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Old Miss


Beth Coulter


          She was called Old Miss.  She was old when she first appeared outside the World Trade Center in the late 1970’s and grew older through the years that she sat there, outside the main door of the North Tower.  Black like soot, tiny and wrinkled, Old Miss was there rain and shine, with a paper coffee cup held out in her hand.  She would shake it just enough to let the coins inside shift in silver music.  When someone added some coins to her cup, her voice was as southern as gumbo, dark and murky, with enough spice to make the recipient smile as she said, “Thank yah suh” or “blest yore soul ma’am”.  She never begged, just added a deep, bluesy hum to the silver song of her change.

          She was occasional topic of water cooler conversation, and coffee station speculation.  How old was she, where did she live, why didn’t the cops and guards move her along like they did with the other homeless and begging souls that crept into the financial district looking for a handout?  Our best guess was that she was so unobtrusive that no one had ever complained, and she added a bit of color to our drab, green-backed world.  We would joke that she was a better financial barometer than the Nasdaq, for in bad times she would have a battered cup from Dunkin’ Donuts or McDonald’s that she used over and over before replacing it with another, more sturdy cup taken from the garbage and rinsed carefully.  But during the golden days of DotCom day trading, she had a new cup from Starbucks every morning.

          On this beautiful late summer day, she had a new cup from McD’s, reflecting the not great, but not horrible economic times.  I reached into my pocket and withdrew a handful of change.  Because of the bright sun in the azure sky, I was feeling generous and poured the whole handful into her cup in a delightful jangle.  Most days I would pick out a few quarters and plunk them in, but like I said, it was a beautiful Tuesday morning.

          “Thank yah suh.” she said, her fading black eyes meeting mine for an instant.  I could see the milky gleam of cataracts before she lowered her lids.  It bothered me in a back of the mind way, a small ethical part of me disliked an old woman going blind sitting there living on the spare change of strangers.  But it passed from my mind before I could do more than acknowledge the thought and I made my way up to the 43rd floor.

          I got into my office, nodded to the secretaries at the coffee station and made my way to my desk by the window.  I booted up the computer and began arranging my day’s work.  I was sorting accounts when my window started to hum and vibrate.  One of the secretaries said something about a plane flying too

low when the entire building shook and boomed.  Screams erupted as alarm bells clanged and emergency lights flashed.  My first thought was another bomb, like the one back in ’93.  I stood and tried to speak above the din, telling folks to calm down and remember the evacuation drills we had every 6 months or so.

 A very pregnant, young woman was standing by the elevator, relentlessly pushing the down button as tears streamed down her face, repeating in a monotone “I can’t die today.  I can’t die today.”

 I put my arm around her shoulder and led her away toward the stairwell.  “Good.  Stick with me, cause I can’t die today either and I like being with positive thinkers.”  I gave her a big goofy grin and she startled herself by grinning back.  Then she gave me a smile in quiet thank you and joined the procession of those who had lined up to orderly go down the stairs.  Most people were calm, some joking about getting a week off from the gym after the workout they were going to get.

 My administrative assistant finished checking out our suite of offices and gave me the all clear.  “One of the supervisors from upstairs said that it was a bomb up by the 90th floor and it’s confined there.  Sure you want to climb all the way down?”

“Let’s go for it.” I told her.  “We’ll all go for brunch and then get back to work.  Why waste a reason to go out on such a beautiful day?”

Her smile lit up her face and made me momentarily sorry that I was forty years her senior, and happily married.  Such beauty and such youth made me long to be her boyfriend and skip off to Coney Island with her.  I sighed and settled for a leisurely walk down the stairs.

Within the stairwell, the crowds pressing together made a human ocean, pulsing downward.  Some of those surrounding us were bleeding from cuts and smudged with soot.  It made me think of Old Miss, and I wondered if she were OK in the tidal wave of humanity pouring out into the street.  I no sooner thought this when a scream echoed down the stairs.

