From Ground Zero Wars,

A Memoir of the Environmental Disaster of 9/11

Jenna Orkin


[Elevated levels of Particulate Matter 2.5 have been found at Stuyvesant.  I google P.M. 2.5 and send the results to the Parents' Association Exceutive Board adding, "Why does David Klasfeld think that because his kid graduated from Stuyvesant, he can identify with us?"]


                                                    One Big Thing  


...A reply!  From Marilena.  Forwarding an email from one Rachel Lidov who voices some of the same sentiments, minus the vitriol.
   Marilena is matchmaking.
   And there's an email from PA Vice-President, May Umeki, agreeing with my suggestion that a letter should go out in Chinese to the parents of the school's sizable Chinese population.  (May herself is Chinese but married to a Japanese man.)  
   "There's going to be a meeting of the PA Executive Board Tuesday," May writes, "and they're open to the community.  By the way, what dialect of Chinese do you speak?"        I call the French woman, Francoise Mouly, about the meeting.  Instead, her husband shows up.  He is Art Spiegelman, New Yorker cartoonist and author of Maus, a Holocaust memoir in which the good guys are mice.  Throughout the meeting he scribbles notes or, more probably, sketches the participants.  Will the dramatis personae at Stuyvesant end up as mice in a book about Stuy's miniholocaust?  (The answer, a year later, is Yes; at least a few will, in an account he writes for the Jewish Forward.)
   I introduce myself to May.  Her face falls.  Months later she jokes, "I was so excited; I thought another Chinese mother would be at meetings.  But look at her!"
   Like most parents, until now I've ignored the PA Executive Board.  Their war chest, amounting to several hundred thousand dollars a year, however impressive for a public school, goes to the prestigious Intel competition, the football team, the major clubs.   It's irrelevant to Alex who wants to be a comedy writer. 
   But now their power beckons.
   When I enter Mount Olympus, the gods are squabbling.  Some are outraged at the Board of Ed.  Others don't want to rock the boat.  Also there is a rift over what to tell parents.  The Board of Ed sympathizers are of the, "Don't frighten the horses" school of thought.
    "My child was traumatized by being at Brooklyn Tech," says one of these parents.  "You all are preventing the return to normalcy." [sic]
   "Where are the hepa filters the Board of Ed promised?!" asks a malcontent.
   "Give them time," one of the smoothe talkers answers.  "This was an unprecedented attack.  We have to be reasonable."
   "All right, come to order, we have to vote," says Marilena, who commands the Board with the power and shrewdness of Hera.  "On authorizing me to write a letter to the Board of Education that they have been remiss with respect to their promise to procure HEPA filtration for the school."
    "You can't do that; it's against the Bylaws," says Elaine*.
    "No it's not, it's right here, Article 8 Roman Numeral V*," responds Marilena who has anticipated the argument and wields the Bylaws like a master swordswoman.
   The Vote is 11 to 9* in her favor.  



   After Sheldon and I sent the letter to parents, the other side tried to establish an Editorial Board to approve any mailing going out. I take the position that it's in violation of the Bylaws. But they vote and the resolution passes. We have another Executive Board meeting. I hand out copies of the Bylaws to everyone and say, 'Here's the section.' I accuse X of going behind my back. I take complete control. The revolution is crushed.
   They continue to undercut me but now it's covert.  


   In their efforts to return to ‘normalcy' the Executive Board discuss the Intel dinner, Teacher Appreciation (dinner and theater tickets for the faculty) and something called "school tone" which the opposition is worried about.  Stuykids, they've heard from their own kids who are equally horrified, are involved in cheating rings!
   I ask Alex about this.
   "Oh yeah," he says.  "I got thrown out of my cheating ring ‘cause I was late with an assignment."
   Is it possible to stoop lower than this?
   The following week he gets fined for jumping a turnstile.
   "I shouldn't have done it there," he chastises himself.  "Grand Central's O.K. but not 68th.  Damn!"  

