Chocolate Covered Crickets
I have acquired the concentration of an ant. The rising tension in the room can only be cut by an ax. A knife would simply knick it. I don't know where to look. Two days ago I was looking up. I was looking up into the ceiling above the 17th floor staircase wondering if and waiting for its plummet to define the path to my eternal fate. I remember most of that day as if it were a slideshow. Now I am sitting in this dingy and overcrowded room in Piscataway, NJ with my 12 co-workers from Human Resources and there is only one absolute thing that we have in common. It takes the form of a question based on fear and self-doubt, which when mixed together can be as lethal as a drug addict's snowball. It is now asked by every single person in this uncertain world, at every minute, and through every hour. Will I be this strong tomorrow?
I hastily opened my stress-swollen eyes at 6:10 AM, three days before. I sluggishly headed toward the shower on the first try. I am pretty good at throwing my ass out of bed at the first blare of the alarm. Getting up in the morning is like jumping into a 68-degree pool in 98-degree weather. The shock is brutal at first, but then diminishes in a minute or two. My morning ritual is down to about 45 minutes, even less during the summer because I usually just throw my hair back. I take about 5 minutes, at least 3 days per week applying Band Aids ever so carefully to my fragile and beat-up toes, so I can last until the end of the day without the green spots on my back rearing their ugly heads. If I'm hung over (which I wasn't), I can be ready in 25. Any less than that would offend the people around me.
It was a Hawaiian shirt day. It was to me, at least. No one in my company officially declared it as so or anything. Indian summer was predicted to be longer this year and I was in the mood to celebrate. That's probably because the ozone layer is shriveling up as we speak. The black, knee-length, A-line slit skirt of choice is one which I've had for at least 3 years and even before "A-line" was given its name. I guess I'm gifted.
"This goes well together," I said to myself as I smoothed out the wrinkles. The side of the shirt has slits to match the ones in the skirt. I felt very skinny in the ensemble so it wasn't too difficult to convince myself to face another frustrating workday amidst the wolves.
The PATH ride to the World Trade Center was 4 stops and 15 minutes long. It was a great place to people watch (for hot guys). My drop-off was at the bottom of the Twin Towers, which often felt like The Southern Oracle of MY "neverending story". I'm surprised that I didn't lose a couple of pounds over the last few months from trying to keep up with the professional speed-walkers. Those people are no joke. They'll send your briefcase flying and never to be seen again if they happen to slam into the hand that's carrying it. I always found comfort, as well as cover, in stopping by the The Body Shop or Barnes and Noble while on my way. There was never a dull moment when it came to the working in 2 World Financial Center of The World Trade Center complex.
I glanced at my black desk clock as I threw my bag onto my chair. I ripped the previous day off of my Far Side calendar. A small nine with a large eleven to its right was about face and separated by one subtle slash. It was 8:21. Good. There was plenty of time to settle in before "the others" arrived. Before I even sat I turned right around and went the way I came to hit the pantry for my morning cup of tea. I like to think that I'm a better person than my co-workers for not drinking coffee while the rest of them habitually chug it like Gatorade at the end of a race. Granted that tea also has a very high amount of the addicting stimulant called caffeine, but it's the negative connotation in the stigma attached to coffee that comforts me in my decision not to have any part of it.
8:30 – 9:00 AM was my favorite time of day because very few people were in yet. I found solace in those 30 minutes. I found myself feeling as if I were the only one whose pavement didn't have eggshells on it. I even had the choice to just sit there and think if I want to, knowing very well that no one would dare secretly question to themselves whether I was trying look like I was doing work, as opposed to actually doing it. Then phones would start ringing and I was suddenly and painfully demoted. Thinking too much makes things worse than they really are. A smart and optimistic young lady just beginning her career, such as myself, can have a difficult time working for four smarter professional women who can do their jobs in their sleep, such as my predecessors.