“A plane flew into the South  tower!!!  Oh God, a plane full of people hit the Tower!!!”  Gasps and sobs filled the space between the physical jolt we all felt.  The tide moved faster and with more purpose than before.  The verbal worries bounced from the walls.  Some were worried about friends, lovers, spouses.  Others were fearful of what might happen next.  A wave of panic was building when a firefighter came squeezing upstairs.

“Everyone stay calm and keep going.”  His Brooklyn accent was as broad as he was big, and there was an authority about him that reassured all within reach of his voice.  “Youse continue out to the street and then get clear for my boys to do their work.”  He marched past us, going up and continuing his instructions.

I looked at my lovely assistant and saw fear in her eyes.  I gave her hand a squeeze and made her continue walking down the stairs.  I felt fear myself, a fear that increased as smoke began to filter down the stairs among us.  We passed the sign for the 30th floor, then the 20th.  There were a few people who had pulled off and were sitting on the landings, trying to stay out of the way while obviously trying to catch their breath.  A woman stopped me with her hand, grabbing mine from her seated position by the wall.

“They are jumping from the top.”  she said tonelessly.  “They are falling from the windows.  I saw a man upside down, falling, falling…” her voice faded into a sob.  I gently withdrew my hand.  I debated staying with her for an instant, but a firefighter nudged me from behind.  His look told me to get going, so I did.  My brain kept trying to wrap itself around the thought that people were jumping from the top of the Tower.  It was impossible to comprehend falling that distance, or the compulsion to jump out to begin with.

Long after I had wanted, and long before I expected, I found myself exiting the stairwell into the ground floor lobby.  Firefighters were directing the waves of people into lines to exit the doors into the street.  I maneuvered myself to exit the far left door; the door near where Old Miss always sat.  I was stunned into motionlessness as I first saw outside into the street.  My mind tried to convince itself that somehow 5 months had passed in the stairwell; the sky out of the windows was black, and a white and yellow blizzard had blanketed the streets.  The blizzard illusion left as I exited the doors and felt heated pressure compressing my lungs.

As I was pushed from behind, I took enough time to scope out the area where Old Miss had always been.  I saw a flattened coffee cup and scattered change, and no sign of Old Miss herself.  My heart sank as I thought of her being swept along in the panic, blind and helpless.  I tried to remove myself from the tide of people, to stand aside to see if I could see her.  I actually managed to shrink up against the wall when my arm was grabbed and I was pulled along the street in a full run.

When I finally was able, I looked to see a New York City Cop holding onto my arm, half dragging, half pushing me.  He met my eyes and nodded at me, but didn’t spare a breath in conversation.  About a block away, he pulled me into a deli.

“Stay here, Old Timer.  Stay here and out of the way.”  He exited and ran back the way we came, but I no sooner had entered and closed the door when a black cloud came sweeping up the street like something out of the Old Testament.  The Greeks who ran the Deli were running their rosaries, but I was glued to the window, seeing the cloud go by.  It wasn’t Old Testament, I decided.  It was Wizard of Oz, with paper and chairs and people being swept by.  Finally the old woman who ran the place came to me and led me away from the door.

“T’is badness out dere.  T’is Devil’s work.  You come to pray wit’ us.”

And I did.  I prayed with them, even though I didn’t know their prayers.

Time passed, I’m not sure how long it was.  We waited, and prayed, and cried, and said very little to each other.  There were no words for what we were feeling, the experience we were sharing.  It felt like years passed in that garlic reeking shop before a young firefighter came for us.  He was gray from head to foot, and his eyes were young and frightened.  But despite his fear, he calmed us down with reassuring sounds and led us down to the ferry landing.

My disbelief grew as I heard the conversation of the crowd waiting for their turn on the ferry.  Both towers had fallen, complete rubble.  There had been no warning before the first collapse and many rescue personnel were believed to have been trapped.  I thought of the brawny firefighter I had seen in the stairwell, the one with the Brooklyn accent.  He’d been headed to the top floors.  Was he one of those missing?

My mind continued to think of those who might be missing.  The woman on the landing who saw the people jumping, the janitor who worked in the basement.  I hoped that my AA had made it out, and the young pregnant receptionist.

