Ground Zero

WTC When they got to the hospital, Demetri’s father had been there for nearly three hours.

What struck Demetri most was the hallways. There seemed to be no end to the network of blank white hallways, each prickled with dozens of doors, all bustling to different degrees with doctors struggling to get to wherever they were going.

His mother was leading them and Demetri had logged more than once how steely she seemed in the face of crisis. His older sister, on the other hand, couldn’t stop crying.

For Demetri, some sort of autopilot had kicked on inside him, and he found himself following the various instructions given him with a robotic silence. He noted and compiled details about what was going on around him.

Among these was the readout on each of the several digital clocks they’d passed already. In the hospital lobby: 8:33 a.m. After waiting, walking, waiting again, through three hallways of identical sterile intensity, they reached the section of the hospital where his father was.

In this hallway (which was marked by a yellow stripe running along the top to indicate the intensive care unit): 8:42 a.m.

And the first thing he noticed when the nurse opened the door before them into his father’s room was the black and red digital wall clock: 8:48 a.m.

A dark-haired doctor wearing a lab coat had followed them in and was explaining things to Demetri’s mother, who stared at his father, unmoving in the extremely white hospital bed.

“The paramedics said your husband’s accident was pretty bad, Mrs. Karminov, but it seems most of his injuries could have been a lot worse.”

Demetri made an automatic mental note of his nametag: Dr. Alexander Murphy, M.D. Below that it said “General Practitioner,” and the name of the hospital, “Good Samaritan,” and beside that the logo, a red medical cross with a white hand reaching down to another hand over top.

He was aware that he still hadn’t been able to look at his father straight on.

“You said he was in surgery a little while ago,” Demetri’s mother said in a sort of monotone. Demetri logged that, too, as well as the number of times his sister sobbed between breaths – which was five, then two, then four, then five again, in a fairly regular pattern.

“We dealt with some internal bleeding in his abdomen. We’ve got the bleeding under control now,” Murphy told her. He was almost whispering, as if his voice might somehow cut through the drugs Demetri’s father had been filled with and wake him from his sleep.

Or maybe the whispers were for the benefit of Demetri and his sister.

“Is he going – to be all right?” Karina sobbed toward Murphy.

Demetri watched as the doctor frowned and his mother continued to stare at his father. Murphy sucked in a deep breath and Demetri could tell how new he was to this – he was pretty young.

“The bleeding was pretty bad … well, I’m cautiously optimistic. We’re going to keep him down here in intensive care for at least a few more hours. But I think your dad is going to be okay.”

Karina cried harder. Murphy excused himself. His mother stood frozen in place, staring at the broken form of her husband. Demetri checked the clock: 8:59 a.m.

His father breathed deeply and there was the faintest tinny whistle of air through plastic.

Just more than sixteen minutes passed before they all really settled down. Demetri realized that his feet hurt and he made his way to a black chair with thin silver legs on which he could see a label – IKEA ALEXANDER – and a price tag – $49. It was wholly uncomfortable.

Karina was seated at this side of the bed for that time, crying and talking quietly to their father, but Demetri couldn’t hear what was being said.

His mother was sitting at a small table in the corner of the room, her head in her hands.

At length, she looked up at him. He had automatically glanced at the clock again (9:27 a.m.), and knew how this would look to his mother.

“Are you okay, Demetri?” She sounded more annoyed than concerned.

He frowned, stalling, but a good answer didn’t come to mind.

“I was just thinking … for some reason, I was thinking that I’m missing a test right now.”

They stared at each other for a second, then Demetri looked away at the floor. His gaze for the first time went to his father, who still hadn’t moved, and Demetri felt like he’d put him there. The bruises on his father’s face formed a pattern that resembled a dog howling at the moon, like a constellation, and he logged it and then found himself disgusted with the involuntary response. He looked back at the floor and said nothing.

The silence snapped and Demetri jumped as his mother started laughing. It was impossibly loud in the tiny room. Looking at him, through bursts of it, his mother said, “I’m supposed to be in a closing and you’re missing a test.”

It was the most frightening sound Demetri had ever heard.

Ten seconds passed and Demetri got to his feet. He walked to the bed first, where his father lay quietly, and looked at him. Karina had her crying down to a consistent whimper now. She’d moved to another of the chairs (IKEA ALEXANDER, $49) and was huddled up with her knees against her chest.

