I Was forced to Spend Five Days in Paradise

This happened in the middle of a sailing trip during which we planned to visit the US and Spanish Virgin Islands (the latter are part of Puerto Rico). One could argue that the entire nine days of sailing was in paradise, and one would be correct. But we did not plan to spend five days of it secured to a mooring in Gallows Bay, Christiansted, St. Croix.

When we arrived in Gallows Bay on the third day of our adventure, our skipper–the guy who had organized the trip–did not feel well. Indeed, he’d spent a couple hours of the trip from St. John sleeping below. Most of us couldn’t spend more than a few minutes down there as the boat heaved on the swells, so his need for rest had to be very powerful.

Naturally, one of our group produced a Covid 19 self-test and the result was positive.

Cue the tense group dynamics.

We were all vaccinated, most of us with two additional boosters administered fairly recently. Two of the group have regular, close interaction with family members who are immune compromised. One of them also self tested that evening and the result was negative. He put on a mask and continued to provide moral and informational support to our skipper. The other put on a mask and said our leader should leave the boat immediately. Instead, he stayed outside, having us hand his dinner, and then his bedding, up to him in the cockpit. He called his wife and his doctor and his insurance company and studied the CDC protocols.

In the morning, our skipper and his supportive crew went ashore and took a taxi to an urgent care facility. The rest of us waited on the boat swimming, reading, and inevitably discussing what would happen next.

They came back a couple hours later and reported the same results, which were now officially recorded. The rest of us gathered our shore gear and left the boat to make the same trip to urgent care. Our skipper packed a bag, made a hotel reservation, and left the boat in the care of our other crewmate.

After the longest taxi ride imaginable, we checked in at urgent care. Our crew mate who cares for her aging mother is also self employed with insurance that does not cover her outside of New Jersey. She was charged $100 for the Covid antigen test. The rest of us produced insurance that covered the test. The doctor had us stand outside while she swabbed our noses, then told us to wait there for the results. An eternity later she returned and said, “you guys are all clear.”

That’s when I realized just how stressful this whole thing was–when the uncertainty about whether I’d have to pay for a hotel on an expensive island, maybe not be able to fly home on schedule, was eliminated the relief made me almost jubilant.

This is when I decided that although this was not what we had planned, we were going to spend five days in paradise, so we might as well make the best of it. The other three agreed.

We texted our crew mates about the results, and we had the taxi drop us at a restaurant just outside the marina for a late lunch/early dinner. We urged our other healthy crew mate to walk over and join us. Good thing we didn’t wait to order, because we were half-way through our meals when he turned up. It wasn’t until later that I realized he felt strongly that the five of us should be in quarantine on the boat, not eating at an indoor restaurant. He also was no longer willing to do any scuba diving because it would put him in close proximity with the other divers on the boat.

Distinctly different opinions about what we should do regarding Covid certainly shaded our five days in paradise. Our two crew with the immunocompromised family at home entered into frequent heated discussions about CDC guidance and protocols. The rest of us repeated what the doctor had told us upon delivering our negative test results: don’t get another test unless you become symptomatic. Our crew mate with the New Jersey insurance was adamant that she would not pay $100 for another test. So our other concerned crew mate became determined to find a pharmacy that would provide him the six monthly self tests provided by Medicare, even though all of us said no, we would not do those tests either.

Despite these conflicts, we rented a car and drove the length of the island, all crammed into a small SUV joking and laughing a lot. The next day four of us went to the beach at a nearby resort, and the day after that we signed on for a catamaran voyage to Buck Island, a mostly underwater national monument. Our fifth crew mate refused on the same principle as his no dive boat decision. The rest of us felt the likelihood of us infecting anyone–if in fact we did have Covid despite the negative tests–in the open air on a beach, and on a sailboat, was very low.

At last the five days ended, our skipper felt much better, and another Covid test was negative. Early in the morning of the sixth day he returned to the boat and we dropped the mooring to sail north. We had a couple more days–not enough to visit the Spanish Virgin Islands, but certainly enough to visit Christmas Cove on St. James Island and the pizza boat, and to snorkel in Caneel Bay on St. John.

Even as many places and people begin to view the pandemic as if it’s in their rear-view mirror, it is not over, and it can still disrupt lives. Our only recourse is to adjust and adapt, or we’re destined to lose sight of the joy and lessons that every life experience provides.

Read the full story of our USVI sailing adventure.