Over the last several months my insecurities had been broadened and redefined as easily as silly putty. I reinforced it to myself that my superiors really didn't conspire to split up into teams and pull both of my arms at the same time. Yet, it often couldn't be helped but to feel that way. Some days I could blow them off, and others I wished they blew me away. It's not exactly unheard of that different personalities provoke clashing styles and moods. It can often be difficult to determine where employees begin and managers end. Sometimes I felt like a possessed demon that could only be exorcised by driving 90 miles per hour in a 55 at 5:00 on the dot, for that's when I was let out of my cage. Nevertheless, anything is better than being unemployed, even this job. Better yet, they will never break me.
I know that a crude description such as this one does not paint a pretty picture, but I would be a liar if I did not offer the positives of the situation along with the negatives. When someone is pushed to the outer limits of what they think their own capabilities are, going forward is the only option remaining. When one is pushed, belittled and simply irritated by the people around them, something is sparked inside the bullied that proves cloning to be more of a reality than allowing the continuation of any further maltreatment. Elements change, and evolution begins.
God blessed me with this realization one day. I don't know why because it wasn't my birthday. I went from wanting to turn around to tell everyone in my department to fuck off, to doing whatever it deemed necessary to shield them away. It was my mission to prove that I was just as capable as any one of them and my job responsibilities entitled me the same respect as theirs. I concentrated like I was constipated. I began to double, triple and quadruple check the orientation folders that I compiled for every Monday's session. I slowed my handwriting down to make sure that whoever I was writing for, could read every bit of what I wrote without any room for question. It took me months to grasp this brilliant solution and even longer to appreciate it. The beauty in the end result was that I came out looking good at everything I did. I couldn't go wrong because I knew that I was NEVER wrong! I felt like I could fly if I wanted to. I was reborn.
I vaguely remember that Ghost of Crisis Past. As with any job there are good days and bad, but little did I know how much of a sick joke this particular day was about to play on the person who coined that phrase. I use to ask myself why it is the case that the bad times seem to override the good ones? Everyone wants to remember the good, yet the bad serve as the plot for most of the stories that people tell. In these last two days I have since discovered the answer to that question. The death of a loved one is the most profound example of what provokes the bad and there is nothing left to do but remember the kind of person they were.
After I got my tea, I went back to my area. I pushed the button right under the monitor to turn it on, then bent down to the lower right hand side of my desk. I could usually boot my hard drive on the first try. I just touched the rim of my flimsy styrofoam cup with the most perturbing part of my upper lip, for any more contact with the tea would burn that little piece of skin on the roof of my mouth. Does that even have a name? Steve, my HRIS co-worker, walked to my left toward the glass doors to the back offices of HR. He was one of the earlier arrivers.
"Good morning," he always said. Sometimes he'd add the "Jen" at the end, but either way was just as pleasant.
"Hey Steve, how are you?" I replied with a smile. Sometimes I picked my head up and sometimes not. That day I did.
E-mail is a very dangerous thing. How are we as responsible adults suppose to get anything done with the Inbox practically screaming in your ear with that damn ding to pick your head up and take a look at him for new messages. That bastard! Sure, his job is a cinch. His main responsibility is to turn his bold command on and off depending on whether the message is new or not. No one second-guesses him. E-mail is like a possessive ex-boyfriend. No matter how much I want to hate him, I still go back for more. Just watch, sooner than he thinks I'll be the boss then we'll see who's laughing.
Next strolled in Arnald, my Compensation/movie-buff friend. I always admired his sense of style. He's got that clean-cut-with-a-little-sloppy-yet-not-too-sloppy-for-he-still-looks-clean-cut thing going on.
"Heyyyyy, Jen." He said in a joking manner.
"Heyyyyy, yourself." I said in a more abrupt joking manner.
He's one of those people who you can never offend. Even if you're a bitch to him, he knows that you're not really a bitch, but just busting his chops. Working companions like these are imperative to the survival of the dreaded job, for they are great stress relievers. This is especially true against the co-workers who can't be joked with and instead take their miserable lives out on you knowing there's not a damn thing you can do about it because their job title says so. I hate office politics.
I removed my desk key, which was attached to the bottom of a stack of rubber banded Esteé Lauder employee passes to its store downstairs in the Wintergarden. It was a great hiding spot, for no one, no matter how smart or stupid would think to look there because of how random it is. I opened my desk drawer and removed my reference folder and background materials. I constantly had them in front of me all day, everyday, for I never knew when someone was going to call me back with information pertaining to either of the two. Plus, having them out served as a great follow-up reminder to those certain references that tried to ignore you with all their might. They can run, but they can't hide.
