbed or unstable to deal with the rigors of what might pass during the course of one’s volunteer work. I wait in line for a prior soul to be searched and when he’s done I dutifully sit, perchance a bit nervous.

I notice that there are a large number of apparent volunteers engaged in many tasks, sorting papers, meeting, running wires for computers, carrying things. Everyone is busy and almost everyone is dressed in a ubiquitous gray and white Red Cross vest. In was standard issue.

In the various times I had to come out to the ARC there were always small groups waiting somewhere in the volunteer process. Never large crowds however I did note that they seemed equally mixed between young and old, male and female, black, white, New York. Although never crowded, I found out later that the ARC processed almost 48,000 volunteers in those first few months. It was testament to the quality of humanity available in the world and to the ability of bureaucracies to move when they have to.

The nice nurse lady excuses herself briefly and I search around the little cubicle, curious and cautious, and feign nonchalance. The nurse returns shortly and starts simply enough, basic questions: who I am, and the like. She says that this is simply to see if serving mankind will be too much for those with more delicate souls or sensibilities. She also warns that things that we see or hear whilst volunteering may be extremely upsetting or overwhelming. Then it’s my turn: why am I here?

I lean forward and in sotto voce recite my saga. I remember feeling an overwhelming wall of emotion pressing against my chest from the inside. I wanted to cry but couldn’t. I think she saw a change in my face, my eyes swelling as if to cry, my voice dropping and forcing words through the cracks.

I speak of what I saw, what I did, somewhat of what I felt. I am fighting inside to remain sane (enough to volunteer) and not be overwhelmed. I want to explode in emotion, but can’t. My voice strains to remain calm and quiet, unlike my normal quiet shout. I don’t think I hid my feelings well, but I remained lucid enough to pass. She asks if I have “spoken to anyone” a code word for therapist as Americans are not suppose to seek mental health counseling, as it is a sign of weakness and impending insanity. Unless, of course, you live in New York City!

I had not as my therapist (gee, I’ve admitted to impending insanity) took gravely ill at the same time as these events and so was unavailable to help. His help has been, for over 10 years, incalculably invaluable to me, and the temporary but protracted loss of his ministrations was acute as was my concern for his well-being.

In all, I passed, though she seemed a bit concerned. Another check box another set of initials. As I left the cubicle I noticed that the line for her services had grown from one too many. I had been in for 20 minutes. A bit embarrassed, I apologized to the line, and, as it was nearly 6:00 pm, I made way downstairs for “orientation.” I wandered down the Byzantine halls and byways and found my way to the orientation room. I selected a seat at the front, and as there was about 10 minutes to kill I wandered next door to a voluminous cafeteria. I first selected a Coke, and then spying a tank of iced tea, switch to that. A large tray of cookies tempts me and I grab a four-pack. The cafeteria is not crowded but hums with voices. I wander back to my seat, artificial sweeteners and chemical flavors clutched in my hands.

A few more people wander in and I offer them a cookie or two, all wisely refuse. Shortly after 6, two large, middle age women, dressed, as all ARC volunteers are, in the gray and white ARC vest, commence the orientation in Southern accents as sweet and thick as honey.

In my sojourn with the ARC there would be many such people. Sweet, dedicated, driven and out of shape. It would seem that Americans take better care of others then of themselves. Perhaps our abundant gluttony is balanced by a surfeit of generosity and humanity)

Orientation focused on the mission of the ARC and what was being done to handle the three disasters (each plane crash was considered a separate disaster) and that this was officially called AA11/UA175/911WTC and that that’s how we should refer to it.

The disaster has been enumerated.

And to assure us that we were indeed part of a large and immensely bureaucratic organization we were no longer mere volunteers but “LDV”s or “Local Disaster Volunteers.” Our hosts were “DSHR”s or “Disaster Service Human Resources” Somehow I never seemed to want to refer to New York as “Local” but was pleased to see that as you moved up the ladder you got more initials. Sort of like stars and stripes in the military.

We are also told that the ARC is completely neutral and we should not express any opinions while doing relief work or involved in any ARC activity. The neutrality of the ARC is important to its being able to do work anywhere without fear of partiality.

This neutrality was also supposed to manifest itself outside our volunteer work in that we were not to display our ARC identification badges or vests when we are not on duty.

Nor were we to accept contributions on behalf of the ARC, if we were offered we must refuse and refer them to the proper channels. The same goes for any interviews with the press or media.

