Living History

Joan Didion was absolutely right when she wrote 30 years ago that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Life gives us events, she said in not so many words, and we deal with those events by shoehorning them into narratives, story lines that make them easier for us to understand, or at least to accept. This has never been more true than since September 11, 2001, a day full of life-events that we have worked diligently to assign meaning to, one narrative at a time. Since that day we have told ourselves countless stories about it, and the stories have been so plentiful and so similar that they have already started to come off as cliché. The waiter who leapt from the top of the World Trade Center in order to escape the flames. The firefighter who charged up the smoke-filled stairwell to save the trapped victims, but he never made it up, and they never made it down. The series of phone messages that spouses came home to at the end of that day, which their loved ones left over the course of the morning. For two years we've been telling ourselves these stories in order to live with what happened.

The account given of that day by Lisa Lewenz, a Baltimore filmmaker and programming director at Maryland Art Place, both is and is not one of those stories. It is, insofar as Lewenz on that day in New York demonstrated the courage, resourcefulness, and selflessness that many others did. It is not a typical Sept. 11 story, however, insofar as Lewenz, a documentarian whose work tends to center on the memory, did not seize the opportunity to document what would be the biggest story--and the greatest shared memory--of our time. Instead, she set up an ersatz ambulance service, posted news about blood donation, and sat outside Bellevue Hospital in Lower Manhattan, collecting information from all those who came looking for missing loved ones. Lewenz also took a few still pictures that day, she says, but she has never looked at them. "When I'm ready, I'll look at [them]," she says.

As an artist, in other words, she did nothing that day. As a person, she did everything she could. So talking to Lewenz today about her experience not only adds to the canon of truly human stories we have about Sept. 11, it offers a way of understanding how those events affected one artist's mind, as well as how an artist can sometimes do her best work when she's not concerning herself with The Story.

Lewenz's account appears here in her own words, edited for space and sequence. She begins by explaining that she had been splitting her time between Baltimore and New York until, in the fall of 2001, she "forced herself" to sell her Maryland home and move to Manhattan. She arrived there on Sept. 10, 2001. She awoke on her first morning in New York on Sept. 11, in her apartment on 23rd Street, between the hospitals on First Avenue and the World Trade Center.

 

 

"I turned on [NY1], which is the news channel, while I was making breakfast, making coffee, getting about my day. I turned on the TV with the volume off and I looked up and there's this suddenly shaky image of the World Trade Center. It just kind of veered. I turn on the volume and I get this man and a woman in conversation, and after his talking and her talking I was able to realize. My first reaction was kind of surreal. I remember rooting myself--I think this is the news, and I think this is really [NY1], and I think this is really happening now. Then there was the realization of the jet. You could see the outline, the silhouette of the jet in the building, and I just went into immediate mode.

"I'm really good in an emergency, because I totally switch into this mode of what's the most sensible thing to do. So I switch into this mode of immediately thinking: It's real. What am I going to do? I've got all my equipment here. I can either be a filmmaker or I can be a human being. What am I going to be?

"I knew it was history. And I thought, OK, I could make my career. My camera equipment is ready, it's charged up, I've got all my batteries, and I've got everything ready to go. And then I thought, I can't. I can't. And I was aware at that moment of the choice that that meant. . . . The decision was essentially that I could document what I knew would become history, or I could do what I'd want other people to do if I were stuck in those buildings. What would I want?

"I put on running shoes because I thought, OK, I want to be able to run. And I had one of those radios that you wear on your arm, and it got TV--the sound of the TV--on it. I lived near all the hospitals--Beth Israel, the veterans' hospital, Bellevue were all nearby--and at that point there were no ambulances. When the [first] plane hit they all went down there, and then there was nothing. For about an hour, none of them came back up. So I thought, OK, I got a van. I can pop out the backseat. I figured I'd go get a doctor, take out the backseat, and just ambulance people back and forth. So at that point I was still getting my stuff together, I was talking on the phone, and it was at that time that the second tower was hit. . . .

"I ran down to 14th Street because I wanted to see it. You could see all the smoke but you can't actually see the buildings, so I ran down there. And actually that's when I took photographs. . . . I had a small digital video camera. I kind of disagreed with myself about what to take because I thought, I'm not going to be a filmmaker, I'm just going to take this thing because who knows whether I'll see something I'll need to have later. . . . I took a photograph of the tower because I thought that's the last that I'll see it like this. And I turned around and photographed all the people that were filling up shops to use phones [and] who, when you heard them, were talking to people in the tower. So everyone's standing around and looking very worried, and that's when I thought: Go. Go. All these people are standing there talking to people they love and you can hear conversations, and they're saying, "Is it smoky, are you OK?' And they're up there, and it's just: Go. Go to the towers.

"I was on the way back to my car and I saw this doctor walking around with his stethoscope. So I started talking to him. We were going towards the car, and you could tell he was in this thing where he really didn't want to [go down there] but on the other hand maybe he should. And then it was while we were negotiating--how are we going to get in and what about the police lines and blah blah blah--the first tower fell. . . . I could hear it, and I'm really thankful I didn't see it go down. . . . So I thought at this point, OK. I think he is right--we're not going to be able to drive this vehicle anywhere. So what's the next plan?

"I have O negative blood and I know that in an accident anybody can take it. So I thought I'd go give blood. And I thought that most people probably didn't think of this, so I got a T-shirt and just wrote give blood now. Front and back. So I put on the T-shirt and went to Bellevue [Hospital]. And there were huge lines of people gathered there, just standing around. But nothing was happening. There must've been 300 people there just quietly standing in line, and the police had blocked it off and you couldn't get in. And I guess because I had this shirt that said give blood now and because I'm kind of pushy and because in the beginning of any emergency you can get anywhere, I got into the emergency room at Bellevue and went to the head doctor, and she's a wreck. And she says, 'They're all gone. They're all gone.' She put her arms around me and said, 'They're all gone. They're all gone.' So it's like 11 o'clock, I guess, and it's like, they're all gone. . . .