   In retaliation for the disclosures to parents about Board of Ed neglect, one of the opposition parents contacts the New York Times.  The next Sunday edition contains a special issue of the Stuyvesant newspaper, the Spectator, which contains an article entitled, "Stuy gets A for Air Quality."  
    In keeping with the zeitgeist of the time, the young reporters have approached their task with all the skepticism of Little Red Riding Hood interviewing the wolf:

   [Howard Bader, the PA's independent contractor:] "added that no lead has been detected in the air at all, and that since lead paint and other products containing lead have been illegal since 1961 - well before the World Trade Center complex was built - none is expected to be found."  

   (Tests of the school's ventilation system at the end of the year will find thirty times the legal limit of lead for floors. [There is no standard for lead in ventilation systems.]  This will be reported in the press and the ventilation system will receive its first cleanup.)

   "Bader suggested that many symptoms that members of the school community are experiencing may be psychosomatic or induced by the stress of returning to the building for the first time since the September 11 tragedy."

   Laura Krug with additional reporting by Abigail Deutsch, commemorative issue, Stuyvesant Spectator Fall 2001.

   I contact the media with the meager but troubling testing results we have so far.  Others are undoubtedly doing likewise because by Thanksgiving several news organizations including CNN have reported that Stuyvesant parents are worried about the air quality at school.  Far from enough to counteract the tsunami effect of Whitman's initial prononcement that the air was safe to breathe, but enough to summon Schools Chancellor Levy for a TV interview:
   Parents, he says, should instead worry about whether their children are wearing seat belts or having safe sex.  (At the same time?)
   A florist has donated $1500 worth of plants to help clean the air.  But there are 300 classrooms.  Alex' History teacher, Ms. Kelly, offers the kids five points on their semester grade if they bring in plants.
   Plagiarizing Ms. Kelly's idea, on Parents' Night I bring plants to Alex' other teachers.  Some say they, too, will follow Ms. Kelly's lead.  Others, Alex reports, put the plants on the windowsill and forget about them.
   Bruno Bettelheim writes that lunatics did surprisingly well in concentration camps: The surroundings matched their inner world.
   Similarly, after 9/11 some of us activists are in our element.  The disaster fulfils our worst nightmare: the one where you're crying out for help and everyone walks by, not seeing or hearing.  
    One night I get a way-out idea:  Love Canal?  Could we really be in such bad straits?  Comparable to the most notorious environmental disaster of its day?
   Back to Google.
   The parallels leap out and grab you by the throat:  The official denials that there's a problem, the popular blind belief in benevolent beings in charge.  The sacrifice of a school.  A woman (as many of the activists in Lower Manhattan are) calling, "Foul!"
   With a frisson of horror I email the Love Canal website.
   They respond promptly:  "We've been worried about you."
   An email from South Korea:  "We're getting steel from the World Trade Center.  Do you know if it is contaminated?"
   Yes, I respond, it undoubtedly is.  But don't feel discriminated against; they're doing the same thing to us.  