I Found my Rigging Knife

You didn’t know it was lost, I realize, but I have been acutely aware of its absence for many months. I bought it in Zurich, Switzerland years ago. It’s a special edition Wenger Swiss Army knife with the perfect set of tools for sailing.

When I got back from St Martin in February of 2020, carefully unpacking my bag was the last thing on my mind. I dug out the dirty clothes and delicate electronics, then stored the bag with snorkel gear and assorted sailing stuff inside.

In June of 2021 I was packing for a sailing trip with friends. I could not find the knife. I searched through the bag from 2020, as well as various other pieces of luggage I use for sailing trips and where I store travel stuff.

No knife. I was surprisingly upset. I mean, my degree of unhappiness at this loss seemed out of proportion, and I’m sure I was loading all kinds of emotional distress from the past pandemic year onto it. I reluctantly packed an older, totally functional sailing knife for the trip. I never needed to use it as we visited Martha’s Vineyard.

So that’s probably an important point: sailors carry knives or multitools for emergencies, or at last as a convenience should they need to unknot a line or tighten a screw. But it’s an emergency tool that you don’t want to have to use. Except for this particular knife. Many of my sailing buddies will recognize it because on a boat, I use the main blade in the galley, and it’s got both bottle opener and cork screw. It has a good heft to it and a comfortable grip. It’s a great knife, which certainly contributed to my sense of loss.

Last October I did not search again, it was too painful to put that much focus on the loss. I packed the blue knife and went sailing. And did not encounter a need to cut or tighten screws on that trip.

Yesterday I went to the storeroom to get a snorkel for an upcoming trip to the USVI. I have already packed the dutiful blue knife. Feeling around in the depths of that same St Martin bag I pushed aside fins, water shoes, and a produce hammock, and my hand wrapped around a rough, rectangular lump. My heart raced—could it be? Slowly–delaying the disappointment I feared–I drew the object out into the dim light of the storeroom.

I nearly wept. I was sure I had not left it behind. I had concluded that some dishonest baggage inspector must have taken it. But there it was in its case, freed from under the fins.

I also found the snorkel.

This has been a week of good fortune for me, with a promotion and attendant financial improvement. But finding the missing knife outweighs what ought to be the more important life milestones. The knife is a touchstone for my sailing lifestyle. Finding it means I’m back aboard in mind, body, and spirit.

Lost and Found

I impulse bought a couple Apple Air Tags—those devices you attach to your valuables so you can track their location. I put one on my keys and one in my handbag. 

When I got to Cape Cod a couple weeks ago, I noticed that the one on my key chain was not. Damn. It must have fallen off. Embarrassingly, it was a while later that I remembered the point of the tag, and tracked it on my phone. 

There it was, last seen a couple hours earlier in Waterfront Park back home. Now 230 miles away. 

I had not been anywhere near Waterfront Park in months, so I knew someone had found my tag and carried it there. 

But it’s registered to me, and someone else can’t “steal it.” It’s useless to them. 

Over the next week while I was in Massachusetts I checked now and then, and it remained in the park, although the specific location wandered. 

On the day I drove home, it was suddenly showing up in the middle of the Hudson River. Oh no! Did someone hurl it out a car window from the Tappan Zee bridge? Nothing I could do from I95 in Connecticut. 

By the time I was home and could go look for it, Tropical Storm Eliza had arrived from the south in a frenzy. My phone showed the tag back in the park and despite the rain I had to go out for other errands, so I decided to look for it. Rain? This was the middle of the deluge that flooded NYC subway stations. I parked and sloshed through ankle deep puddles to the location shown on my phone. Nothing. I tapped the “Play Sound” button. My phone said it could not connect—too far away. 

I was soaked. My phone was wet. The rain was so loud I suspected it would drown out the ding of the tag. Dejected, I drove away. 

The next day was clear and bright. Late afternoon I was done with meetings and had no more work that could not wait for Monday. 

I drove back to the park. The location app placed the tag in a different spot. Near a tree in the divider in the parking lot. 

I parked and followed the little map on my phone. My Geocaching instincts kicked in: I examined the tree, the parking sign…. I tried the “Play Sound” button. Wait, was that a ping? Excited, I tapped again.

Ping ping PING PING ping ping. 

Around the tree, check the knot holes.  Ping again and check the sign. Ping again and listen. Listen. Listen. There! A bright spot in the grass at the base of the tree. 

My tag was still in its leather holder pressed deep into the thick grass. It was dirty, the surface scratched—proof of its adventure. 

Had the finder tossed it away in frustration? I’ll never know. But I do know that Apple Tags work. You really can find them, even if they aren’t attached to your valuable.

