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Persistence of Memory -- An Online Novel

{Continued from PART 27}

SEPTEMBER 12, 2001 / THE ROAD HOME

The long Greyhound pulled into the terminal on Howard in downtown Detroit. I normally loathed the Renaissance Center, that collection of grain silos around a Pringles can on the riverfront. But on this day when I spotted their dark forms dotted with lit windows, I wanted to kiss the lousy things. I was home.

Michael was waiting. Our reunion looked like a movie scene - we tightly embraced and kissed for about a minute. Better to buss him than General Motors' homely towers on the river.

The bus ride had been a marathon of monotony and scenery dissolving from dense urban to silent rural. I boarded at the Newark terminal, a copy of the New York Daily News under my arm with a jumbo headline, IT'S WAR, and a photo of the second jet about to strike WTC 2. Except for my bandages, I don't think I stood out. A woman who boarded with me asked me a half hour later how I got hurt. "Did you--were you in the trade towers?" she said.
Cloud of smoke over NYC
the broad cloud of smoke continued its odious rise over downtown...

"No, I just fell down," I said. I hate to lie, but I just did not want to address the topic of the World Trade Center. Just as it was erased from the Manhattan skyline, I tried to purge it from my mind. When I looked out the window, however, I couldn't totally do it - the broad cloud of smoke continued its odious rise over downtown and seemed to be visible for miles after we left Newark.

I discouraged conversation. As much as possible during the fourteen and one-half hours I was riding, I tried to sit alone. I wore my portable CD player most of the time, listening to classical or pop music. I slept about one-third of the trip, read for another third, and spent the rest apathetically staring out at the scenery. For the time being, I didn't want to speak to anyone but family.

The bus made stops at three towns in Pennsylvania - Stroudsburg, Milesburg, and Du Bois - before it crossed into Ohio. The longest layover was an hour in Cleveland. I remembered how years ago people called it "The Mistake on the Lake," which I thought was mean. The city also brought to mind the Indians, Drew Carey, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I simply sat and read an abandoned copy of the Plain Dealer, sipped orange pop, and munched a nearly stale egg salad sandwich from a vending machine while I waited.

The next to last stop was just before 9 p.m. Toledo required us to transfer to another bus. Toledo is about an hour from Detroit, and my spirit lifted a bit to know that I'd soon be there.

Michael picked me up from the terminal in his Caravan.

"You look pretty good," he said. We were traveling up I-75 toward the suburbs. "I mean, considering what you've been through--"

"No, I don't," I said. "My face is nothing but bruises."

"It'll heal, Joanie. You look great because you're back with me, and you're alive!"

"True. I'm glad to be alive."

"We'll all be back together at home."

"Right. I've got the rest of the week off from Jon himself. I think I'll just hide away."

"I've got tomorrow off, too. Let's just spend the day together, you and me. The girls will be in school. Let's go out and have lunch, maybe see a movie."

"I don't want to see any movies, or go anywhere."

"Okay, we don't have to, then. But we need to talk. I was so frightened for you when I saw the second jet hit on TV."

"I saw the first one - live and in person. It was this silvery blur that just smashed into the tower. And it all just blew up in flames and smoke."

"I kept wondering where you were when I couldn't call you, and I saw the towers fall. I felt like crying. I didn't want to lose you."

"I felt the south tower collapse. It was like being in a small earthquake. I saw the north tumble when I was by the Financial Center."

"I'd to hear all about what you went through yesterday--"

"I don't feel like talking about it anymore!"

"All right, Joanie. When you're ready, I'd like to hear about it. Everyone in the family wants to know what happened to you."

"When I'm ready, I will. That was a waking nightmare. I don't want to talk about it."

I would not be ready for more than four months. I dragged my load of WTC memories behind me into the winter and the New Year. I felt a paralyzing terror every time I tried to access them and lay them out. I wouldn't see a therapist; I hardly spoke to Pastor Nachtweg.

When we arrived at the house about 10:30, Naomi and Christa were still up. Michael had allowed them to stay up to see their Mommy and welcome her home.

They both burst with stories about how they had learned about the attacks. Naomi said my "I Heart NY" shirt was ironic. I was stunned when Naomi repeated the story of her screaming in social studies. The teacher dismissed her from class and let her go to the main office after she told him and the other students that I was in the south tower. The sympathy was intense and deep as she left. An hour later, her high school was dismissed, and buses rolled in to take the teens home.

When Michael came home, he found her in the family room sulking and staring aimlessly at MTV, which had replaced its normal programming with news reports.

Christa's teacher comforted her after she learned that the New York assault involved the Twin Towers. She told everyone I was there to help a company improve its quality. The school was dismissed at its regular time.

