I started to try to

I started to try to work on my freelance job last night, checking in on the websites’ server status. One of the boxes was running hot, trying desperately to pump out a huge backlog of mass e-mail. I tried to connect to the box, but there was a minor glitch in the terminal software. Which is when I realized that the server is located in the Puck building on Houston street, and I found out that the server farm had been evacuated.

So, wanting something to do, I talked my way through the police line around the Family Counseling Center in the Lexington Avenue Armory. The armory is on the same block as my office, sharing a wall with the building [My employer] is in. I had learned some buzzwords in my Red Cross training on Tuesday, and by repeatedly stating that I was a “Red Cross LDV”, “trained in Mass Care” and “ready to work the second shift”, I made my way into the cavernous space.

The Lexington Avenue Armory is the site where European art was first introduced to America in 1913. The room has a colossal arched ceiling and a wooden floor; in fact, my grandfather once played polo on the dress floor. Last night, however, it had been set up with dozens of folding trestle tables, each table with a landline phone and several police officers. A group of five hundred people sat in rows of folding chairs, waiting to describe their loved ones to the officers. The officers listened, wrote the descriptions down on paper forms. So far, out of 4,700 missing people, I don’t know of a single one that has been located this way.

The site was extraordinarily busy; I talked to the head Red Cross staffer, and looked around for stuff to do. My theory is that all the untrained volunteers (like me, frankly), tend to consume more resources than they contribute by needing constant managament. Ever worked with a new intern? Yeah, it’s like that. So I saw a colossal pile of garbage next to the food table and started to haul it, bag by bag, to the dumpster around the corner. Fighting the glow of conscious virtue that comes from doing the “dirty” job, I walked the bags back and forth through the police cordon. I couldn’t help it; I felt smug. The door was assaulted by waves of New Yorkers coming to volunteer; staffers thanked them politely and turned them away. Yet I moved trash, one of the chosen, without so much as a nifty Red Cross windbreaker or a name tag for thanks!

It was the sight of the single people on the folding chairs that really brought me down from my volunteerism high. There weren’t any hysterics; just people sitting by themselves with red-rimmed eyes; people that looked dazed and desparately unhappy. It hit me how uncertain their situation was. You’re a single, successful, young New Yorker living with your husband, your girlfriend, or your fiancee, the disaster happens, and…

…nothing. No uniformed officer comes to the door and takes off their hat, like in the movies; you just don’t hear anything at all. So you go to a big, hot, smelly government building and fill out forms. It was utterly, utterly horrifying.

One one of my trips, one of the bags I was carrying burst, spreading dozens of half-empty Poland Spring water bottles and banana peels across the sidewalk. The mess wasn’t actually all that nasty; the trash was so fresh that the water in the bottles was still cool. I was collecting the mess when I looked up and saw Governor Pataki walking into the building, surrounded by a cordon of plainclothes police. He looked like hell; like he hadn’t slept in seventy-two hours, probably because he hadn’t. He was tottering along in a navy-blue suit, being led by the hand by a young woman almost as tall as he was, maybe his daughter. People applauded, I think at least in part because he looked so exhausted. We want our civil leaders to look exhausted; we want to think that they’re working harder than is humanly possible, doing whatever it is that they’re doing to make things better.

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