But no matter how many others I thought of, my mind kept returning to Old Miss.  I don’t know why she was the one who stuck in my mind, we’d never passed a word other than our daily exchange.  Not what you would call a relationship.  A good friend from college worked in the South Tower and teased me about his 99th floor office when we saw each other at the gym.  I should have been thinking of him, and so many others that I had known.  But it was that shrunken, old black face that haunted me.

I finally got home to my weeping wife and indifferent cat and glued myself to the television.  The images of the plane and the towers falling were unbelievable.  I was there and it was still unbelievable.  Things like that didn’t happen in the United States of America.  I was a veteran of the Korean conflict and knew that this act of war must have been a collective dream.

We ate something thawed and microwaved for dinner, never leaving the TV, waiting for… I’m not exactly sure what we were waiting for, but our nation was waiting together, tied by the glowing screen in our living rooms and bedrooms.

It was well after midnight when we went to bed.  We undressed, made clumsy, survivor love, and wept in each other’s arms until sleep took us.

I woke as I did every morning at 5:45 AM and began my morning as I always did; shower while the coffee perked, news on at 6.  Then I remembered and I started to cry again.  My wife came out to hold me while I cried, then I held her while she cried, and then I lost my temper.  I screamed and yelled and threw things and wanted to kill something.  The cat, in infinite wisdom, decided to hide far away from me.  So I went outside and killed a rosebush.  And then my wife mended my torn hands and held me while I cried some more.

I felt pretty stupid and useless by then.  I sat in my chair with coffee cup gingerly held in my hands and watched the news.  Something made me pay attention in between the droning talking heads and horrific images.  It was a shot of a crowd that was forming near where the towers had been.  They were all holding up flyers with pictures of their missing loved ones, looking for information.  I almost forgot to breathe as an idea formed then stormed my mind.  I went into my den and ignoring my inflamed, wounded hands, found an old charcoal pencil and some drafting paper.  I sat at my desk and tried to draw Old Miss from my memory.  I crumpled sheet after sheet in failed attempts to recreate the face in my head, until my hand found the rhythm and I was able to get a good likeness of the wizened old face with the faded eyes and floral head wrap.

My wife drove me down to the office supply store where they copied the picture and added a request for any information concerning “Old Miss” and made a flyer for me.  The girl behind the counter confided that it was close to the hundredth information flyer she had made in the past 24 hours, with many in the neighborhood missing family members.

“But ya know somethin’?” she added.  “Folks like, look at each other now, like we’re all people on the same planet, ya know what I mean?”  I did know what she meant.  People met my eyes as we passed in the street, something they hadn’t done much two days before.

“I know,” my wife answered the girl.  “It was like this when President Kennedy was shot.  Everyone felt very connected in their grief.”

“Yeah!” the girl vigorously agreed.  “Everyone connected in grief.  That’s a great way of putting it.”  She nodded to herself as she rang up our bill.  “It’s a bitch it takes somethin’ like this to make folks get connected.”

There was no answer for that comment, so we didn’t even try.

It was hard to sleep that night, but I suppose I must have, for I awoke Thursday morning at 5:45AM.  I took my shower, drank my coffee, watched the news, and then caught my train.  I had to get off two stops before my usual stop because my usual stop and the one before it no longer existed I was informed.  Those tracks and tunnels were currently buried in the rubble.

The stench took my breath away and I tried hard not to vomit as I rose to the street.  I steeled myself and walked towards what they were beginning to call “Ground Zero”.  I didn’t begin to get close when the crowds of people began to clog the streets.  Candles burned along the wall and in the gutter, and every space had a flyer plastered on it, thousands of faces staring from paper tacked to walls and held in shaking hands.

I made my way into the crowd, showing my flyer, but everyone was either to grief-stricken or numbed out to even look at it.  Everyone had their own flyer, their own search, their own loss.  They couldn’t begin to try to deal with another’s.  So I took my place within the ocean of humanity and held my flyer up, just in case someone saw it and knew something, anything.  As the morning grew older, we all started to break out of our individual grief and joined in a collective grief.  Stories both touching and funny filled the air.  Spontaneous cheers arose everytime a police or fire vehicle passed us, and at some point it became the purpose of the gathering to cheer on these latter-day heroes.  We gave them our support and love in lieu of finding our own missing loved ones.