"They got us good this time," I suddenly heard Johnny, our mail carrier, shout as he walked toward my end of the hallway. For some reason my heart launched to my skull like Freefall at Great Adventure.
"What is he talking about?" I asked one of my "gifted mentors", Mary, as she arrived for the day.
"I have no idea," she replied in an obviously irritated and groggy tone without even spitting in my direction. Bitch.
His echo sounded more like a pitch being thrown toward my office, which then bounced off of my wall right back to him. It reminded me of the game "Butts Up". We use to play that and "Horse" all the time when I was a kid. All you had to do was throw a tennis ball against a brick wall and have it hit before the person you were trying to get out could beat it to the punch. It wasn't a very difficult thing to grasp, but at the time I remember it defining how cool you really were. I don't have the same playful feeling this time around. Little did I know, that my new life had begun.
"Holy shit. You guys got to look at this," Bill suddenly shouted from behind. I whipped my head to the left to find the right side of his head pressed as far into the right hand side of my boss' glass window as possible. It looked was as if he were trying to push it out with his head. He was leaning as far into the right side of the window as his body would allow, with his eyes glaring at his far left. My legs felt sedated as I walked towards him, for the tone in his voice was too strong to be taken lightly. From afar all I could see out the window was brown, feathery shillings of paper and dirt, which in a way looked like confetti. The feathery shillings were burnt pieces of paper, from what I could make out. Yet, it was no party. I knew in my gut that something was very wrong. I joined Bill on the right side of the window ledge, all the while forgetting that I was wearing a skirt.
"Oh, my God. Where are those flames coming from?!" I belted out in complete awe. I could see that the North Tower was where they were coming from and what I meant to ask was, "What the hell did that?!" We were connected to the tower by the enclosed North Bridge. The phones were ringing off the hook and on the end of my professionally shaken repetitiveness came panic stricken questions.
"What's going on down there?"
"I don't know. I can't talk." Click.
"A plane hit one of the towers!"
"We just heard. I gotta go." Switch.
"What idiot would fly a plane into a building that size?"
"We're trying to find out. Call back later." Slam.
All of a sudden, my bi-polar thoughts wedged between a flow of phone calls were calmly interrupted from above. We needed His guidance more now than ever.
"Please do not panic, for our building has not been damaged in any way. Please carry on as usual. We will update you momentarily on the situation occurring in the North Tower of the World Trade Center." The man's voice from above was soft spoken with a slight Spanish accent. I hadn't died and gone to Heaven after all.
"Hey Mom." I had a feeling that she'd be a little panicked unless I called to ease her worries.
"What's going on down there?!" If mother's protective instincts drive her to panic, no words can ease it no matter how much reassurance is given.
"A plane flew into one of the towers. It's connected to us by a bridge, but it's not the same building. We're fine and they told us not to worry, so it's business as usual." Even though I know that's the Greasy Pole Way, I had my doubts.
"I don't like this, Jen." she said.
"We're fine." I replied in my I'm-painted-in-a-corner tone.
"I would leave if you can, just to be on the safe side," she pursued. Who was she kidding? I knew she wanted to tell me to run like the wind.
"I have to go. The phones are going nuts. I'll call you with any updates," I said as I practically cut her off.
Just then, out of the corner of my right eye I saw a huge shadow flying above, which made the Great Horned Owl look like a parasite. The shake that followed engulfed my building as if the earth was about to swallow us up. I suddenly went deaf except for the sound of my own heart beating. I carried my brick feet as best I could toward HR's glass doors, back towards the windowsill. I'm surprised that I didn't try to walk through them. I turned to notify my co-workers of what I was about to do.
"I'm getting the hell out of here," I unexpectedly blurted. I startled myself. It was a miracle that I was able to walk and talk at the same time. Little did I know, is that everyone was one step ahead of me. Arnald already had his bag thrown around his shoulder, as he walked toward HR's exit right in front of me.
"Stay away from the glass," he yelled.
