September 22, 2001

I awake to such choking, acrid smoke that, having fallen dead asleep with light blazing and a vast sense of things-undone, I believe I am on the West Side Highway and I am upset that we are not handing out the respirators fast enough. I had read a Times article about the Battery Park City people returning to their homes yesterday, and there was a picture of a large assembly of them in front of Pier 40, where we used to be. Did they all get clothes and toiletries, I wondered? Was it another case of snafu, where they moved us out just as a huge group of directly needy were ordered to gather exactly where we could have served them? Were they then given anonymous 'help' numbers for some faceless bureaucracy? My half-waking images are of confusion and chaos and a sense of being 'too late'. At this point, in real life, I am holding my shirt over my nose and mouth. I have a hypnagogic sense that it's a fresh white mask. I then keep thinking that 'someone' needs to open the window. Where is the fresh air? It is only after trying to take a few deep breaths and feeling the lungs-burning, terrible and unique stench deep within my body that I wake up fully. There is no fresh air to be had, but this is unendurable. Are those EPA air-quality monitors they keep touting lying to us?

My tedious, joyless, excrebly-written, and spottily researched freelance project is a medical encyclopedia. I've had to copy edit endless descriptions of pathology, dysfunction. Yesterday I did "mutagen". I've edited so many birth defects (always linked to maternal age and exposure to toxins. I think of the endless X-rays I had during the botched 7 year 'treatment' for scoliosis, a full series of torso X-rays every 3 months that my reproductive cells were maturing. I think of two years spent living above a repair garage directly above the emissions test bay, waking up once to choking battery acid from a melting battery. I think of the toxicity, over and over, of this particular building; the endless waves of 'renovation' with their eye-stinging fumes, the mid-winter, utterly superfluous bathroom rip-out with two months of completely hermetic construction dust and evil drying mastic (got sick over and over from that). I think of the Con-Ed transformer station half a block away and the massive amount of signals, communications, and waves passsing through my body continuously. And now this melange of vaporized jet fuel, human components, plastics, asbestos, dust.). I feel that I've taken my beautiful, strong, pure, healthy body and placed it, over and over in harm's way, as if mocking the gift of life and inviting terrible retribution.

I get up and close the windows and put on the air conditioner. What I want is fresh, new air, not chilled stale air. The bed alcove is still impossible to draw a breath in. Now I find a fan and plug that in. Each of these tasks is absurdly difficult, as though I'm being put through some sadistic obstacle course. This is because, after 4 months of being under court order to do so, the landlord sent the window repair people on Thursday morning. That was the first day I was to be home and able to work, and the two guys come in and within an hour, the place is ..again, for the I don't know how many-th time, ripped apart. Everything is stacked in piles; I'm stubbing my toe and tripping in the dark, there's the usual entropy of things falling, they unplugged everything and nothing works. They put the window gate back in (as a 'favor', it's not their job) without lining up the latch and catch so my gate is useless. I would cry and cry and cry had I the energy.

The landlord had called last Wednesday the 12th, and called again this Tuesday. He wanted his money. I woke up to that call, to a haranguing whine ("I am just like you! I have to pay my bills! Why you not pay me?"), to being informed that the window guys were en route (no warning, which, when I protested, he said "we all must pull together now"), a false alarm, and to the most bogus arm-twisting use of this event I've experienced so far. "We must all cooperate and help one another during this terrible crisis," my landlord said, "You must pay me my rent." To wake up to that after the incredibly dreamlike, utterly exhausting world of gentle interactions and focused physical exertion, was like being socked in the solar plexus. I began to cry as I hung up. "How mean! How can he be mean!"