It is back on my key chain, secured it to a solid ring,

#AirTag #LostAndFound

Rounding the Cape

A little sort of ten years ago a friend and I booked a ten-day passage aboard a tall ship, sailing from Portsmouth, Virginia to Fernandina Beach, Florida. We were in it for the experience of rounding Cape Hatteras “on the outside.”

And what an experience it was! From the glory of dolphins playing in our bow wake at night, to the beauty of sunrise across the Atlantic, the trip had many amazing moments. It also included adventures that tested everyone aboard and resulted in major life changes for some.

I kept a journal during the trip, but my journals are not ready for mass sharing. I recently derived an actual narrative from that document and went through my many photos for some highlights.

When you’re ready for a nautical adventure that really happened, you can find it here: Rounding the Cape (2011). Events in the story will, eventually, show up in a Double Trouble Adventure.

Cutting the Cord

The day my former employer informed me that my services were no longer needed I immediately took two actions. I updated my mobile plans for my phone and iPad, and I cut my cable.

Specifically, I informed Verizon that the package of phone, Fios, TV, and internet I was paying a crazy $250 a month for was too expensive. I hated giving up my land line phone number that included 007, but I was ready to admit that keeping it because it works when the power is out was no longer a good enough reason to pay that much. Plus, last time the power went out, the phone went after eight or so hours.

The lovely person they routes me to spoke to her manager and offered me a reduced price on my package. It was maybe ten dollars less, and did not include the HBO subscription I had at the time. I pointed this out to her. She simply offered the same deal again.

Eventually I convinced her that the only service I want coming across that fiber optic is internet. We reached a deal and that was it. I had cut the cable. Until the next day when I took the cable boxes to one of their stores.

The clerk at the store tossed my boxes onto a ole and trashed the remotes, leaving me annoyed that I’d had to return them at all. In chatting I told her I’d went to just internet. She asked what I was paying and said it was too much. She could offer me double the speed at 60%the price. I was in.

But to do it, she had to cancel my current account and enroll me as a new customer. I agreed. Oh, and my equipment had to be upgraded. Ok. But she could not get a technician to my home for about a week. Gulp.

In the end I agreed. The following week was excruciating. I was trying to look for a job, and I was reliant on my phone as a hot spot, or my pay-as-you-go hot spot that I use for international travel. It felt like an eternity. I rationed my internet use. Finally, on the appointed day, a platoon of Verizon techs showed up to swap out the box installed in my closet. After a couple hours of work, the main technician helped me rename my new router and reset the password so that all my devices would not know anything had changed. And that was it.

I had become a 21st century streamer. I can no longer turn on the TV and be fed content. I have to think about what I want to watch. This was a hard transition. I’ve been using TV for company for many years. Sure, I had an AppleTV. But making it my  primary source for content selection was a huge shift. In my expense cutting process, during that no internet week, I had inventoried all my monthly subscriptions and cut several. But now I had to add back in something that provided live TV streaming. I settled on Sling. But soon after I added CBS, now Paramount +.

Weeks later the pandemic hit. I continued my job hunt using my new internet connection and bought a digital antenna for my bedroom TV. My available broadcast stations with it are not great, and the signal isn’t strong. I got a signal direction app and figured out how to aim the antenna and it improved, but it still went in and out–inevitably going out on Colbert’s punchline.

Once I accepted a new position, therefore had the expectation of continued income, I bought a Fire TV stick for the bedroom TV. With all the same apps as the living room AppleTV, at least I have parity, and if one system fails, I can turn to the other. The antenna is my desperation backup.

It’s been more than a year since I cut the cord and I would never go back.

More than a year ago…

The beach glass is back in my bathroom sink.

More than a year ago, I started closing the toilet lid before flushing so that my waste would not be aerosolized and spread throughout the bathroom. Because my toilet seat was a slow close type, it soon broke from being pushed down to fast. So one of my many Amazon deliveries last year was a replacement seat. And I developed the habit of getting up, pushing the lid downward, washing my hands, puttering in the bathroom, and then flushing when the lid finally closed.

More than a year ago, I started spritzing my front door knob and lock handles with hand sanitizer every time I touched them. I hung a tiny bottle with a rubbery Baby Yoda on it on my bag. I apply Yoda gel every time I get back in the car. I apply it from dispensers in stores. I wipe down shopping cart handles with the wipes every store provides. I used to be a critic of hand sanitizer. An epidemiologist I worked with hated seeing the stuff in the hospital, saying that it leads people to think it’s as good as hand washing. It’s absolutely not. Hand sanitizer does not kill everything, so you end up with evil critters in gel on your hands. Of course, the evil critters in a hospital are usually a lot nastier than the ones on shopping cart handles.