I stretch and wiggle on the hard seat, and let my eyes wander around the room. It is packed full of boxes some open, some sealed, some clearly in bad shape. On the walls are various posters of Ground Zero from the perspective of various municipal entities. One drawing showed an aerial view with each building destroyed, damaged beyond repair, collapsed or damaged in different colors. Another poster showed a similar outline but various colored lines showed the various utilities in the area in their general state, in-use, turned off, damaged, destroyed or crushed.

Each was recently dated and it seemed to be an indication of frequent updates. They were fascinating in their abstract and stark depictions of a somber and cruel reality. I remember thinking that our current technology allowed us to produce this new art with facility and in copious abundance. How did they manage to run such large-scale operations without it?

Focusing back on the presentation, we are instructed too, that we are not to engage any of our “clients” in any conversation about the tragedy. If they were to bring it up then we can discuss it within the limits of maintaining the neutrality of the ARC. As representatives of the ARC we must not jeopardize their status. In no way should our outside actions be identified with the ARC, good, bad or indifferent.

In addition to the magnitude of this destruction and tragedy the whole Ground Zero site is considered a crime scene. Because the airplanes were hijacked and for a number of other reasons the area was under control of numerous federal law-enforcement agencies. Therefore we were not to wander where we were not permitted and we were not to take any photographs. They related a story of an innocent person being driven, unbeknownst to her, through the Ground Zero area on a sightseeing foray by her co-volunteers. They were caught and their badges were yanked and they were escorted out the area, never to return.

As the orientation wound down we were made aware that there are DSHRs who are trained in psychological care and that this service is available not only to our clients but to the LDVs as well and that we should feel free to take advantage of it.

In addition, in any service we end up performing as a volunteer, we should always keep ourselves fit, get plenty of sleep, take frequent breaks, eat and drink as necessary and keep in touch with our loved ones. The ARC doesn’t need to add us to their roster of clients!

Some more points and a few questions and answers and we were done. But before we go get assignments we first had to get checked off and initialed.

Back upstairs and on another short line. This one was to select the type of volunteer work.

After standing around at the head of the line another kindly upper-middle aged woman with a honey thick southern accent asked if I was being helped. I admitted that, indeed, I was not and she sat me down at one of the ubiquitous instant conference tables in the room.

Each was covered with piles of papers, and the beginnings of technology. It was obvious that they were trying to computerize, laptops dotted the place, and long strings of blue network cables, tossed over light fixtures or taped to the walls, joined them all together.

A wall of clipboards was attached to the wall behind us, each containing sign-up sheets. From these sheets the intrepid LDV could pick and choose where and when to help. There were clipboards for Drivers, Couriers; something called Mass Care and these were divided into R1 and R3, Clerical, etc. Sheets within the clipboards represented specific dates and times. In addition several sheets had maximum numbers of LDVs needed per shift. And sadly many were not close to being filled.

I immediately signed up to be a Driver. As a “local” New Yorker I felt more then able to handle the streets of my city in anything up to a tank. One of the DSHRs in orientation had expressed fear and amazement that anyone could drive in this town. She should try Naples, Italy sometime. New York is a quiet backwater compared to a lot of the rest of the world.

I inquired about what Mass Care and their R1 and R3 divisions. Mass Care is what we generally know the ARC to do. That is: the care and feeding of disaster victims. In this case the ARC had two sites running near Ground Zero, Respite 1 (R1) and Respite 3 (R3). Both these sites offered services to all the workers, rescue and emergency personnel involved with the ongoing recovery and cleanup operations. There was no Respite 2 that I could tell, rumor later had it that it had been on Wall Street and closed after R3 opened.

The work there could involve anything from feeding workers to tossing trash. They always needed a lot of people for the midnight shifts.

I signed up for driver/courier and a shift of Mass Care (MC) at R1. I would do MC Tuesday night and drive Wednesday. After that I could decide how much more to do.

I filled out my name and the time and dates on the various clipboards and then had my paperwork initialed one more time. However, this was not the end of the line, oh no, I now had to be vetted by a Mass Care supervisor to be sure I understood the commitment. This was not a job for the faint of heart or the weak of spirit. I waited on line for my turn to promise to be a good LDV.

As beat back as I was from the constant back and forth of the bureaucratic process, a profound sense of excitement and expectation was beginning to exhibit itself on my psyche. A vast unknown world was about to unwind within the confines of my known world, one coiling inside the other, two worlds, two cities, two towers, too many emotions.

My turn to enter the cubicle of conviction and a tight faced women proceeds to test my resolve.

“Do you understand what Mass Care is, what you might have to do, what you might have to face at ground zero?”

“Yes, I think so, well, like what?”

“You could do anything from taking out garbage to cleaning toilets to washing dishes.”