Demetri watched him breathe for three long minutes. His father’s chest rose and fell in labored bursts, as though he needed to marshal strength each time he inhaled, and when his will gave out, his lungs emptied. There were a few places where stitches stood pointed from his skin like alien barbed wire, adding to the bruise constellation to make it a grotesque hodgepodge of images and flesh.

It was the tubes that led into his father’s nose and throat to keep him in oxygen that finally were too much for Demetri. He tasted bile and his stomach heaved slightly. He quickly left the room – his family said nothing to stop him. The red clock readout 9:33.

The blank sterility of the hallway helped him steady himself. He’d never seen a place so clean. After thirty-four seconds, his stomach stopped its periodic lurching. But he couldn’t go back in, so he plunged his hands into his pockets and headed down the hall.

Around the corner was a lounge of some kind, with wooden chairs and tables spread throughout. Demetri entered slowly, looking at the floor (which was waxed beige tile in the hallway but checkered blue and red carpet in the lounge), but it was a few moments before he realized that everyone who was in the room – a mix of patients, family members and hospital staff, eighteen of them – was standing in its center, grouped around a white ceiling support post, their heads raised upward toward it.

Their eyes were fixed on a mounted television set.

As he got closer, he could hear a newscaster. The reporter’s voice was shaking and he sounded out of breath. Demetri could see the streets of a city, filled with people who were staring upward. The newsman was standing beside them, looking up. The camera tilted upward to reveal the World Trade Center, the towers billowing smoke violently against the nearly cloudless blue sky.

“Once again,” he was saying, “two airplanes have crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center in an apparent terrorist attack.”

As he spoke, a video started to play that had a note reading “Recorded Earlier” and showed a jetliner that streaked through the frame and collided with the other tower. There was a massive explosion and the camera shook.

Demetri’s small crowd came alive with gasps and whispers. “Dear God,” someone nearby muttered.

< p>He backpedaled, running into someone behind him. Apologizing reflexively, Demetri turned to see the small group he’d joined had at least doubled in size. The lounge was barely big enough to accommodate them all. Someone stepped forward and turned up the volume on the TV.

“We don’t have any word on casualties in the towers, but New York authorities have called all available emergency response personnel to active duty ,” the anchor was saying.

Demetri dropped into a chair, still watching. He could tell that people were barely breathing in the lounge – he himself had caught his breath stalled in his lungs more than once already.

The red digital clock on the wall read 9:51.

He found himself tuning out the commentary as he watched the structures burn. Small things dropped off the buildings, plummeting to the city below. At first he thought they were bits of the buildings themselves, but after just under forty seconds, he realized what he was really looking at.

They were jumpers; people were throwing themselves from the building.

As Demetri watched, unable to look away, he started to become aware of something behind him. It was some sort of high-pitched, muffled noise, coming from the hallway.

Slowly, he came to realize it was screaming.

Demetri spun in time to see Karina burst through the door to the lounge. The group of patients, family members and hospital personnel – more than a few of them doctors and nurses – turned to see her as she came in.

She was screaming.

“My dad! My dad needs help!”

Three full seconds passed before two doctors and a handful of nurses broke from the crowd and rushed out the door. Karina, her face wracked with horror and pain, stared at Demetri for a second, then two.

Finally, she blurted, “Where the hell were you?”

She whirled and disappeared down the hall. Bewildered, Demetri’s feet carried him away before his mind caught up to the command.

He reached the room a few seconds later. Doctors were huddled around the bed and alarms and bells were screaming. Demetri’s mother was in the chair next to the bed, one hand on her head, her gaze bent toward the floor. She didn’t move or look toward the bed.

A nurse pushed Karina and Demetri out of the room, saying something he didn’t comprehend, and the door closed hard in front of them. Karina sobbed and moved away, but Demetri pressed his face against the window in the door and watched.

All he could see were hunched, white-and-blue clad figures, the edge of the bed, and the frozen form of his mother.

He turned away. Down the hall, the group of people turned toward the television in the lounge was spilling out into the hallway. Patients, family, doctors and nurses were all standing on tiptoes, trying to see over one another. There was dead silence.

“I can’t believe this,” Demetri muttered. He looked down at his feet. The hall spun around him. He couldn’t turn back to the hospital room, where he could feel the life bleeding out of his father. He started back down the hall toward the lounge, captivated – but Karina’s hand caught his.

“Stay,” she muttered. “Dad needs us to stay here.”

“Something’s happening,” he returned, pulling gently on her hand. Leading her to the lounge. “Something huge is happening.”