More than a year ago, I started singing two and a half verses of “Baby Shark” while I wash my hands and ponder how the whole singing as you wash system works when people don’t sing at the same pace.

More than a year ago, the pile of cloth face masks on the chair in the entry started to grow. First I ordered a few from some discounter in China. Then I ordered from Buff USA, which sells the other face covering I use–buffs (neck gaiters). I also ordered filter inserts, and then learned that they were hard to find. I felt like a TP hoarder. Then Crazy Shirts offered masks in tropical prints. I ordered a hard clear plastic one and decided it’s awful. Then a relative made them from beautiful batik fabric and sent me some. Another cheap vendor had one that looks like my parrot. And during President Biden’s inauguration I saw a woman wearing the prettiest one yet, and the camera lingered long enough for me to read the prominent label. It was for charity, so I bought two. When I was allowed to get a haircut, my hairdresser gave me a plastic “cage” for under my mask to keep it off my nose and mouth. She’d bought a ten pack. More than a year ago, I didn’t know that face mask technology would become a hobby.

More than a year ago, I removed the colorful glass chunks from the sink because they seemed to be unhygienic. I put them back the day I received my first Pfizer vaccine dose.

And through it all, I never overbought toilet paper and I never ran out.

Susan “Mia”

Recently, at work, something changed my display name in Webex from Mia to Susan Mia. I didn’t notice until people started asking me “Is your name Susan?” and saying, “We have a new person in the meeting, welcome Susan.”

In most work systems (Slack, Jira, etc.) I’m Mia. But now Webex is picking up my name from some source that has it’s full form. Yes, I’ve tried to change it. This is similar, but limited to only me, to when everything switched to use ALL CAPS for last names a couple months ago. That change was brought about by ongoing integration of our systems with our France-based parent company, though. (The French always use all capitals for last names in formal situations. You get used to it.) This sudden insertion of my first name in every meeting I attend or run feels like a personal affront by the technology.

I mean, I do need my official records with my employer to have me as Susan. I’m Susan to the IRS. I’m Susan to the DMV. Most of my life, when I’ve received a letter addressed to Susan, I know it’s “official.” Phone calls to Susan? Well, back when I answered unknown callers, I’d know it was someone I probably didn’t want to talk to. Like all normal people these days, if I don’t know who’s calling, I don’t answer. Sometimes if I do know who’s calling, I don’t answer too, but that’s a different story.

I know when I’m called Mia instead of Susan that I’ve made a personal impression. My dentist is a great example. My insurance is for Susan, of course, but they’ve twigged on to my use of Mia without my even telling them–they make effective use of Facebook.

Throughout my life, I’ve encountered quite a few people who have a hard time understanding middle name use. Their reaction to me can range from curiosity–“why do you use it?”–to annoyance–“you’re confusing me”–to suggestion that it’s a character flaw–namely vanity. But the truth is, there are many, many people who do it. I don’t have enough fingers to count all those I know personally. And there are plenty of famous people throughout history who went by their middle moniker.

It’s just not that odd, people!

There are two reasons why I use my middle name. The first is the reason I understood for several decades of my life: In the fourth grade, there were three Susans in my class, and my last name was alphabetically last. I did not want to be “the third Susan” (and I do believe the teacher actually called me that, but maybe I only imagined it). Within the first week or so of school I asked her, and my mother, to call me Mia. And they did.

I only realized the other–perhaps the real–reason in the mid-1990s after my mother’s death. In the spring of the year I was in third grade, my father passed away quite abruptly. Throughout my childhood my Mom had told me about how when I was born, the little girl after three boys, my dad wanted to name me Mia. My mom figured he was thinking of Mia Farrow. So my mom decided I would be named after her. She was Dorothy Susan, known as Sue (see, there’s my first example of a middle name user right there). She compromised with my dad by naming me Susan Mia.

So a few months after he died, when my mom was mourning the loss, I abruptly decided to use the name he picked instead of hers.

Nice kid, huh?

To be clear, I do not recall thinking of it this way when I was nine. And I also do not believe my mom resented my choice. As another Susan said to me recently when I explained my use of Mia, “I’m sure your mom loved you honoring him in that way.”

