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Friday, March 29, 2002

Bike Messengers at the WTC

"Total chaos - a condition we're used to" (2)

By Rebecca Lambchop Reilly

My car was crawling on the 495 beltway of DC. It was early afternoon and we weren’t sure if we’d be driving from one parking lot to the next. Brendan was busy typing messages to another DC messenger on his raspberry two-way pager. Then he called Philadelphia helping me try to arrange a rendezvous to pick up some messengers there too. Finally, he called my old roommates in Brooklyn arranging a place to stay.

On the 95, we were surprised at how little traffic there was. Flags flew from every overpass from Silver Spring to the Goethals Bridge in New Jersey. I would tear up every time I saw one. We were stunned that every overpass was covered, every display was different, every saying was patriotic and unique.

In the quiet hours, I recounted my experience of the WTC to Brendan. He didn’t need to have the magnitude of the situation explained to him, but I felt obliged to give it to him anyway. Messengers see things differently than many other people because we see the dark underbelly and inside the elite crow’s nest and everything in between. We saw the bums living in the alley behind the WTC and we walked across the Italian marble of some of the richest brokerage trading firms in the world up on floors near the hundreds.

When a messenger tells a story, there is an uncanny habit of prefacing it by describing precisely where on the grid he was when it happened. Usually, the place only provides a setting, a mood. To us, place is an important element of storytelling, but it isn’t usually the story. I remembered the World Trade Center complex at 8:30 AM on a Tuesday morning in the fall. The year was 1999. I couldn’t figure out which building was which. When I finally found my building, Tower 1, I walked across the immense lobby dodging throngs of people. They were rushing to the elevator banks. They were impatiently jockeying for position at elevator doors, not wanting to be left behind to wait for another elevator. The guard desk was a long counter. There were several guards punching information from visitors ID’s into their computer and using photos from ID’s to produce a plastic WTC card with the visitor’s picture on it. The guards were kind and professional and even though it was a hassle, it didn’t make me feel like a criminal because everyone who came into the building was subjected to the rigid security procedures

I boarded the elevator with office workers, tourists, and building staff. The sky lobby looked like the sky lobbies of the Sears Tower, John Hancock, Trans America Pyramid, Texas Commerce Tower. The difference was the number of people and the hour. Unlike the buildings in the other cities, these towers were inhabited at all hours, traders up with the Hang Seng index in Hong Kong, cleaning people going to or getting off their night shifts.

On September 11th, I watched CNN while I fixed a flat. I paid as much attention to the first plane as any other mindless chatter. It didn’t look like that big a deal. In the 1940s a plane crashed into the Empire State Building. Only a few people died in that. Hell, the year I’d worked in NY a crane crashed into an old folks home at Times Square and only a few people were killed and injured by that. It was tragic and sad, but not the end of the world. But when the second plane hit the WTC, I knew it was terrorism. Even CNN couldn’t convince me otherwise.

When the first tower fell I was there again. Around me were the thousands of strangers I encountered everyday. I was terrified with them, running with them. Like so many of the near-misses in my courier career, I sat thinking yet again that it could’ve been me and it could’ve been the end. The tears convulsed out of me as I watched thousands of people die in real time. Unlike the time I saw a woman run over in front of me on a street in Chicago, my grief overcame me. As the TV flashed the horrifying image over and over I imagined I was on fire, I was jumping from the top floors, I was in a building opposite watching people jump from the towers in desperation, I was in the crowds below, riding for my life among the throngs of people running on either side of me.

When the second tower fell I was destroyed. It was a feeling that reminded me of the horror I’d experienced reading of Hiroshima in high school. Seeing the movie The Killing Fields. It was the same horror that caused me to pass out in a class about the Holocaust when our teacher described how the Nazis would inject crushed glass into peoples’ veins and monitor how long it took them to die. Mass murder. Innocent people.

Brendan and I finally tasted ground zero from the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. It filled our nostrils with burning steel, dust, and concrete. The smell reminded me of Tuesdays in Oakland when the crematorium burned bodies. My imagination played tricks with me.