Her best friend, a girl named Alyssa, walked home with her. Michael told her I had called and said I was in New Jersey, with a broken nose and ribs, and a cut arm. He told me later that he cradled and rocked her as he had when she was a toddler, while she bawled with relief that I had gotten out.

Naomi gave Michael a hug and said, "I'm looking forward to Mommy coming home."

I climbed the stairs to the master bedroom, where I happily undressed and put on my own T-shirt and pajama pants. I fell into a deep, nearly dreamless sleep. I would not have nights like this again until after I told my story in the winter.

EARLY 2002 / THE FINE ART OF SURFACING

My cassette tape recorder captured my 9/11 memories from start to finish. I recorded about two hours and 45 minutes worth of recollections on three tapes.

This was how my family learned about my ordeal. We had a stereo with a dubbing feature, so I made copies of the tapes and sent them to my parents and Rocky and Nina. Aunt Ellen, who stayed on Long Island with her son and daughter-in-law through March, listened with them. Not having spoken to my brother Peter for many years, I had an attack of guilt and send copies to him as well. He wrote a terse note back: "I'm sorry this happened."

I also e-mailed photographs from September 11 to Rocky and Nina. I used our scanner and also made digital copies of some of my drawings as well, including the one I made of Rocky as we faced off in his mother's den at home in Troy. I received warm notes of thanks each time material was sent their way.

My decision to finally make a full recollection improved my state of mind. The nightmares began to decrease and vanished altogether by May. I began to see a therapist about two weeks after my night with Michael, in which I discussed the not only the memories, but the fears and health problems I had undergone. The psychologist, Dr. Patricia Fulbright, analyzed the symptoms I had experienced through the fall and winter. She told me I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had sessions with Dr. Fulbright until fall 2002.

My return to consulting also helped in my recovery. Boarding jets and sleeping in hotels became normal again. The only problem I had was occasionally jumping at large noises in office towers, but for the most part my work went smoothly. Julia and Edmond were instrumental in keeping me out of the New York City area - at least until April.

Still another reason I finally began to recover had to be proximity. My mantra of those September days -- I'm from Detroit -- was spoken for a reason. I was an outsider to the Big Apple, and could at least remove myself physically from the day-to-day horror. On top of facing 9/11 memories, I did not have to live in that scarred metropolis as they were forced to in the intervening months.

Another part of my recovery was regularly consulting newspapers, TV, and the Web for information. I tried not to let the occasional references to 9/11 or the "War on Terrorism" spook me. These types of stories persisted well into 2002, especially with the attacks' six-month, and then one-year commemorations.

In March, CBS News aired a documentary called 9/11, which two French brothers residing in the Big Apple had shot. The show started as a tale of a beginning firefighter's experiences and mutated into a chronicle of disaster. I was surprised at several aspects of this program, which I tensely viewed with Michael and videotaped.

One was that the Naudet brothers followed Engine 7 and Ladder 1, some of whose firefighters I encountered during my flight from the north tower. I recognized Firefighter Melendez and the chief to whom I had spoken in the footage. Another thing was the odd sound - PUUH! - that punctuated the video of the firefighters at their command center in the lobby, and that I had heard myself, in person. My eyes got moist when one fireman recalled that this was the sound of human bodies hitting the plaza.

My final surprise was in watching the fire personnel and civilians preparing to go through the walkway from WTC 1 to the World Financial Center. It was just a few seconds of video, but I ended up rewinding and playing it over and over. Among the civilians is a small, pale woman, whose backpack, beige jacket, and torn floral skirt are still visible through a coat of gray dust, and who has a makeshift bandage around her left forearm. There are dried blood and bruises on her face. She holds the hand of another woman with short gray hair. This woman is myself.

I never noticed the cameraman while I was trying to escape, but it was undeniably a record of myself. There. In the World Trade Center. I felt strange being part of the visual record of the WTC's demise, but accepted it by this time, as I was becoming accustomed to my memories and status as a 9/11 survivor. Watching materials from the date is difficult for me to this day, and in early to mid-2002 I could take it only in small doses without wanting to cry uncontrollably.

As I permitted myself to peruse mass media of the time, I began to learn particulars about the attacks, such as their timeline, victims, and the terrorists' modus operandi. Becoming aware of the larger story left me chilled. Again, just as I told my mother and Rocky, the decisions I made during my evacuation determined my survival.

United Airlines Flight 175's impact area was between floors 78 and 84 of the south tower. The fact that North East Investments' was on the 84th floor shook me up. Jeremy the Linebacker, Brian Smiley, and Maya the cell phone thrower died when they decided it was safer to stay inside. Maya was a surprise, as I remember her emphatically saying she wanted to get out just before I fled. I also had been briefly at the 78th floor sky lobby before getting spooked and returning to the stairwell. Less than 10 minutes later, the area was destroyed. Rocky was seriously injured and barely escaped alive.

