Dispatch From Ground Zero
Friday, September 15
This morning there was an ice emergency, and around a hundred restaurants were called and mobilized to truck ice to Ground Zero. Which led to way too much ice and trucks sitting filled with it. One restaurant thought it was an ice cream emergency and brought a literal truckload of cookie ice cream bars to the Salvation Army. They were delicious--and melting. So we canvassed the area with box after box of the treats. I headed down to Union Square and passed them out to the people surrounding the vigil, and to the homeless, and then on to Union Square Cafe where very soon the entire kitchen staff was standing around munching on dripping cookie bars. I walked back out the door to an entire town of ice cream eaters.
I got back to the Salvation Army and continued trying to sort the huge mess of socks and blankets and food and medical supplies. Finally a major came up to me and quietly told me to go stand in a certain place and wait. Those in charge never announced that a van was headed down to the site, because the volunteers would literally riot at the idea of some going and others staying. I asked the major if I could take my friends, and soon they had badges too. Things became much more organized--we were actually a team, with a place to be, a supply central at the former American Express building.
During the next few hours, I handed out bucket after bucket of water and Gatorade to man after man after man, and the very occasional woman, each waving me away or accepting but always saying, "Thank you very much." One guy said, "No thank you, but YOU are a vision." At that moment I wanted to be the most beautiful woman in the world, the loveliest person alive, a distraction, on any level.
When I first walked into the main staging area, there were three signs: HOT FOOD, MEDICAL, and MORGUE. They all pointed the same way. Not an hour later, I was pouring sugar into a fireman's coffee and someone yelled, "Hats off!" Everyone bowed their heads to pray. I walked from behind my table, and there in front of me was a body, but not really, just parts, in a bag, on a gurney, carried in by six firefighters. They carried it in, set it down, the two priests said a prayer, and it was carried away. That was it. And I realized that these two priests hadn't moved since I had gotten there, that they were there to bless body after body.
Michelle Williams, a server at Union Square Cafe, has been volunteering in lower Manhattan.