Other than annoyed bureaucrats, the people who had the hardest time adjusting to the new me were my older brothers. Bruce, the youngest, was in college by then, so my change, on top of the death of his father, threw him. I don’t know how long it took middle brother Ralph to make the adjustment because we simply weren’t in contact that much in those years. He was busy raising a young family an hour and a half away. David, my oldest sibling, probably made the shift most easily since he lived nearby and saw me regularly–especially during those days.

The Gates: Follow the Saffron Road

I first became aware of the artist Cristo in the early 1980s when he and his wife Jeanne-Claude surrounded some islands in Biscayne Bay with bright pink fabric. I thought it was ridiculous.

Over the past two years I have been developing a new appreciation for modern art. I have made trips to London’s Tate Modern and Bilbau’s Guggenheim for the express purpose of immersing myself in the modern masterpieces on display there. I’ve kept an open mind, and I have, in fact, come to appreciate far more eclectic works of art than I expected.

So I was excited when New York City approved Cristo’s installation of The Gates early in 2005. After all, since those islands in 1983, Cristo has created massive fabric constructions all over the world. Like it or not, he’s a major figure in modern art, and this was an opportunity to gain a better understanding of his work.

The cynical side of me couldn’t help noting that the 16-day exhibition in Central Park coincided with the International Olympic Committee’s visit to review the city’s bid for the 2012 games. But that’s another story entirely.

I drove into Manhattan (my tolerance for the subway in from The Bronx is almost non-existant) on a cool, sunny Sunday and made my way to the 72nd Street western entrance to Central Park.

The great orange rectangles with their swathes of swaying fabric dominated the landscape. Every path was a surreal, modern colonade, every view a scene of marching orange figures.

Central Park has certainly never been so crowded on a winter day before. I went north through the Ramble seeking vistas of the strange scene.

On a rustic bench someone had created their own commentary on the “art”: a row of bright orange Cheetos. I wondered how Cristo would feel about this amusing contribution to the event. I hope that he can appreciate a gentle send-up of his work.

The gates were sized to match the paths over which they marched — some were very wide, others narrow. On a wooded hilltop a row of gates intermingled with the trees created an intimate setting. For a moment I was alone with them, the light fabric rustling in the breeze, reflecting the sunshine. And I was able to appreciate Cristo. Certainly his work was challenging many viewers — I heard many strollers asking “why?” and “what’s the point?”

But just as many were strolling and looking and watching one another. Get out into the world, his Gates demanded. Interact with one another. Interract with this strange phenomenon. Be challenged and see what comes of it.

And then my natural curiosity about the construction of things was satisfied. I’d tapped on a few of the frames, reached up and touched the fabric, examined the heavy steel bases. But near the southern end of the park I joined a small crowd gathered around a “fallen” gate. Not fallen, really, but taken down by some of the many workers maintaining the exhibit. The fabric, they explained, had become torn. While we visitors looked on the workers disassembled the gate in order to replace the top — a single unit of frame and attached fabric. They stood the gate back up on its based and fastened it down. And then one of them pulled the Velcro strip that freed the new fabric panel.

A mini-unveiling just for those of us gathered ’round. The new fabric was creased and stiff from its packaging. It looked very different from the gates on either side. I climbed a rock overlooking the repaired gate to study new and old. Jarring. That’s what it was. I wondred how long it would take for the new fabric to uncrease and blend in.

I wondered why it mattered so much to me. And I decided the cold was getting to me.

Do I appreciate Cristo’s work more now than in 1983? A little. The combination of a physical installation with the visitor’s interraction give the work a temporal dimension. The contrast of the natural environment with the artificial challenges ones assumptions. Does the bright orange interfere, or enhance the wintry landscape? What would it be like during spring, or summer, or autumn when the trees compete with the saffron cloth?

We’ll never know, of course. The Gates are already gone, their components sent off to be recycled into mundane items like kitchn ware, cars, and thread. And that’s part of Cristo’s message too.

Experience the moment.

And then let it go.

9/11: Ground Zero Diary

Eleven days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, a muggy September Saturday, I got up before dawn.

I did it so that I could be on the subway before seven to reach the financial district before eight. Eight a.m. was the shift change at the Seaman’s Church Institute and St. Paul’s Chapel, the locations of relief worker aid stations sponsored by the Episcopal Church.

Standing ruins of WTC1 block the view of the World Financial Center from across the plaza

See a map of the World Trade Center areaVolunteering to help with the aftermath of the attack is, like so many things in life, a matter of who and what you know. Andrew and I had managed to get official volunteer slots the previous Sunday, so we knew where to go when to be accepted as workers. We felt lucky.