"Turns out there are no blood bags in New York. People are standing around waiting to give blood, and there are no blood bags. The Red Cross was never prepared for anything like this. So there aren't bags and people are standing around forever, and I just--basically, I guess the film director in me comes out and I'm saying, 'OK, what needs to happen?' And while I didn't film it, I did take my camera out and I filmed little pieces, still shots, which I never looked at. Because I don't have the guts yet. [Long pause. ] Sorry. It's weird. . . .

"I called the Red Cross, I called the mayor's office, and they're all saying it looks like there aren't going to be a lot of survivors. And at some point the only way to find out who's missing is to find out who's looking. And everybody kept saying that's a really good idea, but no one was doing anything. So what I did is I went home rather quietly and just made this kind of database--name, phone numbers, cell numbers, relationship. By then everybody [at Bellevue] knew me because I was running back and forth, I'd been Xeroxing off the latest records of who was admitted and who was turned away, and they just said, OK. I brought some chairs out front [of the hospital] and just started taking information for everyone who came looking for somebody. For about six hours.

"The Chief Medical Examiner's office turned out to be across the street. They had been sitting there the whole time right across the street, but the CME hadn't been called in until 4:30 that afternoon. . . . So when I found out that the Justice Department had a fax number, I went to the emergency-preparedness office where all the honchos were, to fax this information. And the director there went a little bit nuts. He said, 'Who the hell is this woman? What is she doing here?' I was afraid he was going to grab my computer even, because he just went nuts. Somebody said, 'What do you have?' And I'm like, 'I've got this computer database, I've got all these names of people who are looking, names of people who are missing, I've got phone numbers, I'm trying to get it to the Justice Department. Would you like to have it? I'll give it to you!' Then they got excited and started doing this thing whether they should arrest me. I thought, Well, if they arrest me, they arrest me, but the worst part is that it would stop me from doing what I was doing. Except there was the policeman there who had been giving me information at Bellevue who knew me really well. . . . And when the CME finally came he was incredibly thankful.

"I was there until about 1:30 [a.m.]. At that point . . . there were fewer people wandering around, so I went to the other hospitals to share the information. So I went to the veterans' hospital, and there were these two firemen--and by then the hospitals had started posting lists of who was admitted on the wall--and they came in totally covered with dust looking for their buddy, and his name was on the list. And we all lost it. Everybody lost it. They're hugging and saying, 'Thank God, he's OK, he's OK,' and they went in and all of us are crying because this is the first that we've seen that anybody's been OK. And I'm sitting with three guys from the veterans' hospital outside, and 20 minutes later the firemen came out. It was a different guy with the same name. It wasn't him.

"That was actually the only time where we thought somebody actually made it out alive. On all my lists--[pause]--there were some people who weren't in the building when it went down, who were outside and just weren't able to get home, people who showed up later. But it was really rare. I just stayed and I talked with people for a while just sitting and crying, because it was like, you know, emergency vehicles driving all over, and the city was otherwise totally quiet. And then I said, 'I gotta go to bed.' And then I went home.

"The worst part I think was just waking up. I woke up at one point towards dawn, and it was so quiet. And I thought,Everybody's lying in bed right now, not sleeping, just trying to breathe. . . .

"Twenty-third Street was the main hub for a lot of emergency stuff, and [clean-up] went on there through December. There were body parts going by my home at least 12 times a day. The cops would stop traffic so that these remains would be given an unimpeded final journey to wherever they were going. Then the anthrax, and someone at Beth Israel, around the corner from me, died. And I thought I don't want to do this. . . .

"But it was this sense of seeing the difference that I'd made in people's lives. It really made a big difference. People called and left messages on my machine--'My friend wasn't found, I just wanted you to know.' I was building relationships with these people, and I wanted to be able to make that type of difference on a daily basis, without having to work at it. And I thought, Where can I do that? And there were many things that said Baltimore.

"I'm an artist and I want to do my art and making a living as well, so I can do a lot of the things I find incredibly satisfying here, at a time when I think smaller cities like this are going to become much more viable and much more interesting. I have an elderly mom here. I know the arts community, I know people, I can really make something happen very easily. It was kind of like making my list. Instead of having to try to get the Red Cross or the mayor's office to come up with the list, I made my own list.

"In many ways I think I was pretty damaged by it all. I heard things that day. I was a conduit. Police told me things. Families told me things. . . . Emotionally, I'm not in great shape about it because I can very easily break into tears. I mean, it'd be great if I were an actor and needed to do tears on cue because I can think about it and start crying very quickly. Because it's very much near the surface of my mind.

"There's things like this one guy who died who was planning on getting married that October, and that night I met his uncle and his fiancée, and I came to know his family pretty well. And when I went to his funeral, I had this sudden awareness of when he was born. He was born when something very traumatic had happened to me, and I have never been able to let go of it. And I thought here's this guy who had an amazing life. They found a note in his desk after he died that he had met somebody on the subway apparently who had some big problem and he had given them advice on the subway. And this person had written him a letter years later about how meeting him on the subway had changed their life and they thanked him. Nobody knew because he never told anybody. They were just going through his desk and found this letter. He has stayed with me, because here's this guy with an amazing life--a remarkable guy, but a normal guy--and I've never met him. And I'm different now, in a sense that I use people like him as a model, thinking: Gosh, in the time that he lived this amazing life, I got this thing I can't let go of. So maybe I've changed in that way. But I don't know. I can't give you a happy ending."

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