I had my first shift on Friday.

A friend who preceded me in being shown the door at our previous place of employment, who also volunteered at the 9/11 Memorial site, said “I’d be a perfect fit” to follow in her volunteering footsteps.  Fast forward 2 months, and Friday was my first day.

It was insanely hot and humid that morning.   But it wasn’t bothering me much (yet) — I was too preoccupied with whether I knew enough about the events of 9/11 and the Memorial itself to be able to answer questions if I had to.  Thankfully, we volunteers were given reference materials at orientation.  And I was hoping whatever knowledge I did have plus the 20 minute cram session I was planning on my trip downtown would suffice.  So naturally, I hopped on the 1 heading downtown to Rector St., grabbed the material from my backpack, started to read and realized, of course, I grabbed the wrong 2 handouts (out of 3).   Awesome.

So this mini drama is going on in my head along with ever present specter of how I would fare emotionally at this hallowed ground.  I think I was being a bit dramatic but I’m an emotional guy and the possibility was definitely there I would be affected.  Not to mention they recommend we try and visit the site before our first shift, which I didn’t do.  This was my first time.

Anyway, I get downtown and find the volunteer check-in area which also serves as the Family Member receiving area.  I get my ID and staff hat, and I’m being debriefed when a woman walks in.   The receiving staff member quickly asks me to hang on a second and turns her attention to this woman.

Good morning, may I help you?

Yes, I’m a family member here to visit the Memorial.

And the family member’s name you’re visiting?

xxxxxx xxxxxx.

And you are?

I’m his mother.

I reactively spun around, my back to the conversation and stared at a picture on the wall, my face 6 inches from it.  DON’T CRY!  DO NOT CRY!  My eyes teared up but I didn’t lose it.  I quickly gave myself a pep talk, wiped my eyes, turned around and waited my turn.  I told you it had been in my head but I didn’t really expect that to happen and I decided from that moment on I was there to do a job, and I would not let the situation affect me.  I will return as a visitor and grieve then.

The rest of the day went smoothly.  If you can call sweating in places I didn’t even know existed “going smoothly.”  Did I mention it was insanely hot and humid?

The paid staff were very helpful.  They answered any questions I had and were always available for me to direct visitors to if I needed assistance answering questions.  There was no shame in me saying, “I don’t know.”

I was originally on pamphlet duty inside the grounds—as opposed to being stationed outside, helping manage the lines waiting to enter.   My job was to make sure every box of pamphlets was full.  Most boxes held pamphlets in English and filling them kept me very busy; they also offered Chinese, Japanese, French, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish.  And I’m telling you this because some folks actually got a kick out of seeing pamphlets available in all these different languages.  I didn’t get it at all but hey, who am I to judge the way different folks grieve.

I also had some interactions.  I had one gentleman walk by me, look my way and tell me how Manhattan is a place only the rich can afford.  I don’t consider myself financially well-off, and I don’t consider myself affording Manhattan—certainly not these days.  Hmmm…  he may have had a point there.

I had another couple come over to me and talk to me about how awesome the city is.  And then they tried to recite the 5 boroughs.  You’ll never guess which borough they didn’t know.  It rhymes with Staten Island.

And then there was foot in mouth time.  After handing a pamphlet over to a visitor mid-fill, they thanked me and started walking in.  I responded with a “you’re welcome and enjoy.”  I said “enjoy. ” Ugh!  %^@&*!  What I was supposed to say was, “thank you for coming.”

Trinity Church? Ha! Pathetic tourist! It’s right… over… there! *Grunt*

And then the pinnacle – I had a chaperone, in front of his group, ask me where Trinity Church was.  In my best Schwarzenegger flex/yoga warrior pose, I pointed towards the northeast, and with that combination of sincere caring/support mixed with a little New York ego said, “it’s right there.”  “It’s right past the museum, northeast of here.”  Only it wasn’t.  And I only realized I pointed out  St. Paul’s Chapel when I walked to the R station at Rector Street at the base of Trinity Church, due SOUTHeast from where I stood when I gave that fellow directions.  Oh, well.  I’ll forever know the names of both churches and exactly where they are from now on.

I also did a stint at the “Survivor tree.”  A really wonderful story that has become a symbol of our resilience.  Being stationed here opened me up to questions.  And I got a couple.

A guy came over to me and asked me if he could ask me a “stupid question.”  And I in all my self important ways told him, “sir, there are no stupid questions.”  I was wrong.  He said he’d overheard some liberal Canadiens who were saying that large insurance policies were taken out on the Twin Towers the week before 9/11.  “Is this true?”  I told him there are all kinds of conspiracy theories and that I was sure he could do some research online and learn more.  Amen.

I was told I would be asked about my experiences related to 9/11 and sure enough, a woman, on cue, asked me if I was there on that day.   I worked for AIG back then and we were on 80 Pine St.  I remember going outside for a cigarette (yes, I smoked back then… even in the AM) and seeing the smoke from the towers.  There were random office documents floating down from the sky almost as if it was a ticker tape parade down Broadway.  I went back inside and tried to get any information I could.  And then it went dark.  The towers had fallen and a plume of smoke had engulfed lower Manhattan.  We couldn’t see out the windows.  And when the smoke finally dissipated a little, we could see people running around outside completely covered in ash and trying to get to the fountain across the street to clean their faces.  We waited for a while – I don’t even remember how long – and then took off on our trek uptown.  We walked home through everything, my undershirt serving as a mask to avoid breathing in any foreign particles.  I shared that t-shirt with some fellow employees I’d just met—my first day at AIG had been the previous Monday.  We left as a group and supported one another en route to our respective homes.  And as it happened, one of the people in my band was, in 4 years time, to become my wife.   The woman that asked me this question thanked me for sharing.  And I felt good about it.

Reflecting absence….

I really got a lot out of my first experience volunteering at the 9/11 Memorial.  I really felt good being with all the people.  I felt comfortable and fulfilled that I was doing a good thing.  And I enjoyed being there for folks who had any questions.   And all these little anecdotes, I loved being a part of each one as bizarre as some of them may have been.  I really feel comfortable talking to complete strangers.  In fact, I really like it.    I’m already looking forward to my next shift.  And I’m looking forward to taking my family down there so we can observe, perhaps grieve, and then resurge.  The Memorial is a beautiful place to visit. They did a wonderful job with the design and execution and I feel as though it pays homage to those that lost their lives on 9/11 with every ounce of respect, admiration and love they deserve.  World… it’s on!

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