“I guess that’s OK, but ya know, I don’t do a great job at dishes and toilets, are there things that would use my skills better.”

“Look, Mass Care involves a lot of different jobs, everybody does everything, including cleaning toilets. If you don’t think you want to do that, then don’t sign up for it.”

“OK, I’ll give it a try, if I don’t like it, I’ll do something else…”

“Fine, let’s put you at Respite 1…”

“What’s the difference?”

“R1 is the larger of the two centers and offers the most services, but most people want to go to R3 because it’s closer to Ground Zero… So we need more people at R1”

Strange, but true, but the reasons for that preference were, well, a bit more nefarious, as I was to discover a bit later in the game…all’s fair in love and war…

She picked up a 5 * 7 card and made some notations, initialed my form, and before I could contemplate the end of this paper chase, she instructed me to head upstairs to Mass Care for assignment…and, of course, after that, return to her for more initials. I was beginning to fear that either the poor over-initialed form or I would need our own form of “Mass Care.”

I found my way upstairs, which turned out to be a warren of winding corridors from which various offices attached. Although there were plenty of signs indicating various offices the ones pointing to Mass Care led to everything but Mass Care.

Various groups of people were congregating in the hall; all were clearly not New Yorkers, it’s a sense you get as a native. But it’s not infallible!

I wandered a bit and after walking by the same group twice, one chimed up with the offer of assistance…

“I’m looking for Mass Care”

(Failing that, could you just initial the rest of this form?)

I am soon lead to a large room laid out from end to end with those folding tables with the brown melamine tops and the beige legs, sort of the larger version of the Thanksgiving “kiddie” table…

Two people per table completed the gauntlet. Only one other person was being served. I entered without fanfare, almost timid and too polite. I was, by this time, somewhat exhausted.

I stood quietly until one of the desk denizens looked up, smiled and asked if they could help me. I relaxed, smiled and approached the bench. I slid my papers forward, and explained what I had been explained.

To my vast relief she grabbed some more papers and began to transcribe my information from my set to the new set. One was a green sheet that would entitle me to an ID badge. After a few minutes of idle chatter and further scribbling, she initialed my paper (whew!) and pointed out two large boxes against the wall.

I dipped into one and picked a white hard hat and the other provided a set of “safety glasses.” She explained that the City required all people wear both while they are on the streets around Ground Zero. Failure to do so could result in a $2000 fine to the perpetrator. I promised to be good.

We chatted about her visit to New York and how much she was enjoying her stay. But it was time to continue the process. She gave me the green sheet, and told me to go to the basement and get photographed for my ID badge. We bade farewell and I expertly found my way to the staircase and the basement.

Here there were signs to the ID section and I approached, papers and initials at the ready. I’m learning. An imposing looking gentleman took the pile, scanned it, looked me up and down, asked for some ID and once satisfied that I was truly who I truly was, handily initialed the green sheet. Could I truly ask for more?

Immediately opposite the imposing initialer was a group of small offices, each with a laptop and a digital camera mounted on a tripod. I went into the closest one and handed my pile to the quiet young lady seated at the laptop. I sat in the chair, trying to get my hair to stay in place and making sure my shirt collar was straight.

She pecked away at the keyboard, and I scanned the screen to make sure that I was Marx, Alex and not Marks, Alex or Marxs, Alex or the half dozen other variations I easily become. Content that I was well spelled, I relaxed, looked at the birdie and was briefly blinded by the blast of the flash.

As my vision returned, my image made its appearance on the laptop screen and before I could critique it, the printer spit out my ID card, complete with two copies of me (one faded, I never figured out why), my name, an expiration date, and a green banner across the bottom within which were written the words “Full Access & Ground Zero.” She slipped it into a plastic badge protector, looped one of those little silver ball chains (the one’s that always tear at the little hairs on the back of your neck) through it and handed to me.

Like a sacred talisman I put the ID around my neck and let it dangle on my chest. It could feel it’s weight and it’s power. It gave me the awesome availability to the hallowed ground, a chance to pay my respects and my dues. A chance to do something constructive in the entire destructive atmosphere. And to do it legitimately and respectfully.

Mercifully, she didn’t initial a thing. The badge was confirmation enough. I wandered back upstairs to the stiff faced inquisitor for my final instructions.

I passed her my papers and she wrote on the file card again. I was to return tomorrow at 10:30 pm and a bus would take us into the city and on to Respite 1.

No more initials. I was done. I wandered out to the sun. A glorious fall day.

Against tragedy, glory.

I basked in the day. All the way to the subway.

I paid my fare.

And went home.

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All Portions Copyright © 2001, 2002 Alex Marx