As we got on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, flags were appearing in every kind of place imaginable. They draped the sides of buildings, windows, and fences. Flags flew from cars driven by men wearing turbans, over the ever-present Puerto Rican flags, from corner bodegas. At a light I looked in a minivan full of Koreans and a little girl had her little hand stuck out the window of the crowded car. In it waved a tiny American flag. As we headed to Little Haiti, the flags were flying everywhere as the complexions darkened. On a street corner a woman from the islands stood. She had widely spaced brown liquid eyes and a look of determination. In her eyes there was steel. Not the steel that melts at 2,000 degrees, that twists and bends under the excruciating weight of tonnage. It was the steel of the human soul. Her face laid plain the determination of a person who chose to come to America. A person who would not be oppressed, marginalized, or eliminated. Hers was the determination that guided the young girl through a cruel and hostile world, the determination of a woman who was not the recipient of privilege, yet carried on despite that. Her eyes caught mine and I smiled at her. At that moment she symbolized everything that is great about America. She smiled back at me generously, comforting me.

Scott’s grandmother, Lydia met us at the door of her house, the house I’d lived in when I lived in NY. Her eyes were full of tears and she hugged me and thanked us for coming. We didn’t feel we deserved that, she had agreed to take us in with only a few hours notice. Couriers all over NY threw open their doors to us offering us places to stay. It was raining and cold and we decided, with guilt, to wait until the next morning to go into the city.

The next morning, at the Chelsea Piers, we were thanked again. We were hugged, they told us to get something to eat, and still we had done nothing. As we waited on the sidewalk for something to do, people walked by on the bike path. There was a sign of patriotism on everyone. It might be a tiny flag poking out of a backpack, American flag shorts, a New York Yankees cap. We went in and started to catalog the mountains of donations that New Yorkers were running out to buy. The donations were expensive and brand new. One couple showed up with a minivan full of donations. They had spent the morning buying what they thought would be needed by the displaced, the fire people, and the paramedics. Crates of hydrogen peroxide, diapers, and dog food, piled up. We scurried to catalog it so it could be loaded onto coast guard boats and taken to a pier downtown. We worked feverishly, but it was easy. Some of the couriers told us that two couriers had snuck into ground zero. I was sure they must be miserable owing to the cold rain the night before. Volunteers around the pier told me that volunteers had everything they could possibly need down at ground zero, including warm dry places to sleep.

People occasionally passed on stories from a paramedic or fire guy who stopped and told us about ground zero when they stopped to get supplies from us. The Chelsea Piers was a collecting point for emergency personnel, crews that had come from all over the tri-state area and upstate NY. I recognized names of towns from my part of NY. One of my friends from Buffalo had been on the thruway when a caravan of ambulances came up from behind. Motorists pulled way over to the shoulder to let them pass on their eight-hour drive to NY.

It was hard to feel useful when so many people were doing so much more. One volunteer told me of a crane operator. He’d been working three days straight when another crane operator tried to relieve him, “You need to get some sleep!” The operator responded by saying, “I can’t leave! I can’t leave!”

At Chelsea Piers, night was coming and we still felt like we had done nothing. A box truck came with more donations from the Javits Center, which was collecting donations from all over the city. We eagerly jumped up to help unload it, hoping that our speed would help save just one more life somehow. We headed out, and saw that, stretched to the right along the fence of the pier were a hundred people. They had candles. None of us knew what was going on. No one really had spent any time watching the TV near the restroom

So we didn’t know that President Bush had called the nation out to pray.

I stood in position waiting to be a link in a chain of hands that would carry boxes from the truck to the makeshift warehouse. There were young people everywhere with their candles, angling to get their Virgin Mary candles on the fence. They watched us. On the West Side Highway there were at least 50 ambulances parked. I turned to a group of Latino kids and said, “It’s really cool that you guys came out, I’m sure the fire guys and the paramedics appreciate this.” They looked a bit confused, “We’re not here for them...we’re here for you and what you guys are doing.”

After we unloaded the truck, I decided to go home and get some sleep. I left alone. I didn’t want to go to ground zero because I knew that I’d want to sneak in there too and help. There was still concern at that point that another building might topple since Number 7 had come down that day. I didn’t want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get myself killed. I’d caused my mother enough worry and grief in my ten years of being a courier.

I rode slowly through the crowds of people on the West Side Highway. They all seemed to want to do something to help. I felt lucky that I’d been able to volunteer at all. So many had waited all day and night, just to cheer the cars and trucks going to and from ground zero. They cheered tirelessly. A fire truck went by with a flag snapping in the 40 mph wake. No sirens were necessary, no one was about to get in their way.