Although the basic setup at the Seaman’s institute was the same, much had changed in a week. Power had been restored (and therefore the elevator).

Workers take a lunch break near the Corner Store (bagel cart in center rear).

The desperately painful sense of mourning had been replaced by determination and pride. The upstairs café was still busy with police officers and workers. Bacon, eggs, and waffles were still being cooked on baking sheets over charcoal fires on the patio. But today there was conversation and even, occasionally, laughter. Last week there was a respectful hush.

We worked for a couple hours. Andrew mopped the floor. I kept the cooks supplied with utensils, pans, and boxes of donated waffles. There were plenty of helpers sent from churches all over, so when an opportunity arose to go over the St. Paul’s, we took it. Donning hard hats and green “church volunteer” ID tags, we walked west on Fulton Street.

There are three types of officials guarding the approaches to “the Pile:” NYPD, State Police, and National Guard. We had learned the previous week that the NYPD officers were the best to approach. It’s their city, so they seem to give consideration to requests from its citizens. The others tend to opt for a “no” answer when confronted with an unfamiliar request. We knew that our church id’s were pretty much meaningless in an official sense. What got us through to St. Paul’s was courtesy, a determined “I have business here” walk, and approaching the police, not the army.

The front of St. Paul’s Chapel draped
with messages from America.

Most people, at some point in their lives, have an opportunity to view a public event from a restricted location – backstage concert passes comes to mind. Getting close to what was once the World Trade Center is one of the most powerful such experiences I’ll ever have.

St. Paul’s Chapel and its antique graveyard take up a small block bounded by Vesey and Fulton on the north and south, Broadway and Church on the east and west. In 1789, after his inauguration, George Washington worshiped at St. Paul’s. These days the small, airy space serves an equally significant purpose. The chapel entrance is on Broadway, protected from the devastation and, now, decorated with banners covered with hand-written messages to the rescue workers. Tables on the front porch offered coffee and snacks – a grim sort of church coffee hour display.

Stockpile of donations in the Corner Store

Inside a national guardsman sat in a pew, head in his hands. What unspeakable horrors had he taken this time to contemplate? What visions was he seeking to expunge in the quiet of this sanctuary? A few rows away a police officer lay somewhere between sleep and unconsciousness loosely covered with a donated blanket.

Cards from children on the churchyard fence.

A cleaning crew negotiated their way past the barricades and came in to clean the chapel. Diligent workers more accustomed to tidying offices like the ones that lay in dust all around us worked their way around the sanctuary with cloths and mops. They carefully pick up each item stored on the deep window sills, wiped it off, wiped beneath it, and put it back exactly as they found it. Underpaid, overworked office cleaners tidied up the packages of cereal and boxes of Band-Aids in this new, strange workplace. And while they worked, a volunteer paused to kneel before the altar, and then a national guardsman did the same.In one of this crisis’s most ironic events, the Department of Health had visited the chapel and tried to site it’s emergency food service operation. Andrew was there on Tuesday evening, a week after the attack. The health inspector tried to prevent the distribution of turkey sandwiches because they were not on ice and they contained mayonnaise. The police officers being served drove off the inspectors. The sandwiches were consumed long before the mayonnaise had time to sour. But the inspectors had persisted.

A Red Cross food station adjacent to The Corner Store.

On Wednesday freshly made sandwiches from a deli were being distributed. The health inspectors appeared, seized the sandwiches, and poured bleach on them. That was the end of open bowls of chips and snacks – set out by volunteers to create a sense of home. By Saturday the apples were individually wrapped in cellophane, and the volunteers were spending a lot of time keeping the coffee service area free of the ever-present dust.

Looking west on Vesey Street, the ruins of building 7 across from the burned out building 6 (Border’s). An American flag graces the top floors of the abandoned American Express tower, upper left.

We were already growing weary when a request came for cases of Red Bull, that exotic “energy drink,” to be brought to the “Corner Store.” We each took two cases of the stuff (someone – probably the distributor — had donated more than 200 cases) and, securing our hardhats and white dust masks, trooped out around the corner and down Fulton Street toward Church street.I’ve walked that block countless times, but never again will I come out of the Subway at Broadway and walk beside the churchyard on my way to the World Trade Center. I walked on that side of the street because the service entrance of the Millennium Hilton across the street was usually blocked with trucks, while on the chapel side the sidewalk was clear except for a bagel cart selling coffee and pastries in the morning.