Karina pulled back. They stood, she facing the door, he the lounge. At once, there was a collective gasp from the group and murmurs shuddered through the people there. The door to their father’s room kicked open and there was commotion beyond. And crying.

They waited in the hall and a lot of time passed without anyone coming to talk to them, but Demetri knew. He already knew.

The first of the World Trade Center towers fell, and his father died, and all around Demetri, the world collapsed.

The empty space I found in New York

A week has passed since I left New York City after making what I once considered to be a pilgrimage to the site of the World Trade Center.

On the other side of my intial, more cynical reactions, I’ve come back to the experience with a much deeper sense of ambivalence and confusion.

Comments from best friend and fellow Midwesterner Nick Hurwitch had me questioning how I felt about the events and about my visit to the site. I’ve had to ask myself, what did I expect from it? People crying in the streets? After all, eight years has passed.

Even so, for something that has bothered me so deeply and for something that I’ve envisioned for at least a year, the trip was nothing like I expected. Regardless of the reactions of other people at the site (I guess I expected something just a little reverent), there was nothing about the WTC site that gave me the closure or answers that I had hoped to find.

I’m left wondering what I should feel about the whole situation. Part of the trip was to takee a city that was, for all intents and purposes, fictional, and make it real for me. That, in turn, was to make the entire 9/11 event become real for me.

My problem has always been one of distance, metaphorical and physical. From my vantage as a Michigan teenager going through high school, New York was a shining city that existed in film. Nothing like that place exists in our state, and I never even made it to Chicago until I was in college. Until recently, I’d never seen a place like New York outside of a screen or a photo of some kind.

So how was I to feel about a national tragedy? I’ve never even felt very connected to the United States as a nation. The U.S. you see on TV (and therefore, extrapolate as the experience of other Americans in the American places that matter) is not the one you experience in the Detroit suburbs.

The Midwestern U.S. is far more muted.

Reading about and seeing depictions of Americans lining up to fight for their country after Pearl Harbor had particular resonance. When there was an attack on our country, ALL Americans felt attacked.

I didn’t feel attacked on 9/11. I still feel an isolation in this state, which is ass-backwards in as many ways as possible. Our largest city is so corrupt, government officials are stealing from their own children. We’re losing people and jobs so fast there might not be much more than a sinkhole where Michigan is now in 10 years.

How am I supposed to feel about two planes being crashed into the World Trade Center?

It’s a question I’m only beginning to answer, and I didn’t find that answer at the site of the tragedy. What I’m feeling now is confusion because if that answer wasn’t there, where the hell is it?

I hurt for the people who died, but do I feel community with them? No.

More than anything, what I’ve experienced in regards to the national tragedy is seeing identification in others. A feeling of belonging. A feeling of camaraderie. A feeling of community. A feeling of needing to reach out to help those among them who have been hurt.

There’s identity in that.

What identity do I have?

The trip to the WTC site was a search for a mirror that I thought would help reflect back at me a greater understanding of what it means to be an American. But that mirror doesn’t exist.

I’m still wondering what my reflection looks like.

Impressions of a Tragedy

The subway goes to the World Trade Center site again. For a while, it was closed.

We emerged from the station into the bright sunlight, like rats into a tight maze. To the right were the collossal buildings of New York City, static and strong despite their location. To our left was a bright blue fence, stretching eight feet high, covered in big photos at intervals of the spectacle that will one day be constructed on the site of the destroyed World Trade Center.

The entire corridor, which is what is created, was packed to the brim with people. Foot traffic flowed quickly, but it was tight and claustrophobic.

The sun was bright and hot because there was nothing to block it.

I was struck most by the disorganized chaos. We were quite literally walled off from the construction site of the Freedom Towers, and by extension, from the tragedy.

People bustled through, most totally untouched by their proximity to the site.

I, however, felt stained by it. I’d never seen the World Trade Center in person, but I felt the temporal shadow of those buildings and what happened stretching out over me. Others just hurried on about their business.

We walked the perimeter of the site, but there was no seeing in from street level. I felt a mix of disappointment and a dull, throbbing sort of anger. I couldn’t even see into the site. I didn’t see mourners or people even thinking twice about what they were walking past.

Finally we found an information kiosk that pointed the way toward the Tribute WTC Visitor Center. Pushed along by the river of indifferent humanity, we passed a man handing out photocopied maps that he’d highlighted.

“It’s history, it shouldn’t be a mystery,” the man shouted into the crowd. “Do you know what you’re looking at?”

