Never Give Up Hope: My Summer at the 9/11 Memorial

By Nicholas Zanata

us-flag-backlitFor a long time, 9/11 was just an event to me. It’s true that I grew up right outside of Manhattan, and I directly experienced the aftermath of the attack in a number of ways that other citizens could never hope to understand, but still, as young as I was when it happened, 9/11 was just an event. A cataclysmic one, but nothing more.

In the summer of 2013, my father got me a temporary position as a security guard at the National September 11th Memorial. The job was easy enough: stand around and get paid to stare at the concrete. It was dull work, but how could I complain? I was making a pretty decent amount of money and I was expending no real effort. The hardest part of the job was spending so much time in the sweltering city heat, but I was able to handle it.

All of this rapidly changed as the excitement of a new job wore off. With the sheen gone, I started to really pay attention to where I was and what I was guarding. Working for twelve hour shifts at a time will do that to you – you’d be surprised where your mind wanders, what it digs up way back in your subconscious when you least expect it. I started noticing names on the memorial parapets. I started to notice among the torrent of hyper, disrespectful, and clueless tourists my fellow New Yorkers, standing quietly among the trees, crying softly near a name or a group of names, flower in hand. Perhaps my biggest shock was when I started to actually read the names systematically. Too many listed women who had been crushed while pregnant with an unborn child.

The atmosphere of the place took a toll on me mentally and physically. I grew tired only an hour and a half into my shifts. I had to chew gum – my record is 25 pieces in a shift, but thankfully it was sugarless – to keep stimulated. I felt listless while I was at the memorial and overwhelmed with rage and melancholy when I finally left for the night. To say the least, the job was not a healthy one.

It was with this mentality that I met a woman who I still think about to this day. It was a brutal day in the middle of July, and I was tasked with guarding the D gate – all I really had to do was make sure the emergency exit stayed clear and accessible. I was standing under the shade of a tree when an older woman stepped into the shade, sighed, and sat down on the ground next to me. Her husband went off to snap pictures of the site, but she was tired and needed a rest.

Without prompt, this complete stranger began speaking to me, asking me questions about my boyhood, my work at the memorial, and my prospects as an undergraduate. I’ll never forget her light but charming southern drawl as she tried her hardest to convince me to pursue physics at her own workplace, the University of Tennessee. This woman really listened to me when I spoke, and she was brimming with excellent advice for what I might do in the future. She spoke to me for nearly an hour before her husband returned and they left to get a bite to eat. I never caught her name, but she put a spring in my step for the rest of that day. When I left work, I was actually smiling.

Speaking to that lady gave me an amazing idea. If I was going work in such a heavy place, why not try and lighten the mood by socializing? People from every corner of the globe came to see the memorial. Imagine what I could learn, what I could share! I promised myself that, for my tenure there, I would interact with as many people as possible.

My plan worked. Guests loved to exchange conversation with a local, and I could hardly believe the enthusiastic response I was met with when I asked an Englishman his opinion on the Scottish secession movement and a man from Denmark his opinion on the Russian annexation of Crimea. This is just a small sample of the people I spoke with. There are times more numerous than I can list here, but they are conversations I’ll never forget. Some lasted only a sentence or two. Others lasted for several minutes.

I guess my point in sharing this story is to never give up hope when you’re starting a new job. I can guarantee it won’t be as easy as you think, or that you might feel like you made a horrible mistake from time to time. But you cope. Everybody copes, and you certainly aren’t alone. And when you find a way to enjoy yourself even in the worst situations, then nobody can stop you from smiling.

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