The fence across the street from St. Vincent’s Hospital. Photo by Mary Lyn Maiscott
Living a mile from Ground Zero, it's impossible to ignore the fact that today is the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Eleven years ago, I was sitting exactly where I am now, working at home, when I heard the first plane fly directly over my apartment building--the roar was deafening--and slam into the North Tower of the World Trade Center with a muffled crunch that I thought was two cars colliding on the street below. I looked out the window but couldn't see anything, so I went back to work, thinking that if I ever hear another plane flying that low again, I'm filing a formal complaint with the FAA.
What follows is an unfinished piece, "Distinguishing Characteristics" that my wife, Mary Lyn Maiscott, who was also working at home that day, wrote shortly after 9/11.
Dental implants. Old burn scar covering entire right knee. Gold tooth.
My idea at first was to write a poem about the distinguishing marks, which were at once lyrical and heartbreaking and overwhelming. To this end I carried a spiral notebook up to the armory. People gathered there to register their missing, and the walls outside were plastered with hundreds of flyers showing pictures, giving descriptions of their relatives and their clothing, telling where they were last seen. This is when we were calling them missing.
I also carried a cheap automatic camera that my credit-card company had given me as a gift (I found out why when I developed the pictures, which were hardly worth keeping). I took only a few pictures. The first was of a bride (at first I wrote “a bridge”; this seems significant) and groom in Madison Square Park. I’d always been leery of the whole institution of marriage, but something about the delicacy of the short tulle veil—lifting as the bride ran a little, smiling, her new husband right behind her, both of them of a dark-skinned extraction that would not help them in the coming days—tugged at something inside me, made me want to cry as so many things did.
I also took a couple of pictures of the flyers, which were ubiquitous, well before I got to the armory; they were on lampposts, on windows, on fences. I stopped so many times to read about this person, that person, to take notes, to stare at their faces, that by the time I got to the armory the light was getting very dim. One of the posters that stopped me cold—it was scotch-taped to a store wall—showed a photo of a thirtyish man with his family. That family now begged him, “Please come home!” This made me—inexplicably, guiltily—furious. Of course he would come home if he could! As though it were up to him whether he was dead or alive. And of course he was dead—didn’t they know?
Birthmark on hand in the shape of Puerto Rico.
In the shape of Puerto Rico? What shape was that? I had to look at an atlas. It’s not like Texas or Florida, not a really distinctive shape. Kind of an oblong island with a curl or a twist here or there. But this island danced every day on the man’s hand, or anyway his loved ones wanted to think so, even while he negotiated the mind-boggling island of Manhattan.
That morning I’d gotten an e-mail, among the flurry of e-mails sent in those days, that asked the receiver to add an item to a list of things about Manhattan to love. The woman who’d sent it to me—an old friend who’d moved to Colorado—had written something about bagels. I thought about writing in the Chrysler Building or the sunset from Hudson River Park but never did. It was odd in a way to remind ourselves; could we possibly have forgotten? It came to me, though, that everyone in New York who loves New York (and of course there are those who don’t) thinks secretly that no one loves the city the way they do. If I’m
thinking that—even with the occasional fantasy of escaping to a less target-rich, as the military might say, place, some remote corner of Vermont maybe—then so are millions of other people. Which is fine, because otherwise how would we survive here?
Tattoo on left shoulder of whale/dolphins surrounded by starfish. Butterfly tattoo on lower back.
There were many, many tattoos. Imagine someone sitting in a tattoo parlor enduring the pain of that big needle for their own whale, their own dolphin, their own unique butterfly or rose or heart (one of these in the webbed area between the thumb and index finger). They are not thinking, here’s a good way to identify my body when I am crushed or burned to death. There were scars too, which are rather like tattoos that nobody asked for—an appendectomy scar, facial chicken-pox marks, a “bite mark on the chest.”
On the way home I passed by the Gramercy Park Hotel. My husband (domestic partner then) was staying in New Jersey, visiting relatives. It occurred to me to check into the hotel, even though my apartment was only a twenty-minute walk away. I wanted to forget everything, even who I was. To be somewhere clean and stark. I thought of the woman in the novel The Hours
who checks into a hotel just so she can read. I didn’t have to be anywhere the next day because my office, like my home, was in the “frozen zone” below 14th Street. That meant no cars, no people who weren’t residents, and very little business going on. I had to show my ID twice to get home, at 14th Street and at Houston Street.
At 14th, I passed through Union Square Park. Amid the flowers, candles, and taped-up signs—“Osama bin Laden, look out” but also “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” …
I thought then that my idea for a poem—or, rather, a compilation in poem form—had not worked out, but when I recently looked back at what I had, I decided to finish it.
A birthmark in the shape of Puerto Rico
on his hand.
Scar between eyebrows.
A heart tattoo on her right hand,
between the thumb and the index finger.
Gold necklace with jade pig.
Mole at jawbone near right ear.
(Young man:) tattoo of tiger on right shoulder;
(his sister:) gold chain with key charm.
A circular beauty mark
on his right wrist.
Tattoos: dolphin on foot,
turkey on hip.
Right-hand ring finger severely bent;
gold neck chain with cross.
Yellow rose tattoo on right ankle;
two earrings in each ear.
Bite mark on his chest
just below left shoulder.
birthmark on one of his shoulders,
and a small dark mole in the center
of his back.
Black mole on each cheek,
black spots on his neck.
Has a Florida tan.
Chews tobacco, so first fingers
on his right hand may be stained.
Wearing a gold rope chain on his neck,
with a rectangular charm that says
“Jesus Is Lord.”
Faint birthmark on back of neck
under his hair
(may need to look real hard for it
since very faint).
Has thick hair on his chest,
a very hairy man.
A scar which extends from the
upper right side of forehead to the eyebrow,
which appears to be an upside-down V;
scar on left arm has a black tattoo
one-inch in width
that bands around left bicep.
Two gold bangles and one gold bracelet.
Wearing a wood cross.
Tattoos lower back tribal (dark green),
upper right heart and rose with initials LER.
Has on a silver fossil watch.
Has a French manicure on both her hands
and her feet.
No scars or tattoos.
Brown spot, right shin;
scar from hip surgery;
Chicken pox scars on cheek.
Tattoo on left shoulder of whale/dolphins
surrounded by starfish.
Butterfly tattoo on lower back.
Skin tag on neck;
small scar on chin;
cast on right hand.
Tattoo of Puerto Rican flag
on right arm.
Old burn scar covering entire right knee.
White gold ring with the letter C