There is a wonderful yet horrifying scene at the end of The Grey Zone, Tim Blake Nelson’s harrowing film about the Holocaust.
The ashes of the dead slowly drift down to cover the death camp workers. “And soon they don’t cough,” says the voice of one of those ghosts slowly drifting, “and they don’t brush us away. At this point they’re just moving. Breathing and moving. Like anyone else still alive in that place. All of us. This is how the work continues.” I don’t think anyone who lived in New York City at the end of 2001 will ever forget the strange, repulsive odor that hung over the city like a silent, angry ghost. For months we breathed in that smell of death and burning. Oh, the weather was glorious as those golden days of late September gave way to a crisp, clear fall. But what should have been the reassuring scent of autumn bonfires and burning leaves was something else entirely. And nobody noticed the weather.
It was as if we had forgotten how to feel joy. And even the slightest glimmer of happiness triggered torrents of guilt and shame. Department stores, theatres and restaurants lay empty. Thousands of restaurants went out of business because people were too miserable to eat in them. Desperate ad campaigns were mounted to suggest that it was our patriotic duty to feel happy, to celebrate by spending money and dining out.
Night after night, like zombies shuffling toward once-familiar haunts, thousands of us gathered at Union Square Park. Some lit candles, some sang, but mostly we just milled about, silently seeking solace in numbers.
Everywhere, the dead stared down at us. Their photos were plastered over every wall, every lamppost. “Missing,” said the caption—crudely inked and photocopied by wives and relatives—“anyone with information please call this number.” Missing, as if they had just forgotten to go home and might be spotted at any moment. All those bright-eyed, smiling faces.
Every television in the city was turned on, and I must have seen those planes hit a thousand times. Many people watched nonstop. Some of my friends slowly went crazy. Up in the Bronx, Hollywood, that big shambling happy teddybear of a man, couldn’t stop crying. Over in Brooklyn, Freddie, who had served two tours in Vietnam, couldn’t stop seeing those planes.
Freddie was working the day shift at the Greenpoint Tavern when the first plane hit. The tavern’s in Brooklyn, about four miles from the Trade Center. It was about ten in the morning but the bar began to fill as the news spread. There was a strange, edgy mood, Freddie told me. Nobody talked. They all drank and drank and all the time the television showed scenes of flame and carnage. It was a surly crowd, an angry crowd. People stayed through the day and long into the night. They drank and watched the TV and some of them cried. I’m glad I wasn’t there.
The moment I heard the news I ran to the nearest subway and rode the train as far as it went, then walked south, toward the Trade Center. South of me, a vast column of smoke poured into the sky. I found a makeshift aid station where volunteers waited and I signed a list to volunteer for search and rescue. As the day wore on, hundreds of volunteers made their way to the station. One organizer, ex-Army, helped prepare us. “When you get inside the fallen buildings,” he warned, “don’t step in standing water. You don’t know how deep it is. It will be dark, so stick with someone with a flashlight. And make sure you have strong shoes. There’s a lot of sharp metal to step on.” And the whole thing might collapse on you, he didn’t say, but we all thought it. I stared and stared at that enormous pillar of pitch-black smoke. I’ll be in it soon, I thought.
Suddenly people started screaming and running north. I saw a huge cloud advancing toward us. Another building had collapsed; that smoke had been a skyscraper. I ran as far as I could and the smoke never reached me.
More volunteers showed up than they knew what to do with. My name was never called. I waited until nine at night and then walked north through the darkness.
Shortly after I left, all of lower Manhattan was sealed off. No vehicles were allowed in at all and people could walk there only if they lived in the area. Much of the area was blanketed in ashes. It was a grey, dead place where time had stopped and people would have sold their souls to make time run backward just a bit.
That area became known as the Frozen Zone.