The Managing Director's assistant, Mary Jane, was rounding up the troops. "Let's go. It's not worth." I found myself as the lead sled in this dog race as we headed out toward the exit.
"Take the stairs, not the elevator," MJ shouted, serving as a refresher course from our fire safety seminar we all had to go through a few months ago. Who would have thought?
The stairs were already flooded with employees who were fleeing the building. I wondered how everyone else was able to get it together even more quickly before us. Everyone proceeded in a calm manner as we trecked down 17 flights in a stop-and-go motion. I couldn't take my eyes off the walls around me, as I prepared to brace myself in case I had to dodge them. At one point I looked back over my shoulder to see how far back my co-workers were. I had lost all of them except Wendy from Benefits, who remained with me until we reached the bottom and proceeded outside through the exit on the Hudson River side. It was 25 minutes later. The word terrorist had already come out of numerous people's mouths, but you wouldn't hear it from me. Terrorism is a thing of the past, or a thing of other places, other uncivilized places. There was no way. There had to be some rational explanation. I was sure that everyone evacuated just as a precaution.
"Wait, everyone's going home now?!" I questioned Wendy as she said she'd see me tomorrow.
"Well, yea. You don't think that we're actually going back to work today?!" She looked at me like I had two heads. Being dismissed early is a hard concept for me to grasp unless it came directly from Ellen, who is the Director of Employment and also my boss, or Liz, who is the Managing Director of Human Resources and also the boss. The only thing that I could think of that would get us out of work early is the beginning of the end of the World. I almost spoke too soon.
"It doesn't look like anyone else is, so I guess not," I said trying to cover up for my "stupidity."
"See ya manana," she said.
"Manana," I replied. Little did I know that it would be about 3 weeks until I'd see her again. I later heard from Ellen about 1 week later of what happened to her just seconds after we parted. Some man running right behind her was toppled with burning debris. As he fell forward from the impact he took her to the ground with him, knocking her unconscious. The next thing she knew she woke up in an ambulance with a concussion. Maybe if I was with her I could have helped, maybe not. Her experience could have been a lot worse, compared to many.
The ground level of my building and outside of it was flooded with people. For the most part, everyone was very calm. It was more like everyone was confused. Looking back, there is no doubt in my mind that most were in shock, including myself. I headed as close to the water as possible. Even though we were practically located on the Hudson River already, it took a lot longer to get there because of the crowd. Anyone who owned a cell phone had it clenched tightly in their hand as they held it to their ear. Very few, if any got through, which is why I was so shocked when I heard my mother's panicked voice on the other end.
"Oh, thank God!" she exclaimed. "Where are you?"
"I am standing right under the North Tower watching it burn. This is unbelievable!"
"You got to get out of there, Jen! It's not safe to be anywhere near those buildings! The president was just on. It's a terrorist attack!"
"Terrorist attack? What? What else . . . (interrupted by gasps around me) . . . holy shit. People are starting to jump!" I could barely hear my own words over the shouts from the crowd every time someone plummeted. They fell from the sky like hunted ducks. I could hear one guy hit the ground with a loud thump.
"Mom, I got to go! I'll call you when I get back to Hoboken."
"Alright, call me when you get there! Bye."
I wanted to throw up, but my body froze. I was paralyzed, but I didn't know if it were by fear or not. I was just in complete denial of being a witness to things that I only thought I'd only come close to in a movie theatre. Now my childhood dream of being a star had come true, for I was right smack in the middle of my own movie only this one depicted gore in a more terribly realistic way than I could have ever imagined. Yet, I felt no fear.
It was evident at the time that it hit home right away to the crying women and vomiting men around me. Overall, I remember just being so thankful that I literally had both feet firmly on the ground. People who were just like me; my neighbors, my colleagues, my classmates, and my friends, were not so lucky. I just hope that God at least granted them the gift of going painlessly, whether they were inside or out of the towers when their time on Earth came to an end. I loved them even though I didn't know them.
I put my cell phone back in my purse and took a good look around me. I took a good, hard look. I studied people's facial expressions, which I hoped would give me the explanation to this anarchy I was so desperately looking for. The more I tried, the more I knew they expected the same of me. I was amazed at how calm things were. It felt as if people were just waiting for the bell to ring telling them that the fire drill was over. Some were smoking cigarettes. Most were trying endlessly to get through to someone on the outside world to let them know what the hell was going on. It felt as if I was stuck on an island with no way out.