Since then, I've also had stern rebukes from mr. freelance boss ("when can I expect this work, Heather? we're ready for it now!") and a gentle reminder that my nice, cheap, fallow-weblog host for Cybering has extended credit long enough and needs to be paid. Until I finish the freelance work, I have no money. And I do not know how fast I'll be paid. I thought I was doing okay, the best I could, and all of a sudden, between Tuesday and now, it's as if everything accumulated and gathered and crashed on me like a wave. I think I could cope with the money stuff if those guys hadn't come and trashed my apartment. It was torture Thursday morning to watch the one small, ordered and safe haven I have in this chaotic time turn into yet another dust-laden, loud construction site with shouting men, piles and boxes to be dragged, moved, stacked, the short one singing "superfreak" as a cigarette dangled out of his mouth, waiting for them to go so I could reclaim some sort of work area. At two, when they left, I shoved the couch back against the wall and tried to make space. My cat, who, terrified, had chosen the fire escape rather than behind the stove, then ran in, sopping wet, and ran to cower and burrow right on the pile of work I'd taken to the bed (the durthest place from the windows and only free flat surface), so that any vestiges of professionalism I might have hoped to cling to were shot to hell.

Yesterday I worked like a maniac. I applied myself to this pointless busywork (Myelomeningocele is a severe form of spina bifida. Neurological impairment, including paralysis, is common..."). Western medical writing is the language of the passive voice, pocedures "are undertaken", symptoms "may present as," surgery "may be indicated." The language describes a massive, mechanistic machine, fraught with dysfunctions, and riddled with potential and inevitible systems failure. Failure is aggressively attacked, usually with a combination of pharmacopia and invasive tests and surgeries. Side effects, incidences-of, percentages affected, and survival rates are coldly quantified. To read these encyclopedia entries, you'd never guess that the body is an interconnected miracle, capable of great joy and experience, merely a badly-designed vessel prone to breakdown and decay, and in need of teams of experts to patch and refit. So I did 7 hours of this dreck, amazed I could concentrate, that I could make myself. I had promised it absolutely by this afternoon and sent if off on bike with a friend. Why they didn't send messenger pick-up if they were so all-fire wanting it, I don't know.

I then fell, amid my personal rubble, deeply deeply asleep. I was woken at 7pm by an angry Harold (boss). Was I ever going to get this to them? I grabbed the phone. (Do NOT try to have a professional call with someone very anxious from a dead sleep start.) "You have that. I sent it at 4:30" I said. The I saw it back on my desk, like some sort of looped nightmare. He was complaining that my phone had been busy, and clearly didn't believe the work was done. I was somewhat groggily incoherent and completely confused. I did ask the pertinent question: "Is the building easy to get into?" "Yes" he said. Later, I had a fight with the friend who'd biked the package over for me. The publisher is based in the Empire State Building. My friend spent an hour trying to convince the beefed-up security that this package was much-desired and important. No one could reach me because I'd been online so I could look stuff up, and, once the huge work push was done, just fell fast asleep with the phone busy. The security people would not take the package up, they would not bring the recipient down, they did make a call to the floor where a woman from an adjacent office, who clearly didn't want to get involved, swore that the floor was deserted. My friend brought the package back without waking me, and Harold waited two more hours for it before I was bumped offline and he could call in a panic. What I should have said was: "I completed the work and made a good faith effort to get it to you although it was your responsibility to send a messenger. I am now, deservedly, dead asleep and it's none of your business about my phone habits. It's Friday night and my time is my own now."

This, the horrific air quality, and the ersatz 'security' everywhere, is so tawdry and sad a fallout from this overwhelming and occasionally ennobling tragedy. The petty autocrats at the Empire State apparently are waving anyone with a plastic id badge from anywhere on through, while hassling people with legitimate and pressing business. That's not security (anyone with an id badge of any kind can waltz in with a bomb, despite the cordoned-off street and the huge line).. that's the sort of arbitrary bureaucratic fascism that characterized lower-levelNazi guards, and the border patrol of East Berlin. The way that millions of people throughout history have lived, among and between arbitrary atrocities, senseless restrictions on movement and behavior, chance-laden interactions and risks. (presenting id in wartime; crossing the border. who will be pulled out and shot? who will be waved on through? whose smuggled provisions will be confiscated and who thrown in a camp?). I understand this wave of locking-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-has-gone 'security,'but the ratio of effective activity to arbitrary, panic-driven intrusion is very very low. I do not think things are now safer, although I think they are considerably less trusting, free, open, and wonderfully, naiively, American.

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