When I ended up in the north tower lobby, I had to decide whether to stay there or go back into the mall. Aunt Ellen's frantic call to me saved my life again, because I had thought of entering the concourse. Who knows if I would have survived down there a few minutes later when the south tower crashed.

The oddest diversion I found, and the one that I think helped me continue to heal, was viewing the excavation of Ground Zero. In contrast to the footage of terror, I could sit and watch this thing for hours.

On a nocturnal trip into cyberspace in March, I stumbled by accident onto a compendium of "Web cams." One of them was through MSNBC, the 24-hour news network. It was labeled "Ground Zero Live."

Even with tulips in the front yard and a million birds in the trees, I had to accept that ghosts of September were not totally silenced. Clicking on the link for the streaming video, I was given a miniature movie of what looked more like a construction site. I could see tall, vertical concrete walls (part of the WTC's old "bathtub" sub-basements) and a wrecked parking structure. Often there were just men and construction vehicles fiddling around with dirt and debris. But this peculiar thing, this valley of the dead, began to grow on me.

In the night and in rare days at the office, when I was not on the road, I became fascinated with these men and machines and their patterns. They were always there, no matter the hour, laboring and hunting and excavating.

In one scene I saw often in April, there were two narrow rows of white concrete forms. Figures in navy blue, orange, and yellow stood between them as the earthmovers executed their duties.

First, blaze orange cranes would drive up to the rubble and dump scoops of it on a level area. Second, a couple of loaders would take over, smoothing over the wreckage numerous times. Third, the public safety personnel would rake through the dirt and other materials by hand, searching for human remains and evidence, because it was still considered a crime scene. I could see their rakes cutting into the dirt, their shoulders bobbing, their grim ritual under both sun and moon.

The Associated Press indicated that they were on the site of 6 World Trade Center by then, which had been the squat, smoky-windowed U.S. Customs House by the north tower.

One Saturday early in April, I saw something that looked like a landing field for UFOs - there were two squares of lights in the higher ground near the "bathtub," casting an eerie glow. This was the "Tribute in Light," two towers of pure illumination installed in the northwest section of Ground Zero by several Big Apple artists as a memorial six months after 9/11. The lights stayed up until April 13.
south tower memorial beam
a single steel beam ... had been left standing. it became a repository of the potent emotions and memories of that timeframe

I took odd comfort in watching this cleanup, my eyes fixed upon the dinky streaming video window for 10 to 15 minutes at a time. I was mesmerized by the rhythms of the cranes and loaders, doing their choreographed dances like a talented elephant herd. Each scoop of the WTC fragments processed meant moving this sordid event ever deeper into history.

When the camera shot was wider, you could also see a huge reddish orange ramp opposite the old WTC parking structure's ribs. Gravel trucks laden with remains traveled out of the bathtub upon it. Eventually the materials would either be buried in the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island or end up recycled in other steel products. Nelson and David indirectly would live on.

A single steel beam from 2 World Trade Center had been left standing. It became a repository of the potent emotions and memories of that timeframe. It was taped up with bouquets and photographs, and scrawled with graffiti. It carried in red paint the following legend: "CIVS, 2,427; PAPD, 37." It was part of the total 2,801 WTC death toll, the regular folk and officers of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The PA and contractors had decided that this beam would be the very last piece of debris to leave Ground Zero, out of the valley where Rocky and I had fled.

I looked at the beam and imagined that I had felt its vibes, along with the rest of the tower, just like when I pressed myself to WTC 1's beveled corner on an Indian summer day in October 1999.

By the end of May 2002, the recovery operation officially concluded. The large beam was transported up a big orange ramp, covered with a flag and wreath. An empty stretcher and a bagpipe group were part of this cortege. In July, the debris processing ended at Fresh Kills with another ceremony presided over by the mayor. Ground Zero was no more physically, but I know it still burns on in many people's minds to this day. Because I was there, it most certainly does in mine.

By June, I quit my job at JTS when another offer came along - amazingly, it may seem - from the South Oakland Sentinel. Oliver Brandt had been forced out a couple years after I had left, after a reporter friend of mine, Jaime Peterman, had confronted him with his sordid secret life of frequenting prostitutes down in a ratty area on Woodward Avenue. I became entertainment editor at the paper once again, and I am still there, content with my decision.

On a Wednesday in September 2002, I took a day off from the Sentinel to make an appearance before Naomi's current events class. I brought along overhead transparencies I had made of my photos and illustrations from 9/11.

"My name is Joanetta Bailey," I told the class, "and I'm the mother of Naomi, here in the third row." Teens' heads nodded in acknowledgement to my daughter. "I'm here because today is the first anniversary of the attacks on the United States, and I am a survivor of the World Trade Center. I'm going to share my story with you."

{To PART 28 of Persistence of Memory}