"Excuse me. Excuse me, miss." I came to my senses to realize that someone was trying to talk to me. I could barely understand him and probably anyone else who tried to talk to me for that matter. I turned to my right to see a tall, pale looking man approximately in his mid-30's with blond hair and blue eyes. It was obvious that he was in a state of shock. I could tell that he'd be pretty good looking if it weren't for the chalkiness of his face. All I could bring myself to do was stare at him.
"Can I borrow your phone? I know that my wife is freaking out," he asked me while trying to control the vibrato in his voice.
"Yea, sure," I said while trying just as hard to control my own shakes as I fumbled through my bag for my phone.
"What's your number?" I asked. "I'll dial for you." It was the most physically grueling thing I've ever had to do. I knew though, that he was worse off than me.
He had no luck. I felt so sorry for the guy. He looked like a kid in a mall who had been separated from his mother. There was nothing left I could do to comfort him. We said nothing to each other, as we both tilted our heads up once again in a desperate attempt to figure out what the hell had just happened to the great buildings above that defined the City of New York. All of a sudden it hit me and I just knew. Those buildings were going to come down. I had to get out of there and fast. I turned to my mystery friend.
"Good luck and be safe getting home," I said hoping that for the first time in my life those words would actually have an affect on whether he got home safe or not. My brain started to scatter. I wish I knew if he got out of there in time.
"Oh my God, how am I going to get home?" I frantically asked myself out loud. I usually took the PATH and there was no way I could get to it.
"Do I have enough money on me to buy a ferry ticket? I can't buy them from the dock. I can only get them at the port on Hoboken. Shit, what am I going to do?" I suddenly felt a gentle hand on my left shoulder.
"Don't worry, Honey, under the circumstances I don't think that they're going to be charging people and if they are then I'll buy your ticket," the kind man said. He brought me to my senses for I realized that I was having an out loud conversation with myself. There is no doubt in my mind that he was a saint from God, for he showed me the way home. I crossed paths with the Grace of God and I didn't even look at his face. If there's any regret I will ever have in life, it's that.
"Oh, thank you so much," It was the only thing I had to offer him. Then just like that, he was out of my life.
I quickly shuffled toward the boats. There was a short line, but it was moving very slowly. As I looked around for anyone I might know, I saw two women standing behind me. One had to hold up the other as she tried to gain her composure. Some were talking; barely any were crying, but most weren't moving. There really wasn't anywhere to go. I was on line for about 15 minutes before it was my turn to get on a boat. "Come on people, let's move it! Hoboken to the right, Jersey City to the left. Even if you don't commute to either, you have to get on one or the other." Thank God I live in Hoboken.
I rushed onto the right side of the top platform so that I had a perfect view of the towers. As I gazed at these magnificent and majestic buildings I realized that I was witnessing history in the making. In between shouts of, "It's World War III", and "Those bastards are gonna pay for this", I was witnessing to one of the world's most prized landmarks being destroyed and there was nothing anyone could do about it. I hoped that this would be the only time in my life that a revelation was so devastating.
I was one of the first ones on, so I headed for the top of the boat facing the World Trade Center as fast as I could. Every passenger was exactly in sync. I was surprised at how empty the boat was. There was actually room to move around on it. Most people who were staying in the city were walking north because it was going in the opposite direction of the towers. Those poor people were stuck in Manhattan for up to 2 days. How could they have known? I would later look back and come to realize that most were severely handicapped with shock. There was nothing to base a logical decision on, for there was chaos everywhere you turned.
The man sitting next to me I guessed to be in his late 50's. He was about 30 pounds overweight with thick, black-rimmed glasses. He just stared straight ahead, with his back toward the towers. I guess the site was too much for him to handle. I began to feel weary, so I sat down as well. I don't remember who initiated the conversation, but the next thing I remember he was talking about his girlfriend.
"She lives in Holmdel. We love it down there," he said in a mellow tone. He began to stand and turn around.
"I love it down there, too" I replied just as softly as I followed his lead.