The Corner Store

On Saturday a road crew was digging a trench in of the center of the street with a backhoe. The racket this operation generated dominated the block. We went past a tarp-tented aid station where more supplies were stored, past more cases of bottled water, and entered the Corner Store.

Tarps had been tied to the 200-year-old churchyard fence and suspended across the sidewalk to form a blue-lighted tunnel that rounded the corner. A few feet along the bagel cart formed a barrier and tarp support. Inside it’s hazy window oranges and applies rotted on a shelf. Bags of donated clothing, face masks, and first aid supplies were the blue-light special in the Corner Store. We helped put the Red Bull on ice, then looked around for what more we could do.

Vertical facade pieces from a collapsed tower lean against the rubble of building 5.
A closed subway entrance draped with messages to the workers.

For that’s the way these aid stations worked. In the eight or nine hours I spent there these last weeks, rarely was anyone identified as absolutely “in charge.” When someone was identified as having authority, it was often because they had been there longer than anyone else had. By this system, once I was in a location a couple hours the newer volunteers came to me for direction. Clearly there were agents at work at a higher level seeing that ice was obtained and the donated supplies were distributed. But to we volunteers, and certainly to our customers, it was a divine mystery.

We were at ground zero now. The rubble had been cleared from the street and sidewalks and even, to some extent, from the graveyard. But the trees and lampposts bore evidence of extraordinary events. At first I thought a tangle of white strips on the top of a street lamp was shredded paper. Then I saw another such bundle hanging in a tree and recognized a venetian blind. In what high window had it hung before September 11th? What story could it tell of its flight and landing in those branches? From what floor had the ordinary black office wastebasket come that now stood like an imposter beside an ancient tombstone?

First Aid Supplies, the Blue Light Special
Border’s Books — entrance to the underworld. The rubble of building 7 can be seen behind it.

The Corner Store was across the street from 6 World Trade, the northeast building, which once housed Border’s Books, a child daycare center, and several floors of offices. The building stands, but its windows are gone, it’s interior blackened. I peered across the street at it. Go through those doors under the still hanging Border’s sign; turn left down the stairs to the mall level and out the store’s lower level. Turn left again past Lechters to the hair salon I’ve been using for the last couple years. Was Fran, the woman who cuts my hair, at work that morning? Did the workers in the salon understand the danger high above and get out in time? I have been unable to find out and it grieves me. But for the guardsmen and police barriers on the sidewalk over there it seems like I could go into the store, go down the stairs, see for myself how a world where I was once comfortable has been rearranged into horror.

Looking into the Plaza between buildings 5 and 6.
Andrew helps a tired worker assemble a new hard hat.

Instead I turned to the task at hand. Boxes of particulate filtering masks had arrived (another of those divine organizational events). A worker urged us to screw in the filters and put them on, that our white fiber masks were inadequate. The national media had repeatedly reported that there was no asbestos on the air here, but we took his advice and exchanged our masks. The new masks also filtered the smell, a worth while benefit, asbestos or no. It was not, as some have started to say, the smell of decay. We were not near enough to The Pile for that. But the acrid, burnt smell that permeates the area is bad enough. After a time it irritates the throat in the way that sleeping in a room with a bad chimney does. Lower Manhattan will not easily shed the smell, either. Even when the rubble is gone, the very stones of the remaining buildings will retain the scent of this tragedy.

A ConEd worker studies a wiring diagram amid the chaos.

I had left my backpack in the chapel, and after nearly an hour at the Corner Store it was clear we would complete our shift helping there. So I went back up the block, around the corner, and into the chapel. Someone had set out vases of fresh flowers. Gentle light filtered in through the dusty windows. The freshly washed marble floor shone. A rescue worker had uncovered the keyboard of the piano and was playing. Others sat or lay in the pews. I retrieved my bag and hurried out of this surreal Nordstrom at ground zero.

A ConEd worker studies a wiring diagram amid the chaos.

I grabbed a case of water to carry back to the Store and walked past the guardsmen on the corner. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one look my way, but I guess my determined stride, and the water, lent me credibility. Then a passed the stack of water halfway down the block and felt really silly carrying mine from the chapel. Oh well, it worked.

The rest of our shift was spent assembling masks and seeing that new workers received them. Many of the workers who visited us spoke little English, and, as with the cleaning crew, Andrew and I exercised our meager knowledge of Spanish to help them protect themselves.

