Calling the Names
I did the volunteer-actor thing at ground zero yesterday. It was my first time there in these three years. Some may find that strange but if you lived through it here, you probably understand.
We were on Church St., just south of the PATH station and 10 feet north of the plaque with names of those who died, standing about 5 feet out from the chain-link fence. We were reading “Portraits” of the dead.
There was no microphone or sound system. We were three at a time, working three-hour shifts. My slot was 10:00-1:00. We were to hold the book up in front long enough for passersby to see it; read the name, a key phrase given to describe that person, the minute-or-so portrait; then turn the book around, point to the small picture of the person and again, say the name. One or two of us stood as audience to help draw listeners while the third read.
Construction was going on behind the fence – John Deere vehicles and periodic jack hammers; traffic on Church Street, tour buses with engines idling; a guy loudly hawking postcards of burning buildings, subway roaring below. It was hot. It started to rain (again). Ten minutes in, I began to wonder what I was doing there and how would I hold up for three hours. Hadn’t brought enough water. Couldn’t use gum to ease my throat because I could barely get to it, unwrap and pop it into mouth before it was my turn again; and anyone who’s ever had to cold-read that loudly while emoting the “feel” of each portrait knows you can’t hold hardly-chewed gum in your mouth at the same time.
I realized what I was doing there. We were “calling the names” of the dead. This is something done in certain cultures at grave sites and I suddenly knew why (but don’t have words to define it). But it is not nostalgia, neither is it to rile anyone into any action.
People stopped to listen. I caught the eye of a tour bus driver and gave him a “turn the engine off” signal. He quickly and graciously complied. I stopped trying to hopelessly yell over trucks’ shifting gears; just “held” ‘till they passed. A clearly-Irish, middle-aged fireman came by and hung out behind us, leaning against the fence, listening.
I couldn’t glance at the picture of a 25-year old fireman as I read his portrait because I started to cry. Each of us found techniques to stop crying.
I looked into the eyes of passersby as I turned a phrase. They sometimes paused to further listen. Listeners cried. A woman stopped for half an hour and asked if the book was in bookstores. Yes.
The sun came out and it got hotter. I was physically numb but knew I could finish my shift. Because it was helping some people to heal. Perhaps it was helping this beleaguered city to heal. Perhaps it was helping me to heal.
We read all the K’s and many L’s while I was there. The fireman murmured “Thanks” in my ear as he left. I felt his feelings.
The readings had been going on all week and will continue through Saturday.
I am sunburned and lightheaded. My throat is raw. I have a lot of political thoughts. . . but let’s not start that. Just for this moment, let’s focus on healing.