(Courtesy of Bacopa Literary Journal)
Passing the bio bags didn’t bother me. Bio bags were used to collect human remains and given to coroners tasked with getting DNA samples to identify the dead. We had dozens of body bags that were of no use; the largest identifiable piece I found was part of a foot in a well-polished Gucci loafer.
The smell haunted me. The acrid, burning plastic-soaked in gasoline stench, permeated our paper ventilators. Flashbacks to my youth and army battles with plastic soldiers whose untimely demise was via “flamethrower”-a can of my mother’s hairspray and a lighter.
It was ridiculous to say the air carried the stench of death. Sense of smell was illusory at best at Ground Zero, which had become Hell on Earth. Smoldering ash consisting of concrete and steel, hissed and smoked. Pockets of fires lapped at our legs as we walked the banks of the River Styx searching for souls buried in the mud. We found a few remnants of humanity in the mundane; torn business cards, melted name tags, and cracked desktop picture frames with blackened photos.
The heat was suffocating. When you removed your mask gasping like a fish out of water, you absorbed a lung searing liquid-fire chemical elixir. Tears weren’t shed in protest; they had been expended days prior.
As a former search and rescue climber, I was assigned to a hastily formed team consisting of policemen, firemen, and steelworkers. My day job in finance disappeared along with my firm in the Second Tower. Divine Intervention kept me out of the office on the morning of the 11th. As a result, I did God’s work solving a biological puzzle consisting of pieces of the dead in order to bring bereaved loved ones closure.
Fueled on an endless supply of Red Cross coffee and gallows humor borne from an omnipresent fear of mortality, the dogs helped me get through the day.
Rescue dogs were as professional as anyone else working in Hell. Probably more so. It took a week before they got protective paw booties. I had cut or burned through several pairs of gloves; my boots begged for mercy. Dogs with longer coats were patted down and doused with water when they smoldered. They never whined or barked in complaint. They were our equals; they were our superiors.
An obscene amount of food arrived. New York City had become Jewish grandmothers overnight. Guilt and suffering were assuaged through endless meals. Every chain and family-owned restaurant delivered to Ground Zero, an embarrassment of riches given every restaurant for several blocks had disappeared into the ether.
Supply ships on the Hudson delivered industrial dog food bags. When they saw the 100-pound bags being carried, the dogs circled and yipped like excited puppies. Twice a day we watched their metamorphosis: co-worker to puppy, and back.
We created makeshift dining tables out of piles of debris. Conversations were stilted; locker room humor prevailed.
A box of exquisitely wrapped sandwiches with shimmering gold foil caught the attention of some of the guys. Like seeing a lightning bug out of season; it registered and disappeared.
I recognized the “DB” monogram on the foil. I knew who made them.
Greedily, we unwrapped sandwiches, devoured the food like locusts descending upon a field. One ironworker eyed his sandwich warily. I called him “Fritz” because of the ring of German Iron Crosses around his neck. Tattoos like that garnered attention.
“Take your time,” I offered. “Please savor it.”
He eyed me and the sandwich with suspicion, but grabbed a second after his first bite.
“It’s focaccia,” I explained. “With pate, and pear jelly. It’s from Daniel Boulud.”
The name drop of one of the most famous chefs in the world went unacknowledged.
Sandwiches were chased with black coffee. I longed for a glass of sauterne and ached to lie back and stare at a flawless blue sky. I wanted my former life back.
As we geared up, Fritz turned to me.
“We should go to Danielle’s Balloons when this is over.”
Five years later, I walked down Madison Avenue with three colleagues. Search and rescue work remained on hold as I resumed my position in the “real world.”
We discussed the markets on our way to happy hour as three massive ironworkers approached in our direction. Toxic masculinity surged; neither group cared to give way.
A tell-tale trail of Iron Crosses peeked out from above the shirt collar on the lead ironworker.
My colleagues bailed on the game of chicken while I deliberately bumped Fritz. His coworkers were wide-eyed in disbelief; the balls of the “suit!”
An ass-kicking was not part of the 2 for 1 happy hour, and my colleagues disapproved of my getting in Fritz’s face.
“Clench your fists and I’m telling your pals how much you love dainty sandwiches and wanted me to take you to Danielle’s Balloons,” I hissed.
The words were gravediggers unearthing long buried memories as Fritz searched me in recognition, before absorbing me in a massive bear hug.
“Let’s drink,” I gasped as he crushed the life out of me.
Monkey Bar was around the corner. The place startled at the odd bedfellows bellying up to the bar, eventually taking it over.
We drank with a vengeance.
Fritz and I shared snippets of stories to our respective groups but mostly kept it to ourselves. It was our moment.
We drank to remember and drank even more to forget.
For the first time in five years, I was home.
We never made it to Danielle’s Balloons.