I saw summer turn to fall on the median of the West Side Highway where I stood waving my American flag, holding up handmade thank-you signs, saluting the rescue and recovery workers.
The crews, coming from long shifts, would pass in their various vehicles — fire engines, police cars, ambulances, motorcycles, Army trucks, heavy rigs, M.T.A. buses, Verizon vans, Sanitation trucks, Con Ed trucks, food and water trucks — and they would honk, blow sirens, wave back.
By the second week, a system had developed. Someone would yell, “Incoming,” and we’d rush to the downtown side. “Outgoing,” we’d rush to the uptown side. The first few days, it was so crowded; both sides were lined thick with cheerleaders.
Then most people went back to work, but since I teach at Manhattan Community College, which was commandeered in the cleanup effort, this became my job.
The second Sunday after the attacks, two police cars stopped, and the officers got out to greet us. This had not happened before. It was the canine rescue unit from Knox County, Tennessee. The officers wore green uniforms and had heavy Southern accents. Two of them removed their hard hats and asked us to sign them!
I wrote, “New York Loves You — Thanks.” Then they took our pictures and we took theirs. The dogs, Max and Chase, jumped out too. According to the officers, the dogs were stressed out and needed attention. So everyone eagerly petted the hero dogs from Tennessee.
We asked the officers if they had ever been to New York before.
“No, first time,” one drawled.
“Ya’ll come back,” we said as they sped off.
As our ranks thinned into a raggedy encampment at the corner of Christopher St., it seemed important to maintain the vigil on this site, now dubbed Point Thank You on Hero Highway. I felt guilty if I missed a day.
Although I never did an overnight shift, I was a regular on the highway for a month. We shared bottled water and Gatorade donated by the Red Cross. Most people were freelancers, retirees or the unemployed. As one woman explained, “I’m on the dole. This is how I’m earning the money.”
Our group included a few attractive-looking 30-something women who wore tight American flag T-shirts and Yankee caps. They flirted with hunky-looking cops or firemen. One officer from Buffalo, who paused to snap our picture, insisted this sexy woman in a red tank top get into the forefront, “for the boys back home.” The World War II reference reminded me we were entertaining the troops of this new war.
As the second and third weeks wore on, more personnel stopped to talk. A member of the Fire Department handed out the now familiar posters of the three firemen raising the flag at the site. A FEMA worker filled up with tears. Police officers from Fitchburg, New Hampshire, gave us special pins stating, “National Disaster Medical System.” I fixed one on the collar of my jacket and felt recognized as part of this effort.
Police from Rhinebeck, New York, paused to say goodbye on their last day before heading back Upstate. One said, “The people of the city have been great. We wanted to thank you guys on the highway. Your support means a lot.”
“Can you believe they are thanking us?” we asked each other.
On Sept. 28, an official government car pulled up. A tall man emerged, wearing crisply pressed dark pants, a blue shirt and navy tie; two ID cards hung around his neck. He came over with a handful of boxes and said, “These are gifts from the president of the United States. He wants you to have them.”
At first I thought it was a joke. Then I realized it was not. He gave us boxes of M&M candy with the presidential seal and blue stripes and white stars.
“Thank you. What an honor,” I managed to say, forgetting I am a liberal Democrat.
One Saturday, Police Commissioner Kerik stopped to thank us.
“You’re doing a great job, sir,” I said, surprised at myself. I once called cops pigs.
Throughout the fourth week, state troopers and cops from the N.Y.P.D. and the New York Sheriff’s Office visited for longer periods. I wondered if the state trooper smiling at me was the same scary guy who gave me a ticket Upstate or if he understood the pink triangle in the middle of my flag button. No matter. The cops hugged the women, shook hands heartily with the men.
For a month, I donned my New York Liberty cap and went to the highway religiously. I asked myself why I did this and why I kept coming back. The first week, I was caught up in the rush to do something. After a month, I realized cheering the workers was my way of coping. I didn’t feel helpless. I felt needed. It was my therapy.
An officer told us about driving back home at midnight on a rainy night. They were betting whether anyone would be out on the median.
“You guys were there,” he reported. “We couldn’t believe it. You were there.”
That kind of feedback helped keep the vigil alive. When I arrived for duty Sat., Oct. 13, I saw the West Side Highway was open to downtown traffic for the first time since Sept. 11. Two lanes of regular traffic and only a few rescue vehicles in one lane had altered the atmosphere. Now visitors from New Jersey and New York and Connecticut in flag-decorated cars were honking and waving at us.
“Welcome back to New York. Welcome back to the Village,” I chanted, knowing it was time for me to break camp and leave the median.
I had done my duty and was needed back at my job at Manhattan Community College. Fiterman Hall, our new south building, was under the rubble and looked like it might have to be razed; my class was now meeting in a trailer on the West Side Highway, across from the pollution-spewing operation where the wreckage was dumped from trucks onto barges in the river.
I walked down Chambers St. past the carnage to teach in this depressing environment. My students were great and they kept me going. The dust flew all the time. My throat felt like I swallowed chalk. The college assured us the air was not toxic, but face masks were available in the nurse’s office.
Walter lives in Westbeth and is writing a spiritual quest memoir. She teaches personal essay writing at N.Y.U.’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, and is a faculty member at Borough of Manhattan Community College. “Cheering the Rescue Workers” is also in the anthology “In the Shadow of the Towers.”