I had heard vague stories about some of these folks, and I had a picture in my head of some patriotic characters waving flags and such. At that point, there hadn't been too many stories about them and I wondered who they were. I knew that, personally, as a Cold War red diaper baby, I was not about to wear a flag lapel pin, even after all this, but I thought I would have a look. Then I got a call from a science reporter at National Public Radio, who said he knew one of the leaders of this disparate group that gathers at the highway intersection of West and Christopher Streets. His name was Barry McQuade. He was a gay man, who has been HIV positive for twenty years. What's more, he had been volunteering at a local fire department ever since 9/11, and the local fire dept had adopted him as an honorary member. I thought this was pretty unusual; you don't ordinarily think of firefighters as being sympathetic to gays. So at nine o'clock that night, I went off to meet Barry in front of a fire station on West 19th Street in Chelsea.
Barry was carrying a very large and worn American flag that he had picked up from somewhere and tacked to a pole. He says he is known as the "flag man" at Christopher and West Streets where the people gather to cheer. He says he is a good twirler, a skill he learned in the Gay Pride Parade.
He showed me around the firehouse, where the guys all knew him. For two and a half weeks after the events of 911, he cooked for them, answered phones, helped neighborhood organizations respond to needs. He had no expertise, he said, but the skills he learned caring for his dying brothers gave him the knowledge of how to help.
The fire station, like all the firehouses around the city, these days, looks like a Tibetan Shrine, or one of our Pagan altars, with candles burning, pots of flowers, poems etched in stone and written on paper, walls of children's artwork, responding to September 11th, and, of course, pictures of the five fireman that this company lost. Notices of dozens of memorial services are posted on a bulletin board.
There is a huge door, facing the highway, that Barry found on the street and painted with the words: "Hero Highway." Another sign, which faces the other way, says, "Point Thank You."
There are about a dozen people there, including an Irish American couple in their sixties (whose politics I would probably disagree with) holding signs saying "Thank you, Heroes." There's a young woman named Diane who jumps up and down with red, white, and blue pompoms, and a woman named Claire who has all these pins on her Yankee hat representing police and fire departments all over the country that have stopped on the strip to say hello.
As cars pass, particularly trucks with debris or busses filled with the next shift of replacements, the group cheers, whistles, and waves, and the vehicles honk their horns in response. Many of these people tell me that when volunteers were not needed at the site, they came here; it was something they could do. A policeman stops to say hello and thanks them.
Barry tells me a woman once stopped and told him that the people who cheer had saved her husband's life. He had been working for so many hours at Ground Zero, he couldn't see straight. He was driving home and was just about to close his eyes when he saw the people with the signs and flags cheering. They gave him enough energy to make it home.
A guy named Steve, a neuroscientist who only comes down occasionally, says to me, "I am doing all kinds of things I have never done in my life.... I am cheering police, wearing a flag, buying cigarettes for relief workers, when I don't believe in smoking."
It may different here in New York City--being in the terrorists' cross hairs so to speak--than in other parts of the country. A lot of us are going through convulsive and life-changing emotions.
For me, my whole 55 years of life was defined by being an outsider in my own country. I was the child of socialists, a Marxist, a Jew, a New Yorker, a woman, a Witch--all things that have made me "the other" in America. When John Kennedy was killed, I couldn't really mourn because our family was so afraid that we would become a target, since my mother belonged to the Fair Play For Cuba Committee, of which Lee Harvey Oswald was a member.