Volunteers came around with bottled water and snacks for us sometime around lunch.  One woman handing out water had a deep southern accent and told us she had driven all night and day to come from Georgia to help out.  She was hoping to be working with the rescuers, but so many people had shown up that she was directed to help with the survivors crowd.  She gave my flyer a double take and asked me who Old Miss was.  I told her my story and found myself talking to everyone in earshot.  That I was there for a stranger, that I was looking for someone without family perhaps, it was something different to these people gathered.  I became the recipient of the most beautiful outpouring of love and support.  People hugged me spontaneously, other’s opened up to me about those who had made a difference in their lives.  But as the sun began to set, the quiet mourning overtook us.  We all stared into the western sky, the black smoke all but hiding the brilliant red off the sunset.  Tears began to flow as more people showed up with candles. 

I couldn’t stand there anymore, I was physically, emotionally and mentally drained.  I carefully folded my flyer and turned back towards the train to home.  My wife greeted me with tears, the cat eyed me suspiciously, and we once again turned to the news until exhaustion drove me to bed.

I let my wife talk me into staying home the next day, Friday.  There was the National Memorial Service to watch, and my wife was concerned about the rain that was due to fall that day.  She reminded me that at my age I needed to take care of myself, which meant I needed to spend a day resting and eating well.  I let her take care of me, and I knew that by doing so I was helping her out of her sorrow, just as being with the crowd had helped me.

Saturday I awoke to find a true autumnal nip in the air.  I did my usual Saturday morning routine; coffee and newspaper, 20 minutes on the treadmill in the basement, and fixed the leak in the toilet that I had put off last Saturday.  But still, it was only 9AM when I had finished.  There was an incredible, undeniable urge within me to go back to the city.  I needed to be with the crowd on the sidewalk, I needed the connection. That was my driving need now, Old Miss had only been the key to understanding what I was longing for. 

Yet I carefully placed the folded flyer in my windbreaker pocket before I left.  My wife had packed food enough for a dozen in a large paper bag and pleaded with me to take it easy, to find a place to sit, and not forget to eat.  I promised her I would with half a mind, driven by my need to get back to the city.

The train ride passed in silence, the car was nearly empty.  I could see the black smoke still over the skyline, the stench permeated the air.  But I was greeted almost as soon as I reached the street with hugs and shouts of support.  I took my place among those I’d seen two days before, and with hundreds of new faces.  The new faces were just people from all over who had come to stand with us, to cheer on the rescue vehicles, and to sob with us when another body was recovered.  The atmosphere was lighter, and something close to a church social air had replaced the heavy grief that had characterized the gathering before.

It was after lunch when a firefighter crossed the barrier and approached me.  He took the flyer from my hand and looked at it closely, then asked me quietly to follow him.  No one had been taken across the barricade and I heard the crowd talking excitedly about what was occurring.  It was like a small city had sprung up beyond the barricades, a city of rescue workers.  There were dry goods piled up on storefronts and people trading in their old boots and socks for fresh ones.  There were water and food stations lining the street, all attended by happy, smiling volunteers.  But as I looked closer, I saw the smiles were pasted on and that tears were flowing freely.

I was asked to sit on a barrel that sat on the sidewalk, and I was grateful to not have to break a path through the rubble.  My curiosity was making my mind whirl, and I was about to scream at someone to find out why I was there, what I was waiting for.  The fireman had left me momentarily and returned with another, a police officer and a priest.

They seemed to all be waiting for the other to speak, and finally the priest stood in front of me.  He asked my name, and asked to see the flyer.  He showed it to the others and they all nodded.  He gave it back to me and asked who Old Miss was to me.  I told him the story of how I knew her, that I knew of no relatives she may have had and that it was just important to me to know what happened to her.