"Red Bank is a lot of fun." How could I talk about fun at a time like this? I think that we were both half listening to each other and half ignoring what we were saying out of fear for what we might miss.
The crowd began to grow even louder than before with gasps and howls. Before my eyes, the right side of the North Tower had begun to crumble. Then all of a sudden, it was as flat pancake and dust and smoke was everywhere, including the very place I was standing only minutes before. It took only seconds for lower Manhattan to disappear entirely.
I remember looking straight at them and watching this, all the while the cries behind me narrating the scene. I suddenly became deaf. It felt as if the switch to my hearing had been turned off. I could hear nothing. I had only the site of the start of the doomed buildings before me. My peripheral vision went black. There was only tunnel vision of the towers. I just absolutely couldn't believe my eyes. It all happened too quickly.
People have since asked me what it was like falling witness to the greatest massacre to have taken place in our blessed United States of America. People have asked me if I thought I was going to die. As difficult as it is to understand how a world that has come so far for so long, could have so severely regressed in what felt like an instant, my explanation was easy. It was more like an analogy. I now know what it felt like to watch the sinking of the Titanic. The legacy of the sinking ship has been passed down to the history of the burning buildings. What was once about Titanic is now about the Towers.
As I trampled out of the bus terminal where the ferry docks, I found myself surrounded by chaos. Ambulances and policemen were echoed by sirens and commands. When I got far enough, I turned around to see if what I had run away from was really real. The smoke that filled the skyline was so thick, that downtown NY had looked like it had been burned away. I still couldn't even see the surrounding buildings, including mine. For all I knew, it had also fallen victim. There was nowhere to go, nowhere to hide, yet my legs kept moving as my heart pounded a mile per minute. I shuffled to my apartment with aggression, all the while my shirt clinging to my sweaty back. I managed to get away without even a scratch or speck. It was a beautiful day for a walk, but no one on the streets was there to enjoy the weather.
Three days have passed and my phone hasn't stopped ringing. As I hear myself explain my experience over and over, all I think is that my narrative tone doesn't at all tell an accurate story. There is no way to depict the magnitude of pain in my heart. I ache for those people who died and their families left behind. There will never be an answer good enough to the questions the babies of those who perished will start asking when they are old enough to realize that they are the only ones in the sandbox without a mommy or daddy watching them close by. That is, of course, in a form they can physically see. Once they are old enough to say the word "Terrorist" perfectly.
Each of my co-workers is dealing with their grief differently. Some eat, some cry, some throw themselves in their work, some are silent, some you can't tell what they're feeling, and some actually laugh. That latter form is my own and the hardest cope of all to accept as being OK, for it's not necessarily accepted during a "time like this". A time like what? Since when has anyone we've ever known gone through something like this. No matter how the truth comes out, or how the pain is felt, the bottom line is that it HAS to show. People have to process their grief and not brush it under the carpet, for sooner or later the dirt will eventually spread itself out again.
I am distracted by the conversation next to me between Ellen and Bill. The spell has been broken. I think the only reason is because it has to do with chocolate. I'm convinced that the stuff has magical powers.
"What do you think, Jen?" Ellen softly asks. In the middle of this crisis at least we remember to take a breather. More importantly, we know that it's OK, to take a breather. Even if it's for a couple of minutes. After all, we aren't robots.
"About what?" This is my reply lately, for I feel like I am snapped out of a deep trance every time someone tries to talk to me.
"That women can eat anything with chocolate on it." I wondered where that came from, but it's not wonder why I don't know.
"Well, anything except chocolate covered crickets." No TV for the rest of the week.
"Where did that come from?" Bill questions with low laughter leaking out of the corners of his mouth. I think Ellen is holding her's in because she's the Director and thinks that it wouldn't be professional under these circumstances. They should know by now that I don't mind being the butt of the jokes.
"I have absolutely no idea," I say as I give them their cue by cracking up myself. There is absolutely one thing I've learned as a result of this catastrophic event beyond our wildest nightmares. It's difficult, but important to remember to press on when feeling like you can't take another step in life. The source of the pain shouldn't necessarily be the focus of the event, for it's finding and using strength from the source that counts.