That’s a good question, I thought, as the man was chided by people who must have regularly walked by. The only person I would encounter in New York who seemed at all passionate about the event, and he was treated like a joke.

We continued along the outside of the site, always accompanied by the blue fence. I stopped and studied some of the artists’ renderings of the Freedom Towers. Of course, these renderings included all the retail opportunities that would be present in these new, improved towers. Shops like Bulgari were included in the drawing. Quite a tribute.

But it wasn’t as disgusting as the street vendors who wheeled out coolers filled with water bottles available for a premium, or large piles of “tribute photos” of the World Trade Center. You can’t spell Capitalism with capitalize, I thought bitterly.

We passed the Visitor Center and pushed past to where one wall of a fire house had a large bronze wall plaque commemorating the rescue workers who died in the towers. A few people gathered around and snapped photos. But not many. A few other people hurried by, walking through photos without realizing or without caring, and without even glancing over.

A few moments later, we headed back to the Visitor Center. I flashed my student I.D. to get half off our tickets, despite no longer being a student of anything. I felt cynical and dishonest. I saved ten dollars.

We entered the gallery, which had a few too many people in it and seemed a little small compared to the size of the event. Caitlin and I walked along slowly, reading quotes on columns that made up a timeline of events stretching from the first attack on the Trade Center in 1993 to the aftermath of the event.

On the wall beside us were copies of various missing posters that had been found around the city during the tragedy. As we moved across the timeline, the fliers became thicker and closer together, until they papered the entire wall. We moved past a twisted steel girder and into a room where two entire walls were covered in photos and personal items from victims of the tragedy.

Caitlin started to cry. I held my composure, but only just barely.

We continued down a flight of stairs into the Visitor Center’s basement, past several thousand origami cranes, to a room that contained hundreds of fliers filled out by international visitors, detailing their feelings about the tragedy. Beyond that was more information about the Freedom Towers. And then we were back upstairs, passing the “gift shop,” which was sad first because it existed at all, and second because it was both pathetic and miniscule.

I pushed my way out of the building, Caitlin close behind. Clouds were rolling in over the WTC site. We dropped back into the flow along the sidewalk, passing the street vendors at a fast pace.

“What are you thinking?” Caitlin asked as we headed away.

I didn’t know what to tell her.

We stopped on a elevated walkway where, for the first time, there was glass between us and the construction site. Caitlin told me about the disrespect she felt she was seeing as the rubble had been swept up and placed off to the side, as she put it.

I didn’t know what I felt. I still don’t.

I held onto her for a long time and didn’t say anything. There was no closure here. There was no reconciling tragedy or paying respects to the dead. There was a tiny apartment that served as a museum and memorial, at ten dollars a ticket.

There was bustling by and pretending it never happened. There was building over top of a tragedy. Maybe that was the only way this city could have moved on.

For me, it feels like covering an amputated limb with a band-aid.

I’m more confused and disconnected now than ever.

Research trip: NYC

Halfway to New York, and I’m in the car working and now blogging. As I’m nearly to my destination and the purpose of this trip is directly related to my future as a writer and novelist, I feel like I should explain the trip’s significance.

I’ve already spoken about the trip’s conception, in a vague way. Allow me now to give that situation context.

I started about a year ago working on a series of short stories that eventually will compose a novel. The working title for the whole project is “Millennium Men.” It concerns a number of topics of great interest to me, and many feelings and conceptions about growing up as an American Midwesterner man at the turn of the century that I hold close to my heart.

The largest and most important of these is the effect of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, on me as a resident of Michigan, as an American, and as a young adult at the time. Ever since the tenth grade, when I sat in physics class, watching the event unfold on the class room TV, I’ve felt this sort of strange dichotomy about 9/11.

On the one hand, I feel a great deal about the national tragedy. In a very real sense, it’s still a fresh wound for me. But on a personal, individual-people-who-died-in-the-buildings sort of way. And NOT on a larger, I’m-an-American-and-we-all-grieve-together scale. I’ve never felt “connected” to the tragedy.

In “Millennium Men,” the climax of the story, and the experience of the main characters, has to do with coming of age in a climate where everyone is shaped by a series of events to which the characters feel no strong connections. They (and I) are actually shaped more by the ABSENCE of connection — to the tragedy, to the country, and to each other.

The characters in the novel travel to NYC to deal with how they feel about being American men, and their time at the WTC site is a key moment to the story I want to tell.

So I have to experience that myself, and get my own head on straight about the tragedy, before I can write about it.

That’s tomorrow. I honestly don’t know what to expect.