   Others are similarly caught up, emailling the PA Executive Board until Marilena summons the writers to the first meeting of the newly formed Political Action Committee.
   We are government and office workers, academics, doctors, housewives, Bohemians, (Rachel Lidov, a slim, understatedly elegant woman, teaches piano) a mailman.  Some of us are immigrants.  (At the end of the year, at our first social gathering, Marilena will speak of growing up in Greece and watching the tanks roll in when she was sixteen.  "I was happy because I didn't have to go to school."  But then she had to live under the military coup.  "I didn't think anything like that could happen in America," she says.  The, from Israel, nod.)
   Rachel and I exchange our modest resumes in environmental issues:  Her father, an organic chemist, worked on the pesticide dieldrin.  I remember an antinuclear rally twenty-five years before in which everyone went to Central Park and released balloons (not an environmentally sound move.)  
   Some of us have children who are sick   Others have children with conditions that might predispose them to getting sick.  Some parents are worried that sick or not, their children will be uninsurable because of their exposure to the World Trade Center disaster.
    A number of us come from the ranks of the recently downsized.  For once, two wrongs make a right:  The newly unemployed help the rest of us with the technology to get information out.  So, after months of haranguing on the part of the oppostion, the Stuy PA website debuts a panoply of articles about the air downtown.  Courtesy of Rachel, her husband, David Strauss and Elise Pasikoff.  The Schneider article is there as well as some now-wait-a-minute-don't-get-hysterical articles so no one can accuse us of being biassed.
   Each of us tells him or herself why it won't be our child who will get sick:
   "Nina's a Senior.  The younger kids are more vulnerable."
   "The smokers are the ones who're going to get hit the hardest."
   A father who is a doctor tells us of the risks of the endocrine disruptors in the air to girls' reproductive systems.  All the parents turn ashen.
   The opposition has members fighting equally hard though for different reasons.  One mother is a former member of a certain religious sect which has been denying her access to her son since her divorce.  She gets involved with the PA as a way of maintaining a connection with him.  Most of the opposition, however, to coin terms of venery if not veneration, are a suit of corporate types who work for Fortune 500 companies or large law firms.  Others who give a shaggier impression form a psychobabble of shrinks.  They speak sagely of stress and combat our pleas for the EPA to test indoor air by bringing in colleagues to conduct mental health studies.  Millions of dollars will be spent on the mental health of downtowners, much of it to address their concerns about their physical health.    When the World Trade Center Health Registry opens, two thirds of its questions will focus on mental health.  A study at the New York Academy of Medicine will report that many respondents suffered posttraumatic stress syndrome in addition to asthma following 9/11.  Conclusion: The PTSD caused the asthma. 
   The fault line between parents falls roughly along party lines.  We have more Democrats.  The opposition has more Republicans.  They are well-connected and well-heeled.  Over the course of the year we will get the reputation of being angry complainers while they will cultivate an image of cool rationality.  They have a large following among the parents, many of whom are immigrants who made sacrifices to come to this country and secure a topnotch education for their children.  This constituency does not want to antagonize the Board of Education or the teachers, whose union sides with the BOE, and thereby possibly jeopardize their children's chances of getting into an Ivy League school.  Recently a girl complained to (sued?) her High School administration when she wasn't made Valedictorian and lost her place at Harvard because of being a troublemaker.    
   Our opponents have critical mass and the party line to back them up starting with Christy's reassurances, party animal that she is.  Morals are mores and ethics, in the ether.  What the majority wants becomes the thing to do.  As with the scandals on Wall Street, Everyone is doing it.
     They make a good impression, in their suits.  Like the fox in the fable, they know many things: The Board of Ed assures us....  The EPA says....Everyone's stressed.....When people are under such stress they.......
   We, the critical masses, are like the hedgehog that knows one big thing: We're getting fucked.  This is the one fact the opposition refuses to know.  Like children who can't imagine their parents having sex, these parents can't face that their children are being poisoned.
   Our anxiety focusses on the barge.  But we are optimistic.  Senator Schumer's kid is a Stuy Senior.  She's even hung out at Marilena's house.  Schumer can get the barge out of our backyard. 
   Schumer is not interested in getting the barge out of our backyard.  His wife is head of the Department of Transportation which put the barge there in the first place.
   Now what do we do - get an injunction?  We could use as evidence the growing number of illnesses among the kids.
    But unless a guy's lying dead with a bullet through his heart, it's notoriously hard to prove cause and effect.  And no one is studying the kids who are not unionized or protected by Workers' Compensation.  All we have is what Deputy Chancellor Klasfeld refers to snootily as ‘anecdotal evidence.'
   "No judge would do anything right now to jeopardize the cleanup," say the environmental lawyers whom the PA consult.        
     Because of the air, the kids aren't allowed out for lunch.  They are getting restless.  Gambling has become the default pastime among the boys.
   "Did you know about this?" I ask Alex.
   "They only caught us once!" he exclaims.  "Since then we've been playing on the stairs.  No one's seen us."
   And I hadn't even be trying to smoke him out.
   Must be my father's poker genes.
   Also because the kids are eating in, the school is becoming overcrowded with other species.  The next PA meeting comes to a close, Marilena looking nervously behind her, when the Recording Secretary announces the motion to adjourn:  "There's a motion on the floor and it's a mouse."  

   Then we learn about another problem:
  "...the HVAC air distribution duct system was never cleaned or tested after September 11, and prior to reoccupancy."  (Letter from the PA, November 5th, 2001)