The cop came over and squatted next to me.  Looking down at the ground and removing his hat, he drew a deep breath, unminding of the stench and smoke, and started to tell me about his partner.

“Joe was a real rookie, fresh out of the academy, but brave as all get out.  That morning he was excited and hyped and ready to save lives.  He was a real ballsy kid.”  The cop wiped the tears off his cheeks and looked into my eyes.  “He was a great kid with more courage than I have ever seen.”  He looked down again and gave a little sound that might have been a sob.

“I told him to clear the people off the streets and keep them moving out of the area while I went to check with the Chief on what was needed.  I didn’t get back to him.  The first tower came down and I lost him.”  Now a true sob broke from his throat.  The priest leaned down and put both hands on the back of the cop’s shoulders.  It seemed to do the trick, for he continued speaking in a steady voice.

“We found him this morning.  He was next to our squad car, exactly where I had left him.  He stood his post until a piece of concrete landed on him.  If he had been in the car…”  His voice trailed off. 

A hugely pregnant pause filled the air as my wonder at why I was here being told this grew to be almost unbearable.  I could hear the crackle of the fire in the spaces of this silence, as well as distant voices.  I felt my eyes boring into him like I could see the answer if I looked hard enough.  He must have felt my gaze, for he met my eyes shortly.

“We finished digging the vehicle out a little while ago.  Joe must have seen your old lady and had put her in the backseat for safety.  We found her curled up there, like she was sleeping.  There’s not a scratch on her.”

My heart stopped an instant, thinking they were going to tell me she was alive, but the priest spoke up quickly, seeing the way my thoughts were headed.

“She was dead, but it doesn’t look like she suffered any.  She looked just like she went to sleep and slipped off to heaven.”

Four pairs of eyes focused on me, awaiting the reaction.  I was even waiting to see what it would be.  With the greatest mix of emotions I’ve ever felt, tears sprang from my eyes, a smile split my face, and a torrent of hysterical yawps forced their way out my throat.  I had no control over what I was doing, even though I fought for it with every ounce of resolve.  The men surrounding me allowed me to go through whatever I needed to, giving me privacy by turning their backs and blocking me from view of others in the area. 

Very slowly I gained control of myself and the men turned back to face me.  They looked at each other and nodded at the priest.

“We had heard about you from some of the guys passing through, about how you were out there for this homeless woman.  It’s been one of those stories that have been circulating around the meal tables and rest areas.”

“We’ve taken to thinking about you as one of us.” the firefighter who brought me in said.  The others nodded their agreement.

The cop looked at me with compassion and another look I can’t define.  Maybe it was a look of brotherhood.

 “We thought it only fitting that you help carry her out.” he said with a shaking voice.  “I think that’s the way Joe would want it.”

My head nodded of its own volition, closer to a tremor than a nod.  They helped me to my feet, put a hard hat on my head, and led me to the makeshift morgue.  Such a small little bundle on the stretcher, a little lump under the green bag.  I was handed the end of an American flag and assisted in covering her, then took my place on her left and lifted the end of the stretcher.  All the workers stopped what they were doing as we passed them, uncovering and bowing their heads for a moment before returning to their tasks.

As we passed through the barricades, I heard the murmurs of the crowd build as they saw that I was one of the pallbearers.  As we reached the ambulance and slid her onto the waiting gurney, I could hear the questions being directed at me.

“Is that her?”  “Did they find her?”  “Is this the one?”

Over and over they asked in a multitude of ways, looking for that miracle that would boost their own hopes.  As I released my handle, I turned to the crowd and wordlessly let them know that yes, it was Old Miss.  Then just as wordlessly I shook the hands of the other four men, then turned and headed for the train home.

It was over.  I wish I could say I went home and started a great charity for all the forgotten lost of September 11th, but I just went home.  I don’t know where they buried Old Miss, or if she was buried.  I believe that I did her justice by getting her out of the wasteland, and whatever it was that attracted me to her was not contained in her body.  I think being able to know what happened has allowed her to take a place in the corner of my heart, and I achieved a modicum of closure.  And I think that’s the best I could ask for.