Breathing in the Dead



broadway & roebling st, brooklyn, NY 11211

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Williamsburg

On Friday September 28th, just after the sun had gone down, the remaining glow of the day was fighting the oncoming storm clouds moving in from the southwest over Jersey. The day had been gloomy and the light had been pearly gray throughout the afternoon. The air was cool and summer was clearly over. Coming over the Williamsburg Bridge from Manhattan, pushing my bike to make the trip last longer so I could enjoy the gloomy fall of night, I looked back over downtown Manhattan from where I had just come. I turned my face into the breeze coming up the East River, hoping to clear my head of the dullness that had become my waking state.

I saw the brownish yellow smoke rising from the blank part of the skyline where the World Trade Center had been and I took in a lung full of the smoke I had been living with at work and sometimes at home in Brooklyn. In my mouth I felt the fine grit of the dust that was suspended in the clouds of smoke. This was usually the kind of weather and night that gave me release and pulled me into the comforting largeness of the powerful elements, but that night there was no escape from the reality of the attack and the loss.

As I continued to walk, I could not avoid breathing in the heavy acrid air. I hate the masks that are meant to filter the air. I feel like I’m suffocating in them. Instead I tried to remember to breathe through my nose rather than my mouth, but pushing my bike and walking up the slight incline of the bridge forced me take in deeper breaths and I became aware that my lungs had taken on a hazy feeling.

I began to contemplate the dust coating my mouth, throat and lungs. The fine gray powder of pulverized cement seemed mixed with the smoke of burnt rubber and plastic from computers, wires and piping. The fumes of jet fuel, gasoline, whatever gases or liquids heated and cooled the Trade Center and assorted chemicals that must have been inside buildings were definitely in the mix. Then I got to the last ingredient, the molecules of the blood, flesh and bones of those who died. I breathed in more deeply through my mouth and my eyes filled with tears.

I turned my face back to the southwest and felt the breeze on my face and from a place that is not my own came the comfort of my next thought: The dead were now part of me and would be with every breath. Like Holy Communion, I would take them in: The firemen, the cops, the EMTs, the secretaries, the maintenance guys, the bond traders, the computer techs, the waiters, the cooks, random visitors to offices, the pilots, the stewards and stewardesses, and the passengers all come in. And the hijackers, they also entered me and became part of me. Those who refused to be comforted would feel the sun again. I imagined that they would feel the remorse of those who learn too late that life is sweet and simpler than their anger ever allowed them to experience.

Unexpectedly my head cleared. I felt a lightness I hadn’t felt in those two weeks. I reached the end of the bridge and began the steep descent into Brooklyn down the ramp that ends on Bedford Avenue. As I reached the bottom, three young cops were coming up to patrol the span. As they passed me, I asked if they were looking for terrorists or muggers. They laughed and said, no they were looking for trolls. One cop pointed to another and said, “Look I think I found one.” Then we laughed – all of us.

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