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May 1st, 2020

Smoking marijuana for me really does not give rise to the sensation of “coasting through life in the arms of sanity”, as other drugs sometimes do, (as sobriety always does), so I gave it up as a kid, almost as soon as it had arrived. But, when the World Trade Centre came screaming down in 2001, I happened to have found some mental equilibrium in Manhattan, so was on a brief sojourn back to the ugly weed. (Being ‘in my element’ doesn’t cover how New York made me feel. My New York friends who smoke it eschew sitting around in a fog of paranoia forcing each other to listen to guitar solos. They seem to get on with things instead. I don’t know why I left. I love being the non-weed smoking friend amongst my confidently high, weed-smoking friends. The only stoners I like these days, and then, are extremely glamorous and at least partially successful.)


I joke, during this Covid 19 lockdown, that I am glad I no longer take hallucinogens or mind alterers, but I’m serious, because I don’t want to have to think too much about how the globe can pull itself back from this current economic pause, or what I would do if anyone I loved was dying and I couldn’t reach them, because of the new rules. A Taoist monk friend called it a “sacred pause” yesterday, and in so many ways she is right. Even though I know she was referring to more than wild nature having a rest, I wager it is noticeably nicer to be a bee or a fish or a tree or an eddy right now, with a little more room to manoeuvre. But that doesn’t begin to cover how insane this all is for us, from the perspective of our natural human instinct to try to keep a roof over the head, or to make sure the ageing mother doesn’t say to herself “What was the point, then?”, if she can’t say goodbye to her children and grandchildren before stepping off.


But it was different then, in New York, in 2001. The bummed out dream state of cycling through a city of falling ash, a metropolis smelling of the cooking flesh of two thousand six hundred and six humans, it somehow seemed to beg you to keep yourself somewhere else, inside your mind. The lockdown was also shorter, if not wildly more intense, so there was less likelihood you would become temporarily insane on narcotics or booze, as I am sure (as I know) some people are doing as our current lockdown continues, with no end in sight.


There was a tangible enemy; there were ancient divisions, monumental planning, the ‘Moronic Inferno,’ - all of this to get the teeth into, at least. Not the silent, clever virus, but actual, bland (I am thinking especially of Atta), men and women who hated us and our lifestyle and wanted it decimated.


I watched the first tower fall, a little bit stoned, from a few blocks back, as I tied up my bike, for work. I saw, but didn’t want to see, suited men and women at the windows, twelve hundred feet up or more, maddened and destroyed, but at least making the last choice they made on earth to be the free-fall to death rather than the envelopment and choking by a black smoke that was bellowing at their heels from the rear.


Straining up at this most wretched of sights from the corner of Hudson Street and North Moore I heard an English accent; it was Shovell from the Manchester based band M-People - an occurrence I still find a bit odd, to this day. I had never met him before and have never met him since. We ended up watching the second tower fall while reminiscing about Manchester and trying to take frantic calls from British family on those early flip mobile phones that were like bullets. (The reception had gone down and no one could get through for days).


What was in front couldn’t have been real so we didn’t let it be real and we put it somewhere towards the back. In retrospect, the second tower coming down to the earth didn’t register at all until I went inside the restaurant where I worked and looked at a TV above the bar that was playing footage of the towers falling, on a loop. I said to my friend Gina Zimmerman “Oh look, the second tower has fallen”.


“I know”, she said, “we just watched it together in real life, outside”.


Then came the sirens, the alarm bells and police running north as the water in the taps had turned brown and gas leaks were fizzing everywhere. We ran uptown a little bit, because they shouted that we should, then we dispersed. I saw the city on my own then, in silence, as I wandered possibly for hours, possibly for a day and a half, ringing friends’ doorbells, sitting around stunned for a bit then moving on. I didn’t go back home, I just zigzagged, across town. It was only later the next day or possibly the day after, when the cordons went up at the cross streets of every tenth block, did I realise I should have tried to stay south where my home was on Stanton Street, because, even though I was certain (despite howls of derision from my friend Patti Hippolyte) that my American Ballet Theatre class card would get me through the police and army checks (the passport being a no go at that reckless time), I was still a bit wary. After a few days though, money was running short and, like Ken Dodd, I had thousands in tips stuffed under my mattress on the Lower East Side (the Knotty Ash of the TriState area), I tried the ballet card out on a few soldiers, and, unbelievably, it worked. I got further and further south, paranoid as all f*ck. I frequently saw Arabs or Arabic looking men being thrown up against walls and barked at so I was literally sailing through in comparison. A Sikh man was killed in Brooklyn, mistaken for a Muslim.


It was all, shall we say, horrible.


Until I met a man called Dennis Disaster, a lanky streak of something in his late twenties with big, high unthought-out curls and no discernible qualifications in Disaster Management except for a decade of experience in turning up at calamities across the globe and sorting things out. I Googled him a few years later and he had indeed been everywhere - to earthquakes in Turkey, to volcano eruptions in the Caribbean - but now I can’t remember his surname. At that point, anyway, who needed qualifications? He was really good at organising things, and he clearly wasn’t stoned, like the rest of us. My good friend, the aforementioned Patti, suggested I find him, and sent me over to the West Side Highway where, in a former petrol station I set up trestle tables and laid out Dioralytes, energy bars, burn kits. For weeks we acted as a rest stop for the drivers of the ambulances, the firetrucks, the endless flat bed lorries that were trundling mournfully up and down the highway; empty going south, piled high with smoking, twisted metal, going north. I don’t know where Dennis got the supplies, but he got many thousands of rehydrating bottles of drink, a huge supply of bandages and hundreds of bottles of petroleum jelly for burns; and this was all, always, topped up daily, over a period of many weeks.


Mostly we would reach up to the idling lorry cab to pass the driver the supplies, have a bit of a joke, and the truck would drive on, either towards or away from the horror. It could have been multiple episodes of Taxi or Hill Street Blues, but without Danny De Vito, without a script, and without the mournful opening music.


A week or so in, it was just me and Dennis left with a skip full of Gatorades and burn creams. Other people had families, pets, lives to consider. I had started back at work but only a few shifts here and there, so every other minute there was, I wanted to be on the West Side Highway, doing something that had some sort of structure. It was horribly exciting if nothing else, to be part of history.


One quieter night, at around midnight, Dennis Disaster gave me a lanyard to which I clipped on a laminated card that said ‘Ground Zero Official Support’. And there was the beginning of my week of midnight runs in a massive 4 x 4, to the very middle of hell, to deliver the burn kits and drinks to St Paul’s Chapel, the only on site refuge for the firefighters and medics, the place where they slept, the oldest church in Manhattan, now in 2020 called - mawkishly - ‘The Little Church That Stood’.


As we drove in to what was somewhere and something else entirely, I thought, how alien we all are anyway to each other, when we come across something so changed, so inhuman.


What steamed and sighed and lay mangled around the only standing building in sight wasn’t nice; it wasn’t good, and my memory of it has remained locked up for 19 years.


It was hissing like the moon, as if the moon had been attacked by metal and hadn’t been expecting to be attacked at all.

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