A few days after that September 11th, all I wanted to do was forget. I needed to clear my mind. Everyone that knew me from out of state began to call with curious questions that, frankly, I wasn’t in the mood to discuss. TV and radio coverage was nonstop, reviewing every graphic detail that I did not need to hear or see again. All I wanted to do was get back to work, get busy so that my mind could be distracted by something useful.
The following week, I decided it was time to return to work. I arrived to shattered war zone. It was closed off with armed reserves and police only letting in local residents. The salon that employed me was only a few blocks from ground zero. They sent me away, telling me that unless I could show them identification with an address in the neighborhood, I couldn’t enter.
There was no choice, so I walked away. After a few blocks I attempted again, sneaking past the police, determined to work. The entire area was covered in thick powdery ash, and it made me sick to think of the thousands of people that were pulverized. Those precious lives were now part of that dust that spread for miles around. I was saddened that that thought even occurred to me.
When I arrived at work, it was obvious that many of my coworkers felt the same as I did. We rolled up our sleeves and began the cleanup. All curtains, pillows, and fabric of any kind were contaminated. We threw it all away. The owner, Lance, brought in two huge industrial strength hepa filters to use. We started from the top down with damp clothes, wiping the ceiling, pipes, walls, shelves, and any other surface. We wiped down every single shampoo bottle. Finally, we mopped the floor. After a full day, our reward was a spotless salon.
The next day we returned to find the salon looking almost as it did the previous day! A layer of dust was everywhere! So we did it again and again, every day, for about a week.
Massive electrical cables ran along all the streets. It was one big temporary patch job on a scale I could have never imagined. Hey, there was electricity and that meant we could work. What took months longer to establish was phone service so we couldn’t run credit cards (Square didn’t exist then). We used our cell phones to book appointments.
Our salon was central in the community. It wasn’t long before stunned grieving locals began to come in for service. Like me, many of them didn’t want to talk much about it. We were together though and took comfort in one another and supported one another. The problem started a little later when curious tourists wanting to get close to ground zero would come in for a haircut. They would not shut their trap about it! They would ask so many questions, often times inappropriate ones. I was a professional in a service industry which meant I needed to hold it in, smile, and put up with it, even if it affected my own grieving process.
We offered free haircuts to any volunteer workers on site. Not a lot of people took us up on that, although we did get the occasional person come in for a shampoo and head massage. It was calming and removed the dust. Once they were relaxed and at home, they would often unload and tell us what was happening. Many of our clients worked in the World Trade Center and that was difficult. The relationships you develop in a salon are deep. We become friend, confidant, and mentor and get to know people intimately. So when many lost their lives, they weren’t just faceless clients I lost, they were friends and it hurt deeply.
One thing that I will never forget is how people come together in tragedy. Clients would come in without cash not realizing we couldn’t take credit cards. So for a brief period of time our area of NYC became Mayberry USA. We used the honor system. That’s right. We gave haircuts and colors and
just told them to come back and pay us when they can. Guess what? They did! Every last one of them came back and paid without us having to chase them.
What have I learned from my experience? Life is uncertain. Set my priorities. God and family always come before business. We can accomplish a lot when we work together and persevere. It’s fine to reflect on the past, to learn from it, but we must keep pushing forward. When someone is living a tragic or difficult experience, use discernment. Don’t talk too much, listen when they are ready to talk, and just be there for them.