Missing People
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I wrote this essay on September 28, 2001. This was before the rescue mission at the World Trade Center site had been declared instead a recovery mission; before we knew that in the cases of some who died, not even remains would be found. At the time I wrote this, the search at the site was just beginning. Now, unbelievably, itís done.

I felt that it was my human obligation to study these “Missing Person” fliers, to learn about and care about these faces and the lives behind them. I wasnít alone in this studying. Just weeks ago, a friend mentioned a woman in one of the fliers and her distinctive tattoo.

“She was wearing a red dress in the picture,” I said. “She was carrying a dog.”

“A white dog, a lot of fur,” my friend answered.

These details are what we have, and we remember them.

Missing People
By Pamela Grossman

At first I wondered if I was the only one seeking them out—a flier taped to a telephone pole, a flier on the glass of a bus shelter—but then I saw that we were all veering toward them on the street. By the end of the third day they wound through every public space downtown, brightly colored and clustered together, and we stood at length in front of them, staring with hope and dread and fear and a brand new kind of love.

The earliest fliers were made, it seemed, with real belief that the person in question might be found. He or she might not have ID on them, might be unable to speak or to remember. Someone might make a connection. In this city where strangers avoid each otherís eyes, the fliers list home phone numbers, office numbers, pager numbers: “Call any time, 24 hours.” The details alone can make you cry: “Three months pregnant.” “Caesarian scar.” Her wedding ring is engraved “Nick”; his watch, “Truly, madly, passionately T.” Even if we had known them, we might not have known these private truths.

As days passed, the drive to find was mixed with a need to tell; we learned that he had a “beautiful smile,” that he was “a God-praying man,” that loved ones called her “Pooh.” One flier promises, “You are loved and will always be loved”; another states simply, “We need him in our lives.”

His brother wrote: “Tattoo of a panther on left forearm, looks more like a dogís head.” Her mother: “Long, thick eyelashes.” He is the “father of four beautiful children,” which the photo proves.

“Has a South African accent.” “Has an Australian accent.” “Has a Polish accent.”

“Heavy legs.” I had to smile at that, imagining the woman in the photo living to chastise someone for that description.

She is laughing vigorously in a bridesmaidís dress; posing in her wedding veil, sheís the definition of grace.

In a kiddie pool with his toddler; wearing her graduation cap; on a beach with leis around her neck; in Paris, the Eiffel Tower behind him and his camera in hand.

I canít help but feel something like civic pride in how much flair and vitality they display.

He is waving; she is beginning to raise her hand to stop the photographer; he is blowing out birthday candles.

He and he and she smile up from their desks.

“Expecting his first child this week.”

A cat sitting on his shoulder; a dog cradled in her arms. “If you see him, could you call us please.”

She was the fire warden for her office.

One flier is amended: “Found—Go with God—RIP.”

A stranger beside me points to a flier and says, “I know him.” He hadn't gotten word, until this moment, that his co-worker was missing. “I am so sorry.” “So am I.”

Two women and a man post fliers at night in Union Square for someone I know—new to the city, a friend of friends, someone Iíd looked forward to spending time with over years. I approach. They are relatives of his, it turns out, and have driven hours to be here. I tell them he is—making sure to say “is”—a wonderful guy. One of the women puts her arms around me and holds on.

Fliers line the insides of phone booths; the faces and faces and faces look into ours as we fish for quarters, as we speak.

Before obituaries or memorials, before anyone was supposed to know what to say or do or think, we had these fliers, windows onto what is felt. Through two and a half weeks, a few hard rains, and a series of glorious days that no one could appreciate, they are still with us; this city will feel that much emptier when they are gone. I read of a four-year-old girl who saw people falling from the towers as she and her mother stood at a window of their apartment. “Donít worry,” the girl said. “Someone will catch them.” Studying the fliers again and again, memorizing these peopleís faces and the facts of their lives, that is, exactly, what we are trying to do.

Pamela Grossman is a writer in New York City. She can be reached at [email protected]