I crossed into the meat-packing district and started to notice people walking. At 9:00 PM, they were everywhere. Near the university, there were people walking. They walked with candles, in groups, arm in arm. Not a single horn honked. People walked, not to go anywhere, not to say anything, they just walked in the night. I slowed my pace to take it all in. With every pedal stroke the night became more interesting. Every once in a while two people would meet and embrace and sob together. People stopped and paid homage to the fire stations. In front were growing piles of candles, memories, and thank you signs. Once in awhile I saw one person alone, standing, staring, eyes swimming with tears.

In NY, when you work as a courier, it is often very hard to find a place to park a bike. There are things you notice as a courier that are unimportant to many but are tantamount to your survival. With no posts to lock to, you are forced to lock your bike creatively. Only one other group of people really needs the stand pipes and siamese connections. These are the pipes outside buildings where a fireman can attach a hose and fight fires with city water. They are important to couriers too. They are about 2 feet tall and 6 inches in diameter. If you have a chain, you can lock to one and feel secure that a thief won’t be able to get your bike off it since the head is bigger than the pipe. As I cruised through Greenwich I noticed a standpipe guarded by a concierge. On it were three red candles. He guarded that pipe like it was the entrance to Westminster Castle. He was an old portly black man with a potbelly, wearing a uniform. The wax of the candles melted and embraced the standpipe in a web of warm wet wax.

The next day we were ready for anything. Again we arrived at Chelsea Pier and people thanked us. The Philadelphia couriers were there, waiting to be dispatched. We all wished for something hard, something to merit all the thanks we’d been given. Nate dispatched a few runs, pickups from shop owners to the Chelsea Piers. We ran off to collect coffee and food. At a cafe I waited to pick up several pounds of coffee. The proprietor was an Indian man. He took a look at the coffee that filled my bag and decided that it wasn’t enough. “Can you take more?” I nodded, I was up to the task. He filled up a box with food and kept looking around for the choicest morsels with which he could fill the box. A Latina woman looked a little skeptical about my ability to carry what she thought was a heavy load. People in the cafe, just there to get their coffee, were watching as we loaded the box. In all my years of currying, no box ever felt so important. I prodded the man as he hedged over the weight of certain items. I told him to keep going, that it wasn’t enough. When it was finally full, all of the eyes of the patrons were on me as I unlocked my bike outside the plate glass windows , put the box on my handlebars, and did what I do best. It was painful and I rejoiced in it. Finally I was suffering just a little bit, it was what I came to NY for. I wanted it to hurt the whole way across town. People tried to help me, but I didn’t need it. It was under control. When I delivered the box, I wanted more.

At long last, we got an awful job. Someone had collected a mountain of food that was bound for a church. The woman conferred with Nate, who was running the courier volunteer effort. “Do you think you guys can handle this?” Nate just nodded and smiled at us. We were on. We dug into the pile, which was about 4 feet tall and 10 feet wide. There were coolers packed with sandwiches, fruit, and juice. We grabbed and grabbed, stuffing our bags until they were stretched to their limits. Then we started grabbing boxes for our handlebars. None of us could get enough stuff. Finally, with at least 50 lbs or more on each of us, we headed out to our bikes. Wendy, a courier I’d ridden with in SF, proudly exclaimed, “Let them watch how a SF courier handles freight!” Pat had a cooler on his back crammed with food that was about 4 feet long and 3 feet tall. When we came to NY, we all wanted to haul every rock out of ground zero on our backs. We were prepared to get blood all over us, be covered with dirt and grime. This condition is a reality of our profession. Usually it’s our own blood that stains our clothes, but I’m sure anyone of us would be proud to be stained by another’s blood. We pulled out with our impossible loads. It was painful but we were filled with esprit de corps. We rode together across town and lamented that it wasn’t far enough, wasn’t a hard enough job. We delivered our packages and after a long wait, we felt we’d added something to the effort, something that came from ourselves, from our experience as couriers.

They didn’t need us anymore. But I dreamed of a network of couriers nationwide that could do what no one else could do. We could squeeze through the cracks, breath the noxious fumes, be pelted by rain, and still deliver our packages to their destination. Through pain, heartbreak, and despair, we would still work.

[To be concluded.]

In 1996 Rebecca Lambchop Reilly came to San Francisco to help organize the Cycle Messenger World's Championships in that city — the first CMWC in the USA.