We marveled at the workers who were delighted to get the cold cans of Red Bull. Finally I tried one: somewhere between lemonade and Gatorade, with a bitter aftertaste. I did not experience the buzz that it’s reported to give. Maybe just being at Ground Zero had already provided all the stimulus my system could manage.At last, exhausted, we turned in our good masks for others to use and made our way back along Fulton Street. It was 12:30, and the crowds of spectators had gathered behind the barricades at the intersection of Fulton and Broadway. They saw two weary civilians – two lucky individuals who’d somehow gotten “inside” — wend their way through the emergency vehicles and officers and step around the barricade to re-enter the free world. We walked back to Seaman’s and went upstairs for lunch. Tired as we looked, we were treated by the volunteers there – a new shift who didn’t recognize is from the morning — with the same respect as the police who were our dining companions.

Evidence of a Shrinking World

I don’t believe I know an exceptionally large number of people, but I meet them in airports with uncanny regularity.

Scene One

A number of years ago I was traveling with a co-worker from New York to Washington, D.C. for a press check. While we waited to board at the shuttle terminal at La Guardia, I was greeted by a group of software developers coming off an arriving plane on their way to a meeting in our offices. Leaving the gate in Washington, we ran into another co-worker who I knew but my companion did not. “Geez, you know people everywhere!” she said.

Scene Two

In the fall of 1999 Andrew and I were waiting at the gate for a flight to Paris. I noted that a woman who was having a loud argument with the gate staff at the check-in counter looked like someone I used to work with — someone who was just the type to scream at airline staff. As we watched, the woman stalked away from the counter to the pay phones and was then heard complaining about her seat. No, surely my old co-worker would have a cell phone.

We got on the plane. Having booked late, Andrew and I were seated in middle seats several rows apart amid a large group of college students going for a year abroad. I put my head in my book and successfully ignored the cacophony around me until I heard my name. “Oh no,” I thought, “it WAS her.”

I looked up to see someone entirely different in the aisle – the woman who had booked my trip to Turkey the year before. She was on her way to Paris with her daughter for a week’s vacation.

Back to my book.

I heard my name again. “Oh no,” I thought. “This time it really is her, I recognize her voice.”

I looked up. “Hello!” I managed not to say, “so it was you being so difficult outside.” She was on her way to Paris on business, and her husband was traveling there on a different flight (“ah hah,” I thought, “that’s who she called, and they must have booked late if they couldn’t travel together, so no wonder she couldn’t get the seat she wanted”).

By now the college girl next to me had noticed and commented on my “popularity.” I assured her that I was quite amazed myself. The flight took off and after the seatbelt sign went off Andrew came up to my row. We chatted for a moment and he went away. I turned to the girl next to me and seeing her quizzical look I assured her that I knew he was on the plane.

Scene Three

Park City, Utah, Martin Luther King weekend, 2001. Andrew was downhill skiing at The Canyons. I’d done some crosscountry at White Pine Touring Center and retired to the out-door hot-tub at The Canyons to wait for my massage appointment. I was reading in the tub when I heard the door to the spa open and glanced up to see a group of people in street clothes come out onto the patio. One of them was pointing out the features of the spa to the others. Through the mist rising off of the tubs, I recognized two familiar faces.

“Albert!” I called out. My client at American Express looked up, peered through the mist at me waving, then came over, followed by his associate Andrea. Albert and Andrea handle corporate meetings and events, and they were taking a tour of a potential event location. They’d been at an event all weekend over at Deer Valley. We were in the midst of a busy project and had exchanged extensive email on Friday, but none of us had mentioned to the others that we were coming to Utah over the weekend.

Later in the week I received a message from Andrea to “spa girl.” I billed them for 15 minutes for our pool-side meeting.

Scene Four

A month later I sent Andrea an email telling her I’d be away for several days around President’s Day weekend. She asked where I was going. I replied that I’d wanted to find a place that she wouldn’t follow me, and since the Amex corporate meeting was in Paris the previous year, I figured that was safe this year.

“Are you serious?” she replied, “My boyfriend and I were talking about going to Paris this weekend.” But they had decided not to.

The following morning Andrew and I arrived in Paris and were making our way hazily through the gauntlet of baggage claim and crowded arrivals hall toward the exit. I hear my name. A little unbelieving, I look for the source and find, no, not Andrea, but Mary Kate, one of her associates at American Express. She was there for a corporate event at EuroDisney.

I would not say that I travel all that much. I know many people who travel for business all the time and don’t meet people they know.

Maybe I do know a lot of people.